The festival of Holi was celebrated with much gaiety and fervour a few days ago, all over India. I am also happy to inform you that tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of this blog of mine, and to celebrate both, I bring to you the Legend of Holika Dahan which is done on the eve of Holi.
This legend is associated with Prahalad, the youngest of the four sons of Hiranyakashipu. The story of Prahalad is present in the Srimad Bhagavatham (of which few stories are available in this blog) but this legend associating him to the of Holika Dahan is not mentioned explicitly, though it mentions that Hiranyakashipu tried to burn him alive. However, this legend has come to stay as the reason for Holika Dahan, which symbolises victory over evil, and that is all matters.
Long long ago, the earth was ruled by an Asura king by name Hiranyakashipu. The story of who Hiranyakashipu was in his earlier life can be known by clicking this link.
Now, Hiranyakashipu had demonic qualities predominantly. His arrogant attitude and hatred towards the gods was furthered by his brother Hiranyaksha having been killed by the Lord Vishnu. Driven by the single-minded thought of conquering the gods, he had done a lot of penance. His selfish motive of becoming the unchallenged monarch of the earth was achieved by this penance, and he had managed to get a strange boon of almost impossible death for himself.
Drunk with power and arrogance, knowing that nobody could kill him, his rule soon became a rule of terror, aggression and cruelty as he found joy in harassing all the living creatures. When he saw that all were frightened by him, his arrogance knew no bounds and he thought himself to be the God. He declared that he was indeed God and all should chant his name only.
There was no wonder that he was feared by all but there was one exception to this.
That one exception was his noble little son Prahalad. Prahalad, though very young was a spiritually advanced soul and strangely did not possess even a wee bit of demonic qualities. He was deeply attached to Lord Vishnu and firmly believed in Him. Hiranyakashipu did not attach much importance to his son’s attitude initially as he thought that he was influenced by Lord Vishnu’s devotees who may be meeting him in disguise. But as the boy was growing up, it pained Hiranyakashipu to see his son not mixing with boys of his age but preferring to meditate and pray all the time. He appointed special tutors Chanda and Amarka to educate Prahalad. He told them to isolate Prahalad and keep him at their home with them and see that he is not influenced by anyone else.
“Teach him all that is to be taught ” he said to the tutors. “And make him understand that I am GOD”, he would say, in a thundering voice. “If he has to chant, let him chant MY name”
The tutors nodded their heads, but in no time, found that Prahalad was not an ordinary child. He seemed to be knowing everything even before they taught him.
“Come on Prahalada, chant your father’s name”, they would say for which the boy, with a smile would appear to comply, but the chant would be “Om Namo Narayanaya”. The tutors could not punish the boy as he was the son of their king, but they tried to threaten him with punishment to make him comply to their instructions. They used the methods of ‘sama dana bedha’ as they tried their level best to make him chant his father’s name. But in return they would get to listen to a lecture by Prahalad, on the virtues of being devoted to Lord Narayana. In fact, the lecture would be so beautiful and convincing that they were afraid that their convictions would be wiped out by their interactions with him.
Their efforts though, went on continuously, but Prahalad always chanted the name of Lord Narayana. In fact, Prahalad created uncomfortable moments for them by chanting the name of Lord Narayana in front of his father when the father came on inspection when the classes were going on.
Initially, Hiranyakashipu found fault with the tutors for not prevailing upon his son, but soon understood that his son was a hard nut to crack.
He called for the tutors and asked them, “What do you think should be done to make this boy give up his stupid devotion to that wretched Narayana huh?”
The tutors said, “Your Majesty, we have tried the methods of Sama – telling him in a nice manner that he should only look upon you as God, Dana- enticing him with rewards to recite your name, Bedha – comparing him with the other children of his age who chant as they are taught to. However, your Majesty, we have not and cannot use the method of Danda which is punishment and only you can give him” They bowed their heads in fear of the ruthless king.
“Then punish him!” Hiranyakashipu roared.
“Come on! Let this child be trampled by elephants!”
The order was carried out, but when the elephants came near Prahalad who was in a trance-like state chanting the name of Narayana, the elephants could see only the Lord Narayana in his place and therefore, they bowed and moved away.
A furious Hiranyakashipu tried other methods such as throwing the child into the sea and hurtling him from atop a mountain cliff but the child came out unscathed always, thanks to his divine saviour.
Hiranyakashipu lost his patience. His son outwitting him with the help of his ‘God’ Narayana was unbearable. Just then he remembered his evil sister Holika. Holika had the boon of not getting burnt in the wildest of fires.
“Ha, now this boy cannot escape!” thought Hiranyakashipu. “I will ask Holika to keep him on her lap and enter fire so that he will be burnt alive and my sister can come out of the fire after that.”
He called for his sister who was ever obedient to him. She was already aware of the child’s ‘impudence’ in refusing to recite the name of her mighty brother.
“I am ready to do anything for you brother!” said Holika on hearing his order.
A huge pit was dug and piles of firewood were put in it. A hanging platform was fabricated over the pit and Holika sat on it with Prahalad on her lap. Prahalad shone like a full moon in the dark night. His lips were ever chanting the name of the all-pervading Narayana.
Hiranyakashipu, who had been driven to being so cruel to satisfy his ego, came to watch his son being burnt. The logs in the pit were lit and shortly the fire was raging. Initially it looked as if Holika was not hurt by the fire but suddenly she realised that the flames were happily licking her with great hunger. It was then, she remembered that the boon she had got was supposed to work only if she entered the fire alone.
“Haa… ha…. ha….” Holika screamed, writhing in agony as the fire was swallowing her. She was seated and could not get up as she would fall in the burning pit. But the little child Prahalad, still remained calm and serene and strangely the flames were not touching him.
Hiranyakashipu stared in awe and disbelief.
Holika was totally burnt and suddenly there was a heavy downpour putting out the fire and Prahalad was saved yet again.
It is believed that the day on which Holika was burnt, is celebrated as Holika Dahan, banishing the negativity and bad thoughts as quickly as the fire consumed the evil Holika. The next day Holi is celebrated with beautiful colours and sweets to usher in positive energy, good thoughts and joyful moments.
I will soon post the full story of Prahalad as it is narrated in the Bhagavatham.