A Wrath Supreme
by Dwarakadhisha Devi dasi
Eons ago a wonderful incarnation of God revealed the relation between divine anger and transcendental love.
Ferocious beauty. Red eyes glare out from a fearsome visage that writhes with rage. The form is massive. The powerful arms thrash in all directions. The being appears to be half man and half lion, with a huge many-headed serpent rising and coiling behind Him—a gorgeous yet forbidding halo. He is Nrisimha, attacking and killing the demoniac king Hiranyakashipu. Blood splatters, and Nrisimha, like a lion at his kill, roars victorious, His golden mane effulgent about His regal head. His anger is terrible, yet at His side stands a delicate young boy with a radiant smile. He is offering Lord Nrisimha a garland of flowers.
As a newcomer to a Hare Krishna temple, you might have been surprised to see a picture of this scene prominently displayed in the temple room or on the altar. Who is Nrisimha, and what is His connection with the peace-loving, vegetarian Hare Krishnas?
Remarkably, Lord Nrisimha (“half man, half lion”) is one of the most beloved of incarnations. His special pastime is to protect all souls surrendered to Him, thus demonstrating the extraordinary bond between the Supreme Lord and His dear devotees. Nondifferent from the blackish- blue cowherd boy Krishna, who charmed the gentle residents of Vrindavana Village five thousand years ago, Lord Nrisimha proves His pure devotee can never be vanquished.
Lord Nrisimha’s appearance is one of the most dramatic episodes in history, recorded exclusively and explicitly in the Vedic literature, especially in Srimad- Bhagavatam. The story takes place in a former age, many thousands of years ago. A powerful atheist named Hiranyakashipu desired immortality within this material world—a favorite pursuit of those unable to imagine an existence beyond the material realm. Hiranyakashipu longed only for wealth, power, and sensory pleasure. The very name Hiranyakashipu refers to one who is fond of gold and comfortable beds. Since material pleasures can be had only as long as one remains bound within the physical body, the natural calculation of a materialist like Hiranyakashipu would be to extend the life of the body for as long as possible. It was for such “immortality” that Hiranyakashipu hankered.
To achieve his end, he performed excruciating austerities for 36,000 years, plotting to win the favor and benediction of Lord Brahma, chief of the demigods. So grievous were his austerities that the entire universe was disturbed. Finally, the demigods begged Lord Brahma to terminate Hiranyakashipu’s terrible penances.
Lord Brahma is a very powerful agent of the Supreme Lord entrusted with the responsibility of creating the entire material cosmos. He came before Hiranyakashipu, knowing his strong desire for immortality, yet he was unable to grant the benediction. Although Lord Brahma lives for many millions of years—from creation to annihilation—he also dies. Thus he was unable to give Hiranyakashipu that which he himself did not possess.
Cunningly, Hiranyakashipu then made the following request: He asked that he not be killed with any weapon, indoors or outdoors, in the daytime or at night. He also asked that he not be killed on the land or in the air, or by any beast or human being, living or nonliving. After securing these benedictions from Lord Brahma, Hiranyakashipu felt confident that he had indeed achieved a kind of immortality. Who could stop him now?
Hiranyakashipu was fueled by an intense hatred for the Supreme Lord. Formerly, when the Lord in His boar incarnation had killed Hiranyakashipu’s demoniac brother, Hiranyaksha, Hiranyakashipu had vowed to avenge his brother’s death. Thus he had set about conquering the universe with savage determination. He defeated the rulers of each planet, forcing great demigods to bow down and worship him. His reign was oppressive and severe, and the people lived in fear of this tyrant no one could kill. In our modern age we have some experience with dictators who create agony for their subjects, yet none has been so monstrous as Hiranyakashipu. He dominated the universe, holding it in his tyrannical grip. The helpless people prayed to the Lord for relief.
Hiranyakashipu had four sons, and of these the most wonderful was Prahlada. While in the womb of his mother, Prahlada had heard the sage Narada speaking the transcendental philosophy of Krishna consciousness. Thus he had become a spotlessly pure devotee of Lord Krishna. His character was ideal; his qualities were as exalted as his father’s were abominable. Even as a child he was unattached to frivolity and sensual comforts, preferring to meditate on God’s glorious activities.
Hiranyakashipu was very fond of Prahlada. This affection diminished, however, when Hiranyakashipu learned that Prahlada was instructing his schoolmates in devotional service to Lord Krishna. Hiranyakashipu called his son and, placing him on his lap, requested him to tell what he was learning in school. Prahlada serenely replied that he was understanding the folly of materialistic pursuits and the need for intelligent persons to devote their time to serving the Supreme Lord.
This reply infuriated Hiranyakashipu, who ordered that his son be killed. The order, however, proved exceedingly difficult to execute. Prahlada was thrown beneath the feet of elephants, attacked with deadly weapons, and hurled from a mountain. He was tortured and poisoned. Yet despite these attempts on his life, he remained unhurt. Throughout all his travails he simply meditated on Lord Krishna, who kept him from harm.
