Hiranyakashipu was the king of the asuras (demons) whose brother had been slain by Vishnu for terrorizing Gods and Goddesses. In revenge for his brother’s death, Hiranyakashipu wanted to destroy Vishnu and keep other Gods in heaven subdued. He ordered his soldiers to crush all those who worship Vishnu, but the Gods protected the devotees of Vishnu.
Hiranyakashipu thought to himself “I will have to match my powers to Vishnu’s to rule over the three worlds”.
So he began to perform strict Tapasya (penance). While he was so engrossed in his own matters, the Gods ransacked his city and destroyed his palace. Hiranyakashipu’s Queen, who was expecting a child, was sent by the Gods to Sage Narada’s hermitage. She lived in the ashram of the great sage and learned about religion and the glory of Vishnu. The child within her, Prahlad, too, absorbed this knowledge.
Narada taught the Queen that Vishnu is the soul of all created things and is present everywhere. Meanwhile, Hiranyakashipu’s austerities pleased Brahma who granted him any boon he asked for. Hiranyakashipu asked for immortality, but Brahma could not grant this boon and instead gave the wish that his death could not be caused by man or beast, with a weapon or without a weapon, during day or night, indoors or outdoors, on earth or in the sky. Through this boon, he was granted lordship over the material world.
Hiranyakashipu brought his wife back to his city, and Prahlad was born shortly after. Hiranyakashipu, with his new powers, renewed his hostilities against Vishnu and his followers. He declared that he was the strongest in the three worlds and that only he should be worshipped.
Prahlad in the meanwhile was growing up and was Hiranyakashipu’s delight. He once asked Prahlad, “Son, tell me what do you think is the best thing in life”?
Prahlad replied: “To renounce the world and seek refuge in Vishnu”.
Hiranyakashipu laughed. Then he called his Son’s teacher to him, saying, “Guard him closely; I think the followers of Vishnu are secretly influencing him. Don’t let him out of your sight!” After many months, his teacher said, “Prahlad, I think you are now ready to meet your father.” His father asked him, “You have been with your Guru for a long time! What have you learned? Prahlad said, “I learned that the most worthwhile occupation for anyone is the worship of Lord Vishnu”. Upon hearing this, Hiranyakashipu became very angry, “O cursed child! Who taught you such perverse things?” Prahlad remained calm and said, “Vishnu. He reveals himself to all who are devoted to him.”
Hiranyakashipu shouted angrily, “This boy must not live! Take him away and kill him! Kill this enemy disguised as my son. Poison him or attack him when he sleeps. Do whatever, but kill him!” The soldiers started attacking Prahlad when he was meditating on Lord Vishnu, but their weapons could not touch Prahlad. The most deadly snakes were let loose on Prahlad, but their fangs rendered harmless. Even elephants could not trample him. He has pushed off a cliff but was miraculously unharmed. In desperation Hiranyakashipu had him fed with deadly poison but it turned into nectar in Prahlad’s mouth.
After all these failed attempts, Hiranyakashipu made one final attempt to take his son’s life – Holika, the wicked aunt of Prahlad, had a boon that would protect her from harm if confronted by fire. She was sent by Hiranyakashipu to take Prahlad into a blazing fire so that he could be killed. However, Prahlad remained unharmed and Holika perished in the fire instead.
Prahlad was sent to his teacher to try again. This time the teacher tried to get Prahlad interested in means for acquiring wealth and physical pleasures. But Prahlad thought to himself, “How can the pursuit of physical pleasures and wealth bring happiness? It will only lead to envy and anger?” The teacher eventually gave up. Prahlad told his father that Vishnu is the soul of all created beings and is present everywhere.
Hiranyakashipu roared, “Where is Vishnu? If he is everywhere why is he not in this Pillar? If he is not there then I shall cut off your head with my sword. Let Vishnu, your Lord protect you.” As Hiranyakashipu struck the Pillar with his sword, Lord Vishnu, in the form of Narasinha (nara=man, sinha=lion) emerged from the Pillar. He was half man-half lion. It was twilight (neither day nor night) and Narsinha caught Hiranyakashipu and carried him to the threshold of the building where it was neither indoors nor outdoors and while holding him in his lap, killed him with his claws. Prahlad was installed on the throne and he ruled wisely and well for many years.
This episode highlights the fact the God would do anything to protect His devotees. Holi reminds us of the plight of Prahlad and the burning of his aunt Holika in the fire despite her boon. Moreover, the religious significance of the festival of Holi is to mark the burning of self-conceit, selfishness, greed, lust, hatred, all the undesirable evil tendencies, propensities, thoughts, and behaviors. The victory of good over evil will always prevail.