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The Story of Demon King Hiranyakashipu

I love reading mythology from various cultures. So far, I’ve read Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indian selections, each with entertaining, confounding, philosophical, wise, utterly absurd, and beautifully articulated stories. In this post, I’ll cover an entertaining one that might be unfamiliar to western audiences.

This time, we’ll go to Indian mythology, about a demon king called Hiranyakashipu (Hiranya-Kashipu). The name, originated from Sanskrit, has a few interpretations, among which is: Hiranya - gold Kashipu - cushion; that he is the king on a golden throne. There are many backstories in this story, but we’ll skip those (or summarize). For reference, the Hindu pantheon has three principal gods. Brahma - the creator. Vishnu - the protector. And Shiva - the destroyer. Also, a demon king (an Asura) is very different to the western concept of demons. Asuras could be kings, and they could be good as well.

Let’s begin.

Long ago, there was a demon king named Hiranyakashipu. He was greatly aggrieved that god had killed his brother (specifically, by an avatar of Vishnu). Vowing revenge, the king embarked on a great penance. The intensity of his worship created such heat in the heavens that the divine beings that dwelled above begged Brahma to heed the king’s call. Moved by the king’s penance and the implorations of his devotees, Brahma appeared before Hiranyakashipu.

“What doth thou seek, O’ Hiranyakashipu?” Brahma asked.

The appearance of the creator overjoyed the king. He prostrated before the God and asked thus:

“I beseech thee, O Lord Brahma, to bring me justice. My brother hath been slain by treachery most foul, and grief doth fill my soul. I seek from thee the gift of immortality, that none may fell me as they did my kin. I implore thee, grant me the eternal life, O Lord.”

Brahma looked at Hiranyakashipu with a heavy heart. “Thy request doth touch me, my child,” he said. “But immortality is not within my power to grant. Know that no god can bestow such a gift upon mortals. But fear not, thou may ask any other boon and it shall be granted unto thee.”

Hiranyakashipu, being of great intellect, pondered on the words of Brahma, and then spoke. “I shall then humbly withdraw my desire for immortality, O Lord,” he said. “But I implore thee to grant me wishes that meet certain conditions which I shall lay before thee.”

Brahma nodded in agreement. “Speak, my child,” he said. “And thy wish shall be granted.”

Hiranyakashipu folded his hands in reverence and spoke thus. “Grant me a wish, O Lord, that no being created by thee, men, animals, nor devas (divine beings), shall have the power to slay me.”

Tathasthu” Brahma said. Let it be so!

“Make it so, O Lord, that I shall be slain neither in darkness nor in daylight,” Hiranyakashipu implored.

“Tathasthu,” Brahma said.

“Make it so, O Lord, that I shall be slain neither on earth nor in the heavens,” the king continued.

“Tathasthu,” Brahma said.

“Make it so, O Lord, that I shall be slain by no weapon forged by man or god, and by that thing that is living or non-living,” Hiranyakashipu asked.

“Tathasthu,” Brahma said.

“Make it so, O Lord, that I shall be slain neither inside my home nor outside,” the king said as a last request.

“Tathasthu,” Brahma said.

Hiranyakashipu lay prostrate and thanked Brahma for the boons. “Thou bringest me great succor, O Lord,” he said. “And I am forever devoted to thee.”

“May thee take comfort then, my child,” Brahma said and vanished.

Hiranyakashipu was greatly pleased. But taken by his quest for supremacy and revenge, he then began a reign of terror. The king became a tyrant who shook all the beings on earth, and then he reached out to the heavens, driving fear and despair among the devas, for he saw them as accomplices to Vishnu’s hand in killing his brother. Their weapons held no power, their being no threat, and could slay him neither in his house nor outside, when his feet were on the earth or when he flew to the heavens. Their laments went unheeded, for, after all, a god had granted him the powers.

While this was going on, a divine sage took Hiranyakashipu’s wife and gave her sanctuary, where she gave birth to a child who grew in the womb, listening to his mother’s prayers and chants for lord Vishnu—her husband’s sworn enemy. And thus, after he was born and grew to be of his own mind, Hiranyakashipu’s son worshipped Vishnu. The king was enraged! How could his own child worship the god who killed his brother? How!

