Hiranyakashipu, king of the demons, had secured a boon from Lord Brahma, the creator god. The boon was to the effect that he should never be conquered or slain by either god or demon, animal or man. Trusting to this promise, he began to wage war with the celestials, and he was at length so successful that he became the lord of heaven, earth and hell. He dispossessed Lord Indra of his throne and assumed to himself the functions of the sun and moon. He acted, too, as the god of riches, and the ruler of the lower world.
The deities were so hard pressed that they were compelled to take refuge on the earth, where they wandered in fear of their lives, and in mortal guise. In his pride of heart, the demon king made proclamation that no one was to worship any god or being except him, and that all offerings and sacrifices were to be made to him. Siddhas, Gandharvas and. snake deities acted as his attendants, while the nymphs of heaven danced before him as he sat eating and drinking in his crystal palace. But there was one person in his realm who failed to give the demon king the honour and dignity he claimed, and that was his own son Prahlada. The boy had been committed to the care of a Brahmin teacher and dwelled in his house.
But one day Prahlada came to visit his father and was told to give a brief account of all that he had learned. Prahlada at once replied that the sunstance of all he had learned was to adore Lord Vishnu. The demon's eyes flashed with anger as he listened to these words, and he charged the Brahmin with the guilt of teaching his son to praise his father's greatest foe. But the man assured the king that he was in no way responsible, and Prahlada himself boldly claimed that his teacher was no other than Lord Vishnu himself, "the instructor of the whole world," the supreme spirit, "the creator and protector, not of me alone, but of all human beings and even, father, of you." When the demon asked his son what evil spirit had taken possession of him and caused him to blaspheme, the boy replied that it was Lord Vishnu who had entered my heart, ' pervaded all the regions of the universe, and by his omnipresence, influenced the conduct of all beings," including both his father and himself.
One might have expected that the demon would have issued orders for his son's punishment. But he merely told his servants to take him away to the house of his preceptor. But after some time had passed, Prahlada was sent for again and bidden to recite some poetry. The boy responded by reciting a hymn in praise of Lord Vishnu. When he had finished, his father ordered his attendants to seize him and put him to death. It is said that thousands of demons, brandishing huge swords, rushed at the apparently helpless boy.
But though they struck him again and again, they caused him not the slightest injury or pain. And he addressed them very calmly, saying that Lord Vishnu was in their weapons and in his body, and that the one could not do the other any harm. When he saw what had happened, Hiranyakashipu tried to persuade Prahlada - to abandon tie worship of Lord Vishnu, and said, if he gave him a promise to that effect, he would do him no farther injury. But the boy asked what harm could happen to him, when he had a friend and helper who was able to save him in every circumstance. The result was that the king called in other methods of punishment.
Great snakes were told to bite him, and they bit him accordingly in every part of his body. But again he felt no pain. Indeed, as the snakes themselves confessed, his skin was not even scratched, while their fangs and jewelled crests were either broken or destroyed. The demon next summoned to his aid the elephants of the skies, each of them as big as a mountain, and ordered them to attack his son with their united tusks. But though these mighty creatures bore him to the ground and trod him underfoot, they too failed to injure him in the slightest degree. Indeed, Prahlada called his father's attention to the fact that the tusks had been blunted in the attempt to pierce his flesh, a wonderful fact due to no strength of his, but because he had called upon Lord Vishnu in the hour of his affliction.
The king, though foiled once more, was convinced that his son would be unable to resist the burning fire, and he caused great piles of brushwood to be built round the prince, and ignited. But here also, though the wind god blew his hardest at the request of the demon, Prahlada once more declared that he felt no pain, and that the air was as cool and fragrant as if it had been blowing over lotus fields.
At this stage the Brahmins intervened, and asked the king to restrain his wrath, pointing out that those who came under its influence could not obtain a place in heaven. At the same time, they undertook, if the king would set his offspring free, to devote himself to his instruction, and make him realize the impropriety of worshipping his father's greatest foe. He should remember that, after all, Prahlada was only a child. Youth was prone to many errors, and people of experience should be tolerant towards its faults.
