While the Vedas declare in their every breath the presence of the creator in every blade of creation, the Puranas (histories) vividly portray many occasions when the creator of the universe, Sri Krishna, called Param Brahman in the Vedas, intervened in the functioning of His creation. Krishna does that by taking special forms and acting in special ways. Those special forms of the Param Brahman are called avatars. The avatars of Krishna are numerous and are not just in the human form; they are in fish, animal, and even in mixed human-animal forms.
The word avatara literally means one who descends. So, an avatar is Param Brahman, Bhagavan, descending upon the earth in a special form. Each avatar of Krishna descends for a particular purpose, to solve a particular inexplicable mess created by us humans or even the devas, the denizens of heaven. In each avatar, the Param Brahman decides how long He wants to stay on the mortal planet. Sometimes it is for just a few hours, and sometimes He is a supercentenarian.
While accomplishing this, Bhagavan also awakens ananda, or pure joy – which constitutes His very nature – in those with whom He interacts on this planet, even His dead-set enemies. An avatar enlivens the creation with so much joy that even reading the Puranas’ accounts of such interactions millenniums later brings joy to humanity.
How could a mess-salvaging operation be joyous even to those who read it ages later? Simply because Krishna performs it as lila, a transcendental drama of elegant style that is a rich tapestry of characters and pageantry. Unique to each avatar, lila is what makes the history so vivid, so enlivening that its mere reading or a narration uplifts its reader’s mind to an ecstatic state, in sharp contrast to the mundane world that we all experience day in and day out.
A Major Joyful Occasion
Sri Narasimha Caturdashi is one such major occasion of joy. It celebrates the descent of the primeval Lord Sri Vishnu to restore the turmoil created by Hiranyakashipu, often referred to as a rakshasa – a being from whom one runs for raksha, or protection. Hiranyakashipu sought revenge against his brother’s slayer, the almighty Bhagavan Vishnu Himself. Hiranyakashipu obtained powerful boons from four-headed Sri Brahma, the architect-in-chief of the universe, by pleasing him with his severe tapas, austerities. Those boons virtually eliminated any possibility of his death during a war with Vishnu: “O lord, if you are so inclined to bless me with benedictions, please bless me with these that I ask of you. May I not be killed with anything that is dry or wet, with water or fire, wood, an insect, rock, or wind. May I be not killed with any weapon, spear, or mountain; nor by men, devatas, asuras, rakshasas, or Gandharvas; nor by Kinnaras, Yakshas, Vidyadharas, or serpents; nor by monkeys, deer, and other animals, or Durga or similar divine mothers; not inside or outside the house; nor by any other means of death. By your grace, may there not be death for me in the day or in the night. All this is the boon I ask from you, O lord of lords.” (Narasimha Purana 40.5-9)
Blessed so by Brahma, the invincible rakshasa came upon a smart plan to take revenge on Sri Vishnu. Yajna (Vedic sacrifice) and dharma (the Vedic way of life) are considered to be Sri Vishnu’s roots. Yajna and dharma require brahmanas, cows, the Vedas, and varnashrama, the Vedic social system based on one’s propensities, training, and stages of life. Destroying all these would destroy yajna and dharma – and Hiranyakashipu’s archenemy, Sri Vishnu.
Hiranyakashipu tormented the universe. Anyone who offered oblations to devatas through yajna or worshiped Sri Vishnu invited untimely death at Hiranyakashipu’s hands. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.2.9, 11-12) Hiranyakashipu tells his followers:
“When the root of a tree is cut and the tree falls down, its branches and twigs automatically dry up. Similarly, when I have killed this diplomatic Vishnu, the demigods, for whom Lord Vishnu is the life and soul, will lose the source of their life and wither away.”
“The basic principle of brahminical culture is to satisfy Lord Vishnu, the personification of sacrificial and ritualistic ceremonies. Lord Vishnu is the personified reservoir of all religious principles, and He is the shelter of all the demigods, the great pitas, and the people in general. When the brahmanas are killed, no one will exist to encourage the kshatriyas to perform yajnas, and thus the demigods, not being appeased by yajna, will automatically die.”
“Immediately go wherever there is good protection for the cows and brahmanas and wherever the Vedas are studied in terms of the varnashrama principles. Set fire to those places and cut from the roots the trees there, which are the source of life.”
Hiranyakashipu created so much fear that Lord Shiva and the devatas went to appease Bhagavan Vishnu and seek His protection. Lord Shiva successfully pleased Bhagavan Vishnu by chanting His one hundred names. Hiranyakashipu’s end was now finally in sight.
