Today is about what happens when we cast aside others, when we cast aside help, when we think that we can do it all alone on ourselves and we don’t need anyone or anything and the ultimate challenge and difficulty of what happens when we start to believe that, when we start to think that the power of our own intellect is so strong that we are going to be able to control the universe, that was can control life.
It’s also a story about the struggle against good and evil, about freedom from tyranny or oppression, and it’s a story ultimately of the gods and the demons, the Devas and the Asuras, for the gods and the demons were always in a struggle. Typically, the gods were on top, they were the ones ruling the three realms, but every now and then, a particular demon might acquire a certain boon or a certain weapon that allowed him to ascend to the throne of the three realms and overcome the gods. This story is one such story.
Like all of our stories, it starts: Once upon a time. In the mystical land of ancient India, there was a demon by the name of Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyakashipu’s brother was once killed by the god Vishnu, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, the supporter god, the god that supports all of creation. In one of these struggles between the gods and the demons, Vishnu killed Hiranyakashipu’s brother. This sent the demon into a rage, and he committed himself and said “I will have my revenge on the gods! I will have my revenge on Vishnu!” So, he committed himself. He committed himself to practice, to austerities, to Tapas. All to the god Brahma.
The interesting thing about these, we could say, our higher gods, the boon-offering gods in particular of Brahma or even Shiva and Vishnu, but Brahma is the big kind of grandfatherly character who’s always bringing gifts, and usually the inappropriate ones.
It’s not about good or bad, or the gods are only giving boons to the good guys and the bad guys don’t get them. Anyone can get the boons, which is significant as well because a lot of people think, “Oh well, if I’m going to do yoga, it’s going to make me a better person.” I mean, sometimes doing yoga can just make you a bigger jerk. You can still get a lot of these amazing benefits of these practices but if you’re channeling them for yourself, to acquire more for yourself, likely you’re going to be contributing to the suffering of both yourself and the world, versus doing something larger or for something larger.
This of course is where we are with Hiranyakashipu. He does these amazing, intense practices to gain the boon or a boon from Brahma. Now, the demon thinks he’s quite clever because when Brahma arrives, he says to him, “Hey, I’ve seen the practices that you’ve done. I’m willing to grant you a boon. What is it that you’d like from me?” Thinking that he is so smart and clever, he instantly blurts out, “I want to be immortal!” Brahma’s like, “You can’t be immortal. No one can be immortal. Sorry, but that’s just the one thing that I can’t grant. Ask for something else.”
So, he thinks for a moment and again, thinking that he can outwit and outsmart, thinks that he’s super clever, he says, “Okay, then I want to make sure that I am not killed by man or beast, demon or god at day or at night, by stone, steel or wood, on the earth or in the sky.” With that, Brahma granted the boon to Hiranyakashipu and he used then this power, this boon that he had to now defeat the rest of the gods to ascend to the throne and proclaim himself king of the three realms, kind of all the gods and all the demons. That there is no more, that the only true god now is him. He is the center of the universe.
Well, it just so happens that a little time goes by and this demon, who is now the demon king has a son, a son by the name of Prahlada. This young boy was born instantly with an immediate connection and desire for devotion towards Vishnu, the preserver god. This is Hiranyakashipu’s mortal enemy. He is his sworn enemy that he will get revenge upon and here is his son all day and all night, just chanting like, “Hari Krishna Hari Krishna” signing words of praise to Vishnu. Nothing could infuriate him more than his own son worshiping his mortal enemy.
The first thing that he does, is he tries to teach it out of him, to condition it out of him. So, he sends his son to the most strict teachers he can find and he tells those teachers, he says, “Do not allow him to worship any god other than myself.” So, the teachers are attempting to teach him, yet all the time he’s still there thinking of Vishnu, changing of Vishnu. Not only can these teachers not get through to him, but the little boy Prahlada is now teaching the other boys at the school about Vishnu and about Krishna. Krishna is another incarnation of Vishnu. He’s sitting there and he’s telling them all these great stories of Vishnu.
