“Like father like son,”
the saying goes. So how was it that
the most sinister personality ever
to darken the universe fathered a great saint?
Hiranyakasipu threw Prahlada from his lap onto the ground. “He is a traitor, a poisoned limb of the family, and he must be amputated immediately!”
Adapted from Srimad-Bhagavatam, translation and commentary by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
A vicious storm raged through the darkness. Pierce winds hissed again and again and uprooted gigantic trees. Thick clouds covered the sky, and lightning flashed as though laughing. The ocean with its high waves wailed as if stricken with sorrow. Jackals and dogs howled ominously, and birds flew shrieking from their nests. The twin demons Hiranyakasipu and Hiranyaksa were being born.
Day by day, year after year, they grew more powerful, more evil, and more dominant over all the other demons, who made alliances with them. Then, under the direction of Hiranyaksa and Hiranyakasipu, the demons set out to conquer the demigods, their archenemies and the administrators of the universe. In their war for universal power, the demons enjoyed many victories, but at last Lord Visnu [Krishna] Himself killed Hiranyaksa. His brother’s death overwhelmed Hiranyakasipu with grief and rage. He bit his lips and gazed upward with eyes whose blazing anger filled the sky with smoke. He took up his trident, glanced around fiercely, bared his terrible teeth, and began to speak to his demon friends.
“O my friends,” he roared, “Lord Visnu is supposed to behave equally toward the demigods and the demons, but now He has taken the demigods’ side and killed my very dear brother Hiranyaksa. For this I shall sever His head from His body! And with His profuse blood I shall please my dead brother Hiranyaksa, who was so fond of sucking blood. Only then shall I be pacified!”
To become immortal, Hiranyakasipu performed severe austerities.
First, Hiranyakasipu sent his demoniac friends throughout the world to wreak havoc on the innocent and the pious, and then he set out to fulfill his own evil plans. Hiranyakasipu not only wanted to rule the universe and possess all mystic perfections but also, and most important, he wanted to become immortal. To achieve these seemingly impossible ends, he went to the valley of the Mandara Hill and began performing severe austerities: he stood on his tiptoes and kept his arms held upward and his eyes fixed on the sky.
By the intensity of Hiranyakasipu’s exertion, the hair on his head began shedding a light as brilliant as a supernova. All the rivers and oceans seethed, and all the mountains and islands on the surface of the globe began trembling. Stars and planets fell from the heavens, and fires blazed in all directions. So long did Hiranyakasipu remain in his painful position that grass, bamboo sticks, and finally a huge anthill covered his body. The ants devoured his skin, fat, flesh, and blood, until only his skeleton remained.
Seeing his ghastly condition, the demigods said, “The malicious Hiranyakasipu has been devoured by his own sins, just as a serpent is eaten by small ants.” Thus encouraged, the demigods, headed by Indra, launched a fierce attack upon the demons. Showing unprecedented strength, the demigods massacred the demons, and to save their own lives the demon generals scattered in all directions. They fled from their homes in great haste, forgetting their wives, animals, and household belongings. Finally, the victorious demigods plundered the palace of Hiranyakasipu and arrested the pregnant Queen Kayadhu, one of Hiranyakasipu’s wives.
While Hiranyakasipu performed severe austerities the demigods plundered his palace and arrested his queen, Kayadhu But Narada pleaded for Prahlada,the great devotee within her womb.
As King Indra, the leader of the demigods, led Kayadhu away, the great sage Narada appeared on the scene. “O king of the demigods,” Narada said, “you should not so mercilessly drag away this chaste wife of another man. Release her immediately!
“But King Indra said, “Within this woman’s womb is the seed of the great demon Hiranyakasipu. Therefore, let her remain in our custody until she gives birth to the child; then we shall release her.”
Narada replied, “The child within her womb, who will be known as Prahlada, is completely sinless. In fact, he is a great devotee—a powerful servant of Lord Visnu, the Personality of Godhead. You will not be able to kill him.”
Upon hearing this. King Indra honored the words of the exalted saint Narada and released Queen Kayadhu. Then, having defeated the demons’ armies, the demigods returned to their celestial kingdom.
