What is the story of Hiranyakashipu?

Hiranyakashipu (Sanskrit: हिरण्यकशिपु, “clothed in gold”; the name is said to depict one who is very much fond of wealth: hiranya “gold,” kashipu “soft cushion”).

He is an Asura from the Puranic scriptures of Hinduism. Hiranyakashipu’s Younger Brother, Hiranyaksha was slain by Varaha, one of the Avatars of Vishnu.

Angered by this, Hiranyakashipu decided to gain magical powers by performing a penance for Lord Brahma.

He was subsequently killed by the Narasimha Avatara of Lord Vishnu.

His tale depicts the futility of desiring power over others and the strength of God’s protection over his fully surrendered devotees (in the case of his son Prahlada).

Hiranyakashipu, according to legend, was the king of the daityas and had earned a boon from Brahma that made him virtually indestructible.

He grew arrogant, thought he was God, and demanded that everyone worship only him. The story of Hiranyakashipu is in three parts.

The first has to do with the curse of the Four Kumaras on the gatekeepers of Vaikuntha, Jaya and Vijaya, which causes them to be born as the daityas Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha.

According to a story from Bhagavata Purana, Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha are Vishnu’s gatekeepers Jaya and Vijaya, born on earth as the result of a curse from the Four Kumaras.

In Satya Yuga, Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha – together called the Hiranyas – were born to Diti (daughter of Daksha Prajapathi) and the sage Kashyapa.

It is said that asuras were born to them as a result of their union at the time of dusk, which was said to be an inauspicious time for such a deed.

The second part deals with Hiranyakashipu’s penance to propitiate Brahma and gain a boon from him.

After Hiranyakashipu’s younger Brother Hiranyaksha’s death at the hands of the Varaha avatar of Vishnu, Hiranyakashipu comes to hate Vishnu.

He decides to kill him by gaining mystical powers, which he believes Brahma, the chief among the devas, will award to him if he undergoes many years of great austerity and penance, just as Brahma awarded powers to other Rakshasas.

This initially seemed to work as planned, with Brahma becoming pleased by Hiranyakashipu’s austerities.

Brahma appears before Hiranyakashipu and offers him a boon of his choice. But when Hiranyakashipu asks for immortality, Brahma refuses.

In other Puranas, many variations of the boon are given. The Shiva Purana mentions that Hiranyakashipu asked Brahma that he would be invulnerable to dry or wet weapons, thunderbolts, mountains, trees, missiles or any form of weapon.

The Vayu Purana mentions that Hiranyakashipu asked to be so powerful, that only Vishnu would slay him.

Other variations include not being slain by any living being, not at daytime or nighttime and not above or below.

In section 14, the Anusasana Parva of the Mahabharata, the Sage Upamanyu briefly mentioned to Krishna that Hiranyakashipu also performed another penance to please Lord Shiva.

Shiva granted Hiranyakashipu the boon that he would have unrivalled combat prowess, exceeding skill in the use of bow and other weapons as well as the powers of all the gods, including Indra, Yama, Kubera, Sūrya, Agni, Vayu, Soma and Varuna.

As a consequence of these two boons, Hiranyakashipu became so mighty that he was able to shake the very Himalayas down to their roots.

Ravana once tried to lift Hiranyakashipu’s earrings but he was unable to do so because they were very heavy.

The Brahmanda Purana mentions that Hiranyakashipu ruled for 107,280,000 years.

The final part deals with his efforts to kill his son Prahlada (a devotee of Vishnu) and his subsequent death at the hands of Narasimha.

Whilst Hiranyakashipu is performing the penance to be granted this boon, Indra and the other devas attack his home, seizing the opportunity in his absence.

At this point the divine sage Narada intervenes to protect Hiranyakashipu’s wife Kayadhu, whom he describes as ‘sinless’.

Narada takes Kayadhu into his care, and while she is under his guidance, her unborn child (Hiranyakashipu’s son) Prahlada becomes affected by the transcendental instructions of the sage even in the womb.

Later, growing up as a child, Prahlada begins to show symptoms of Narada’s prenatal training and gradually becomes recognised as a devoted follower of Vishnu, much to his father’s disappointment.

Hiranyakashipu eventually becomes so angry and upset at his son’s devotion to Vishnu (whom he sees as his mortal enemy) that he decides he must kill him but each time he attempts to kill the boy, Prahlada is protected by Vishnu’s mystical power.

When asked, Prahlada refuses to acknowledge his father as the supreme lord of the universe and claims that Vishnu is all-pervading and omnipresent.

To which Hiranyakashipu points to a nearby pillar and asks if ‘his Vishnu’ is in it:

Prahlada then answers, He was, He is and He will be. (In an alternate version of the story, Prahlada answers He is in pillars, and he is in the least twig.)

Hiranyakashipu, unable to control his anger, smashes the pillar with his mace. A tumultuous sound is heard, and Vishnu in the form of Narasimha appears from the broken pillar and moves to attack Hiranyakashipu in defence of Prahlada.

Vishnu has chosen here to appear in the form of Narasimha in order to be able to kill Hiranyakashipu without violating the boon given by Brahma.

Hiranyakashipu cannot be killed by human, deva or animal, but Narasimha is none of these, as he is a form of Vishnu (a deva) incarnate as part human, part animal.

He comes upon Hiranyakashipu at twilight (when it is neither day nor night) on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and puts the demon on his thighs (neither earth nor space).

Using his nails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disembowels and kills the demon.

Even after Hiranyakashipu’s death, none of the gods and demigods present are able to calm Narasimha’s fury, not even Shiva.

So all the gods and goddesses call His consort, the goddess Lakshmi, but she is also unable to do so.

Then, at the request of Brahma, Prahlada is presented to Narasimha, who is finally calmed by the prayers of his devotee.

How did Holi become a festival?

One of Hiranyakashipu’s attempts to kill Prahlada was to have him sit on a burning pyre with his sister Holika.

Holika had a special gift that prevented her from being harmed by fire.

Prahlada chanted Vishnu’s name and in the battle of good against evil, Holika was burnt down but nothing happened to Prahlad.

The burning of Holika is celebrated in Hinduism as the festival of Holi.

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