The Story of Holi – The Legend of Prahlad

by vpundir | March 15th, 2006

Last year, I introduced you to the concept of Holi. As is true of most religious festivals, there is a whole mythological background to Holi too. The most well-known aspect of Holi is the color play, and there is “evidence” of Lord Krishna1 (born around 3226 BC2) playing Holi with gopis (village belles). However, there is little or no indication of the origin of the ritual. There is, however, a mythological explanation for the origin of the festival itself and the ritual of the communal bonfire on the eve of the color play.

To begin at the beginning, the earth was submerged under water, stolen and hidden by an asura/daitya (demon) called Hiranyaksha, who had also stolen the vedas from Brahma3. Hiranyaksha was the most cruel & malicious king history had witnessed, and perpetrated unspeakable atrocities. To save the earth and the people, Vishnu4 decided to incarnate as varaha (wild boar) avatar. He killed Hiranyaksha, returned the vedas to Brahma and land to the people.

Now, Hiranyaksha had an elder brother Hiranyakashipu, who was understandably very upset, and vowed to avenge the death of his brother. He went to the Himalayas and performed the most strenuous tap (penance) for Brahma for years. When Brahma appeared before him5, Hiranyakashipu asked that he may be killed “neither by any weapon nor any creature made by Brahma, neither in the day nor in the night, neither on earth nor in the sky”. Brahma said, “Tathastu (So be it)6” and granted him the wish. Swooning with the pride of immortality, Hiranyakashipu went back, reclaimed his kingdom, and went on to become the most barbarous ruler of all.

In the meantime, while Hiranyakashipu was away the sura/dev (deity) king Indra7 had invaded and plundered his kingdom, massacred his cousins and even kidnapped queen Kayadhu who was pregnant at the time. Indra had intended to destroy Kayadhu’s womb so that she wouldn’t give birth to a ferocious asura. Devarshi Narad8 stopped him, assuring him that the unborn would grow up to become a great devotee of God. Thus convinced, Indra released Kayadhu, who went on to stay at Narad’s hermitage. While the baby was still unborn, Narad used to address the it and preach to Kayadhu everyday. Thus, the baby could never forget what it learnt, from Narad, while still in the womb. At the appropriate time, Kayadhu gave birth to Prahlad. Prahlad, the youngest among all sons of Hiranyakashipu, was also the most virtuous. Since childhood, he was a great devotee of Vishnu.

One day, as Prahlad sat in his lap, Hiranyakashipu asked him, “Son, what do you like the most?”, to which Prahlad replied, “Father, I want that everyone must surrender himself at the service of Lord Vishnu”. Hiranyakashipu thought that someone had misguided his son, so he laughed and sent Prahlad to be educated by Shand and Amark, the sons of Shukracharya, the guru of all aasuri (demonic) knowledge & arts. Shand and Amark started to teach him arthshastra (economics), dandneeti (law) and raajneeti (politics). Prahlad had no interest in these disciplines, but he never showed any disrespect for his teachers. When the teachers felt they had sufficiently educated and reformed their pupil, they took him back to the father.

Once again, taking Prahlad on his lap Hiranyakashipu lovingly asked,”Son, what do you like the most?” And yet again, Prahlad replied, “Listening to the virtues of God, recalling and reciting His name and plays, serving His feet, praying Him and having a sense of dedication for Him are the part of my devotions. By these devotions, focusing one’s mind on the Lord is the best thing in my opinion, that the education can be imparted in this way”.

Indignant, Hiranyakashipu threw him on the floor, and started to reprimand Shand and Amark. Prahlad got up and said,”Don’t be angry, father, its not their fault. Lured by lust, the whole world is moving towards hell. Such people cannot meditate to God. They do not know that their welfare is possible only in respecting the Supreme Being. Whoever touches the feet of God, gets freed from the cycle of birth and death.”

That his son worshipped Vishnu, who had killed his brother, infuriated Hiranyakashipu so much that he immediately ordered the execution of Prahlad. The asuras started to hack at Prahlad with their swords, axes and machetes. The weapons had no impact on Prahlad, who sat there meditating. His skin had become impregnable. This only enraged Hiranyakashipu further. He started to look out for even more formidable ways to kill his son. He got Prahlad trampled by mammoths, threw him in a snake pit with angry poisonous snakes, got him thrown off a high cliff, and made him drink poison, but all in vain. He even got Prahlad tethered to huge stone slabs and thrown into the sea. But Prahlad returned unhurt.

