Shri Nrsimha!


Puja to Sri Nrsimha in Mayapur, performed by brothers Jananivas and Pankajanghri prabhus.

So today, Wednesday 26th 2010, is the annual festival marking the day when God appeared in order to protect His beloved devotee. In the Bhagavad-gita God makes it very clear that this is not a one-time affair, that He is actually doing this time after time, in age after age. He comes to protect the devotees – those who have dedicated themselves to a life of spiritual service – and He comes to obstruct those who try to prevent others from taking up the Godly life.

So if there are many incarnations of God, what makes the Narasimha avatar so special? And why do the followers of His Divine Grace A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada always sing two songs about Narasimha after every arati in every one of their temples all over the world?

Well, perhaps the most important reason is that the founder and spiritual master of the worldwide Hare Krishna movement asked them to, and in one sense, that is reason enough. As disciples, they did not get to choose which items of sadhana-bhakti were meant to be performed; rather they were given selected songs and rituals as part of the spiritual master’s instructions.

Very early on, he told them that these two songs are for the protection of the guru and for the protection of the guru’s mission, the movement he started to spread bhakti around the world. And ever since then, his followers sing those songs and worship Narasimha.

The form of Narasimha – the ‘man-lion’ or ‘one with the form of both man and lion’ – came once only, and that for a very short time compared to other avatars. Narasimha outwitted Hiranyakashipu, who thought that he had been blessed to never die in each one of a series of eventualities. Thus His appearance shows us that the soul can never outwit God – even when that soul has been blessed to become the most powerful. Power has a distant origin in God Himself, and because God is completely free to do anything He likes, He can also strip a soul of all power too.

The form of Shri Narasimha shows us that even though the form of God may not always meet our expectations (even the gods and angels were bewildered at the sight of Narasimha) still He can come in any form He wishes, whether He conforms to our personal notions of God or not. He is always capable of surprising His dear devotees – and often at the most surprising times.

Timing was everything for the incarnation of Narasimha, since He appeared in the world just when His devotee needed Him the most. Hiranyakashipu had reached the end of his patience after all his attempts to kill his son Prahlada had been thwarted. In desperation he shouted out to the boy the famous question: “Where is the God who protects you?” to which the lad replied: “He is everywhere, father.” “Is He in this pillar?” “Yes, father.”

In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna explains the vision of such a great devotee as Prahlada: “For one who sees Me everywhere, and sees everything in Me; I am never lost to Him, and he is never lost to Me.” Krishna is the protector of those who have adjusted their consciousness to that of being protected by Him. And when the same Lord comes as Narasimha, He is coming to fulfil His promise to His devotee who fully expected His protection.

The Vaishnava acaryas have commented that Narasimha is paradoxical, in that He is both the very personification of anger, yet the very emblem of gentleness. They have cited the natural example of the lioness, which can fight a maddened elephant with all the fury of a wild cat, yet the lioness can take a few minutes out in the middle of the battle to suckle her cubs. Therefore, say the saints, no-one is as furious as Narasimha, yet there is none so gentle.

When Lord Narasimha appears from the stone pillar, one of His eyes is filled with rage, while the other is looking with love towards His devotee Prahlada. The sharp nails on His hands are just like steel chisels, and they dispatch the demon very quickly, but the palms of the same hands are as soft as lotus flowers.

Through coming to save His devotee in this way, the Lord demonstrates that He is saulabhya or accessible, to even a child who loves Him; and by removing the cruel Hiranyakashipu He shows that there can be no obstacles on the path of bhakti for one who truly takes shelter of Him. Thus He is known as Bhakta-pala, the friend of the devotee, and Bhakti-vigna-vinasana, or one who removes all obstacles on the path of devotional service.

He appeared at twilight, neither day nor night, and therefore the Vaishnavas observe fasting up until this time.

“I offer my respectful obeisances unto Lord Nrsimhadeva, the source of all power. O my Lord who possesses nails and teeth just like thunderbolts, kindly vanquish our demonlike desires for fruitive activity in this material world. Please appear in our hearts and drive away our ignorance so that by Your mercy we may become fearless in the struggle for existence in this material world. May there be good fortune throughout the universe, and may all envious persons be pacified. May all living entities become calm by practicing Bhakti Yoga, for by accepting devotional service they will think of each other’s welfare. Therefore let us all engage in the service of the supreme transcendence, Lord Sri Krsna, and always remain absorbed in thought of Him.”

Srimad Bhagavatam 5.18.8-10

For an old Indian film clip of Prahlada teaching and singing to his friends click here.

