Evolution and Iconography
ॐ नमो भगवते नरसिंहाय नमस्तेजस्तेजसे आविराविर्भव वज्रनख वज्रदंष्ट्र कर्माशयान् रन्धय रन्धय तमो ग्रस ग्रस
ॐ स्वाहा । अभयमभयमात्मनि भूयिष्ठा ॐ क्ष्रौम् ॥
“I offer my obeisances unto Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, the source of all power. O Lord who possess nails and teeth like thunderbolts, vanquish our demon-like desires for fruitive activity in this material world. Appear in our hearts and drive away our ignorance so that by Your mercy we may become fearless in the struggle for existence in this material world.” Śrimad Bhāgavata 5.18.8
Purāṇic Evolution of Narasiṃha
Vedic literature contains no reference to a deity with the form of lion or half-man/half-lion, except a mention in the last part of the Taittirīya Araṇyaka which contains a number of Gāyatrīs for the invocation of several Gods like Rudra, Dantī, Nandi, Garuḍa, Mahāsena, Śaṇmukha, Nārāyaṇa, Narasiṃha, etc., where he is described as possessing “sharp claws and fangs”. The passage does not show clearly if the God was considered synonymous with Viṣṇu at the time, however, the juxtaposition of the invocation addressed to Narasiṃha with that of Vasudeva- Nārāyaṇa is suggestive of an intimate alliance if not acomplete identification of the two cults.
It is suggested that some elements of the story of Narasiṃha incarnation, who slew the demon Hiraṇyakaśipu, are derived from the legend of Indra and the demon Namuci. According to Rudolf Otto, a German indologist, Narasiṃha was originally an independent deity, conceived as an embodiment of numinous ‘potency’, to be revered and feared. Narasiṃha was probably originally a dreadful god like the Vināyakas; to be propitiated for his wrath.
The Viṣṇudharmōttara Purāṇa prescribes his worship for removing all hindrances, for pacifying the harmful effects of evil stars, planets and other supernatural agencies and for avoiding the danger of thieves, enemies and wild animals in the dark. The Narasiṃha-stotra and Narasiṃha mantra (given in the Agni Purāṇa) are deemed efficacious for curing diseases and preventing calamities. Narasiṃha is also mentioned in the Caraka Saṃhita as an antidote against the entry of evil spirits in a house, and invokes Puruṣasiṃha, Viṣṇu, Viśvakarman, Krṣṇa, Bhava and Vibhava in the same breath. Puruṣasiṃha is evidently the same as Narasiṃha, as, in the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, Kalidasa speaks of Narasiṃha as ‘Puruṣa kesari’.
The Viṣṇudharmōttara Purāṇa (c. 400–500 AD) places the Narasiṃha incarnaton of Viṣṇu in Madra country (Central Punjab). To this day, the worship of Narasiṃha is very popular in Punjab, especially in Kangra district where he is worshipped every Saturday.
The Mahābhārata speaks of him as an incarnation of Viṣṇu at several plaćes but an exposition of the exploits of this incarnation is given for the first time in the Harivaṃśa Purāṇa which is a supplement to the Mahābhārata and is generally placed around A.D. 400.
The accounts given iń the Harivaṃśa, the Matsya and the Padma Purāṇas are almost identical in language and content, and evidently derived from the same source. It is narrated that the demon king Hiraṇyakaśipu practised severe austerities for 11 ,000 years and obtained a boon from Brahma that he would be invulnerable to men or beasts, would not be killed by any weapon nor would he die during the day or night. Armed with this boon he began to harass the Devas and deprived them of their share in the sacrificial offerings. The Devas prayed to Nārāyaṇa — Viṣṇu, who promised them to kill the demon. Accordingly he assumed the half-man and half-lion form of Narasiṃha accompanied by the personified Omkāra. Viṣṇu went to the beautiful assembly hall ( sabha ) of Hiraṇyakaśipu. He saw the demon-king being waited upon by thousands of celestial nymphs and the Daityas such as Bali, Narakāsura and Prahlāda. When Prahlāda saw the deity, owing to his supernatural vision, he immediately realised that it was not a lion but the supreme deity who had the entire universe within him, and he had come to annihilate the Daityas. Prahlāda expressed this opinionto his father. But Hiraṇyakaśipu on hearing the words of Prahlāda ordered the Danavas to capture the lion and in case of there being any difficulty, to kill it outright. A terrible fight between the demons and Narasimha ensued. Finally, Narasiṃha supported by Omkāra killed the demon Hiraṇyakaśipu with his nails while seated on a threshold. The devas and sages praised him for the feat and Brahma recited a eulogy in his honour. Afterwards, Viṣṇu went to the northern coast of the Kṣīrābdi ocean, established his Narasiṃha form there, and returned to his original form.