When the teachers go back and they say to the demon king, “Hey, not only are we not getting through to him, but he’s starting to teach the other kids about this other god.” This infuriates the demon king to no end. He is livid at this point. He brings his son before him and he says, “You are not my son. No son of mine would even acknowledge this Vishnu character and here you are singing to him, chanting to him, praying to him all the time. You are not my son.” He orders his guards to take him out of the throne room and kill him.
They try all kinds of different things to kill him. They throw him off a cliff but he just lightly floats down to the ground unharmed. They throw him in front of stampeding elephants but he’s not trampled. He’s unharmed. They lock him in a room with the deadliest, most poisonous snakes imaginable, filled up, up to the knees deep with these venomous snakes and not one bites Prahlada.
The whole time, through all of these, he’s just sitting there smiling. He’s not struggling. He’s not fighting. He just has the words of Vishnu on his lips and he’s chanting and that’s it. He’s not worried or concerned about what might happen if he dies. If anything, he wants his last words to be the name of Lord Vishnu, in praise of Lord Vishnu.
So far, nothing’s working so the demon king feeds poison to Prahlada. And again, the boy drinks the poison, does not die. Finally, at his wit’s end, the demon king calls for his evil sister, Holika. Holika, evil, vile woman that she was. She was said to have a cape that gave her immortality from fire, invulnerability, immunity to fire. The demon king had an idea. He said, “I want you to bring Prahlada with you and sit on that funeral pyre over there. I will light it and he will be burned to ash but you will be fine because you have your cape of fire invulnerability. The flames won’t hurt you.”
Of course, his evil sister loves the plan. She’s like, “I thought you were getting kind of soft, letting word of this Vishnu character in your lands but now that you’re willing to kill your own son, I like that.” So, she does. She grabs Prahlada and she brings the young boy, who is as always joyous, smiling, chanting to Vishnu. Brings him to the funeral pyre and they sit on top and the demon king lights the fire. The flames get hotter and hotter, bigger and taller and the little boy is unharmed. The cloak, this cape of invulnerability to fire magically finds its way around him and off of the demon king’s sister, Holika. She is burnt to ash and the boy is saved.
Eventually, there’s nothing left to burn so the fire burns out. The king is of course, still enraged, goes back to his throne room and orders that the boy be brought to him. Prahlada is brought in front of his father, the demon king. The demon king doesn’t really know what to do at this point. He’s enraged, he just basically wants to be enraged and he’s battling with his son a little bit with words and he’s talking. He’s trying to put him down. He’s trying to put down this Vishnu character. He’s like, “How dare you worship this mortal enemy of ours. How could you do this?”
He starts to get kind of delirious in his argument and just being like, “I don’t understand. I’ve tried everything to kill you. I’ve tried every, which way and you don’t die.” The little boy is just like, “Well, because Vishnu is protecting me.” That just infuriates his father even more. Every time that the boy mentions the word or the name Vishnu, he just gets into a full rage. The demon king is like, “Oh, well where is this great Vishnu now that you speak of so much?” The little boy just very calmly says, “Well he’s everywhere, Father.” Again, this just infuriates the demon king even more. He’s like, “Oh, he’s everywhere is he? Is he in that pillar over there?” The boy again just calmly, “of course he is, Father.”
The demon king gets up in his rage and he grabs his mighty mace and he walks over to the pillar and he says, “I will show you that this pillar is made of nothing but stone and mortar and that is all.” He takes his giant mace and he smashes into the pillar. He says, “See? Nothing. Nothing inside but stone and mortar.” In that one moment that it took for him to say that, like a flash of light, a creature leapt out of the crack in the pillar. This creature was half man, half lion. It had the body and the arms of a man and the claws and the head of a lion.
Now, despite this creature obviously being there to fight the demon king, the demon king wasn’t worried. He had his boons. He defeated the gods. He was the king of all the gods and the demons so he engaged this creature in battle and the two fought. The king was getting so caught up in his fight and his rage and his anger that he stopped paying attention to some of the details of the moment. He stopped really paying attention to what was happening.
All of a sudden, off in the distance from the palace, you could see the sun just barely setting below the horizon. In that moment, what seemed like an even battle back and forth now this part lion, part man creature who was Narasimha, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, becomes even more ferocious, overpowers the demon king, grabs the demon king and places him on his lap. As he does, he proceeds to disembowel the king with his claws, his teeth. He rips him apart. That is the death of the demon king Hiranyakashipu.
