In the Hindu religion, Narasimha (Sanskrit: meaning "man-lion") is the fourth avatar of Vishnu, the preserver god in the Hindu Trimurti (trinity), who appeared in ancient times to save the world from an arrogant demon figure. According to Hindu mythology, Narasimha's half-lion, half-man appearance allowed him to circumvent the boon received by the demon king Hiranyakashipu that he could not be killed by any human or animal. Since Narasimha was neither fully animal nor fully human, he was able to slay the demon and save the world.
Hinduism teaches that whenever humanity is threatened by extreme social disorder and wickedness, God will descend into the world as an avatar to restore righteousness, establish cosmic order, and redeem humanity from danger. The avatar doctrine presents a view of divinity that is compatible with evolutionary thinking since it suggests a gradual progression of avatars from amphipian through mammal to later human and godly forms. Most importantly, the concept of avatar presents the theological view of a deeply personal and loving God who cares about the fate of humanity rather than ignores it. Time and time again, the various avatars are willing to intervene on humanity's behalf to protect its overall cosmic wellbeing (loka-samgraha).
Narasimha in the Context of the Avatar Doctrine
The avatar doctrine is a seminal concept in certain forms of Hinduism, particularly Vaishnavism, the sect that worships Vishnu as the Supreme God. The word Avatar in Sanskrit literally means "descent" of the divine into the realm of material existence. Through the power of maya ("illusion" or "magic"), it is said that God can manipulate forms in the physical realm, and is therefore able to assume bodily forms and become immanent in the empirical world. Hinduism states that the Absolute can take on innumerable forms and, therefore, the number of avatars is theoretically limitless. However, in practice, the term Avatar is most ubiquitously related to Lord Vishnu, of whom Narasimha is an incarnation.
Hinduism recognizes ten major avatars, collectively known as the 'Dasavatara' ('dasa' in Sanskrit means ten). Scriptural lists of these ten divine manifestations frequently differ, however, the most commonly accepted has Narasimha preceded by Matsya, a fish; Kurma, a turtle; and Varaha, a boar; and followed by Vamana, a dwarf; Parasurama, Rama with an axe; Rama, a noble man; Krishna, the teacher of the Bhagavadgita; Buddha, a spiritually enlightened being, and Kalkin, the final avatar who has yet to arrive. These avatars usually take physical form for the purpose of protecting or restoring dharma, the cosmic principle of order, when it has devolved. Krishna explains this in the Bhagavadgita: "Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness O Arjuna, I send forth Myself." (Shloka 4.7) Vishnu's tenure on earth typically involves the performance of a particular series of events in order to instruct others concerning the path of bhakti (devotion) and ultimately leading them to moksha (liberation).
In Hindu mythology, Narasimha is the avatar who battled the demon Hiranyakashipu. Due to the devotion of Hiranyakashipu's parents to Brahma, they gave birth to a son named Hiranyakashipu, who was predicted would become very powerful. Having propitiated Lord Brahma himself, Hiranyakashipu received a boon from the creator god that made him invulnerable to three things: gods, humans and beasts. Brahma decreed that he could neither be slain in the day or night, nor inside or outside. With these divine promises in place, Hiranyakashipu began to consider himself god in the flesh and forbade worship of all the gods. His son Prahlada, however, was a faithful devotee of Vishnu and did not give up his worship of Vishnu despite the threats and tortures visited upon him. Enraged, Hiranyakashipu attempted to kill his son by a variety of means: drowning, tossing him off a cliff, caging him with poisonous snakes, feeding him to lions, having him trampled by elephants and burning him alive. However, the son esacped each of these ordeals unharmed. Discontent with his failures, Hiranyakashipu attempted to shatter the boy's love for Vishnu; the child, however, kept singing the god's praises no matter how hard Hiranyakashipu tried to break his spirits. One night at dusk, Hiranyakashipu finally asked his son as to the location of Vishnu, to which his son replied "everywhere." Angered, Hiranyakashipu struck the pillar in the entrance of his palace and asked if Vishnu was in there, too. The child answered in the affirmative and so Hiranyakashipu continued to kick the pillar. The pillar shook and then shattered, and from it emerged Narasimha, who took the demon king on his lap and then eviscerated him with his claws. Since Narasimha was 1) neither man nor beast in his nature, 2) present in the twilight, and 3) because the pillar in which he appeared was neither inside or outside the house, he fulfilled all the criteria enabling him to defeat Hiranyakashipu.
A Shaivic account of this story claims that after emancipating the world from the harmful rule of Hiranyakashipu, Narasimha grew conceited with his victory. In order to put him in check, Shiva took the form of Sharabha, a mythical creature which is half-bird and half-lion. Sharabha tore up as Narasimha, much Narasimhna had torn up Hiranyakashipu, then wore the man-lion's skin as a garment. The face of the Narasimha, meanwhile, was thereafter used as an ornamentation upon Shiva's chest.
While avatars preceding Narasimha were depicted as half-human, half-animal to symbolically assert their nature as both animal and avatars of Vishnu, Narasimha is pictured this way in order to display his actual physiognomy. The main emphasis of his depictions is often placed upon his power, braveness and independence. In some depictions he is ferocious, with three large bulging eyes, a gaping mouth with fangs bared, his mane heavy, his tail flayed upon the ground, and his sharp claws withdrawn. In other depictions he is more calm, seated or standing peacefully amongst his consorts and showing yogic signs. Often, his legs are crossed in the lotus position, held there by a meditation band (or yoga-patta), as if he is engaged in deep contemplation. These kind of depictions are classified as Yoga-Narasimha. Sometimes he is pictured with consorts, such as Lakshmi. In his more vicious forms he is shown carrying the slain Hiranyakashipu on his lap. His color is usually bright yellow. He is most commonly pictured with four arms, but can also have two, eight or as many as sixteen arms. He carries a variety of weapons and symbols associated with Vishnu such as the club (a symbol of knowledge), a wheel, a conch, a discus and an axe depending on the number of arms depicted. One free hand is often held in the abhaya mudra, a symbol of fearlessness. Behind his head there often rises a seven-headed serpent, representing the cosmic snake Shesha upon which he is said to sleep.
Narasimha represents the acknowledgement on the part of Hinduism that human beings and animals are closely related in the sphere of creation. Among all the creatures, humans are considered to be the best by Hindus, and among all the animals, the lion is held to be the highest. With their combined intelligence and ferocity, they are seen to be a very powerful entity in the phenomenal world. The intelligent way in which Narasimha overcame the boon of invincibility possessed by Hiranyakashipu, and the ferocity with which he killed the demon illustrate his ability to combine the intellect of a human being with the fierocity of animal instinct. At the threshold between the most superior beast and human being, Narasimha illustrates the symbiosis between human beings and animals upon the continuum of creation.
In addition, Narasimha has taken on a significant religious following in comparison to some of the other early avatars. Numerous pilgrimage sites and temples have been dedicated to him throughout India, particularly in the state of Andrah Pradesh, India, where there are seven pilgrimage sites to Narasimha still standing. Narasimha is also a key figure within the popular Holi festival (the festival of colors), during which aspects of his myth are reenacted. Partly due to Narasimha's often ferocious nature, worshippers are very meticulous when worshipping his images, fearing any display of carelessness will incur his wrath.
- Note: some Hindu sources replace the Buddha with Balarama.
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