And for a short film of puja to Shri Narasimha with the two songs, here

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Shri Nrsimha!

  1. Hare Krishna!

    Very beautiful writeup indeed. One humble suggestion, though: I feel it is not quite accurate to call the Lord’s spiritual forms as “incarnations”. There must be a better word for “avatar” (lit. descent) in English. I think “Incarnation” implies flesh and blood, which is composed of inauspicious perishable material qualities. However, the Lord’s body is not flesh and blood – His form is paraelemental, voluntary, perfectly auspicious, and non-perishable (aprakrta-pancopanisanmaya-sveccagrhita-divya-mangala-vigraha-rupam). We have Vedic authority for this in the isavasya upanisad (mantra 16): “te rupam kalyana tamam”. The demigods, humans, animals, and plants reincarnate with perishable bodies, owing to their own karma, and the forms they take up are not voluntary. Christians believe in Christ having born with flesh and blood and they believe he died and his body perished. Hence, “incarnation of Christ” may be suitable for them. Certainly not for our Vedic Supreme God, Lord Bhagavan Vasudeva.

    My thoughts on Lord Narasimha:

    I have seen a very nice series of youtube videos containing lectures by Srivaishnava Scholar Sri U. Ve. S.A.R. Prasanna Venkateswara Chaturvedi swami, on the glory of Lord Narasimha. Unfortunately, the lecture series is in Tamil and not in English. Two interesting gems from that talk:

    * Lord Narasimha is special indeed, as in the 10 spiritual forms (avatars) of the Lord, his display of awesome might increased in the order of the avatars (Matsya, Kurma, Varaha), was at its peak when He descended as Narasimha, and then decreased from then on (Vamana, Ramachandra, and Krishna).

    * In the 1000 names of Lord Vishnu occurring in the Mahabharata, Narasimhadeva is the first name that is specific, and all the names that occur before are generic. The names occur in the following order: visvam, visnuh, vasatkarah , bhuta-bhavya-bhavat-prabhuh, bhutakrt, bhutabhrt, bhavah, bhutatma, bhuta-bhavanah, putatma, paramatma, muktanam-paramagatih, avyayah, purusah, saksih, ksetrajnah, aksarah, yogah, yogavidam-neta, pradhana-purusa-isvarah, narasimha-vapuh, ….

    * Even the first two names “visva” and “visnu” can be explained to indicate Lord Narasimha’s appearance: One who already pervades the Universe and is hence known as “visva”, pervaded the entire universe (“visnu” means all-pervading) again in the Man-lion form (Narasimha) so that wherever Sri Prahlada pointed his finger, He would appear from there.

    Lord Narasimha’s anger is totally calculated, controlled, and executed as per the Lord’s plan. The uncontrolled anger in the case of us and other devas such as Brahma, Indra, etc., who are subject to sensual impulses, arises out of the material mode of Rajas and Tamas (restless activity and ignorance). The Supreme Lord is of the suddha-sattva spiritual form — as purely spiritual in every avatar as in His Vaikunta abode — and therefore is not driven by any material modes. Hence, there is no reason for unfounded fear at the sight of Lord Narasimha. What we need to fear is physical and spiritual separation from Him. His display of terror, in a way, is out of compassion to Hiranyakasipu as the Lord relieved him of his material body with which he was committing sins.

    • You are quite correct Prahladadas, the English word ‘incarnation’ is not accurate and is derived from the old Latin language to suggest something spiritual which descends into a body of flesh and blood. Since the Supreme Lord is never made of anything material, wherever He appears (ajo pisan avyayatma, bhutanam isvaro pi san…) He can never be an incarnation, at least in the common usage of the term.

      The word ‘avatar’ does say it all, but the Western cultures, and the theologies that underpin them, do not contain the concept of ‘avatar’ and therefore the explanation of those ideas must be given first. It is said that Lord Jesus Christ was an incarnation of God (the only one actually, according to Christians) and yet traditionally he is understood to be also made of flesh and blood. Therefore the very idea that absolute divinity can have form, and that this form is completely spiritual, not material, is alien to both Christianity and its predecessor, Judaism. It is only found within Vaishnavism.

      While we are speaking of words, may I point out to you a word which is, to me, far worse? It is an English word used in India a great deal – even by Vaishnavas – to indicate the archa-vigraha and that is the word ‘idol’

      If we really want to totally alienate Christians from ever understanding how the Transcendent supreme being can appear in a form within the temple – and yet be transcendental – we should keep using that word.

      What I am really saying is, of course, let us all agree not to use that word any more in trying to explain our culture to English-speaking people! The word ‘idol’ means an image fashioned after the imagination which, by very definition, does not exist. And worshipping something that does not exist is the path of a fool.

