Perhaps one of the most dramatic of all the avatars of the Almighty, Narayana in his unique incarnation as the man-lion has indelibly captured the imagination of devotees, and continues to hold sway as never before. And today in our modern world, there seems to be a huge interest in this particular aspect of Vishnu.
The story of how the Protector aspect of the Trinity i.e. Narayana appeared to save his devotee Prahlaada from his demoniacal father, is well known and needs no introduction. It is worthwhile to reiterate the fact that our Puranas are not just mere tales concocted for a few moments’ of entertainment. We all know, more or less that our epics are actually storehouses of valuable allegories symbolizing great spiritual truths. They are as greatly utilitarian as any modern scientific invention. Swami Sivananda says that we need to scrutinize our scriptures for inner and deeper meanings the way all letters and scraps of paper would be scrutinized during times of war, since this kind of scrutiny would mean either victory or defeat!
In his phenomenal book ‘Sadhana’, Swami Sivananda cites the Dasha Avatara (the ten avataras) of Vishnu, and goes on to explain its deeper and allegorical meaning. The Matsya Avatara is known as the rescuing and bringing up the Vedas concealed in the depths of the ocean. Vedas give humans the knowledge of the true purpose of life and open the eyes of humankind to the lofty mission of the human races on earth. This knowledge is fully submerged by the waters of ignorance. It has to be brought up. This is the first step in the life of the Sadhaka.
Next, the forces of darkness will not allow the newly awakened Sadhaka to arise and march on. The Sadhaka has to contend with the inner struggle, the struggle between the forces of good and evil, and a regular tug-of-war takes place within – this is the fight between the devas and asuras depicted in the eve of the Kurma Avatar. This vital process of churning is necessary as it brings the Amrita to the fore but also the deadly poisons (the vasanas, vrittis and vices). Once visible these can be fought. But there are aspects of our lower nature that instead of coming to the surface, actually dive deeper in the unfathomable subconscious and defy all attempts of the Sadhaka to get at them. But these MUST be got at, and this is where the Lord as the Varaha dives into the abyss – by deep self-analysis that the Sadhaka must do by probing into the innermost reaches of the subconscious self, relentless pursuing and tracing down the hidden Vasanas like lust, anger, greed, etc., and destroying them.
When this is done, i.e. when the Sadhaka takes this resolute step then starts the great inner war. The Asuric part of man rises in revolt against this divine force and swears vengeance for the injury done. It becomes the Hiranyakasipu.
A significant fact – why does all the vengeful hatred of this Asura take the form of a terrible persecution of a little child? Why is the divine side depicted as the “little” Prahlaada? Because this is the struggle in the beginning stages of the Sadhaka’s spiritual life when he is but a mere infant upon the spiritual path. Here the deep advanced knowledge or the ‘Jnana’ element is absent in the picture. It is all faith, love and outpouring in incessant prayer. The Lord comes to the rescue. But here is a very significant point – the Lord comes in a dual form. Not entirely divine, but yet four-armed divinity coupled with an earthly aspect. And this earthly part is that of a Lion. Why a Lion? Now in spiritual parlance the human being is conceived of a Pashu (allegorically a cow) and the Lord, the only Purusha, as the Pati (the husband or more appropriately, the beloved). The human-cum-divine being who comes to the rescue of the seeker at this stage is the Guru-God. Among the Pashus i.e. humankind, the Guru is verily a lion among men. And he is divine too. “Hey, Guro Dayabdhe Nrikesari” in such terms does a Marathi saint address his Guru. This Guru, the Naarasimhavatar hastens to the rescue of the Sadhaka, ensuring Victory!
In Carnatic Music
Narasimha and Prahlaada’s devotion clearly caught Tyagaraja’s imagination and the latter was also perhaps inspired by his elder contemporary Merattur Venkatarama Bhagavatar who composed the musical play Prahlaadacharitra.
Dr. V. Raghavan writes, “the story of Prahlaada is of primary importance to all votaries of the Bhakti-marga, and when we consider the fact that Tyagaraja was a Rama-bhakta from his young years and was subject of many trials in the pursuit of the path of single-minded devotion to the Lord, there seems to be a special significance in Tyagaraja’s fascination for Prahlaada’s story which is, so to say, the prototype of the story of his own devotional life. Further, the great popularity of the Prahlaada-story in the dance-drama tradition which gave rise to the Prahlaada Charitra of Merattur Venkatarama Sastri must have also induced Tyagaraja to write this musical play, which as the title shows, tries to bring out the triumph of Prahlaada’s devotion to Hari over the many trials to which his demoniac father Hiranyakasipu, submitted Prahlaada. The pieces here are both heavy and light, and some of them have become popular in concerts also.
However the Prahlaada Bhakti Vijayam does not really mention the killing of Hiranyakasipu by Narasimha – rather it is a celebration of the epitome of bhakti, its effects and what it can achieve both for the devotee as well as for humanity.
Vishnu as Narasimha has been glorified and sung by Tyagaraja in two kritis – one in Bilahari and the second one in the rare Phalamanjari.