Then Hiranyakashipu turned to sister Holika, who had a mystical fireproof shawl. Donning that shawl, and taking Prahlad in her lap, Holika sat on a huge pyre which was then lit. As luck would have it, the fireproof shawl was blown off Holika and onto Prahlad. Holika was incinerated, but the boy escaped unharmed.

Since that day, the people started celebrating Holi, as Holika dahan (burning Holika) by lighting up communal bonfires on the day Holika tried to kill Prahlad.

Prahlad’s tale didn’t end with Holika, though. The asuras tried, futilely, their illusionary, magical and mystical powers to get rid of him. Shand and Amark even generated a mystical ogress Kritya to kill Prahlad, but she ended up killing them instead. The kind-hearted Prahlad prayed to the God and got his teachers revived.

Hiranyakashipu began to feel afraid and, in a last-ditch attempt, once again sent Prahlad to Shand and Amark’s school. There, the 5-year old Prahlad would assemble his fellow disciples around him and preach to them virtues and devotion. The asura boys started following his preachings. Horrified, the teachers sent Prahlad back to his father.

Now, Hiranyakashipu decided to kill Prahlad himself and at dusk tied him to a pillar of his court. Sword in hand, he asked condescendingly,”O fool, with whose powers you have been humiliating me? Now, I am going to kill you. Call your God to save you”.

Undaunted, Prahlad replied humbly,”Father, don’t be angry. Omnipresent Vishnu is the protector of us all. I am not dishonoring you. One’s own mind is his biggest enemy in the world. The God is all pervasive. He is in me, in you, in your sword and is also present in the pillar”.

Prahlad hadn’t even finished the sentence when the enraged king struck with his mace. The pillar shattered with a deafening crash. From the pillar emerged a creature no one had seen or heard of. The huge wereleo had the head and hands of a lion, and the body of a man. It was Vishnu’s Narasimha (wereleo) avatar. Narasimha grabbed hold of Hiranyakashipu, and dragged him to the threshold. On his thighs, Narasimha placed Hiranyakashipu and tore him apart with his sharp claws. Thus, it was neither a creature of nature nor a creation of man that killed Hiranyakashipu, it was neither on earth nor in sky that he was killed, it was neither day nor night when he was killed.

When the rage of Narasimha did not subside even after killing the asura king, Prahlad fearlessly went to Narasimha and lied down at his feet. Overcome by affection, Narasimha picked Prahlad up, embraced him and asked for forgiveness for having taken that long in coming and for all that Prahlad had to suffer in the meantime.

He told Prahlad that he would grant him a wish. Prahlad replied,”O omnipotent, kindly don’t put me on test by asking me to seek a boon. Those who seek rewards in exchange of their service are not servers but they are the traders. You are my true Lord. Even then, if you wish to grant me a wish, kindly bless me that never any desire may arise in my mind for anything”. He even asked for forgiveness for his father, that Hiranyakashipu may be freed from his sins. The lord granted that wish, and made Prahlad the king of asuras. Prahlad went on to be the most benevolent, virtuous and just king.

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1 Lord Krishna/Kršna was an avatar of Vishnu and is part of the story of the Mahabharata, the world’s largest epic, with 100,000 verses. Bhagwad Gita or The Gita which is widely, though incorrectly, believed by the west to be the Hindu Bible, is not a separate book, but a part of the Mahabharata.
2
The Mahabharata Chronology, Dr.K.N.S.Patnaik, The Hindu Net
3 The creator among the Hindu holy trinity of Gods.
4 The preserver among the Hindu holy trinity of Gods.
5 If you perform penance with a pure heart for long enough, the Gods are obligated to grant your wish, irrespective of who you are or what you might do with your gift.
6 Tathastu (So be it) is the typical way in which the Gods granted wishes.
7 Indra, the king of suras has been responsible for many villainous acts as per Hindu mythology. While suras/devs and asuras/daityas are typically classified as gods and demons for the simplicity of western understanding, a more balanced view would be look as them as two races almost constantly at each others’ throats. While the west would like to think in terms of black and white, good and evil, things weren’t as simple: there were some bad suras and good asuras.
8 Devarshi = Dev + Rrshi (the holy ascetic). Narad is an interesting mythological character and appears in subsidiary but important roles in many tales. He wanders about singing bhajans (devotional songs) & playing his lute, and doubles up as a messenger between warring factions. He is a mischievious character, and can even be seen encouraging some malicious asura kings in their devilish tasks so that their sins catch up with them, i.e. become so unbearable that God has to take action against them. He is also credited with the invention of the veena, the principal Indian stringed instrument.

One Response to “The Story of Holi – The Legend of Prahlad”

  1. Really gr8 and learning blog

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