Hiranyakashipu could not bear this. Believing himself the ultimate controller of the universe, he could not understand why the child simply could not be killed. He grew fearful: Who was more powerful than himself? Who was supplying this child with such strength? Determined to silence Prahlada once and for all, Hiranyakashipu decided to kill him with his own hands.
While Prahlada stood submissively, his seething father rebuked him harshly. He demanded to know the source of his son’s mysterious strength. Prahlada replied that the source of his strength was the same as the source of Hiranyakashipu’s strength: the Supreme Lord, Krishna.
“My dear father,” Prahlada advised humbly, “please give up your demoniac mentality. Do not discriminate in your heart between enemies and friends; make your mind equipoised toward everyone. Except for the uncontrolled and misguided mind, there is no enemy in this world. When one sees everyone on the platform of equality, one comes to the platform of worshiping God perfectly” (Bhag. 7.8.9).
These words served only to further outrage Hiranyakashipu. In anger, he demanded to see the Supreme Being described by his son. “But where is He?” Hiranyakashipu raged. “If He is everywhere, then why is He not present before me in this pillar? Because you are speaking so much nonsense, I shall now sever your head from your body. Now let me see your most worshipable God come to protect you. I want to see it” (Bhag. 7.8.12-13).
The unfortunate king then struck a marble pillar with his fist. A terrible noise came from deep within the pillar, and the whole universe filled with fear at the tumultuous sound. As the pillar exploded with tremendous force, the entire assembly hall suddenly filled with the immense divine form of Lord Nrisimha. Lord Nrisimha was infuriated, having witnessed Hiranyakashipu’s cruelty toward Prahlada, and now His fierce eyes searched the crowd for the object of His anger.
Hiranyakashipu foolishly thought he would be able to defeat Lord Nrisimha, just as he had defeated all his other opponents. He battled fiercely against the Lord, who, for the sake of sport, allowed him the honor of extended combat. Yet Hiranyakashipu, although the most powerful creature in the universe, was simply a toy for the mighty Nrisimha. While the demigods anxiously watched, the Lord displayed His magnificent prowess in battle. Finally, having tired of the antics of His puny adversary, He lifted Hiranyakashipu onto His lap and, ripping open his abdomen with His nails, disemboweled the demon king.
Thus Lord Nrisimha finally killed Hiranyakashipu—and in such a way that all the benedictions of Lord Brahma were left intact. Hiranyakashipu was killed not by any human being nor by any beast, but by the Supreme Lord Himself, half human, half beast. Lord Nrisimha killed Hiranyakashipu on His lap, which was neither land nor sky. He killed him in the doorway of the assembly hall, which was neither indoors nor outdoors. He killed him at twilight, which was neither day nor night. And He killed him not with any weapon but with His own nails. Although Lord Krishna was not bound to honor the benedictions awarded to Hiranyakashipu, He still kept them because Brahma is His devotee. Krishna takes great pride in upholding His devotees’ promises.
After Hiranyakashipu’s death, Lord Nrisimha, who had so easily killed the most feared tyrant in the universe, continued to roar and rage, terrifying everyone. Everyone, that is, except Prahlada. Prahlada simply saw Nrisimha as his worshipable Lord, and he eagerly approached Him with a garland of flowers. Lord Nrisimha was deeply pleased with the faithful Prahlada, and He wanted to award the boy whatever boon he desired.
Prahlada, however, said that he was already completely satisfied in his meditation on the Lord. But, out of compassion, he thought of the welfare of his father. He requested Lord Nrisimha to please liberate Hiranyakashipu from the torment of his demoniac desires.
The Supreme Lord, Nrisimha, assured him: “My dear Prahlada, O pure one, O great saintly person, your father has been purified along with twenty-one forefathers in your family. Because you were born in this family, the entire dynasty has been purified. 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. 7.10.18-19).
In today’s materialistic society there is a continual battle between the atheists and the devotees. A devotee must fight—against the contamination of material desires and against the contamination of those who are controlled by such desires. The protection of Lord Nrisimha abides with those stalwart devotees who preach the glories of devotional service in a world corrupted by atheism. Lord Nrisimha gives the devotees the shelter they need to remain pure and faithful. When the threat of danger is near, devotees often chant a favorite prayer to Lord Nrisimha. The prayer is as follows:
tava kara-kamala-vare nakham adbhuta- shringam
keshava dhrita-narahari-rupa jaya jagadisha hare
“O Keshava! O Lord of the universe! O Lord Hari, who have assumed the form of half man, half lion! All glories to You! Just as one can easily crush a wasp between one’s fingernails, so in the same way the body of the wasp Hiranyakashipu has been ripped apart by the wonderfully pointed nails on Your beautiful lotus hands.”