They added, however, that if he still refused to abandon the worship of Lord Vishnu, they would take the necessary steps to bring about his death. In response to this appeal, the demon king gave orders for his son being set free, and conducted to the house of his preceptor. When he reached his teacher's dwelling, however, Prahlada at once began a series of discourses, on what he called the supreme truth, which were addressed to an audience of young persons, who, like himself, were members of the demon race. In these addresses he dwelt on the fact that birth and death were the portion of all living things, passing, as they did, from infancy and youth to gradual but inevitable decay.
But while that was manifest to all, there was something equally. Clear to every student of scripture, and that was that the dead, were born again. And this brought him to the truth that " pain was inseparable from every period of existence." Men in their foolishness spoke of the pleasure they obtained in quenching their hunger and thirst. But they did not understand. Fire was agreeable when we were cold, no doubt, and water was pleasant when we were thirsty, and food was grateful when we were hungry. But we would like the opposite equally well if our circumstances were changed. And we can see that those" whose vision is darkened by delusion " find delight in suffering, while the man who is paralyzed and cannot walk would be only too glad to experience fatigue. In the same way, he who cherished affection for any one was opening the door of his heart to many miseries; planting a thorn that would expose him to many pricks. It was the same with the man who possessed wealth. He was harassed by the constant thought that it might be lost or stolen or destroyed. As he had said already, birth itself was a great misfortune,
While the dying man had to look forward, not only to the judgment-Beat of Yama, but also to the pains of another birth. Indeed this world was a very sea of sorrow, in which Lord Vishnu was one " only hope." Perhaps his hearers might reply that they were too young to understand such high matters. It was true that their bodies were young, but their spirits were eternal. And in any case he who" addressed them was also a child, and he had resolved that he would not put off to old age the discussion and understanding of what was so important. When old age came, he would not have strength of body or mind sufficient to deal with them. But that was always the way with men. They put off from day to day. They were always finding some excuse. Childhood and youth were absorbed in play and pleasure. And they arrived at old age, to find themselves ignorant and powerless. In the end they would die, with their thirst unquenched. Why then should his young friends not follow his example, and begin to meditate upon Vishnu right away?
He was proposing nothing distasteful; Lord Vishnu was the giver of happiness and of prosperity. He removed the sins of those who thought upon him night and day. If they fixed their hearts on him, they would be able to " laugh at every care." Prahlada also dwelt upon the duty of hating nobody. All living things were;" objects of compassion." If any one happened to be more fortunate than ourselves, we ought not to envy him his happiness, rather we should be pleased to see him so well off, and soon we should discover that the " suppression of malignant feelings is itself a reward." Even if we believed that the deity is distinct from his creatures as some do, bur enemy was an object of pity and not of hate. But the conclusion of the whole matter was that Vishnu did not differ from us, but was the same as ourselves." He is identical with all things," and the whole world is his manifestation. This was Prahlada's concluding appeal.
He begged the hearers to lay aside-angry passion, their race, and try hard to obtain the perfect, pure eternal happiness which neither god nor devil, neither beast, neither fever nor ophthalmic, neither dysentery nor spleen, neither hatred nor malice nor desire, will be able to destroy. If they fixed their hearts on Lord Vishnu they would achieve a "perfect calm." Wealth, pleas virtue were things of little moment. But the fruit I would gather from the tree of wisdom was beyond price. When the demon king heard of these efforts on the part of his son to corrupt the minds of the rising general he ordered his cooks to mix deadly poison in Prahlada's food. But the poison did not cause him the slightest convenience. Hiranyakashipu therefore called upon Brahmins to implement their promise, and destroy recalcitrant offspring by the employment of those initiations, which, they said, could not possibly fail.