      I hope you can share this message with other writers within our Vaishnava tradition.

  2. Respected Shri Kripamoya-ji,

    Whatever good I have learned is due to my great acaryas. At the same time, if I commit a mistake, it is entirely my fault. Kindly pardon me if I have said anything harsh or hurtful to you in my original message. Your knowledge and service to the Vaisnava community cannot be compared with the little that I know and do as a novice. I should have said all this in my original message, but I am so degraded that I even forgot to do it.

    I agree that ‘incarnation’ is the closest term to the concept of ‘avatar’ in alien religions. I just thought that there should be a caveat. On the other hand, the word ‘avatar’ has been misappropriated and has different connotations in English.

    The use of the term ‘idol’ for ‘arca vigraha’ is unfortunate and stems from ignorance of the real sense of the former. It was used to describe (real/falsely portrayed) cults that worshipped animistic fetishes by offering human/animal sacrifices to it.

    At the same time, I do not know of a word in English that describes ‘voluntarily assumed transcendental form for the purpose of devout adoration’. I have read that some Srivaisnava elders say it should be ‘deity’ and not ‘idol’, but I am not sure if it conveys the full sense of ‘arca vigraha’. I must say that the English language does pose challenges in describing some core vaisnava ideas. I believe we can only change this when vaisnavism becomes more and more accepted in the international level. We can all only work very hard to get this done, setting aside petty inter-sampradaya and intra-sampradaya differences.

    Your servant,

    Prahladadasa

    • Yes, the word ‘deity’ is used by members of ISKCON also, although the English dictionary definition of this term indicates more an invisible, transcendent mystery rather than what the vaishnavas understand as a archa-vigraha.

      You are right when you say that we must co-operate for the purposes of spreading vaishnavism ideas around the world. We may have some theological differences but there is one thing we all agree on, regardless of sampradaya: Kali Yuga is well and truly underway, it is getting worse, and the demons have again begun reducing the stature of vaishnava temples – sometimes even smashing them to dust. Many of them, along with their priests, are under threat, in one way or another, even as we write. And the finer sentiments and thoughts of human beings are similarly threatened by ‘science’ and ‘modernization.’ We must all play our part in turning back the influences of Kali.

      Thank you for all that you do in this regard

      • Shri Kripamoya-ji,

        You said “the demons have again begun reducing the stature of vaishnava temples – sometimes even smashing them to dust. Many of them, along with their priests, are under threat, in one way or another, even as we write.” Please do write an article about this, I would like to learn how, where, and why this is happening. I can raise this with my friends and colleagues who are interested in preserving the cause of dharma.

  3. This is the first time I am reading your articles, and I found it really nice.
    I found this discussion on sampradaya quite intriguing.
    I think the answer to the discussion lies in the debate itself: Lord Narasimha is glorified in any Vaishnava sampradaya.
    The Sahasranamam example was quite apt.
    I must quote what I know. In the South of India, the 4000 verses by the 12 alwars are considered to be the ‘Dravida Vedas’, and are all in praise of the Lord.
    There, you will find Lord Narsimha glorified in so many ways. To say how the alwars played with a language like Tamil to sing the praises of the one who plays so wonderfully with His devotees is perhaps impossible for me.
    But what am coming at is that the central point, for all Vaishnavas, is Krishna.
    It doesn’t matter what way we take, as long as we can be true to Him, and to our conscience.
    Sampradaya is just a means to get to Him, but all ‘Sampradayas’, eventually, lead to His beautiful feet alone.
    There are theological differences as you say, but anything that leads one to Krishna cannot be wrong!

    Yours,
    In Love With Krishna

    • Thank you. You are right that all Vaishnava sampradayas ultimately lead to Krishna. The great Namalwar writes a lot about Krishna in his Tiruvaymoli and fell into a trance when he was contemplating the form of child Krishna as the butter thief, chased by His mother Yashoda. Through the practise of chanting His names we can keep the sweet Lord in our minds.

      • “The great Namalwar writes a lot about Krishna in his Tiruvaymoli and fell into a trance when he was contemplating the form of child Krishna as the butter thief, chased by His mother Yashoda.”
        The Tiruvaimozhi is indeed wonderful, and describing it is beyond words.
        Nammazhwar, roughly translates as ‘Our Azhwar’, showing the high regard people had for him.
        But, as far as i know, Periyazhwar imagined himself to be Mother Yashodha, and penned some great works.
        Maybe, that’s why he became the Lord’s father-in-law (He was the father of Shri Aandal or Kothai).

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