Hiranyakha’s brother, Hiranyakashipu learns of his brother’s death at the hands of Vishnu in the form of a boar. It fills him with rage and he vows to take revenge. He thinks that the boon of Brahmadev, the creator would help him achieve this. He goes to the Himalayas and engages in severe penance to appease Brahma.
Meanwhile, the devas connive to abduct his pregnant wife Kayadhu. Here, Seer Narada comes to her rescue and protects her. While in the womb, the child, who is later known as Prahlad, is spiritually influenced by Naradji. Prahlad grows up to be a great devotee of Lord Vishnu to the consternation of his father.
Pleased by the severe penance, Lord Brahma appears and asks Hiranyakashipu to put forth his wishes. Hiranaykashipu wants nothing less than immortality, to which, Brahmadev expresses his inability. Alternately, Hiranyakashipu asks to be granted a highly improbable conditional death. He says, “Oh Lord! Grant that let me not be killed by any God, man, demon or beast. Let me not be killed at day nor at night. Let me not be killed on land, in water or in the sky”.
“So be it”, says Lord Brahma and goes back to his abode. When Indra and other gods come to register their protests, Brahmadev assures them that all will be well when Lord Vishnu takes up his next avatar.
Empowered by the boon of Lord Brahma, the arrogance of Hiranyakashipu knows no bounds. He is enraged as he sees that his own son has become the ardent devotee of his sworn enemy. First he tries to win back his son through reasoned friendly counseling. But the hardcore devotee of Lord Vishnu would not budge. Hiranyakashipu runs out of patience and resorts to desperate measures, to the extent of intending to do away with his own son. All his attempts to kill his son is foiled by the timely intervention of Lord Vishnu, who is well known for never failing to protect his devotees.
One such attempt to kill Prahlad involves Hiranyakashipu’s sister Holika. She has an invisible cloak and when she wears it she can pass through fire unharmed. Hiranyakashipu orders her to carry Prahlad in her lap and enter fire so that Prahlad is burnt to ashes while nothing happens to her. However, it so happens that by the grace of the Vayudev – the wind god- the cloak flies out of her body and enwraps Prahlad. Holika is burnt to ashes. This event is celebrated as Hollika Dahan every year in Feb/March.
Tired of hearing the omnipresence of Lord Vishnu, one day Hiranyakashipu asks Prahlad whether Lord Vishnu is in the pillar nearby. Prahlad says, “Yes”. Enraged, Hiranyakashipu hits the pillar with his mace. To his surprise a strange creature emerges from the pillar. It has the face of a lion and the body of a human being. After engaging with Hiranyakashipu in a duel, at the time of dusk this creature who is actually Lord Vishnu in Narasimha avatar lifts Hiranyakashipu on to his thighs and using its nails tears apart his belly to kill him. Thus, no condition of Bramha’s boon is violated while killing Hiranyakashipu. The story further goes on to describe the untold rage of Narasimhan which could not be pacified easily even though all the devas applied various means. Finally, Prahlad is brought in and with his humble prayers the Narasimha avatar of Lord Vishnu is pacified.
Pleased with Prahalad’s devotion, Lord Vishnu offers him a boon. Unlike his father, Prahlad does not ask for power, riches or glory. He is content being a devotee of Lord Vishnu, and asks for his steadfast devotion to continue. Even though his father had been so cruel towards him, he prays that he be forgiven.
The remote villages and small towns, where I spent most of my childhood days, provided healthy doses of entertainment in the form of dramas, puppetry and other folk performances conducted in open theatres. Most of the performances would be based on stories from various epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavat Purana etc. At such places, by the time a boy/girl was into his/ her teens, whether he was educated or illiterate, he/she knew all the major stories from the epics, along with their moral and ethical implications. One such popular performance was Prahlad Natak, a musical dance drama with resemblance to Kerala’s Kathakali dance format. The drama would start in the morning and continue till late night or the morning next day. Before the battle finale, the actors playing Narasimhan and Hiranyakashipu would be bound in iron chains with two groups of strong men in control of each actor. The elders would explain that if it is not done, the actors may kill each other. Towards the end, the actors identify themselves with the characters so much they forget that they are acting out the roles. As I remember, after the killing episode of Hiranyakashipu, the actor playing Narasimha would reach a trance like state. The actors playing the roles of Hiranyakashipu and Narasimha, have to be not only highly skilled in acting, but also disciplined enough to follow prescribed rituals strictly a few days before the enactment of the play till its end. Unfortunately, many of such traditional performances are on the verge of extinction due to lack of artists, audience and patronage.