Narada brought the queen to his hermitage and, assuring her all protection, he requested, “My dear child, please remain here until your husband returns.” Kayadhu desired the safety of her unborn child, so she stayed in the care of Narada, serving the sage with great devotion. Because Narada is naturally very kind to all fallen souls, he instructed her on religion and transcendental knowledge, and his words were free of any material contamination. While the queen heard his teachings, the child within her womb also listened attentively to Narada’s spiritual message. Thus, even before his birth, Prahlada received his spiritual education.
Meanwhile, other residents of heaven approached Brahma, the foremost demigod, to complain to him that the scorching light still emanating from Hiranyakasipu’s head had made their planets uninhabitable. Thus informed, Brahma and the other demigods went to see Hiranyakasipu to pacify him and end his severe austerities. “I am astonished to see your endurance!” exclaimed Brahma upon seeing Hiranyakasipu. “Despite being bitten and eaten by worms and ants, you are still keeping your life air circulating within your bones. This is certainly wonderful! By your severe austerities you have won my favor, and I am prepared to give you whatever benedictions you desire.” After speaking these words, Brahma sprinkled spiritual water on the skeleton of Hiranyakasipu. The demon now blossomed forth in a youthful body whose lustrous, golden limbs could withstand the striking of thunderbolts.
At once Hiranyakasipu addressed Brahma. “Please grant that I not be killed by any created living being; that I not die inside or outside any residence, during daytime or night, nor on the ground or in the sky; that I not be killed by any being created by you, nor by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal—indeed, that I not meet death from any entity, either living or nonliving; that I have no competitor; that I have sole lordship over all living beings and presiding deities; and that I acquire all mystic powers.”
After Brahma had granted him all these requests, Hiranyakasipu exclaimed, “At last, now I am immortal and invincible! Now I shall challenge Visnu and avenge the death of my brother!”
Very swiftly, Hiranyakasipu conquered all the planets in the universe, took up residence in the lavish palace of King Indra, and forced the demigods to bow down at his feet. He even stole the sacrificial oblations meant for the demigods. Hiranyakasipu ruled severely, and he was always drunk on strong-smelling wines and liquors.
During this time Queen Kayadhu returned to the palace of her husband and bore him a son—Prahlada. He was a reservoir of all transcendental qualities because he was an unalloyed devotee of God. Determined to understand the Absolute Truth, he had full control over his senses and mind. He was kind to all living creatures and the best friend of everyone. Toward respectable per- sons he behaved just like a menial servant, to the poor he was like a father, and to his equals he was like a sympathetic brother. Always very humble, he considered his teachers, spiritual masters, and older Godbrothers to be as good as the Lord Himself. Indeed, he was completely free of any pride that might have arisen from his good education, riches, beauty, and aristocratic birth.
Hiranyakasipu did not know that Prahlada had already learned devotional service while in the womb of his mother. So, when Prahlada turned five, Hiranyakasipu sent him to school to acquire a materialistic education. Prahlada studied along with the sons of other demons. At school he heard and recited lessons on politics and economics, but he did not like them because they required that he consider one person a friend and another person an enemy.
After Prahlada had attended school for some time, Hiranyakasipu took him on his lap and affectionately inquired, “My dear son, please tell me about your favorite subject in school.”
Prahlada replied,“O king of thedemons, as far as I have learned from my spiritual master, any person who accepts his temporary body and temporary household life as real is certainly embarassed by anxiety, having fallen into a dark, dry well filled only with suffering. He should leave home at once, go to the forest, and take shelter of God.”
Startled, Hiranyakasipu laughed sardonically and said, “Thus is the intelligence of children spoiled by the words of the enemy!” He told his assistants, “Give this boy complete protection at school. Devotees of the Lord may go there in disguise, so take care that his intelligence is not further influenced by them.”
After taking Prahlada back to school, Prahlada’s teachers (Sanda and Amarka) said to him, “Dear son Prahlada, all peace and good fortune unto you. Now, we are going to ask you a few questions, so please do not speak lies; just reply with the truth. The other boys here are not like you; they do not speak in a deviant way about ‘God.’ How have you learned these instructions? How has your intelligence been spoiled? Have our enemies polluted you?”
