From the most ripened vedic wisdom, Srimad Bhagavatam comes this story of sublime devotion
Prahlad Maharaj was a boy who, at 5 years of age, preached to his school-fellows of their urgent need for taking to Krishna Consciousness without delay. Prahlad was the son of a very powerful atheist king, Hiranya Kashipu, and so from the moment of his birth he was in the hands of “Daityas,” or enemies of God. The nurses who picked him up, the court attendants, his mother, the court children-all were obsessed with the illusion that the body is the self, and there was no talk of Krishna, the Supreme Spirit. Like most boys born into our contemporary civilization, Prahlad’s chances for hearing any truth about the Supreme Personality of Godhead were almost nil.
And yet, every day, when the teacher would take a recess and leave the palace schoolroom, this 5-year-old boy would address his fellows in this way: “My dear atheist friends, now is the time to prosecute Krishna Consciousness, while we are still young. Listen, my fellow demons-we have to start now! I know you want sense gratification, but we have to start Krishna Consciousness immediately or we’ll never get out of the material entanglement. This material life will soon become too complicated and we won’t be able to get out-we’ll be like silkworms trapped in our own cocoons!”
Understandably, when Prahlad spoke the boys would only say, “Let us play, Prahlad! We’re only children. We’re only 5 years old! We can do Krishna Consciousness when we get older.”
“Yes,” Prahlad would respond, “I know you want to play. But just listen a moment. There’s no need to try so hard for sense happiness. That happiness will come without any endeavor, according to whatever body you have. That arrangement is already made by Nature and will come of itself, just as misery will come. But there’s a need to develop an understanding of what the dearmost thing in life is.
“Each of us is looking for his dearmost friend. That dearmost friend is the Supreme Lord, Krishna. He’s in everyone’s heart and He’ll make us satisfied forever. We can just chant His Name, ‘Hare Krishna,’ and we’ll be linked with Him and He’ll dictate to us how to come to Him.”
Gradually the boys began to listen. “Where did you get this excellent knowledge from?” they asked. “You’re like us, only 5 years old and like us you never leave the palace grounds. It’s not possible for you to go and take some instructions outside. And our teachers never have taught us this. Where did you learn it?”
The answer was that Prahlad had learned Krishna Consciousness from the foremost sage of Vedic times, Narada Muni, and he had learned it while still in the womb of his mother. It had come about that Prahlad’s mother was pregnant at the time of a great war between the demigods and the demons. The demigods were led by Indra and the demons by the party of Hiranya Kashipu. The victorious demigods eventually swept over the cities of the demon king and ransacked his deserted buildings. King Indra himself had entered the palace of Hiranya Kashipu, and was leading off Prahlad’s mother, the Queen, when Narada appeared and interposed.
“Do not take her! It is not right, for she is chaste,” he said.
Indra answered, “I’m not doing anything wrong, good Narada. But she is carrying a child within her womb who is Hiranya Kashipu’s son. She is therefore carrying a snake, and I just want to keep her in custody until the child is born and we can take him away. I had no other purpose.”
“No,” Narada protested. “She is carrying a great soul within her womb. Don’t try to kill him, Indra. Nor in fact could you kill him, since he is a great devotee.”
Solely on the word of the pure saint Narada, Indra relinquished his design and the Queen was allowed to go with the saint to his hermitage. Narada gave her shelter at his ashram, and as he was a very great devotee he spoke the spiritual science of Krishna Consciousness to her daily. Prahlad, who had developed within her womb to the point of consciousness, heard all these discussions, and he did not forget.
Actually, every human child attains a confrontation with God just before the time of birth. It is stated in the Srimad Bhagwatam that the process of development within the womb is extremely painful for the child, as he has to live in a cramped position, near gastric fire and stool and urine. Just at the time of birth, conditions become unbearable and he then prays to the Supreme Lord, who is seated within his heart as the Supersoul. The child promises that if the Lord will just get him out of this predicament, he will become a sincere devotee of Godhead and so will never again have to take mortal birth.
Once he is out, however, with the shock of entering into the material world the living entity loses all memory of his promise to God. And, in addition, from the first moment after birth he is in the hands of nurses, friends and relatives who are themselves under the illusion that the goal of life is sense gratification, and who mistake the body as the self. So the child forgets.
But Prahlad did not forget Krishna. He told his “Daitya” fellows just how life is wasted: “Non-believers, just look! How long can you live? Say, at most, 100 years. And the first 20 years are all spent in playing ball and sporting. That’s 20 years wasted with no spiritual development. Then during the middle 40 years sex is very prominent, and those years are all spent in the pursuit of sex pleasure.