But there was a problem: Brahmaji’s boons to Hiranyakashipu were not easy to overcome. They were so many and so comprehensive that they virtually eliminated any possibility of killing this demon. Sri Vishnu, whose energy manifests as multitudes of planets ever revolving without a millisecond of error, had to think of a solution.
The Amazing Solution
On the most auspicious day of Vaishakha Sukla Paksha Chaturdashi, or the fourteenth day in the waxing cycle of the moon in the Vedic month of Vaishakha (May), such a divine solution became manifest. A strange form of Sri Vishnu descended on earth. Bhagavan Narasimha – half man, half lion – appeared from a pillar in the royal palace of Hiranyakashipu. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.8.17) describes:
“To prove that the statement of His servant Prahlada Maharaja was substantial – in other words, to prove that the Supreme Lord is present everywhere, even within the pillar of an assembly hall – the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Hari, exhibited a wonderful form never before seen. The form was neither that of a man nor that of a lion. Thus the Lord appeared in His wonderful form in the assembly hall.” That stranger was Sri Vishnu, who has taken the form of Narasimha, half man and half lion. He killed the rakshasa just as an eagle kills a monstrous snake, and He violated none of the boons of Brahmaji: Narasimhadeva was neither a man nor an animal, the nails He used to tear apart this snake were not weapons, the time when Hiranyakashipu was annihilated was dusk, which is neither day nor night, and he was killed on the threshold of the palace, neither outside nor inside.
A tumultuous crowd of denizens from heaven sang praises to Bhagavan Narasimhadeva. Hiranyakashipu’s son Prahlada, a great devotee of the Lord, fell down at the Lord’s feet and recited this stuti, adulation:
“O my Lord, full of six opulences, O Supreme Person! O Supreme Soul, killer of all miseries! O Supreme Person in the form of a wonderful lion and man, let me offer my respectful obeisances unto You.” (Bhag. 7.10.10)
Bhagavan Narasimhadeva blessed Prahlada and all those like him:
“Whenever and wherever there are peaceful, equipoised devotees who are well behaved and decorated with all good qualities, that place and the dynasties there, even if condemned, are purified. (Bhag. 7.10.19)
In Bharata-bhumi (India), temples of Bhagavan Narasimhadeva abound. The most famous is the Ahovilam (or Ahobalam, literally “O Great Strength”) temple complex in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. The complex has nine deities of Bhagavan Narasimhadeva, each in a particular mood and form. One is His fierce (ugra) form as Ahobila Nrisimha Swami, the presiding deity. Another is the graceful (saumya) form of Malola Nrisimha Swami (the beloved [lola] of Lakshmi [ma]), seated with His consort, Sri Lakshmiji on His lap. The temple complex is maintained by the Ahovilam Math.
Up in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas, over a thousand miles away, in Jyotimath (Joshimath, Uttarakhand state), Bhagavan Narasimhadeva is the presiding deity in the Narasimha Mandir. Adi Sankaracharya, the author of the famous Lakshmi Narasimha Karavalamba Stotram and Lakshmi Narasimha Pancaratna Stotram, established this temple many centuries ago. The Lord blesses devotees with His protection as they begin their arduous travel on pilgrimage to Badrinath in the Himalayas at over three thousand meters above sea level.
Bhagavan Narasimhadeva’s basic nature is to give protection to anyone who takes His shelter. And one may need that protection either in a very inexplicable situation or simply to carry on one’s day-to-day activities. All one needs is to call upon Him with faith, like Prahlada, who believed that the Lord was there to protect him from the sword of his own demon father.
Perhaps the best way to take Lord Narasimha’s shelter is to worship Him on the Narasimha Caturdashi day, the day He appeared in this world. One can fast until sunset and then conduct His worship. If fasting is not possible, then one can worship Him in the evening just as Suryadeva, the sun, is receding in the western horizon. Put a picture of Lakshmi Narasimhadeva on your home altar and light a dipaka, a lamp,in front of Him. If possible one should chant His 108 names, Narasimha Ashtottara Stotra, together with one’s family. If chanting those 108 names is not possible, just chant om namo bhagavate narasimhaya: “Obeisances to Lord Narasimha.”
The Narasimha Purana (54.61) declares, samasta punya phaladam vishnoh prakirtanam: “Glorification of Vishnu bestows the fruits of all pious deeds.” So, come, let us celebrate Narasimha Caturdashi and get His divine protection for all of us and for all we do.