Narasimha nannu brova in Bilahari set to Misra Chapu tala was extensively sung by my guru Shri T.R.Subramanyam.
narasiMha nannu brOvavE SrI lakshmI (nara)
kora-mAlina narula koni(y)ADanu nEnu
parama pAvana nApAli SrI lakshmI (nara)
nIdu bhaktAgrEsaruDu – prahlAduDapuDoka kanaka kaSipu
vAdukOrvaka ninnu SaraNani-yAdukOmana kAcinAvu (nara)
endukani sairintu nI manas-andu teliyanidiyEdi lOkula
nindakOrvaka ninnu kOrin-andukentani karuNa jUtuvO (nara)
nI japamu nI smaraNa nI pada pUja nI vAri celimiyosagi
rAjigA daya cEyu tyAga-rAja sannuta taramu kAdu (nara)
The gist of the kriti would seem to consist of a whole lot of vocatives and entreaties to Narasimha for protection as he is the protector of Prahlaada. Tyagaraja pleads with Narasimha to protect him as the avatar is someone who knows everything (Is there anything you cannot know – he questions). Tyagaraja also claims that he is turning to Narasimha for protection due to the evils he is facing created by the worldly people. He also says that it needs to be seen just exactly how much of mercy is going to be shown by Narasimha (reference to the 2nd charanam). Tyagaraja also adds in this charanam that he is unable to bear the vilification of people for no fault of his.
In the third charanam he entreats to be shown mercy by granting him, Tyagaraja, the opportunity to chant Narasimha’s name, and to remember and worship his holy feet, and the friendship of his devotees. The theme is very similar to several of Tyagaraja’s kritis where he addresses his own ishta devata, Rama with all these requests and wishes.
It is interesting to note that he considers Narasimha in a very similar vein and considers the avatara to be parama pavana (supremely holy). Of course, it can be argued that Narasimha is anyway a form of Vishnu and so was Rama; and consequently for Tyagaraja, in all probability addressing Narasimha is like addressing his own Rama, his personal God.
The second kriti of Tyagaraja directly upon Narasimha is the rarely heard SrI nArasiMha in the raga Phalaranjani, set to adi tala. The name of the raga itself seems to be under dispute – is it Phalaranjani or Phalamanjari? If it’s Phalamanjari then the matters get resolved since there is the better known ‘Sanatana parama pavana’ of the bard of Tiruvaiyyaru as a benchmark. This is what seems to have been followed, for the versions that have been heard, have been in this raga (a janya of the 22nd mela Kharaharapriya).
SrI nArasiMha mAm pAhi
kshIrAbdhi kanyakA ramaNa
dInArti nivAraNa bhavya guNa diti tanaya timira sUrya tri nEtra (SrI)
prahlAda parASara nArada hRt-pankE-ruha nIraja bandhO
AhlAda kara aSubha rOga samhAra varada tyAgarAjAdi vinuta (SrI)
Tyagaraja begins by addressing Narasimha as the beloved of Lakshmi. He declares that the lord is the reliever of the distress of the humble. Certainly there can be no one who would have gone through the trials and tribulations like Prahlaada did and the scores of horrific persecution he faced and had to endure from his evil father. It is interesting to note that Tyagaraja metaphorically refers to Narasimha as the sun who destroyed the darkness called Hiranyakasipu, as Aditi’s son (diti tanaya timira sUrya). Another analogy with the sun, Narasimha is referred to as the sun that blossoms in the lotus of hearts of Prahlaada, and the divine rishis Parasara and Narada!
The reference to aSubha rOga stems from the belief that if one prays to Narasimha, one can get cured from the effects of black magic. The sthala purana of Sholingur (also known as Ghatikachala) has references to this.
Ultimate Purpose of Narasimha
Ultimately, Vishnu in the avatara of Narasimha underscores one fact – that nothing, absolutely nothing is impossible. Hiranyakasipu called upon all his mental resources in order to ensure that there was no proverbial ‘Achilles Heel’ when he sought his boon of immortality from Brahma. He sought the conditions that begin from not meeting death from any of the living entities created by Brahma himself. Hiranyakasipu probably thought he was being supremely clever since Brahma is the ultimate creator – all creation flows from Brahma alone.
Aditi’s son also thought he was further consolidating his supposed invincibility by asking Brahma the boon of not dying within any residence or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Furthermore, he prayed that his death not be brought about by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal. He also sought to have no rival and to be given sole lordship over all the living entities and presiding deities, and to be given all the glories obtained by that position.
Ostensibly, this would have certainly made Hiranyakasipu immortal. But the world is ultimately a creation of the Almighty and the Lord as the Almighty definitely cannot be measured in the three parameters of time, space and causation. Whatever there is, there is something beyond that and it is this transcendental philosophy that underlines the Hindu thought. God is not something that can be defined by existing and tactile parameters, nor can God be understood by our five senses. Hence no matter what boon one may seek to become invincible, there will always, always be some chink somewhere, because, complete perfection, absolute invincibility and ultimately bliss and freedom can be obtained only by the person who has realized God and becomes one with Him.
The Narasimha avatar stands to illustrate that God is always with us; and no matter how hopeless, terrible or impossible things may seem, there is always, ALWAYS hope, always a way out and there will always be succor to those who perform total surrender.