“Sex life begins when you meet a girl and you think, ‘She’s nice.’ And then when there is sex, the root of attachment is made. Then you get married and you have children. You must earn to support your family and for all the work you are doing you need some recognition, some prestige. So you must labor for that, and at the same time serve your family so that they can expand in wealth and material happiness. Under such conditions there is no chance of getting out of material, deathbound existence. There is no time for finding out Vishnu, God, the dearmost thing in life.
“So calculate: 20 years in sporting, 40 years in sex life and married life. Then at the end of life, the last 20 years are feeble and invalid. Or, even if a man has good health he remains enamored up to the last moment, playing with his fond grandchildren and making no preparation for spiritual life. So where is the time for Krishna? If a man spends his life in this way, always attracted to the nonpermanent and forgetful of his real self-interest, the eternal Vishnu within the heart-then at the time of death he will fall back among the struggling, lower species of life and have to take another body as an animal.
“This is why, demon brothers, we have to take action in this youthful age, while we are still unattached to such things. Only by cutting free of the material consciousness of life can we realize who we are: I am not this body! I am eternal spirit soul! Come, put your faith in the authority of Narada, and you can derive the same benefit as I have!”
The news of Prahlad’s preaching ultimately reached back to Hiranya Kashipu, and he called his son’s teachers before him. “What is this Hare Krishna?” he demanded to know. “I understand all the boys are chanting some nonsense about God. Tell me now-what are you teaching my Prahlad?”
The Srimad Bhagwatam states that at this time Hiranya Kashipu had come to dominate all the planetary systems by ruthless force. He had gained such great power by performing an excruciating austerity: he had stood on his toes with his arms upraised, and remained in that position uninterrupted for 125 years. Hiranya Kashipu had so frightened the demigods by this that they had run to their supreme leader, Lord Brahma, the prime living entity and creator of the material universe.
“What can this man want?” they asked Lord Brahma. “Please go and grant him some boon so that he may be satisfied-before he becomes too powerful and causes great disturbances!”
Lord Brahma at once approached Hiranya Kashipu and asked him what his wish was. The demon king asked to be made immortal.
“You must ask for something else,” Lord Brahma replied. “I myself am bound sometime to die.”
Thereupon Brahma conferred a boon upon Hiranya Kashipu which made him invincible in all the material worlds: he would never be killed by man or beast, nor at night, nor in the daytime. He would never be killed on earth, nor on the sea, nor in the air, nor by any weapon.
With this power conferred upon him-assuming himself unconquerable-Hiranya Kashipu took up the business of dominating all the universe for his personal pleasure. So great was his might that it is said the demigods would tremble at the mere upraising of his eyebrows.
Prahlad’s teachers, however, had committed no offense before Hiranya Kashipu. “Sir,” they explained, “we do not know where your son has learned this Hare Krishna from, but he is ruining our whole school! We have only taught mathematics, economics, history and the other subjects-so we don’t know where he has got it from. But he’s preaching to the other children every day, whenever he can.”
Hiranya Kashipu then called his son before him. The father was a materialist and he wanted his son to get a good education so that the boy would be advanced in the attainment of money and beautiful women. The very name of the demon king indicates this. “Hiranya” means soft bed, and “Kashipu” means gold. These were the basic principles of his life.
The father now sat Prahlad on his knee and with affection asked his boy, “What is the best thing you have learned from your teachers?”
Prahlad replied honestly to his father. “O foremost of atheists,” he said openly, “I haven’t learned anything good at all from my teachers. But I do know the best thing.”
“Oh? And what is that best thing?”
“I have heard that the best thing is to leave this dark well of material life and to take shelter of Krishna, the Lord.”
This answer caused the break that could not be repaired, for the father was a determined atheist, and the son a firm devotee of Krishna.
“Tell me,” Hiranya Kashipu continued. “What is this teaching that you could not learn from our Brahmins? What is this teaching of Krishna?” he demanded.
The boy replied, “My dear atheist father, if I told you you could not know, and so I cannot even bother. If you took courses in it, still you would not understand, because you are too attached to sense gratification.”
Hiranya Kashipu grew enraged at this and threatened his son, but Prahlad was unflinching. He simply remembered the teaching of Narada, and took shelter in thinking of the form of Krishna. To every question and demand of his father Prahlad answered in terms of love of Krishna, his Protector. The father, who was unaccustomed to the slightest hint of insubordination, finally took hold of the boy and personally dragged him outdoors to a nearby cliff. With uncontrollable fury he threw Prahlad into the abyss. However, all-pervading Krishna caught hold of his devotee and saved him from the intended destruction.