At this point, Narasimha, Prahlada, they have a chat. Basically talks about how great of a devotee this little boy is and how God will always be there to keep him safe and kind of walks off into the sunset. Narasimha walks off into the sunset and the little boy is like, “Well aren’t you coming back? Where are you going?” He’s like, “You know, I’ll be back. Don’t worry. Evil will always rise again and I will always be needed and come back.”
Now, an interesting side note. The burning of Holika, the evil sister, is actually the story that is most commonly associated with the Indian festival of colors called Holi. Many of you maybe have seen pictures of or participated in this festival where the night before, they light this huge bonfire and the next morning they celebrate by showering one another with colors. This is the bonfire where Holika is burned to death and it signifies the triumph of good over evil when Narasimha comes to ultimately defeat the evil.
This is that next day, that celebration of good over evil. The most typical way that people interpret this story is basically looking at this fight against good and evil and how no matter how much life has got you down, no matter how difficult life seems to be, if you’re willing to pray to God that God will come and rescue you, that God will save the day. It becomes a story of devotion. Give yourself to God and you will be safe from all of the difficulties of life. This is very much in line with many of the Judeo-Christian beliefs of surrendering to God, that God is something other than yourself but it is capable of grace. It is capable of bestowing blessings upon you. Something separate from you, helping you. This is the most common interpretation of the story.
But I like to look at these stories of course more mythically and look at both perhaps how they are viewed in other lights or even just simply diving into the psychology of much of the symbolism behind the story. So what is the demon king? The demon king is pride, is ego, is thinking that I don’t need anyone or anything in this world, that I can do it all on my own. It’s working off the assumption that I am a separate being from everything else and I can control everything about my destiny. I’m in the driver’s seat, no one else.
Now, these stories don’t mean to bash the powers of the mind, the powers of intellect or cleverness. But when we see the mind trying to think it’s so clever, it’s the ancient Greek story of flying up on the wax wings to the sun and the melting. It’s the curse of stealing fire from the gods and then being cursed afterwards. It’s a story talking about the dangers of thinking that you, your ego, are what is actually in control of this whole thing, where you get too smart, too clever for your own good. The same with [inaudible 00:20:43], right? He thinks that he can just overpower, he can overcome any obstacle no matter what, with his might or with his wits.
But no matter how successful you are, you’re king of the world, there’s going to be this little voice inside of you that says, “Something is missing from your life.” You are missing a fundamental part of existence that no matter how hard you try to stamp it out, it’s going to stay there. You can try to school it out. Get a bunch of schooling and intellectual knowledge and maybe that will be enough to get rid of this little voice inside of you. This voice that says, “Give yourself to something larger. Give yourself to something larger than your ego and self, your limited sense of self.”
Of course, education doesn’t work. Then, he literally tries to completely stamp it out. He throws it off a cliff. What does that say? When you’re moving through life doing things for something larger than your own self preservation needs, you walk lightly on the earth. You’re not going to get crushed, you’re not going to crash. When most people fall, they would fall and they would break. You don’t fall and break, you just glide because you’re abiding in that understanding that this little ego is not what it’s all about. It’s about something larger.
The elephants can’t trample Prahlada. They can’t trample this little voice. They can’t trample you if you are connected to something larger. The weight of the world that would crush anyone else won’t crush you because you’re connected to that something larger.
Throw him into the deadly snakes. The snakes don’t even attack him. What are the snakes in this sense? Well the snakes, they represent our power. In particular, they’re often associated with our subconscious urges. So, that hidden power beneath our conscious mind. The only way that part of that process of many aspects of yoga or traditions or types of yoga is taking that subconscious energy and rising it up to the conscious level to be utilized there instead of working deep inside yourself, behind the veil of consciousness in which case, it interacts and causes all kinds of issues. But, no. Not even bothered by the subconscious desires because this boy, because this part of yourself, because you are dwelling in something larger than yourself.
