Hiranyakashipu rushed to verify this miracle and found Prahlad being cleaned up by his aunt Holika. He dragged his sister out and looked appraisingly at her.
With Holi a day away, one instinctively thinks of Prahlad, for Holi is in remembrance of his aunt Holika being burnt, soon after which Mahavishnu took the Narasimha avatar to save Prahlad. Narasimha Jayanti falls in early May this year, not long after Holi. We must imagine how worried Prahlad’s father Hiranyakashipu was. He was an asura, a mighty titan who belonged to ‘Patal’ or the netherworld, the assigned realm of his race. He had fought and politicked and now controlled the netherworld, earth and heaven. And he had nicely bullied that dotard, Brahma, or so he thought, into giving him the ultimate boon of invincibility.
He had undergone such ferocious austerities that Brahma was compelled to come to him and offer him a boon to stop. “I don’t need you for fighting my battles and crushing my enemies,” said Hiranyakashipu scornfully. “What I want from you is utter invincibility. Grant that I cannot be killed by a celestial, a titan or a human, by any weapon ever made, by night or day, neither indoors nor outdoors, on land or in the air.”
The Creator had looked quizzical. “Are you sure?” he had asked mildly.
“Of course, you old fool,” thought Hiranyakashipu, but aloud he said, “Yes, I am.”
So why was he worried? He was the lord of life. He was god. He had ordered everyone to worship him with song, dance, prayer and sacrifice. And everyone in the three worlds had obeyed, except, thought Hiranyakashipu bitterly, his own son: Prahlad, whose name meant ‘excess of joy’ for that’s what the asura nation had felt at his birth.
How could Prahlad refuse to obey his own father and insist on praying only to his chosen deity, Vishnu? But Prahlad had said firmly, “I have to pray to Vishnu, Father, or it annoys me.” A lode of asura spirit there. Hiranyakashipu was actually pleased about that. It was all the fault of that busybody Narada, he brooded. The celestial seer had dropped in on Patal while Hiranyakashipu’s chief queen was expecting Prahlad. He had told her endless stories about Vishnu, of which the baby had heard every word.
But every last flicker of paternal feeling died out during the next big festival. A great public parade had marched by saluting Hiranyakashipu, the new god of gods and king of kings. But Prahlad had sat it out. It was too public a rebuff. There would have to be consequences and Hiranyakashipu organised them.
Prahlad was given the customary drink of poisoned milk but strangely it did not even make him drowsy nor did he die of horrible convulsions. He was then put neck-deep into a mud pit and an elephant was sent to shatter his head. But the tusker veered away and no other royal elephant cooperated in this task.
Hiranyakashipu rushed to verify this miracle and found Prahlad being cleaned up by his aunt Holika. He dragged his sister out and looked appraisingly at her. “He trusts you,” he said. “And he does not know that you have a fireproof magic cloth. Well, get it out. Tomorrow you will hold Prahlad on your lap and we will burn you both.”
“This is a power-mad monster,” thought Holika desperately. “I must escape him.” Next morning, when she led Prahlad to a lotus pond in the inner courtyard, he looked into her eyes. “Aunt, is Father about to do something unpleasant again?” he asked.
“Yes, he is,” said Holika. “Wrap this cloth around you and jump into the pond when I say so. It’s for the best.” Already, she could see soldiers with flaming torches creeping up on them…
“I don’t understand it,” thought Hiranyakashipu after the thirteen days of mourning were over. “Why did the silly woman let herself be burnt in place of Prahlad? And he hasn’t spoken a word since. We’ll see what he says in open court when he’s brought in as a prisoner in chains.”
Some weeks later in the deathly hush of the imperial court, Prahlad was made to stand in chains by a pillar near the door. A shaft of fading pink light fell on his composed face.
“You see that I do not spare even my son when he commits blasphemy,” said Hiranyakashipu forcefully. “Prahlad, admit that you worship a false god and declare your faith in me, your heavenly father. Have you ever seen your so-called god? Does he even exist?”
“He exists in everything, Father,” answered Prahlad steadily.
“Ridiculous! Even in this pillar?’
“Call him out then,” scoffed Hiranyakashipu. A whole minute went by and Hiranyakashipu lost his temper.
“I’ll get your god out for you!” he shouted and kicked the pillar hard.
A second’s silence and the pillar split open with a deafening crack and boom. Screams rent the air as a fearful figure, half lion and half man, emerged with slavering jaws. The towering apparition picked up Hiranyakashipu in its huge, sharp claws and strode to the threshold.
There, neither indoors nor outdoors, not by day or by night but in the falling dusk, the man-lion, not a celestial, an earthling or a titan, placed the demon king on its lap, neither on land nor in the air, and not by any weapon made but with its claws, tore open his stomach and disembowelled him.
The man-lion flung away the demon-king’s corpse and the terrified court shrank as it strode back inside and struck off Prahlad’s fetters. The prince fell to his knees, hands joined. “My lord Vishnu,” he said, and finally, as never before during his father’s murderous doings, did his young eyes fill with tears and overflow.
The avatar disappeared. “Be king of your realm, Prahlad,” boomed a heavenly voice. “You will rule well, staunch soul, and come to me when it’s time.”
After a few dazed seconds, a shaken cheer broke out and within moments the court was roaring in support of its new king. No god, thank heaven, but a regular king, and one without hubris.
(The writer is a commentator and columnist on religion and culture)