Few of the thousands of stories found in Hindu mythology have as much beauty, poignancy, and moral and intellectual daring as the tale of Narasimha, the man-lion who is the fourth incarnation or avatar of Vishnu. The circumstances under which Vishnu descends to earth in the form of Narasimha are to be found in the fact, as enumerated in the Puranas, that in his previous incarnation as the boar, Vishnu had killed the asura or demon Hiranyaksha, and consequently filled his elder brother, Hiranyakashipu, with a burning desire for revenge. While commanding the asuras to create havoc on earth, Hiranyakashipu himself prepared for the battle with Vishnu by practicing the most severe austerities, the effect of which was that he acquired the most tremendous powers. For scores of years he stood still on Mount Mandara, and though ant hills, grass, and plants grew on his body, he would not stir; the rivers and oceans trembled; the volcanoes roared and the earth shook; and the astral bodies went astray. The fiery smoke emanating from Hiranyakashipu’s very head left a massive trail of destruction, and the panic-stricken devas or gods, led by Indra, finally made their way to Brahma’s abode. Warning him that the worlds of his own creation would soon become extinct, the devas pleaded with Brahma to intercede, whereupon Brahma, declaring himself pleased at the immense austerities practiced by Hiranyakashipu, agreed to grant him any boon, hopeful that he would cease to terrorize the world and the devas.
Such is the tapas, the fire of Hiranyakashipu’s sacrifice and discipline, that even the gods must render him obeisance. Herein hangs another tale, which we shall perforce have to abandon for the moment: the gods do not always favor the just or the pious. Much like Ravana, his fellow asura, Hiranyakashipu receives from Brahma a boon that he shall “never be killed by these means: the striking and throwing weapons of my enemies, thunderbolt, dried tree-trunks, high mountains, by water or fire.” Drought, fire, earthquakes, thunder, hurricanes, and all other manner of natural calamities: from all these he shall have immunity. Most decisively, Hiranyakashipu appears to have clinched his immortality when it is agreed that he shall “not be slain in heaven, on earth, in the daytime, at night, from neither above nor below”, and most importantly neither by man nor animal. In his arrogance, however, Hiranyakashipu fails to distinguish between Vishnu and the other devas, and finds it beneath his dignity to ask that the boon should confer on him the power to withstand Vishnu.
Emboldened by the boon, Hiranyakashipu and his asuras lose no time in bringing the entire world under their jurisdiction, dominating the devas, and creating a reign of absolute terror. This time, feeling betrayed by Brahma, the devas approach Vishnu, who consoles them with the observation that the seeds of Hiranyakashipu’s destruction are planted in his own home. If virtuous parents do not always have virtuous offspring, wicked-minded fathers do not always seed wicked-minded children. Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlad, is a devoted follower of Vishnu, and his father’s ceaseless efforts to make him abandon his faith do not bear fruit. He is subjected to much pain and suffering; asuras are let loose at him; and he is thrown down a cliff. Yet Prahlad outlives all these attempts at terminating his life. Immensely pleased by his devotion, Vishnu at last decides to intercede directly. Descending to earth in the form of Narasimha, Vishnu appears before the complaisant Hiranyakashipu. As half man (nara) and half lion (simha), he is neither man nor lion; he springs out of a pillar; he strikes at twilight, when it is neither day nor light; and he attacks Hiranyakashipu at the threshold of his palace, under the arch of the doorway, neither on earth nor in the sky. Narasimha throws Hiranyakashipu upon his thighs and rips apart his bowels with his claws.
In the tale of Narasimha, there is that familiar overtone of sectarian conflict, since the Vaishnavite Prahlad is set against the Shavite Hiranyakashipu. There is also the all-too familiar conflict between father and son. But the figure of Narasimha does not merely remind us of the hubris of men, it speaks to the critical importance of liminality in forging any kind of emancipatory politics or theology. It is at the cusp, in the moment of liminality, in the state of in-betweenness, that ignorance is defeated and knowledge is acquired. This in-betweeneness also compels us to recognize that we are not always bound by either “a” or “b”, not even by “not a” nor “not b”. If we go only so far as common-sense logic appears to take us, we might not travel very far at all. The tale of Narasimha is also there to remind us of the risks which we must take if we seek to be true moral agents.
An abbreviated account of the Narasimha story from the Matsya Purana is told in Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas, ed. and trans. Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), pp. 76-78; the most well-known version is to be found in the Vishnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition, trans. H. H. Wilson (3rd ed., 1840; reprint, Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, 1972).