- Legends of the Narsimhavtar
- Iconography of Narsimhavtar
The fourth incarnation of Vishnu is Narsimh – the half man, half lion form. He took this form to free the world from the clutches of the demon king Hiranyakashipu.
सिंहस्य कृत्वा वदनं मुरारि: सदा करालं च सुरक्तनेत्रम् ।
अर्धं वपुर्वै मनुजस्य कृत्वा ययौ सभां दैत्यपते: पुरस्तात ॥
- Simhasy krutva vadanm murarihi sada karalam suraktnetram|
Ardham vpurvai manujasy krutva yayoi sabham daityapatehe purastat ||
- Agni Puran
“Vishnu took the horrifying face of lion. His eyes were blood-red. Half of his body was human. In such a form, he went to the court of demon-king.”
Legends of Narsimhavtar
In Mahabharat, Narsimh is considered to be an incarnation of Vishnu. It mentions that Vishnu assumed many forms to protect the world. Narsimh is one of them.
Harivamsha gives a detailed account of Narsimhavatar. Hiranyakashipu, the demon king performed rigorous penance for ten thousand years and acquired a boon from Bramha which assured him protection not only from gods and demons, but also from gandharvas and yakshas, human beings and animals, evil spirits and beasts. He could not be harmed in heaven or nether world or on earth. He could neither be killed inside the house nor outside, neither by weapon (Shastra) nor by missile (Astra), neither by day nor by night and neither in dryness nor in moisture.
This all-powerful demon became a terror for the world. All the gods approached Vishnu to rescue the world from him. Thus Vishnu assumed the form of half man-half lion and appeared in the court of the demon king. He defeated all the demons and when Hiranyakashipu rushed towards him, Narsimh tore him out with his sharp claws. Prahlad, son of Hiranyakashipu; who was a devotee of Vishnu, recited a prayer for the almighty lord and calmed him down.
Bhagvat Puran elaborates this story in a slightly different manner. It tells us that Hiranyakashipu had acquired sovereignty over the three worlds. He overreached himself because of the immunity blessed by Bramha. He banned worship of all gods and substituted worship of himself. His son Prahlad was an ardent devotee of Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu had become vengeful of Vishnu as he had killed his brother Hiranyaksh in the form of Varah. He warned his son several times to stop adoring Vishnu but there was no effect. He tried threats and tortures but Prahlad did not stop worshipping Vishnu. This enraged the father and he thought of killing his son.
He tried various means to kill Prahlad; the boy was thrown off a cliff, left in a cage full of poisonous snakes, wild elephants were sent to trample him, he was drowned in water, hungry lions were set on him and they tried to burn him alive but every time the child came out unscathed. He did not stop reciting the name of Vishnu. He kept on claiming that his god was omnipotent and omnipresent.
Finally, one evening, Hiranyakashipu making fun of Prahlad’s fancy for Vishnu, asked him if ‘his god’ was present everywhere, Prahlad answered, “Yes, he is everywhere.” Pointing a pillar at the doorway of the court, the father asked him, why if Vishnu was omnipresent, he did not see him in this pillar. Prahlad declared that he was definitely there. Thereupon, Hiranyakashipu kicked the pillar angrily and at once, Vishnu stepped out of the pillar in the form of Narsimh, a creature who was half man and half lion. He caught the demon, took him on his lap and with his sharp claws, tore him to pieces.
By assuming Narsimhavatar, Vishnu fulfilled all the conditions to kill Hiranyakashipu. The Narsimh was neither a man nor a beast; this incident took place in the evening which is neither day nor night. The pillar was neither in the house nor outside. Narsimh took the demon on his lap and tore him with his sharp claws. He did not use any weapon or missile.
The images of Vishnu as Narsimh are of various kinds. They are:
These images are generally shown seated in padmasan. The yog-patta or meditation belt is shown round the legs and covers the back.
Sometimes the image is shown on Simhasan (throne) with right leg hanging down and the left leg folded and resting upon the seat. It has four arms; out of them, back right and left hands carry chakra and shankh respectively. The front right hand has to be in Abhaymudra and the front left hand is resting down. The image is adorned with ornaments and karand-mukut.
On his right, the image of Lakshmi is shown seated on the same seat with lotus in the left hand. Her right hand is resting upon the seat. The image of Bhumidevi should be shown on the left of Narsimh carrying Nilotpalla flower and the left hand should be resting on the seat.
The single image of Narsimh is called ‘Keval-Narsimh’. It has two or four arms. In the latter situation, he holds chakra in upper right hand and shankh in upper left hand. Other two hands are stretched forward and kept on the knees.
Keval Narsimh is often identified as Yog-Narsimh where it is shown seated in meditation pose with a yog-patta around his legs.
This type of images shows that the Narsimh is coming out of a pillar. Sometimes, this image is also shown seated with four arms. He holds shankh and chakra in the two back hands and front right hand is in abhaya mudra or varad mudra whereas left hand should be kept on the thigh.
There should be thick mane on the neck and sharp curved teeth should be visible in mouth.
In this aspect, the god is shown seated either upon the shoulders of Garuda or upon the folds of Sheshnag. Over his head, there should be five-hooded Shesh umbrella.
Most of the Narsimh images from Gupta period show the absence of Hiranyakashipu. But it is a remarkable that we find numerous images of this period which are also varied from an iconographical point of view.
Some texts describe Narsimh with Lakshmi. In such images, Narsimh embraces Lakshmi, who is holding a lotus in her hand. Narsimh himself wears a garland of entrails and a yajnopavit made by serpent. He has five faces and ten hands holding rosary, mace, lotus, conch, bow, pestle, discus, sword and arrow respectively.
Narsimha Temple, Ahobilam
Ahobilam is situated in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. It is about 400 kms northwest of Chennai.