Prahlada answered, “Let me offer my respectful obeisances unto the Personality of Godhead, who deludes those in the material world and thus creates in their minds distinctions such as ‘friend’ and ‘enemy.’ Now I am actually seeing this delusion, which I previously heard about from learned authorities.
“Since every one of us is an eternal servant of God, we are not different from one another, but persons who are unable to ascertain the existence of the Lord within themselves always think in terms of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy.’ The same Personality of Godhead who has created this situation has given me the intelligence to take the side of your so-called enemy. As iron is attracted by a magnet, I am attracted by the Lord.”
Prahlada’s teachers were furious.
“Bring me a stick!”
“This Prahlada is damaging our good name!”
“He must be punished!”
Continuously threatening him, Sanda and Amarka started to teach Prahlada about worldly pseudo-religion, money-making, and sense pleasure. After some time, they again presented him to his father. When Hiranyakasipu saw Prahlada bowing down before him, he affectionately showered the child with his blessings and jubilantly embraced him with both his arms. He sat Prahlada on his lap and, with tears gliding down from his eyes onto the child’s smiling face, he spoke to his son.
“My dear Prahlada—” he began. “My dear son, for a long time you have heard so many things from your teachers. Now please repeat to me whatever you think is the best of that knowledge.”
Fearlessly, Prahlada said, “Hearing and chanting about the holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of the Supreme Lord; remembering them; serving the lotus feet of the Lord; offering the Lord respectful worship with sixteen types of paraphernalia; offering prayers to the Lord; becoming His servant; considering the Lord one’s best friend; and surrendering to Him (in other words, serving Him with body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are known as pure devotional service, and I consider anyone who has dedicated his life to the service of Lord Visnu through these nine methods to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.”
His lips trembling in rage, Hiranyakasipu turned to Sanda. “What is this nonsense! Some ‘brahmana’ you are! You have disobeyed my order! You have taken shelter of my enemies! You have taught thispoor boy about devotional service!”
Sanda quickly replied, “O King, O enemy of Indra! Whatever your son has said was not taught to him by me or by anyone else. His devotional service has developed spontaneously. Please, give up your anger. Do not unnecessarily accuse us!”
Hiranyakasipu turned to his son and said, “You rascal! Most fallen member of our family! If your teachers did not teach you this, who did?!”
Prahlada answered, “Persons whohave accepted as their leader a blind man attached to external sense objects cannot understand that the goal of life is to return home, back to Godhead, to engage in the devotional service of Lord Visnu. Only if such persons take shelter of the lotus feet of a devotee of Lord Visnu can they be freed from material contamination.”
Blinded by anger, Hiranyakasipu threw Prahlada from his lap onto the ground. “Servants! Take him away and kill him at once!” he screamed. “By becoming a devotee of Visnu, Prahlada has become my brother’s murderer! He is a traitor, a poisoned limb of the family, and he must be amputated immediately! Kill him without delay!”
The demoniac servants of Hiranyakasipu, who had fearful faces, sharp teeth, and reddish beards, then started to strike Prahlada’s tender body with their tridents. They shouted, “Chop him up! Pierce him!”
They shouted, “Chop him up!” “Pierce him!”
However, Prahlada just sat silently and meditated on the Personality of Godhead, and the demons’ weapons had no effect on him. Seeing this, Hiranyakasipu became fearful and contrived various ways to kill his son. He threw him beneath elephants’ feet; he cast him into the midst of huge, fearful snakes; he cursed him with destructive spells; he hurled him from a hilltop; he conjured up frightening apparitions; he gave him poison; he starved him; he exposed him to severe cold, winds, fire, and water; he even threw heavy stones to crush him. But throughout these trials Prahlada simply meditated on Lord Visnu, and thus he remained unharmed. Hiranyakasipu became very anxious about what to do next.
But Sanda and Amarka were still very hopeful that they could change the boy by the force of their teaching. So once again Hiranyakasipu put Prahlada under their care, and once again they systematically and unceasingly taught Prahlada about worldly pseudo-religion, business, and sensual satisfaction. But whenever the teachers left the classroom to attend to household affairs, Prahlada would speak to his classmates about the uselessness of materialism. His friends loved and respected him, and because of their tender age, they had not yet been polluted by their teachers’ instructions. Thus they listened attentively to Prahlada’s words.