Though they approached him, chanting verses from Sama-Veda, and called into existence a terrifying- female form who smote him on the breast with a fiery trident they were a unsuccessful as the cooks had been. Indeed even more so, for the trident broke into a hundred pieces and the magic that the priests had employed turned against themselves and consumed them. Prahlada was greatly distressed at seeing the destruction of priests. As he said himself, he cherished enmity against no one, and he had nothing but the kindest feelings the fire that had sought to bum, the elephants that tried to crush, and the cooks who had failed to poison \ He therefore addressed a prayer to Vishnu, asking him to restore his persecutors to life. Lord Vishnu heard his prayer and the Brahmins at once rose to their feet, very grateful to Prahlada for his generous treatment. When they bowed before him and called down all sorts of bless they hastened to the king and told him what had happened.
Hiranykashipu now sent for his son once more, and told him to explain how he had become possessed of 8ttoh wonderful power. Was it the result of magic, or had he been endowed with it from birth? This naturally led to & fresh discourse from Prahlada on the greatness of Vishnu who had taken possession of his heart. But he emphasized) more than he had done on previous occasions, the fact that he cherished no feelings of hatred towards any of those who had sought to injure him. Indeed, he wished harm to no one, knowing as he did that those who caused harm to others, in thought, word or deed, were sowing the seeds of a future birth, whose harvest would be reaped in pain. No suffering that any one might inflict would be able to disturb him.
The priests had told him that he did not need to worship the gods, or to depend on the eternal, when his father was lord of the three worlds. , But it was only by glorifying Lord Vishnu that one could obtain anything, be it wealth or offspring, virtue or emancipation. When Prahlada had finished this further discourse, his father caused him to be thrown from the battlements of the palace. No-w the walls of the palace were many miles in height, and one. Would have thought that his body would have been dashed to pieces when it fell on the rocks below. But the Earth, the nurse of all creatures, received him gently on her lap, and he rose up quite unharmed. A great enchanter was next invited to try what he could do. This person tried his best. He employed an infinite variety of enchantments, some of which must have been very powerful, as Lord Vishnu found it necessary to send his famous discus to protect the boy; but every one of them, including a terrible cold wind, failed of its purpose, and the magician had to own defeat.
After these fruitless efforts there was lull -in the persecution, and Prahlada was once more permitted to return to his teacher's house, where he received daily instruction In the science of government. When Hiranyakashipu was informed that his son had acquired a thorough knowledge of the science, he sent for him and addressed to him a series of questions dealing with such matters as the treatment of friends and foes; the attitude a ruler should adopt towards his subjects, his counselors, and the other officials and employees of the state; as well as the methods to be adopted in waging war, in the building of forts, and the reduction of aboriginal tribes. To these questions, which seem to have been addressed to him all at once, Prahlada replied that though he had been fully instructed in all these matters, he was unable to approve of the views which his teacher held concerning them.
That honoured person, for instance, had said that conciliation; gifts, punishment and the sowing of dissension were the four contrivances by which a man achieved his purposes. But he hoped his father would not be angry when he said that he knew "neither friends nor foes." Lord Vishnu was everywhere, and in every one, and it was therefore impossible to speak of any one as being distinct or separate from oneself. And it was accordingly waste of time to study such unprofitable subjects as his teacher had prescribed. Such knowledge was ignorance. The only knowledge worth acquiring was that which led to emancipation. He had no desire for either wealth, or dominion, though he was convinced that those who cared for neither of these things would obtain both in a " life to come."
All around him he could see men toiling to be great. But it was destiny, not human effort, that was the cause of greatness, and there were kings, cowardly and ignorant, ruling over kingdoms to which the science of government was unknown.
Hiranyakashipu, who had listened in silence to this long speech, could contain himself no longer. He rose from his throne and kicked his son upon the breast. Boiling with anger, he called to several of his most trusted followers to bind his son and cast him into the sea. This they did, and in addition piled great rocks on the top of Prahlada, as he lay, chanting the praises of Lord Vishnu the bottom of the oce8n. If it is impossible to loll him, cried the angry father, we shall see to it that he shall lie there for thousands of years, imprisoned beneath a mass of mountains. For a time it seemed as if the earth would be submerged beneath the waves. The sea was so distressed that it rose to an alarming extent. But apparently that peril was obviated, and Prahlada spent the days of his long imprisonment dwelling unceasingly on the greatness of the god he adored. In this fresh hymn he said, in addition to much else, very similar to what has been recorded already, that Vishnu was both knowledge and ignorance, truth and falsehood, action and non-action, and he ended by declaring that he was 'so identified with Lord Vishnu that he was Vishnu himself. "Glory to him," he said, " who I, also, am!" "I am all things; all things are in me." " Brahma is my name."