It is believed that Ahobilam is the place where Vishnu, being Narsimha killed Hiranyakashipu and saved Prahlad. It is said that when gods saw the Narsimha incarnation, they exclaimed “Ahobala” (what a strength!) and “Ahobila” (what a great cave). Hence this place is named as Ahobala or Ahobila.
There are two temple houses; lower Ahobilam and upper Ahobilam. The upper Ahobilam consists of nine shrines of Narsimha around Nallamala forest range. These nine Narsimhas are as follows;
- Bhargav Narsimha
- Yoganand Narsimha
- Chatravata Narsimha
- Ahobila Narsimha
- Krodhakar (Varah) Narsimha
- Karanja Narsimha
- Malola Narsimha
- Jwala Narsimha
- Pavana Narsimha
These nine forms have some beliefs woven in the form of beautiful stories.
In addition, there is a temple of Prahlad called ‘PrahladvaradVardhan’. The other objects of this place are ‘UgraStambham’ and ‘PralhadMettu’. ‘UgraStambham’ is a cleft of the mountain which divides it into two parts. It is believed that Narsimha appeared in this cleft. ‘PrahladMettu’ is a small shrine dedicated to Prahlad, situated in a cave. There are many holy water ponds known as ‘Teerthas’ around. Out of them, ‘Raktakundam’ is most important. It is believed that after killing Hiranyakashipu, Narsimha washed his hands in this pond. Thus the water became red which still appears to be reddish.
It is also believed that goddess Lakshmi took birth in the local tribe as ‘Chenchu Lakshmi’ and married Narsimha after he killed Hiranyakashipu. Every year, in the month of Falgun, ‘Brahmhostava’ is held. It is said that this ceremony is performed by God Brahmha. Also, on the Swati Nakshatra day of every month, ‘Gramotsava’ (village festival) is held. This day is considered as very auspicious.
Inscriptions of Kalyani Chalukya king Vikramaditya VI indicate that he was the devotee of ‘MulaNarsimha’. The ‘UtsavMurti’ (idol of worship) is said to be installed by Kakatiya king Prataprudra.
Narsimha Temple, Thiruvallur
Sri Lakshmi Narsimha Temple at Narsingpuram, Thiruvallur is located about 55 km from Chennai. It is situated in the village of Narsingpuram which is said to be named after the temple. This temple flourished in the Chola period and was later patronized by the Vijaynagara rulers. The Nayak rulers donated many villages for the expenses and development of this temple.
Sri Lakshmi Narsimha Temple is a fine example of Vijayanagar style of architecture. Vishnu as Narsimha is seen here in a calm appearance (shantmurty). Lakshmi can be seen on the lap of Narsimha in ‘Alingan’ pose. Thus it is known as ‘Sri Kalyan Lakshmi Narsimh’. Garuda can be seen with 16 types of snakes around him.
Other noteworthy Narsimha temples in the country are at Chamba, Rangapuram, Peddamudiyam and Chandravati.
It seems that Narsimh was regarded as a favourite of all the incarnations of Vishnu. It must have had considerable influence in the religious life during and after the Gupta period in north India.
Taitteriya Aarnyak mentions about the Narsimh avatar and also there is a chant known ‘Nrusimh Gayatri’
वज्रनखाय विद्महे तीक्ष्णदंष्ट्राय धीमहि ।
तन्नो नारसिंह: प्रचोदयात् ॥
Vajranakhay vidmahe tikshndanshtray dhimahi|
Tanno naarsimhh prachodayat||
- Taitteriya Aarnyak 10.1.7
“May Narsimh, having sharp claws and fangs, whom we worship, inspire us.”
It is believed that Vishnu appeared as Narsimh on the evening of Vaishakh Shuddh Chaturdashi (Lunar fourteenth day of waxing phase of moon). Thus a puja (ritual) is performed on this auspicious occasion called ‘Narsimh Jayanti’.
On the day of NarsimhJayanti, a devotee should go to any river, lake or well and get bathed with earth, cowdung, amla (myrobalan) and sesame. He should keep a Upvas(fast) on this day. In the evening, a Kalash (pot of water) should be set up with an idol of Narsimh and Lakshmi. Then it should be worshipped with following chants;
Adyahmpravidhasyamivratamnirvighntam nay ||
“Oh great god, Narsimh, on the day of your appearance, I am keeping a fast without giving in to enjoyment and temptation. Oh Narsimh, you are greatly fierce. Please forgive my mistakes, have mercy on me and help me fulfill my Vrata”
There are some other Vratas like ‘NarsimhTrayodashi’ which is performed on any trayodashi(Lunar thirteenth day)which comes on Thursday and ‘NarsimhDvadashi’ which is performed on FalgunkrushnDvadashi(Lunar tenth day of waning phase of moon in the month of Falgun).
In Lalitpur district of Nepal, there is a tradition of celebrating holy procession of Narsimh incarnation. On SravanKrshna Panchami (In the month of Shravan, on the fifth day of waning phase of moon) this yatra begins. It is mainly celebrated by the Rajopadhyay Brahmins.
It is mentioned in Vishnudharmottarpuran that Narsimh, when worshipped, increases one’s knowledge of Supreme Being and Hiranyakashipu is a personification of evil and ignorance. It also shows that god is omnipotent and he is present everywhere. He can come to his devotee at any time and in any appearance.
For Bhakti cult, Narsimha is the mere representation of jnyana (knowledge) and bhakti (devotion).
- Joshi M. 1964. BharatiyaSanskrutiKosha, Vol. IV. Pune:BharatiyaSanskrutikosh Mandal.
Rao, T. A. G., 1998(Reprint), Elements of Hindu Iconography Vol I, Part I. New Delhi:MotilalBanarasidas