It is significant to note that in this narrative, there is no mention of Narasiṃha’s emerging from a pillar, and although Prahlāda recognises Viṣṇu ‘hidden within Narasiṃha’ as one who has the whole of the three worlds within him, there is no specific mention of his devotion to the deity. There is also no suggestion of his having been threatened by Hiraṇyakaśipu and Narasiṃha’s coming to his rescue.
The Viṣṇu Purāṇa makes only a brief reference to the story of Prahlāda. The Mahabharata refers to the enmity between Prahlāda and Indra. In the eventual schematisation and consolidation of Viṣṇu’s incarnations, it seems that Prahlada’s devotion to Viṣṇu, and the consequent incarnation of Narasiṃha for saving him from the wrath of his father is a theme that developed much later.
The Saura Purāṇa follows the Kūrma Purāṇa in stating that Prahlāda himself opposed Viṣṇu at the beginning but later became devoted to him on deducing that he must surely be the Lord of the Universe. We are also informed in the Purāṇic legends that Hiraṇyākṣa and Hiraṇyakaśipu were in fact Jaya and Vijaya, the two door-keepers of Viṣṇu who were cursed to incarnate as asuras and be his enemies in a number of births. In one of these births they were born as Madhu and Kaitabba, in another as Hiraṇyākṣa and Hiraṇyakaśipu; in the Mahābhārata period, Śiśupāla and Dantavakra.
The full tale we know most popularly today finds its full exposition in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa which is the exponent par excellence of the doctrine of bhakti. This Purāṇa tells us that while Hiraṇyakaśipu was engaged in practising severe penance the Devas invaded his palace and captured his queen, who had Prahlada in her womb. Nārada intervened and secured her release. He took her to his hermitage where she stayed till the return of Hiraṇyakaśipu and while there, she is said to have listened to the preachings of Nārada and his praise of Viṣṇu. She later forgot all about it but Prahlāda imbibed it and retained it in his memory. From his very childhood he turned out to be a great devotee of Viṣṇu, and although Hiraṇyakaśipu tried various trials and tribulations to get him to stop chanting the name of Viṣṇu, he found could not harm Prahlāda. Ultimately he was so exasperated that he decided to kill his son with his own hands, and in anger, challenged Prahlāda to prove the omnipresence of Viṣṇu. Immediately the piller that Hiraṇyakaśipu demanded to see Viṣṇu in burst asunder with a loud noise and his Narasiṃha form issued forth. He tore open the chest of the demon and was still so ferocious that no one could control him. Only Prahlāda could do so, and he pacified the deity with a long eulogy.
T.A. Gopinatha Rao, in his magnum opus, reports on the basis of iconographic texts like the Śilpa śāstras that there are two variations of Narasiṃha images, Girija-Narasiṃha (one born of a cave) and Sthauna- Narasiṃha (having come out of a pillar),
It is indictated in Purāṇic statements that Narasiṃha was originally a lion-deity. In the battle against Hiraṇyakaśipu lions born out of the body of Narasiṃha are said to have devoured the Dānavas. This reference is further confirmed by the evidence of a sculptured panel discovered at a site called Konḍamotu on the outskirts of Piḍugurālla village in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh.
The panel shows in bas-relief six standing figures, who have been identified as Pradyumna, Viṣṇu, Narasiṃha, Krṣṇa, Saṃkarśana and Aniruddha. Narasiṃha is depicted as a couchant lion with two extra arms with which he holds gada and cakra, the two typically Vaiṣṇava attributes. He also has the Srivatsa mark on his chest. On stylistic grounds the sculpture is placed in the late 3rd or early 4th century A D. and is the earliest iconographic representation of Narasiṃha.