The consequence was that the bonds with which he was bound could hold him no longer. They were snapped asunder, and despite the rocks and mountains, which had been piled on top of him, Prahlada rose to the surface of the sea. As he did so, the ocean was violently agitated, its inhabitants were filled with fear and the earth trembled. And, finally, when the youth had uttered another hymn, Lord Vishnu appeared before him "clad in yellow robes," and told him to ask a boon.
The only boon that Prahlada thought worth asking, was that in a thousand births his faith in the god might remain unshaken by any earthly possession or desire. When that prayer had been granted and he was told to ask a second boon, he begged that his father might be forgiven for the way in which he had tried to drive him from his devotion. Prahlada enumerated the various persecutions to which he had been exposed, but thanks to the divine favour none of them had done him any harm. This boon Vishnu also granted, and told his worshipper that he would grant him yet another boon. But Prahlada said he wanted nothing more) knowing, as he did, that his faith in Lord Vishnu had already secured for him the one thing he desired, and that was "freedom from existence."
When the god had departed, Prahlada directed his steps to his father's presence. Hiranyakashipn was apparently delighted to see his son, and said that he repented of his former cruelty. But in course of time the controversy broke out afresh. Prahlada refused to abandon the worship of Lord Vishnu, and the demon once more declared that his son must die. But it was the demon who died. No doubt he was trusting to Brahma's promise that neither god nor demon, neither beast nor man, would ever be able to destroy him. He had not, however, realised the infinite wisdom and resources of the mighty god he held in scorn. And so it proved at last.
One day as the demon was arguing with his son, as he had done so often before, as to the universality of Vishnu's presence, he rose from his throne and smote a pillar in his royal hall. " Lord Vishnu is everywhere, yon say," he cried mockingly. "If he is everywhere, why is he not in this pillar, and why don't I see him if he is ? "As he uttered these' 'blasphemous words, his question was answered in a way he did not expect. Lord Vishnu himself appeared from the midst of the column, but clothed in a marvelous form. In one part of his body he had The shape of a man, and in another the shape of a lion.
He had a thick and shaggy mane, eyes as red as file, a mouth as huge and deep as a cavern, a tongue as sharp as a two" edged sword, and nostrils that 1080 and fell with every breath. He champed his jaws, too, and contracted his eyebrows in a way that was awful. His head touched the sky, big body was covered with yellow hair, he had a hundred arms, each a host in itself, while his finger-nails were powerful weapons of offence.
The demons that stood around took refuge in flight. Their master alone showed no sign of fear. He realized, of course, that he was in the presence of Lord Vishnu. But he merely said: " Is this the great magician who thinks he will be able to slay met. His efforts will be all in vain." As he uttered this taunt, he rushed upon the Man-lion. He looked like an insect falling into a fire; the fiend was absorbed in the glory of the god. And yet when Lord Vishnu seized him and raised him in his arms, such was his agility that he slipped through the fingers of the god like a snake that escape from the talons of a vulture.
The celestials, who had crept out of their hiding-places to witness the combat, became alarmed, But there was no cause to fear. It is true that the demon thought he had achieved something, and grasping his mace rushed towards Vishu once more. He made his attack with amazing vigour. But the Man-lion seized him as a reptile seizes a rat, and holding him in a close embrace, carried him to the gate of the palace. And there, when he had played with him for a little, he tore his body into pieces with his claws. As he did so, the mighty god rolled his eyes in fury, licked his lips with his tongue. His mane was covered with the demon's blood. He looked like a lion that has killed an elephant. To complete the picture, we are told that he made for himself a garland of the demon's entrails, and hung it around his neck.