Hiranya Kashipu now became all the more livid with angry determination, and he set to work to destroy the life of Prahlad by one means or another. He set a great pot of water boiling and thrust the boy into it, but Prahlad was not hurt. He tried to freeze the boy in a snowstorm and he tried to have him torn apart by the winds of a hurricane-but Prahlad was in direct spiritual communion with Krishna, and so he was at all times protected by the intervention of his worshipable Lord.
Hiranya Kashipu, obsessed, threw his son into a pit of snakes, but they did not harm him. He placed Prahlad under the foot of an elephant, but with his trunk the pachyderm picked the child up and placed him on his back for a triumphant ride. The fierce king forced Prahlad’s mother to administer poison to the boy in his food, but it would not take effect. In a seething fury of frustration, Hiranya Kashipu finally picked the boy up in his own hands and hurled him to the floor, as though to smash him like a rock. Prahlad, in meditation upon Krishna, the Soul of souls, remained unhurt even by this attack.
“Where do you get your supernatural powers from?” Hiranya Kashipu screamed, standing over his son.
“From the same place you do,” Prahlad replied mildly. “From God.”
Hiranya Kashipu began to foam. “God!? What is God? Where is your God?”
“My God is everywhere,” Prahlad said.
“Everywhere?” Hiranya Kashipu drew his sword.
“Is He in this pillar?” Hiranya Kashipu cried, pointing with his weapon to a nearby column of marble.
“Yes,” said Prahlad evenly.
At this the mighty demon drew back his sword and struck a single unimaginable blow at the mute column. Then, just as his sword fell upon it, the pillar burst into a thousand pieces and, with a roar that deafened half the cosmos, a most wonderful being leapt out from within. This was Lord Nrishingha, a form of God manifesting Ferocity Personified. As God is perfect in all things, He was not unable to answer the dread challenge of Prahlad’s father, and there now ensued a brief but terrible struggle.
Half-lion and half-man in appearance, Nrishingha fell upon Hiranya Kashipu, who struck back with all the fury of his being. But he was as nothing against the boundless might of God. Lord Nrishingha quickly caught him up with His nails and stretched the angry, incredulous demon across his lap, and then tore him apart.
Hiranya Kashipu died instantly upon that blood-drenched lap. In this way, as Nrishingha was not a man, and as the time was twilight-neither night nor day-and as the king was killed on the lap of the Lord, which was neither sea nor air nor land-and as he was torn apart by no weapons but the claws of Nrishingha-so none of Brahma’s promises to Hiranya Kashipu were broken. And yet he was vanquished.
Prahlad, unafraid, bowed down and offered his profound obeisances before this form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. “O my Lord,” he prayed, “I know that You have thousands of forms, and that there are as many forms of the Supreme Person as there are species of life in the world.”
In this way Prahlad worshiped at the Lotus Feet of the fierce half-man half-lion appearance of Sri Krishna, from whom all things emanate. As Nrishingha, He appears as the Source of all ferocity, just as in the Original Form of Radha Krishna He is the Source of all Love. To Prahlad, the long hard nails of Lord Nrishingha and His fierce aspect carried no terror.
“The rays from Your Lotus Feet,” he prayed, “are more soothing than 10,000 autumnal moons. What I truly fear is the reaction of birth and death in this world, which is whirlpool of bad things. I do not fear Your nails, O Lord and Protector! But I fear this world of Karma, where the remedies we seek for our ills are worse than the ills themselves. And only by taking shelter of You can we become fearless and satisfied.”
The Lord then was very pleased, and He requested that His devotee ask for his heart’s desire.
Prahlad replied, “Don’t ask me to take anything, my Lord. Worship is my duty. If I should take something in return, then I have become a merchant.”
But the Lord again asked Prahlad to name something that he wished for. Prahlad, as a devotee, had no personal desire, but the thing he thought of now was his father. So he prayed in Nrishingha’s presence that his father might be pardoned for his offenses and granted liberation. The Lord assured the child Prahlad that not only would his father be liberated from the hellish conditions of life in the material world, but that many generations of his family, both in the past and into the future, would be granted liberation. Such is the purifying influence of a pure devotee in a family.
For ourselves, just to hear the narration of Prahlad’s activities is auspicious, because just as he fixed himself onto the Lord in remembrance, so can we and thus derive that full, eternal, blissful freedom from evil which the Lord promises mankind in The Bhagavad Gita:
“Give up all varieties of religiousness, and just surrender unto Me; and in return I shall protect you from all sinful reactions. Therefore, you have nothing to fear.” (BG 18.66)