The Kondamotu sclupture is of great significance for the history of Vaiṣṇavism. It represents a stage when the cults of Viṣṇu, Narasiṃha and the Pañcavīras of the Vṛiṣṇis were coalescing. There is no indication in the sculptured panel that Visnu enjoyed the central position in this synthesised worship. However, its discovery in the coastal Andhra may suggest that this area was a crucial scene of the evolution and synthetis of Purāṇic Hindusim in the post-Ikṣvāku times when a number of bramanical dynasties such as the Bṛhatphalāyanas, Anandas, Salankayanas and Viṣṇukundins exercised their political dominance.
It is only in the later Gupta sculptures of the north and at Badami and Ellora in the Deccan that the deity is shown in his anthropomorphic form with a lion’s head and a human body, and only in the Gupta period did this fully developed iconographic form emerge. The demon Hiraṇyakaśipu is remarkably absent in early Narasiṃha sculptures, although in the post-Gupta period Narasiṃha is almost invariably represented while killing the demon. References to the killing of Hiraṇyakaśipu in the Śānti Parva of the Mahābhārata evince that this exploit of Narasimha must have been well known in the Gupta period.
Narasiṃha in the Ellora sculpture is unique in that it He is shown as advancing towards Hiraṇyakaśipu from the right, as the latter approaches in a defiant attitude, with the sword lifted up to strike the adversary; Narasiṃha holds of the body of Hiraṇyakaśipu so as to overpower him; moreover one of the right hands of Narasiṃha is held up as if to deal a blow to the enemy.
Narasiṃha’s Emergence from a Pillar
While we now understand the evolution of the motif of Prahlāda’s devotion to Viṣṇu, the same cannot be said of Viṣṇu’s appearance from a pillar to save his devotee. When was the pillar motif added to the Narasiṃha legend and what was its original significance?
Pillar-worship (or the worship of Gods in the form of wooden pillars) among the hill tribes of coastal Andhra and Kalinga can be traced back to earlier times. In fact, in the 5th-6th centuries in the eastern Deccan region, there were numerousrulers who described themselves as worshippers of the goddess Stambheśvari, ie, a pillar-goddess. Later the Sulkis who claimed to be ruling over the whole of Gondrama, regarded goddess Stambheśvari as their family deity. Since inscriptions contain reference to eighteen Gondramas, the term has been interpreted in the sense of Gond tribes.
The story of Narasiṃha’s emergence from a pillar reflects the supersession of an tribal worship of a pillar deity by Vaiṣṇavism through the cult of Narasiṃha. This hypothesis derives some support from the history of the Narasiṃha temple at Siṃhācalam in Andhra Pradesh. At Siṃhācalam the transition to Vaiṣṇavism has been evidently through Śaivism, but the local belief in the efficacy of the pilar deities survives in the worship of one the pillars of the mukha-maṇḍapa of the Siṃhācalam temple known as ‘Kappa Stambham’, which according to the popular belief, has the power of curing cattle disease and barrenness in women.
It is curious that most of the temples dedicated to Narasiṃha in the Telugu states are situated on hill tops, where the tribes of these areas are known to worship mountain deities. The hill tribe of the Chenchus worship the god Narasiṃha svāmi enshrined at Ahobilam in the Nandiyal Taluk of Kurnool district and they call him ‘Obalesudu’. They derive their ancestry from him and believe that Narasiṃha had married a Chenchu girl and given them the bamboo-forest as the bride-price. For this reason they claim to have exclusive rights to cut and sell the bamboo from the surrounding forest. They also put the vertical mark on their forehead like the Vaiṣṇavites.
It is interesting to note that Narasiṃha is also the presiding deity of the Jagannātha temple at Puri and in all the ceremonies, beginning from puja to cooking, offerings are first made to Narasiṃha. The cult of Narasiṃha remains a powerful force in the Telugu country to this day, with the land being dotted with numerous Narasiṃha shrines.
- Evolution of the Narasimha Legend and its Possible Sources, Suvira Jaiswal
2. Origin And Development Of Vaisnavism by Suvira Jaiswal
3. History of the Cult of Narasimha in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh — from Ancient to the Modern Period — Dr. Madabhushini Narasimhacharya [1st edition, 1989]
4. Gupta, Vinay. (2019). Vrishnis in Ancient Literature and Art
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