Narasiṃha and Śarabha

Narasiṃha, From a manuscript depicting scenes/frescos painted on the ceilings of the Meenakshi Sundareśwara Temple at Madurai which would have otherwise not survived. Manuscript was originally commissioned in the 18th century (1780s). Oil painting on a stiffened cloth.

Lord Viṣṇu took the form of Narasiṃha (half lion and half man) to kill Hiraṇyakaśipu (a an egotistical King who obtained a boon from Brahma and wanted everyone to worship him). Hiraṇyakaśipu was proud that he was superior to all humankind and neither any human form nor an animal form could kill him as per the conditions of his boon. Neither during day nor night, neither weapons nor fate could stop his breath. Hence, Viṣṇu took the form of half human and half lion and, in the evening, emerged out of a pillar and killed Hiraṇyakaśipu with his nails, which were neither living nor dead. He tore the king, garlanded himself with his intestines, drank his blood, and was still raging in anger.

व्यात्ताननान्तं विलिहन्स्वजिह्वया ।
यथान्त्रमाली द्विपहत्यया हरि: ॥

ŚB 7.8.30

The fearsome Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva’s mouth and mane were smeared with drops of blood, and His fierce eyes, full of anger, were impossible to look at. Licking the edge of His mouth with His tongue, Nṛsiṁhadeva, decorated with a garland of intestines taken from Hiraṇyakaśipu’s abdomen, resembled a lion that has just killed an elephant.


Śarabha, 19th century wood carving from Southern India; National Museum, New Delhi

Śarabha is a mythological animal of a blazing fire-like lustre with eight legs and the capacity to kill lions, assumed by Lord Śiva for the benefit of the gods. After Hiraṇyakaśipu was killed by Viṣṇu in the form of Nṛusiṃha, The fiery fury of the man-lion did not subside. The entire universe was once again excited by that fiery splendour. The gods were miserable and sought refuge in Śiva, urging him to kill the fury of the man-lion. Śiva commanded his terrible and wondrous form of Vīrabhadra to bring the hide and head of Nṛusiṃha. After approaching Nṛusiṃha and being admonished by him, Vīrabhadra assumed a majestic form of Śiva, which was neither golden nor fiery neither lunar nor solar resembled neither lightening nor the moon — it was beyond comparison. The forms of brilliance were merged in Śiva. Lord Śiva became manifest in the form of Śarabha the annihilator. He had a thousand hands, bore matted hair, his head was adorned by the crescent moon he appeared like a bird with wings, his body fierce and fully developed; his fangs were sharp and he blazed like fire. His three eyes were as wide and glowing as the fire of the evil spirit of great fury. His fangs and lips produced to hissing sound of Huṁkāra. Fluttering his wings and tearing at the navel and legs of Nṛusiṃha, he bound the legs of the man lion with his tail, struck his chest and caught hold of Viṣṇu. Like a vulture seizing a serpent, he fearlessly caught hold of Viṣṇu, lifted him up and felled him to the ground. All the Gods eulogised Śiva with words of obeisance. Thus, Viṣṇu was defeated. Within a trice, Veerabhadra made his powerful body powerless and dead.
Brahma and other sages bowed to him with reverence and eulogised Lord Śiva who had assumed the form of Śarabha and was the sole benefactor of all the worlds. Śiva spoke to the gods and other great ancient sages: “Just as water poured into water, or milk poured into milk, or ghee poured into ghee becomes one with those things, so also Vishnu is merged into Shiva.”

Adapted from the translation of the Śiva Purāna by J.L. Śastri

Viṣṇu incarnated as the half-man, half-lion Narasiṃha (his fourth avatar) to subdue a particularly powerful demon. However, Narasiṃha himself became too powerful. To stop him, Śiva incarnated in the form of the Śarabha, an eight-legged man-lion-bird. Although said to be a lion, here, the Śarabha shown here more closely resembles a tiger, including body stripes formed by small snakes and sages. His head is eaglelike, but he has a human ear and Śiva’s golden matted hair, from which emerges the river Ganges and the moon. His golden feathery wings hold tiny deities, and his belly the sun-the whole world is contained within Śiva Śarabha. Below sits four-armed Viṣṇu-Narasiṃha, who has the body of a human, but the head and coloring of a tiger.


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