And thus, Hiranyakashipu sought to kill his son, ignoring the grief and fear of his wife and the boy’s mother. But no matter what he did, the boy would not die, for the powers of Vishnu, the protector among gods, saved him. Meanwhile, the devas begged Vishnu to intervene and save the world.

Driven to unbounded fury one day that his son would not acknowledge him as the lord of the Universe, Hiranyakashipu demanded of his son:

“Thou darest to speak of thy father as not being a lord of the universe, but seeks to worship the dastardly god that killed thy uncle? Thou wretched son! Tell me, is thy lord present here in our midst?” the king demanded.

“Aye, father,” the boy said with fear in his voice. “He is present everywhere.”

“Is he in the air?” the king asked, gesturing to the sky.

“Aye, father,” the boy replied.

“Is he in these palace walls?” the king asked, pointing to the surrounding walls.

“Aye, father. He is present everywhere,” the boy said, his fear growing.

“Is he there?” Hiranyakashipu shouted, gesturing wildly to a tall, ornate pillar.

“Aye, father. He is present there as well,” the boy said, his voice barely a whisper.

Hiranyakashipu, consumed by rage and the desire for revenge, spoke thus:

“Then I shalt seek him there and destroy him!”

He raised his mace and swung at the pillar, splitting it open.

The earth shook. With a thunderous sound, emerged an enormous and frightful being with the torso of a man and the head of a lion. The boy fell to his knees, praying, for in his heart he knew what the being was. Narasimha. (Nara - Man, Simha - Lion), an avatar of the lord Vishnu!

depiction of Narasimha

It bore down on a shocked Hiranyakashipu and lifted him with its powerful arms. He struggled mightily, but the being carried him to the edge of the door of the palace, to a bench at the threshold of the courtyard. There, it placed him on its thighs.

It looked down at the terrified king. With its yellowed eyes and bared teeth, it asked him:

“Hiranyakashipu! Thou hath sought and been granted boons by Brahma, but tell me now, am I a man or animal?”

Hiranyakashipu looked up at the being. “No,” he said feebly, having given up the struggle.

“Tell me, is it daylight or is it dark?”

Hiranyakashipu looked out. The orange glow of the sun was visible, but there was so sun in the sky. The stars were not yet out, for it was twilight. “No,” he said.

“And look around thee,” Narasimha said.

Hiranyakashipu considered his situation.

“And behold, Hiranyakashipu,” Narasimha said. “Art thou inside thy house or outside?”

“Neither,” the king replied, realizing the trap that had been laid for him, for he was now at the threshold of the courtyard.

“And tell me, Hiranyakashipu,” Narasimha continued. “Art thou on earth or in the heavens?”

Hiranyakashipu knew that his body lay upon Narasimha’s thighs, and his feet touched no land, and nor was he in the skies. “Neither,” he said, his voice barely audible.

Narasimha raised his arms, revealing his sharp claws to Hiranyakashipu. “Are these claws forged by man?”

“Nay,” Hiranyakashipu said, as the full realization of the lord’s plan dawned upon him.

“Art these claws living or non-living?”

“Neither,” said Hiranyakashipu, his voice barely heard.

“Then tell me, King Hiranyakashipu, dost thou accept I may slay thee?”

Hiranyakashipu dropped his mace in defeat. Narasimha placed his claws upon the tyrant’s belly and slew him. And thus ended the reign of terror of King Hiranyakashipu. His son took the throne, and he ruled justly, bringing happiness and prosperity back to the kingdom.

The lesson conveyed by the story (and like all mythological tales from around the world, it is best not to venture into logic) is the quest for power and revenge, fall of hubris, and the protection of god offered to his devotees.

The original literature has many versions, with various other boons offered to the demon-king, and there are many backstories behind the characters and situations. I have a few other topics that will take us to Mesopotamia and Egypt, and then we’ll return to another entertaining story from Indian mythology.

The ~1000-year-old sculpture, from the temple complex at Halebidu in Southern India, showing Hiranyakashipu on Narasimha’s lap.

Source: Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Ramanathan I.

Ancient artwork of Narasimha and Vishnu

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