“A person who is sufficiently intelligent,” he told them, “should practice devotional service from the very beginning of life, giving up all other engagements. This human body is rarely achieved, although it is temporary like other bodies. In the human body we can perform devotional service to God, and even a slight amount of sincere devotional service can give us complete perfection.
“The human form of life affords us a chance to return home, back to Godhead. Therefore, all living beings, especially human beings, must serve the lotus feet of Lord Visnu. This devotional service is natural because Lord Visnu, the Personality of Godhead, is the most beloved friend, master, and well-wisher of everyone.
“We should not try merely for sensual pleasure, for it results only in a loss of time and energy, but no actual spiritual profit. But if we try to serve Lord Visnu, then surelywe can attain the spiritual platform of self-realization.”
All the sons of the demons appreciated the transcendental instructions of Prahlada, and they took them very seriously. But Sanda and Amarka became afraid. They saw that by associating with Prahlada their students were becoming devotees of Lord Visnu. When the teachers approached Hiranyakasipu and described the situation, he went into a great rage. Trembling in fury and hissing like a snake trampled underfoot, Hiranyakasipu called for his son.
When Prahlada came before his father, his hands were folded, and he looked peaceful, mild, and gentle. Hiranyakasipu stared at him with crooked eyes and rebuked him harshly: “O most impudent, stupid troublemaker! O scum of the earth, you have violated my power, and therefore you are an obstinate fool! Today I shall send you to your death! Prahlada, you rascal, you know that when I am angry all the planets in the universe tremble! Tell me—by whose power have you become so impudent and fearless?!”
Calmly, Prahlada replied, “My dear king, the source of my strength is the source of yours also, and the source of everyone’s. Whether moving or stationary, superior or inferior, every living being is under the control of the all-powerful Personality of Godhead.”
“You say there is a being superior to me,” said Hiranyakasipu, “but where is He? If He is everywhere, then why is He not present in this pillar you see before you? Do you think He is in this pillar?”
“Yes,” Prahlada answered, “He is there.”
Hiranyakasipu’s rage flared more and more. “Because you are speaking such nonsense,” he said, “I shall now sever your head from your body! Now let me see your most worshipable God come to protect you!”
Then, exactly at that moment, out of the very pillar that Hiranyakasipu had singled out, a wonderful and terrifying form appeared, a form never before seen—half man and half lion, with angry eyes like molten gold, a shining mane that expanded the dimensions of His fearful face, and a razor-sharp tongue that moved about like a dueling sword. The Supreme Personality of Godhead had incarnated in His wrathful form of Nrsimhadeva.
Shocked and bewildered, Hiranyakasipu gazed at the Lord, then picked up his club and attacked him boldly. Nrsimhadeva played with him just as an eagle plays with a snake, allowing him time and again to escape the long, threatening nails of His lotus hands. Finally, the Lord grabbed him and placed him on His lap. Then, in the doorway of the assembly hall, He very easily tore the demon Hiranyakasipu to pieces.
The Lord grabbed the demon, placed him on His lap, and tore him to pieces.
By His transcendental cleverness, Lord Nrsimhadeva was able to kill Hiranyakasipu without contradicting any of Brahma’s benedictions. The execution took place neither inside nor outside, but in the doorway; neither on land nor in the sky, but on the Lord’s lap; neither during the day nor during the night, but at twilight; neither by man, beast, or demigod nor by any created being, but by the Personality of Godhead; and not by any weapon, but by the Lord’s own lotus hands.
The demigods showered Lord Nrsimhadeva with flowers and then offered Him respectful prayers, glorifying Him and thanking Him for saving the universe from the oppressive reign of Hiranyakasipu. Prahlada, also, offered the Lord very beautiful prayers, asking Him only for the strength to serve Him and to love Him. When Nrsimhadeva encouraged Prahlada to request some favor, the boy simply asked the Lord to save all people, including his demoniac father, from repeated birth and death in this world. Thanks to the devotional training he received from the pure devotee Narada, Prahlada made his life successful—he remembered the Lord always and pleased Him with his loving service.