Even drinks the poison, something that would kill someone else. What is poison to one person or to a person becomes your nectar. You’re able to assimilate life. All the difficult things, all the things that normally the mind would say, “That is poison. That is bad. I don’t want that. That’s not a spiritual life. That’s not nice. That’s not this. That’s not … ” You’re able to assimilate those experiences. We’re not talking about bypassing them and ignoring them but it’s talking about an assimilation, an acceptance of your experiences of life as part of that experience because you’re not attached to the limited ego.
The evil sister, Holika. She represents just that vile hate. Hate always thinks, I’m not going to get burned by this. When any of us are in a rage or on fire, we’re not worried about getting burned, ourselves. We think we have a cloak of invulnerability to fire. But in truth, that fire is going to consume us. That fire does consume Holika but it doesn’t consume Prahlada. Prahlada again, that connection to something larger than the ego because the ego can be manipulated by that heat but it’s going to get burnt to ashes.
Ultimately, when Narasimha comes. He’s this example of fierce grace, this really ferocious element of the world coming in to rescue on the one hand, but when you recognize this too as an agent of connection to that larger thing, of ultimately working to remove this cleverness. Think of even Kali in these moments of her ferocity.
Here we had the demon king. He thought he had his bases covered. No man or beast. Well, Narasimha is not a man or a beast. He’s some sort of combination of two. He’s half man, half lion. Well he thought, okay I can’t be killed by a demon or a god. Well, Narasimha is not a demon or a god. It is something else. It’s an incarnation of this energy. I cannot be killed at day or night. Well, Narasimha waited until dusk, waited for that moment between day and night. Cannot be killed by stone, steel or wood, well it was the claws and teeth of Narasimha that killed the demon king. Hey, you think can’t be killed on the earth, can’t be killed in the sky. Well, what is the ultimate take this? Narasimha puts him on his lap like he’s going to spank him and instead disembowels him.
So, when you thought you were just so clever, death comes to us all. It’s going to come so there’s no outsmarting it, there’s no outwitting it. Get to an understanding of a life that isn’t governed by fulfilling your own egotistical self desires and needs. Live for something larger. You could take is as hey, this is a story talking about worshiping this Vishnu character perhaps but when you recognize that no matter how you choose to relate to the Divine, the story can still apply. Can you stay so connected to a presence that is larger than your ego? Something, you can call it the Highest Self. There’s all different names for it.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Jain or Hindu, you can connect to something in an experience of something larger than your ego. That’s what the practices of yoga and meditation all are guiding us to in some way or another, that if you haven’t taken the time in your life to have an experience that is larger than the limits of your mind, then you’re missing out on a critical aspect of being. This isn’t an experience that you can put into words afterwards. It’s not an experience that you can really limit back in the container of the human mental experience but you know that you’ve had it. You know that you have that experience so it leads us to something. It leads us hopefully, to a deeper depth of understanding, a deeper depth of connection to that something larger and loosening the shackles that the ego places upon us when we all of a sudden become its servant. What is meant to be a tool for us to utilize, to interact with reality, we often become a slave to instead.
Here, one of the methods, and I mean, Prahlada is considered to be a great bhakti devotee, right? It’s all about this love and this surrender and opening up to something larger. That still holds no matter how you choose to relate personally to the Divine. Can you keep giving to something larger so every act, everything you do is not just for yourself? It’s to say nothing comes back to you. It’s not saying glorify poverty. It’s just saying hey, do things for something larger than yourself. Stay connected to that thing and you will go through life much more unscathed. The things that would normally just crack everyone else and trample everyone else don’t harm you because it’s not for you or about you. It’s about something larger. You don’t need to have a religion for that. Great teachers, great leaders have been saying that as long as men and women have been saying anything.
I hope that this story provides at least some more visual images for you to bring along with that understanding that we have to be living for something larger in life. Just living for ourselves is not ultimately fulfilling. It’s not going to lead to happiness, it’s just going to lead to further suffering so find how you can serve. It doesn’t need to be the whole world. You don’t need to be the next Mother Teresa. Just serve your family, serve those around you, serve those that you interact with. Learn and practice to put things in front of those own needs and watch how that changes your relationship and perspective on things, how you see the world.
Listen to the story here: