Four stories by Ashutosh Vardhana:
© 2001 Ashutosh Vardhana
the invincible boy (Holi)
A Hindu story as told in a Hindu family in a northern English town.
Prahlada, the invincible boy
The story of Holi
It was the 27th of February, when Yamuna's uncle came for his next visit. "Uncle-ji," said Yamuna, "if you have come for Holi, you have come one week early. It is six more days to go."
"So it is, Béti (little girl)," said the Pandit, "I thought a few days' rest with you would do me good, and the story of Holi is so long and astonishing that I can't tell it all in one go. We had better divide it over several days. Are you looking forward to the festival?"
"Of course, I do," said Yamuna. "I like the colours and I like pouring coloured water on other people and frightening them."
"And what about your brother Dinésh?"
"I'll call him."
"Do you look forward to Holi, Dinésh?"
"Yes, I like the bonfire and throwing coconuts into it and then trying to get them out again when the ashes are very hot and cracking and eating them. Coconuts from a bonfire are very tasty. There is nothing to beat it."
"Do you know, why we are celebrating Holi, and why we have a bonfire on that day?"
"Not a clue," said Dinésh, "but I'd like to know."
"I think there was something about a boy being burnt and about a lion eating his father to punish him because he hated God," said Yamuna.
"That's a good start," said her Uncle, "and I can tell you more during the next few days, if we find the time. Do you know why that man hated God so much?"
"All right, that then is the first thing we have to explain. Let's have dinner first and hope there is nothing important on television tonight. Then we'll sit down and I tell you the first part of the story."
When dinner was over, the Pandit settled in his armchair as usual, Yamuna sat on the floor in front of him, and her brother, who was really interested this time, sat on the floor leaning against a wall. The Pandit began his story.
"There were once two celestial gatekeepers standing on Mount Vaikúntha, the heavenly residence of Lord Vishnu. They were Jaya and Víjaya, and both names mean "victory".
Now, there are two kinds of gatekeepers, there are the gate-shut and people-out keepers, and there are the gate-open keepers who also tell visitors the shortest way to God (or to the boss). Many gatekeepers are, or think they are, gate-shut keepers and take pleasure in making life difficult for visitors, sunning themselves in the importance and power of their masters. They love to say 'No', or 'He is out', or 'He is in a meeting', or 'He does not speak to a poor uneducated person like you. How dare you bother an important person like my boss!'
God does not employ any gate-shut keepers, since he has no enemies and is enemy to no-one, admits everybody, is in no danger, needs no protection and doesn't care about insults. So when Jaya and Víjaya had been employed as gatekeepers and had been given their job description and their mission statement it had been made clear to them that being God's gatekeeper means being 'gate-open keepers'. But they had been so long in the job that they did not know their duties better but had turned them upside down. They were puffed up about their importance in being allowed to be so close to God. So they gradually started showing off their power to ordinary people by denying them access to God, using whatever excuse they could think of: 'You are too filthy', 'You are not well enough dressed - dinner jacket and tie only!', 'You are too young: over eighteens only', 'You stink', 'You are too old', 'You are too ugly', 'You belong to the wrong religion', 'You swear too much', 'You are too poor', and so on and on - there was not end of excuses, and God started wondering why there were fewer and fewer visitors coming to see him. Jaya and Víjaya had become 'gate-shut keepers'.
However, one day when a group of naked múnis (saints or sages in a divine trance) arrived, the gatekeepers displayed their arrogance and stupidity by trying to stop them from visiting the Lord. They thought the naked múnis were not well enough dressed and they wanted to show off how important they were. They behaved like 'puny-minded ordinary servants on earth who think their master is in danger or has to be protected against disrespect' (SB 3.15, p 200).
Now, múnis are silent by profession. They do not talk (that's what the word 'muni' means), except on very rare and important occasions. But when they do speek, their words have an enormous power and tend to come true.
The múnis pronounced a curse on the gatekeepers. They condemned them to be born on earth and to live there again and again until they had been purified. Jaya and Víjaya recognised their fault immediately but were horrified at the punishment. To have to live on earth! What a dreadful fate! For them, heavenly beings as they were, this was just as bad as if earthlings like you or I were sentenced to prison in hell ** for life**, not only for one life but for several lives in succession.
If I had been given such a sentence and wanted to escape from it as quickly as possible, I would plead with the judge to make each life as short as possible (i.e. to let me die soon) and to make the number lives as small as possible so that I could return to God sooner rather than later.
Lord Vishnu who loved his gatekeepers and had sympathy with their foolishness offered them a choice:
"You can spend your time on earth by being a goodie, worshipping me as a friend, i.e. by praying to me, loving me and following my commands. If you do this you can be released after seven lives on earth. Or you can spend your time by worshipping me as your implacable enemy, by hating me with all your might, by fighting me, and doing everything against me and ultimately, in each life, being killed by me. If you do this, you can be released after three lives. Now, do you want to be born as my friends or as my enemies?"
'As your enemies.'
And so it happened."
"That's funny," said Dinésh, "does that mean it is better to be bad than to be good? Will I be rewarded if I am bad?"
"Not at all," said the Pandit, "this story has a much deeper meaning. It is not a permit for stupid children and adults to behave like bad children or like big criminals. People can have one of three attitudes towards God, they can love him, they can hate him or they can be indifferent towards him.
The worst thing for a person is to be indifferent towards God, to ignore him, not to care about him, to think he does not exist or he does not matter. Nobody of that kind can ever make the slightest spiritual progress. Most bad people, including bad dictators, are of this kind. There is no hope for them until, in one of their lives, they start changing.
People who love God, or who say they love God, often do not love him all that much. Their mind is not continuously focussed on God. They love him a little, which is better than not to love him at all, but their progress will be very slow.
People who positively hate God and who commit their crimes not out of greed, or laziness, but **because they hate God** are very rare. You certainly are not one of them. But those people who hate him with all their heart, who are obsessed with their hatred of God, are usually focussed on him much more than those who love him. Loving God is easy. Therefore people do it half-heartedly. Hating God is hard work. Therefore people who do that do it with all their might. God is so great that he does not give a hoot whether a person loves him or hates him. He rewards those who have him constantly in their minds, who are constantly aware of him, by allowing them to unite with him, to become one with him.
There are people, aggressive atheists, who spend their entire lives trying to prove in books and speeches that God does not exist, people who blaspheme and try to provoke God and make him angry. They are the ones who are really close to God. They are persecuted by the respectable half-hearted lovers of God, but God has a soft spot for them and protects them so that they can go on hating him. He enjoys their spiteful books as much as they do."
Dinésh stared at his uncle.
"Yes, it must be a shock to you. But our scriptures (for example the great book about Lord Kríshna, the Shrímad Bhágavatam) repeat again and again that you may worship God in six ways, as a friend, as an enemy, as a father, as a mother, as a lover or as a child. Keep thinking about it each time you hear the story of Holi or of Ravana, and sooner or later you will understand. This is a great philosophy which makes our religion and its view of good and evil in this world so different from any other. God does not behave in the way in which stupid or smart human beings think he ought to behave, and he does not have to justify his actions. The truth is always shocking and surprising.
Vishnu bade a sweet farewell to his gatekeepers: 'Leave this heavenly place. Do not be afraid. You will achieve good in future. I could have lifted the curse of the múnis from you but will not do it. Because the curse itself has been willed by me. Your anger will help you to become united with me after only a few lives.'
Jaya and Víjaya now fell headlong down from heaven (Vaikúntha) and entered the womb of Díti, who was just then waiting for twins, and they entirely forgot (as we all do when we are born) their identity in their past existence. (SB 3.16, p 207) They did not even know any more **why** they had been condemned to be born on earth.
When the babies were born many evil omens occurred. There were earthquakes everywhere, volcanoes erupted, meteors burst, the sun and the stars were thrown out of their tracks, the earth was wrapped in darkness at midday. Jackals vomitted flames. Animals discharged urine and excrement at the same time, cows gave blood instead of milk and the clouds showered pus instead of flowers. It was utterly disgusting. It shows how nature was terrified at the birth of these two demons and the havock which they would wreak on this earth.
One of the two new-born demons was born with golden eyes and was therefore called Hiránya-Áksha. His twin-brother, even more miraculously, was born with golden robes, and was named accordingly Hiránya-Kashípu, The Golden-Robed.
The two brothers loved each other dearly. They were the best mates you could imagine. When one of them got into a scrape, the other one would help him out. But not everything they did was good. As they grew up they became very strong. They were very keen on power, and they wanted to own the earth.
At that time the earth was still young and was lying at the bottom of the ocean, like a baby in its mother's womb. Some people wonder how that was possible since the ocean is on top of the earth. But now we know that that ocean was not a real ocean, but a symbolic ocean, it was an ocean of sin. In other words, people on earth had become so wicked, that it felt as if the whole earth had been drowned in an ocean of filth, sin and unhappiness.
Lord Vishnu, in his third avatár (incarnation) came down in the form of a boar, dived to the bottom of the ocean and brought the earth up on one of his tusks. In this way he freed it from the evil and misery that was smothering it.
As he was doing so, the demon Hiránya-Áksha tried to wrest the earth away from him. There was a big fight between the demon and Lord Vishnu. In the end Vishnu killed the demon.
The dead demon's brother Hiránya-Kashípu was terribly upset because he loved his brother dearly (even demons love and have friends!) and he decided to make himself very powerful and to avenge his brother's death. He swore to be Lord Vishnu's enemy for ever and ever.
He never prayed to Lord Vishnu, and he punished anybody who did. Especially he did not want any of his servants or any members of his family to worship Lord Vishnu. Through his Minister of Education he instructed all the schools never to mention Lord Vishnu's name.
You remember, of course, that Lord Vishnu was his former employer and that he had agreed with him that he would spend his time on earth hating and fighting him. Lord Vishnu and King Hiránya-Kashípu were two noble opponents, one on the side of good, the other on the side of evil, each playing his part.
First King Hiránya-Kashípu had to get enough power so that he could fight the gods. Strangely enough he had to get this power from the gods themselves. He had to deceive them by being pious, praying, fasting, meditating and undergoing many voluntary hardships (tapas). Then they would be pleased with him and give him the power he asked for. Once he had the power, he would turn it against them. Wicked dictators on this earth (like Hitler, but also some living ones) often behave similarly. First they pretend to be peaceful, smile a lot, have their photographs taken with little children, while secretly stockpiling terrible weapons (deadly chemicals, atomic bombs, armies, fleets, fighter planes, rockets, and chemical weapons like cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs). Once they are strong enough, they bare their teeth (which are made of stainless steel) and try to conquer other countries or the rest of the world.
Since Hiránya-Kashípu wanted a lot of power, he had to do a lot of tapas and very hard ones. He went into a cave and pretended to be a tree. He stood permanently on tiptoes, had his hands stretched out towards the sky and his eyes turned upwards. This is how he started.
Nobody knows how he continued, but we know that he did it for 96,000 years and that for the last two thousand years of his tapas he did not even drink water. His will-power must have been superhuman: He concentrated on God so much, so intensively, that fire and smoke started coming out of his head. The fire was so huge that all the trees on earth were scorched, the rivers, lakes and oceans dried up and even the sun and the stars started exploding from this heat and were pushed out of their course. The gods became frightened and sent Lord Bráhma to give Hiránya-Kashípu whatever he wanted in order to stop him doing his terrible tapas.
Bráhma could not find Hiránya-Kashípu because the world was covered with smoke. He could not even see his hand in front of his eyes. The smog and fog which we have today, especially in big cities, is what is left over from that pious demon so many millions of years later. You can imagine how bad it must have been then!
First Bráhma started eating raw carrots to be able to see in the dark. Then he asked all the animals to help him, the owl because she could see in the dark, even without eating carrots, and the monkeys because he wanted to give them training for another search operation a few million years later. But they could not find the demon. Then he contacted the Pentagon, the headquarters of the American Armed Forces, and asked for a heat-sensitive radar.
That device led him to Hiránya-Kashípu's cave. Bráhma saw the demon sitting in his meditative pose, totally immobile, his eyes closed, quite indifferent to anything happening around him. He did not only ignore the weather, or the insects crawling in and out of whatever orifices (openings of the body) he had left, no, he was much tougher or much more concentrated than that. Ants had built an ant-hill around him and had eaten up most of his body. Grass and reeds and wild flowers had started growing on it. He was a skeleton sitting in meditation, a skeleton held upright and held together by the power of concentration.
Lord Bráhma sprinkled some holy water on King Hiránya-Kashípu. The King was instantly rejuvenated, had his former athletic body back and jumped out of the anthill, grass and reeds that had grown on him.
'What boon do you want me to bestow on you?' asked Bráhma.
'O Lord,' said the King full of reverence,
Let me die neither indoors nor outdoors,
This was obviously not a very logical list, for the King asked for some things twice, in different words, which is unnecessary and confusing. But the faults in the list show how greedy and confused the King was. He wanted to be immortal and wanted to make sure of that by asking for everything that came into his mind, not realising that even a small omission in that list might lead to his death."
"Was it wrong of the King to want to be immortal?" said Yamuna, "Mother chants a prayer for immortality every night."
The Pandit replied: "The King's mistake was that he was seeking immortality of his body. When we pray for immortality, we mean immortality of the soul, which we already have. Can you chant your mother's prayer 'Asato ma sad gamaya'?"
"I half know it. If you help me, Uncle-ji, I will try it."
So they chanted together:
Pandit-ji continued: "Let's return to King Hiránya-Kashípu.
Bráhma gave him what he had asked for and hoped that he would now be a good King, and that gods and men and the world would be in safe hands. But he had his doubts. He knew that power corrupts, especially if that power is so great that a person has nothing to fear any more - except God, whom we all have to fear, all of us, because everything we do may one day go wrong, and we all have to die sooner or later. What happens to us then depends on how we have behaved during our last life.
If King Hiránya-Kashípu had not only asked for an invincible body but also asked for wisdom, justice, kindness, compassion, to balance his power, he could perhaps have become a good king. But with power alone? What hope was there for his subjects!
We will see later that King Hiránya-Kashípu and Holiká (Holika), in spite of their boons (God's promises, on which they relied), were not invincible, but the King's son, Prahlada, armed with his intensive trust in God's grace, was.
What would you ask for, Dinésh and Yamuna, if you had exactly three wishes, however great, but no more?"
Now there followed a long discussion about the best way of using three wishes between Pandit-ji and the three children, and what would be the results of each wish, what could go wrong with each of them, and what better wish to utter in order to lead a happy life. It was a very long discussion, with many arguments and counter-arguments, enough to fill a whole book, therefore I will not even start to write it down here.
Now King Hiránya-Kashípu had all the power he needed to unseat Lord Vishnu, or so he thought. He set out systematically to build an empire for himself and become the greatest dictator the world had ever seen. He conquered the earth, the heaven, made himself master of all kings, presidents, prime-ministers, of all priests and all popes, of all gods, that is to say of all smaller gods, of all demons and monsters, of all ghosts, goblins and spirits, of all animals, birds, snakes, insects, of all dead people, and of all the inhabitants of the sun and the stars. Many innocent people were killed or wounded in his wars. He evicted the gods from their palaces by brute force without first obtaining a court order, and he evicted all poor people if they prayed to Lord Vishnu. He burnt down all his mándir (mandir)s (temples) and destroyed all his statues and pictures. He declared that in his empire it was a capital crime to praise, or to pray to, his great enemy, Lord Vishnu, or to mention his name or to teach anybody about him.
Even though there were many poor people in his country, which was in fact the whole world and all the heavens and the underworld, he started living in incredible luxury. He built presidential palaces everywhere and used only gold, silver and gems as building material. Even his beds were made of pure gold."
"Wasn't that rather hard for him?" asked Yamuna.
"You are right," said Pandit-ji, "perhaps I remember that wrongly. It was such a long time ago. Come to think of it, I think, only the bed frame and the legs were made of gold, but he mattress was made of sheep wool from Lancashire and covered with silk from Madras. If I remember rightly, once a little boy who was a practical joker put a diamond as big as a fist into the mattress, and the King, who had absolutely no sense of humour, cut off his head. So remember, Dinésh, when you enter the bedroom of a king, never put a diamond as big as a fist under his mattress. That would be a very stupid and dangerous thing to do. But you can do it to me or to Yamuna or your parents. We wouldn't mind, provided we can keep the diamond.
The King had a thousand wives and three million girlfriends and said he didn't give a toss about Henry VIII with his six wives, Henry IV with three wives and Henry II with one and a half wife.
How many wives did Henry I have, Dinésh?"
"If Henry II had 1.5, then Henry I had 0.75 wives, that is three-quarters of a wife."
Yamuna looked doubtful.
"Sound's plausible to me," said Uncle-ji, "but you had better ask your history teacher to confirm, just in case I am wrong."
"Do you have to teach the children such nonsense?" interrupted Yamuna's mother. "Don't believe him, that's his sense of humour. And you, Brother-ji, had better hurry up with your story, we don't want to be late for the bonfire next week, and we are nowhere near the bonfire in your story. You haven't got all year."
The Pandit continued:
"Being a smart dictator, Hiránya-Kashípu put up big expensive sports stadiums in all towns in order to attract the youngsters, even though poor people were still starving. He owned ninety-nine Rolls Royces, and people are still wondering why it was only ninety-nine. He created thousands of royal parks but not for ordinary people. Only he and his wives and girlfriends were allowed to walk in them, and yet they were overcrowded if all decided to come out at the same time.
His main residence was in the Palace of God Indra, the former King of the gods, whom Hiránya-Kashípu had ousted. When he was sitting on his throne or lying on his bed, the gods and goddesses had to massage his feet and his back or sing and dance for him. It was an utter disgrace.
Then he forced people to build mándir (mandir)s in his honour, to pray only to him and to make sacrifices only to him, while the gods were starving and were limping through the world as emaciated as beggars.
His power and prosperity had made him very arrogant.
After he had ruled the world for a few hundred years, gods and human beings could bear it no longer. King Hiránya-Kashípu had to be killed, and yet, as they knew very well, he could not be killed by any ordinary means. Even though they did not have a clue what to propose or what to ask for (or because they did not have a clue), they all came to Lord Vishnu who was living in hiding (in a cave in Northern Afghanistan, where nobody normally thought of looking for him) and whom Hiránya-Kashípu therefore had been unable to attack and to make homeless.
Where does Lord Vishnu live, what do you think Yamuna? Does he live in the mándir (mandir), or in heaven?"
"In our heart, that's where we can pray to him, and that's why he is always with us."
"Well said, Béti (little girl)", said Uncle-ji. God lives in the hearts of all living beings and even in every non-living thing. He lives in every plant or tree, in every stone, grain of sand, drop of water, in every piece of gold or steel," and he chanted:
"Does God live in my computer or my football?" asked Dinésh.
"Of course he does, and isn't it nice of him to allow you to kick him around," said Pandit-ji with a smile. "Now you see that you must treat even your football with respect.
King Hiránya-Kashípu only remembered Lord Vishnu as a boar who had killed his beloved brother, but he had never taken much interest in religion and philosophy when he was young. Otherwise he would have known that God can manifest himself in many forms and that you cannot conquer him by attacking one of his manifestations. Especially he did not know that Lord Vishnu lived in everybody's heart, even in his own heart, that God made that heart beat, that God gave him all his strength, even if he cursed him or hated him or tried to fight him.
Vishnu agreed that something had to be done to get rid of this fellow. God tolerates a little evil. Some people say evil is the spice of life and keeps the good people on their toes. It gives work to policemen, lawyers, prison officers, locksmiths, glaziers, crimer writers and film makers. But too much evil is too much of a good thing, and when evil becomes too strong, God comes down to earth like a ton of bricks to stop it. He is then called an avatár, or an incarnation." The Pandit chanted:
"So Lord Vishnu told the assembled gods that he would 'in due course' help them and free the world of this awful dictator. 'I'll give him five more years and see whether his son Prahlada can convert him. If that fails, I'll show him something he won't forget as long as he lives,' he said. The gods were contented and went home.
In those days a boy when he was eight would be sent to live in an áshram. It was a kind of very small boarding school, really just the house of the guru (teacher) where a small number of boys (and today, of course, it would be girls as well) lived together with the guru's family and learnt absolutely everything from table manners and cleanliness to prayers, philosophy, languages, science, mathematics, arts, sports and fighting and the customs and traditions of their community. This kind of learning was very practical and intimate, a kind of on-the-job training, learning by participation and observation, learning by doing in a small group. There are many famous stories about occasions when the boy comes home and the father asks him what he has learnt while he was away.
Prahlada also had been in such an áshram. When he came to the court of his father during the summer vacation, the father asked him what was the most important thing he had learnt. Prahlada answered: 'I have learnt to admire Lord Vishnu. He is without beginning, middle or end. He never increases or decreases. He is imperishable and the cause of all causes.'
When the king heard this, he grew furious and turned to the teacher. 'How could you dare to teach my son this criminal nonsense?'
The teacher said: 'I never taught him anything about Vishnu. I do not know where he got these ideas from. If you allow him to come back to my áshram, I will make sure that he learns only respectable things like communism, atheism and science and forgets all this nonsense about God. Trust me, Mr King, watch my lips, it won't happen again.'
The King asked his counsellors for advice. They said: 'Don't trust this teacher. Send the boy to France. That is a country somewhere in a jungle called Europe. Nobody can go there without being corrupted. The people there are a terrible lot. They eat nothing but fat frogs, slimy snails, slugs and cheese which smells worse than chimp shit. They drink grape juice which has gone bad. They have just made a revolution, have killed their king and their bishop and have recently started bathing in blood. They say that will make them beautiful in spite of their sickly pink skin. Send him there for six months, and when he comes back, he will be cured of his Vishnu nonsense.'
After six months, when Prahlada came home for his long vacation, the King asked him to recite some poetry. Prahlada recited three mysterious and prophetic poems, two in French and one in Sanskrit.
This was the first:
And this the second:
"I don't understand that," said Yamuna. "Neither do I," said her brother.
"Nor did the King", said the Pandit, "for he had never been to a good English school and therefore did not understand French. But you will understand (and so will the King!) when we come to the very end of this story. The French poems say that God lives even in stones, walls or pillars.
The Sanskrit poem was the Vishnu Sahásra Náma, the Thousand Names of Vishnu. The King spoke Sanskrit fluently. He could even curse in Sanskrit, and he understood those hated names only too well! When he heard them, he was furious. How dare his son sing the praises of Lord Vishnu, his greatest enemy. 'This is not my son,' he shouted to his body guard, 'Kill the bastard!'
Seven hundred soldiers rushed at Prahlada with their lances and swords and stabbed him and tried to cut or pierce him. But Prahlada was not afraid for one minute. He knew that Lord Vishnu was his ally. As long as he was aware that Lord Vishnu always resided in his heart and in the weapons of his enemies, he, Prahlada, could not come to any harm. So he concentrated his mind on Vishnu and prayed silently: 'Lord Vishnu protect me!' That was enough. His skin became as strong as the shell of seven tortoises covered with stainless steel or platinum. The swords and lances could not even scratch him, to say nothing of piercing his skin or cutting off his head or his arms and legs."
"What about his nose and his ears? Couldn't they cut off those?" asked Dinésh.
"They tried that, but they couldn't, however much the King encouraged them. 'Cut off his bloody tongue,' cried the King, 'that will stop him talking treacherous and unscientific nonsense.' But Prahlada's body was more scientific than the King thought, Prahlada wisely kept his mouth shut and now talked like a ventriloquist. The soldiers could not open his mouth to get at his tongue, however hard they tried."
"Could they have cut off his tongue if he had opened his mouth and put out his tongue?" asked Yamuna.
"I am sure they couldn't have," replied Pandit-ji. "Lord Vishnu lives in every cell of his body and of our body and on that occasion he would have strengthened every part of it.
The soldiers' swords bent and their lances splintered under the force of their blows, but they could not harm Prahlada in the slightest.
When the King realised how strong his son was while he was protected by Lord Vishnu, he begged Prahlada to stop praising Vishnu, but Prahlada refused to do that. 'I know I owe respect to you because you are my father,' he said. 'But I owe even more respect to God and must tell people about him. It will also be better for you, Father, if you worship him.'
But the King was addicted to his hatred of Vishnu, so that he could not accept his son's advice. His hatred against Vishnu drove him on, willy nilly, to do what he did and to his own destruction.
He put his son into a basin filled with snakes. These were very poisonous and also well trained. On one side of the basin stood Prahlada, thinking of Lord Vishnu who he knew lived in his heart and praying only one sentence: 'Lord, protect me!'. On the other side stood the serpents, waiting for the King to give the order to attack."
"Did the serpents really stand in the basin?" asked Dinésh.
"Well, not quite. First they were lying there like sardines in a tin, all neatly arranged side by side, watching the King with their right eyes and waiting for his command. But when he gave the order to bite, they all stood on their tails and then they shot forward, all at the same time, and tried to bury their fangs in Prahlada's body."
"What are fangs?" asked Yamuna.
"Very long and strong teeth which sometimes stick out of the mouth. Snakes need them to bite their victims and to inject their poison into them.
So the snakes, all at the same time, opened their mouths, put out their fangs, shot at Prahlada, closed their mouths and bit him with all their might. There was one almighty crash. All the fangs had broken, their splinters were flying in all directions. The whole basin was covered with white particles as if it were sand or snow. Scattered among them were the jewels which had fallen out of the serpents' crests; so violent had been their onslaught.
The serpents were shrieking in pain and said to the King: 'Why did you make us attack this invincible boy? Didn't you know how hard his body is? If it was too hard for your swords and lances, surely it was too hard for our fangs? Now we need dental treatment and that is not covered by the national health service. Please get us a dentist quickly.' But there were no experienced snake dentists around, and the human dentists were too scared to come near the snakes. Then the snakes promised not bite a dentist, ever, neither now nor in future - provided they repaired their fangs or gave them fang implants where required. The dentists agreed and the snakes kept their promise. That's why dentists are not afraid of snakes.
The dentists did not find it difficult to repair the fangs because up to that day they themselves had fangs, collapsible fangs, the only humans to have this useful equipment. They used their fangs to inject painkillers into their patients before they started drilling. This system was then called 'organic dentistry'."
"Do dentists still have fangs?", asked Yamuna.
"No, they gave them to the snakes. Therefore today dentists have to use needles."
"Vampires also have fangs," said Dinésh.
"Very true, and they are the children of dentists who did not help the poor snakes at that time and were therefore sent away to Transylvania.
But most of the dentists agreed to treat the snakes, free of charge, and therefore the grateful snakes taught them how to give injections to their patients with a needle so that they do not feel pain.
King Hiránya-Kashípu felt there was no point in arguing with his extraordinary son, 'Boy Wonder', as he called him. He ordered an elephant to crush him. But the elephant refused to obey orders, because elephants are very kind and nimble creatures and they never step on a human being if they can help it.
Do you like elephants?"
"Yes, I do," cried Yamuna, "and especially I love our elephant-headed God Ganésha because he is so very kind, and before I start doing anything, I pray to him, and when I am faced with any difficulty, he removes it."
"Yes, he is the remover of all obstacles," said the Pandit, "and because his trunk looks somewhat like the shape of the holy syllable OM in Sanskrit, he symbolises God-The-Absolute, and that's why we start every enterprise by praying to him. He teaches us that we can do nothing without God's help.
The King's elephants refused to step on Prahlada. They just walked up to him and then knelt down in front of him and started praying because they knew that Lord Vishnu was in his heart.
Therefore the King put an elephant on the moon in order to drop him from there on his son and crush him. The elephant was as big as a mountain."
"Which mountain, Uncle-ji?" asked Yamuna.
The Pandit was embarrassed and did not know how to answer. "Which mountain, please, Uncle-ji?" insisted Yamuna.
"Mount Méru," said the Pandit resolutely, "that is a big holy mountain in India, and it is the most venerable mountain in the world, for us anyway. The mountain of all mountains. 'Of mountains, I am mount Méru,' says Lord Kríshna in the Gita."
"How did they get the elephant on the moon?" asked Dinésh. "Did they use a spacecraft?"
"They tried that.
First they contacted the European space agency and asked if they could use the Ariane rocket, but it was too small. Then they sent a telegram to the American President and asked if they could use an American space rocket. But that was too expensive, just to kill a boy, even for King Hiránya-Kashípu. Then they had a clever idea. They took the elephant to the horizon.
Now, as you know, the moon sits on an escalator made of transparent plastic. That's why it rises so slowly and steadily and goes down again just as slowly and majestically after it has reached the escalator's highest point in the sky. When it got dark and the moon was just creeping up at the horizon, they prodded the elephant with a stick. He took one step forward and, hey presto, there he was on the moon. He stood and played a trumpet concerto (which was later on copied down by Joseph Haydn) and all the world heard it and rejoiced. The elephant kept trumpeting and the moon kept rising and when the night was half over and the moon was just overhead, they fired a cannon shot at the moon, just beside the elephant, and the elephant got frightened and jumped forward and fell off the moon towards earth.
The longer he fell, the faster he went and in the end he reached the speed of light, and he could not really go much faster, or could he?"
"No, he could not go any faster at all," said Yamuna, "nothing can go faster than the speed of light, not even the sun."
"All right, in the end he fell at the speed of light, right to the spot where the King and his henchmen had tied down poor Prahlada. But Prahlada wasn't so poor at all. He simply thought intensively of Lord Vishnu and said: 'Lord, help me!' and thought: 'These people really are trying very hard to test God's power.'
At this moment, the elephant came down on Prahlada like a ton of bricks and then rolled away for 5 miles because he had practised jumbo judo when he was young and had learnt how to fall without hurting himself (or anybody else).
The King and his soldiers looked at Prahlada, thinking he would now be as flat as a chapati. But he was still standing there, quite unharmed, and said: 'You see, Lord Vishnu is the one who preserves the whole universe and looks after the welfare of all beings. Anyone who trusts in him cannot come to any real harm. Just look at me! And even that poor elephant is unharmed, because he only did his duty. I wished I could have gone to the moon with him.'
'Bloody hell,' said the King. 'Is there no way of killing this stubborn boy?' "
"Did he really swear?" asked Yamuna.
"Yes, he did, because he was very angry. I don't really like swearing, but that's the way it was, and I cannot deny it. I have to tell you the story as it was.
So the King ordered Prahlada to be burnt.
The soldiers tied Prahlada to a stake. They piled up dry wood all around him, ten times as high as the boy himself. The King ordered the god of wind himself to blow from all eight directions. The fire was so hot that it scorched an area of seven miles around it. It dried up a lake and a river. But it could not hurt Prahlada, who knew that Lord Vishnu was in the fire, nay, that Lord Vishnu **was ** the fire. For twelve hours, while the fire was burning, Prahlada tirelessly and faultlessly chanted the thousand names of Lord Vishnu. When the fire had died down, the soldiers, many of them with singed hair and making an awful stench, untied Prahlada. Not a single hair of his had been burnt. He felt fresh and cool as if he had just taken a dip in a lake.
'You see how Lord Vishnu has protected me! Why don't you too pray to him?' he said to his father.
Prahlada was sent back to his teachers, who promised to drive the Vishnu nonsense out of the boy or else devise a foolproof way of killing him. But they did not succeed. On the contrary, Prahlada not only persisted in his faith in Lord Vishnu, but he also started teaching it to the little demons who were his fellow students.
He had always been popular with them because he was a first-class football player, a good boxer and swimmer. The little demons admired the strength and agility he had acquired by practising hatha yoga for half an hour every morning and evening. He was also a good mechanic and helped them when their bicycles were broken or when something went wrong with their computers."
"Did they have footballs, bicycles and computers in those days?" Dinésh asked excitedly.
"They must have had," replied Pandit-ji, "otherwise Prahlada couldn't have fixed them! And they must have had computers and television, otherwise how could they have learned to be proper little demons!"
Dinésh was content because he loved sport, bikes and computers and thought it would be nice to have this Prahlada for a friend. Yamuna wasn't so sure whether her uncle's arguments were really valid but she said nothing because she thought it didn't matter.
"Prahlada became even more popular," the Pandit continued, "when his fellow pupils heard that soldiers, poisonous snakes, a moon elephant and a big fire had been unable to kill him. They would have loved to be in his place."
"Would they also have been invincible like Prahlada if they had just thought of Lord Vishnu? Could you teach me to do the same tricks?" asked Dinésh.
"I would not try it if I were you," said the Uncle. "You see, Prahlada had a heart purified by God and full of love for all creatures. He thought of Vishnu with such intensity, with such concentration. He was not distracted for a single second. He did not have the slightest, not the tiniest, doubt that Vishnu was present in everything. He was not wondering if Vishnu would protect him, he was not testing it out, he absolutely knew it. That's the problem with taking this story literally or trying to imitate it. You are not yet so single-minded about God. And once you are, you will no longer be interested in performing feats of survival. You will just be happy in being united with God. Remembering this story can lead you just a little bit along the way.
So, now Prahlada told his fellow pupils all about Lord Vishnu, and, unlike many modern children, they listened eagerly - perhaps because what Prahlada said was forbidden knowledge. 'There is more pain than pleasure in this world,' he preached, 'all pleasure and fun ends far too soon. If you want everlasting happiness which nobody can take away from you, then you must meditate on Lord Vishnu and learn the wisdom which leads to true happiness. This whole world is only a manifestation of Vishnu.'"
"But how did Prahlada know all this stuff about Lord Vishnu if neither his parents nor his teachers had taught him?" asked Dinésh.
"During the battle with the gods, the asuras (demons) were so selfish and cowardly that they only saved themselves and abandoned their wives. At that time Queen Hiránya-Kashípu, Hiránya-Kashípu's wife, who was a good woman and was at that time carrying her son Prahlada in her womb, took refuge in the áshram (hermitage) of Sage Nárada (Narada). From then on she looked after the Saint's every need and often had long conversations with him."
"Why did the Queen serve the Saint?" asked Yamuna. "Was she not too noble for that?"
"No, it is a sign of her wisdom and common sense. Even though she was a Queen, she knew that wisdom is more important than social rank. She also knew that the soul in each human being is one with God and that therefore the soul of a queen is not worth more than the soul of a saint, of a beggar or even of a criminal.
She had four reasons for serving Sage Nárada (Narada):
- She was grateful for having been given shelter and protection.
- She was naturally kind and knew that Nárada (Narada), who was by then a very old man (many hundreds of years old if not more), needed her help as much as she needed his.
- She wanted to learn from his wisdom and knew that one of the best ways of learning a lot is by being close to your teacher, being friends with him or living with him, and especially doing things for him. Then you can pick up many things in passing, he will repeat them without noticing and you will understand and remember them better.
- She also knew that if you serve and help any frail person who needs help, you gain merit. The Queen wanted to gain merit for the benefit of her unborn son, Prahlada.
But there was one thing the Queen did not know, namely that her unborn son, still in her womb, could hear every word spoken by her and by Sage Nárada (Narada). Therefore by the time Prahlada was born, today it would be after nine months but I do not know how many months or years it took in those days when people and especially heros and saints lived much longer, - anyway, when Prahlada was born, all the wisdom of God was already instilled in his mind. He only needed the experience of enlightenment, the personal experience of being one with God, and then he would be ready for moksha (final liberation from rebirth and death).
It was very lucky that all this time his mother lived in the house of Nárada (Narada) and conversed with him. It therefore is very important that mothers who are expecting a baby keep only good company, eat only good food, do not smoke and do not drink. Of course, they should not do that at other times either, because it is a very silly and harmful thing to do at any time of your life, but when a baby is expected it is even worse."
"I like that," said Yamuna. "When I am big and am expecting a baby, I will go to classes and talk to clever people or watch good programmes on television. Then my baby will know foreign languages or philosophy or be able to recite poetry or shlokas (verses from the scriptures) from the day it is born. It will, won't it?" asked Yamuna.
"I cannot promise you that. It worked at the time when Prahlada was born. But that was many millions of years ago. I am not sure if it still works. Perhaps it does, and perhaps it doesn't. But if you keep good company at such a time (and at any time), it cannot do you any harm, and it may do you and the baby some good. Therefore you might as well assume that it still works today. But don't be disappointed if your baby, when the time comes, does not speak Sanskrit fluently (like the Buddha did) when it is born. All right?"
Yamuna was satisfied. "Thank God!" thought her Uncle.
When King Hiránya-Kashípu heard that his son was now corrupting the innocent demon children, the sons and daughters of his ministers and cronies, with his religion, he ordered his son to be stripped of all his clothes and to be stood, naked, on top of Mount Everest. He then ordered a fierce icy cutting wind to blow incessantly from all ten directions. The wind obeyed and blew and blew. It entered Prahlada's nostrils, his ears, his mouth. It entered all pores of his skin. It filled his lungs, his stomach, his kidneys, the space between his ribs, the hollow spaces in his bones, his very heart. But Prahlada fixed his mind on Lord Vishnu, who lives in the hearts of all and exists in everything that is. Vishnu drank up the fearful wind. The wind was destroyed but Prahlada lived.
So the King told the cooks of the royal palace to lace Prahlada's food with the deadliest poison that could be found. Instead of using spices, they put in poisons by the fistful. But Prahlada swallowed it all happily and even seemed to enjoy the novel flavours created by the poisons.
The King's magicians then created 'the fiery female', a woman that was enveloped in fire and tried to pierce his breast with a magic trident. But when the weapon touched Prahlada, it broke into a hundred and eight pieces.
Hiránya-Kashípu was a high-spirited demon. He was beginning to enjoy his contest with Lord Vishnu and decided to make a meal of it. His poor son, Prahlada, of course, was the football in this match or the rope in this tug-of-war. Would you like to be a football, Dinésh?"
"No, I wouldn't. I don't mind kicking a ball, but I don't want to be kicked around."
"And you, Yamuna? Shall we play tug-of-war with you? Dinésh takes your feet and I take your plaits, and then we pull as hard as we can and see who wins. Would you like that?"
"No," said Yamuna, "I would scream."
"Well, Prahlada did not have to scream because Vishnu made him very strong.
King Hiránya-Kashípu decided that the next round of his match with Lord Vishnu should take place in Blackburn-with-Darwen, of which he had heard so much because of its famous football team, which had just been relegated. So the King bundled his son into a suitcase and with all his retinue took a flight to Manchester, a coach to Darwen, climbed up to Darwen Tower and threw Prahlada down from the top of the Tower. But, protected by Lord Vishnu, Prahlada fell on his feet, like a cat, and did not even receive a bruise.
'Darwen Tower is not high enough', said a wicked politician from Blackpool who had come to watch. 'Why don't you come to Blackpool; we have a much bigger tower there and many people will be there to watch and cheer. We'll advertise the event for a week, and then the whole of England will be there. Meanwhile you can stay at a nice bed-and-breakfast at the Council's expense.' King Hiránya-Kashípu accepted that proposal but did not want to spend a whole week in a bed-sitter watching English television.
He therefore entertained himself during the intervening week by showing his prodigy off in Paris and New York by flinging him down from the Eiffel Tower and from the Empire State Building. As you can well imagine, no harm came to Prahlada. In Paris Lord Vishnu made a strong wind to slow down his fall, and in New York when Prahlada, the great friend of Lord Vishnu, came near the ground, Mother Earth herself opened her arms to soften the impact and receive him like a baby. King Hiránya-Kashípu was duly impressed by the power of Lord Vishnu, but he continued to hate him as ever.
'Let's see, what he thinks of when we tease him at Blackpool!' said the King.
In Blackpool virtually the whole population of the British Isles had assembled, all the parking lots were full, the motorways were clogged all the way from Blackpool to Birmingham, all the television stations of the world had their reporters and cameras stationed around Blackpool Tower, when Prince Prahlada was taken to the top of the tower thinking of nothing but Lord Vishnu who he knew would protect him. As his father's henchwomen and henchmen pushed him off the platform on top of the tower, a miracle occurred. Suddenly Prahlada turned into a giant football - with the world cup logo and the logo of Blackburn Rovers. The football bounced up and down for four minutes and a half and then came to a halt and turned back into the shape of Prahlada.
King Hiránya-Kashípu now took his son to the southernmost tip of India, the spot where it is close to the Island of Sri Lanka and where you can almost see it if you have very very good eye-sight or a good telescope. He bound him with ropes, tied him to an alliterated lorry loaded with lead and threw it into the sea. But, as you both would have expected by now, Prahlada did not sink. He was floating on top of the waves, as if he had been tied to a load of cork, his eyes closed, a smile on his face, and as peaceful as a baby in a basket.
Since Prahlada refused to drown, the King tied him to a drilling platform and sank it to the botton of the sea. He then piled twenty more drilling platforms on top of that and threw all the rubbish of India on top of this to fill in the spaces.
He organised an airlift from America to India. For six months 903 military transport planes flew to and fro, day and night, and ferried all the rubbish of America to the spot and dumped it on top of Prahlada. The King went on piling up the rubble until it was ten miles high above the water, to say nothing of the many miles below the surface which he had filled. The friends of the earth became hopping mad, but they could not stop the powerful king. They started praying to Lord Vishnu and begged him to take all the rubbish out of the sea again. They became devotees of Lord Vishnu and called it New Age. So, in a round-about way, by refusing to drown, Prahlada had converted them too.
Prahlada himself sat below all that rubbish, at the bottom of the ocean, where he continued chanting and praising Lord Vishnu. The King could not hear him there and thought he was winning the battle and he had shut up his rebellious son for good. Only the whales, who have got underwater ears, could hear him over long distances and, since they are very curious and God-fearing by nature, they approached from all oceans of the earth in order to gape at the miracle.
Prahlada went on chanting for a long time, and I am not sure whether it was for hours, years, or millennia.
While buried under this mountain of rubble, Prahlada meditated on Lord Vishnu for so long and with such concentration that he realised that Vishnu was not only resident in his heart but that he and Vishnu were one. In this whole wide world, there was nothing but Vishnu."
"What about Shiva?" asked Yamuna.
"Vishnu and Shiva are one," replied her uncle. "People who worship Shiva say, rightly: 'In this whole world there is nothing but Shiva.' Both are right. Or you might say, rightly: 'In this whole world there is nothing but Yamuna.' "
Yamuna gasped. The Pandit was silent for a while.
"When Prahlada had at last fully realised that he was one with Vishnu, the ropes which held him fell apart and the oceans started moving in their depths as if they were boiling. Never before had the world seen such an uproar. A thousand underwater volcanoes erupted. The waves flew into the sky and raced around the world as if they were clouds in a storm. The sea threatened to submerge the earth. It threw the rubble which was lying on top of Prahlada back on the shore.
The sea monsters took fright at this commotion and swam away from the Indian Ocean as fast as they could. They ended up in Scotland, were granted refugee status and given a council flat in Loch Ness.
The Prince swam back to the beach with a smile on his face and a chant in honour of Lord Vishnu on his lips.
Then Vishnu himself appeared before him. He wore a yellow robe, had four arms, and held his conch, discus (chákra), mace and lotus in his hands.
Vishnu offered Prahlada a boon, a favour. Prahlada requested: 'Let me always love you and always be devoted to you. Let me never lose my faith in you.'
Vishnu said: 'You are devoted to me already and will never lose your devotion. You may ask me another boon.'
Prahlada said: 'Please forgive my father for all the sins he has ever committed against you and me, for example by hating you or by trying to kill me.'
Lord Vishnu said: 'I have forgiven your father. He will have to serve his three life sentences on earth. But he is a valiant enemy of mine and I am very fond of him. Therefore I will shorten each of his life sentences by killing him with my own hand when he is still young and strong.
Do you see the island over there? That is Lanka. In his next life, your father will live on that island as the ten-headed monster Ravana, together with his brother Kumbhakárna. He will spend his life worshipping me by hating and fighting me. Then I will be on earth as Rama and kill him in battle. He will be born once more, as Dantavakra, brother of King Shishupála. Again I will shorten his life by killing him in battle' ".
"That's funny," said Yamuna. "If Lord Vishnu loves the King, why does he kill him?"
"You got that wrong, Béti," said the Pandit. "You are looking at life and death like people who do not know that we have many lives and want to be liberated from the cycle of birth and death. King Hiránya-Kashípu's punishment did not consist in being killed; it was not what Christians call a 'death penalty'. Death is not a penalty. The king's punishment consisted in being born. Each birth was like being thrown into a prison cell, and each death was like being released from prison. Being killed early means early release. Birth is punishment, death is liberation. But living on earth as human beings is also our great chance to try to learn about our nature and about God's. Once we have understood the truth, we will become one with God."
"Did King Hiránya-Kashípu become one with God when he had died for the third time?" asked Yamuna.
"He did. When that happened, he was on earth as the demon Dantavákra and Lord Vishnu was on earth as Kríshna. Kríshna killed Dantavákra in a ferocious battle. When Dantavákra fell down dead, our scripture says (Shrímad Bhágavatam 10.78, p 306), a 'wonderfully subtle light came out of Dantavákra's body and entered the body of Kríshna and all the people watching the battle could see it'. That's how the soul of the gatekeeper Víjaya and later King Hiránya-Kashípu, then to become Ravana and then Dantavákra became finally one with God. That's what we all live and work for, each of us in his own way, to be liberated from birth and death and to become one with God."
There was a long pause. Then the Pandit resumed the story.
Lord Vishnu said: 'You may ask me yet another boon.'
Prahlada answered: 'I need nothing else. You have given me faith. I therefore have dharma (righteousness) and all the ártha (artha) (wealth) and Kama (pleasure) I desire, and I know that moksha (liberation) will surely follow.'
Lord Vishnu responded: 'I promise that you will be liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth when you come to the end of your life.'
With those words the great Being disappeared. The demon soldiers, however, who had been stunned by the apparition, dragged Prahlada to the palace of his father.
King Hiránya-Kashípu now offered his son a free exclusive holiday on Pleasure Island with some of the nicest people he could think of: Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Augusto Pinochet, Idi Amin and Slobodan Milosevic. They were all family butchers by profession. In their company, the King hoped, his son would experience the joys of bloodlust, of godlessness and of unlimited power and would want to follow their glorious example. Bad company, he knew, is one of the most effective ways of corrupting a person.
The King was utterly dismayed when he learnt after two weeks that Slobodan Milosevic had become a monk on Mount Athos and Hitler a church painter.
Saddam Hussein had withdrawn into the desert to live as a hermit. There he was sitting crosslegged, in the middle of an interminable desert storm, from morning to night, meditating on the Lord, and people were coming from far and wide to ask him, the reformed sinner, for spiritual advice. From time to time he was visited by his guru, Vishvamitra, whose footsteps he had followed in the sand.
Vishvamitra had once been a powerful king. During a visit to the áshram of the great sage Vasíshtha, Vishvamitra had started craving for Shabalá, the cow of plenty (Kamadhúk), who provided Vasíshtha with all his material wants without limits. At a simple request from her owner, Shabalá would, for example, instantly produce food for a whole army of visitors. King Vishvamitra thought such a cow was far too good for a hermit with few wants and would be much more useful for a king. He first tried to buy Shabalá and offered twenty pounds. Then a million dollars. They were refused. He offered a million billion euros, but Vishvamitra would not part with Shabalá at any price, not even for euros. Vishvamitra therefore tried to take Shabalá by force. Shabalá cried her eyes out, because she did not want to be parted from her beloved master. Vasíshtha told Shabalá to produce an army to fight off Vishvamitra's soldiers. Shabalá's army was, of course, bigger and stronger and won. Vishvamitra realised that a king is weaker than a holy man and decided to become a saint. He did so with a vengeance. He resigned his kingdom and meditated and practised tapas (austerities) for thousands of years until he had become the greatest saint on earth. Later he became the guru of God Rama, who was also a warrior on earth, apart from being God. Vishvamitra is the prototype of the powerhungry king turned sage. Some people say that Kamadhúk was Kuwait, a tiny but infinitely rich country which Saddam Hussein once tried to take by force after having tried persuasion in vain. This is possible, but we cannot be quite sure. But one thing is certain, like Vishvamitra, his guru, Saddam Hussein was now trying to turn from warrior into saint.
Augusto Pinochet had decided to become Pope or Grand Inquisitor since there was no vacancy for God. Idi Amin had become a vegetarian like Hitler because he did not want to hurt innocent animals and he no longer fancied human flesh. Joseph Stalin had become a television evangelist.
Prahlada with his divine eloquence had converted them all.
King Hiránya-Kashípu was president of an exclusive club in New Delhi, the Boon Club. Only people who had been granted some magical favour, a boon, by the gods were allowed to be members. A boon (supernatural reward) is the opposite of a curse (punishment). King Hiránya-Kashípu phoned the Boon Club to help him with his next project. That's how he found Holiká (Holika) , who turned out to be his long-lost sister and Prahlada's aunt. She was not beautiful and therefore looked trustworthy and very motherly. She had a boon which said she could not be destroyed even by the fiercest fire.
Holiká (Holika) lived on Mars, a planet not far from Hiránya-Kashípu's capital, and was known the world over as an eccentric, or pyromaniac. For Holiká (Holika) loved to play with fire. As a result she had often been badly burnt. When she was a little girl, she played with matches and fire-lighters, even though her parents had strictly told her not to do so. Once she set fire to the curtains, once she burnt her hands because she had gone up to the gas-cooker and tried to take away the flame, which she wanted to put in her pocket. She loved to play with diyas (lights made of clarified butter) and candles. Once she joined her brothers who had made a big fire in the backyard. They all jumped over it to prove how brave they were. Poor Holi slipped, fell into the fire and burnt her bum. Anyway that's how her poetic brothers put it when they gleefully told the story to her parents. But her parents thought 'bum' was a vulgar word, and when the incident was reported in the Royal Gazette, it read: 'Holiká (Holika), the Princess Royal, fell into a fire and burnt her posterior.'
After that incident, Princess Holiká (Holika) started praying and fasting. One day a god appeared and asked her what she wanted. In other words, he offered her a boon. I do not know the name of the god but some people say his name was Christopher Fry. That's a funny name for an Indian god to have and sounds much more like an English dramatist. But that's what I have been told, and it doesn't really matter anyway. Holiká (Holika) said that she wanted not to be hurt or destroyed by fire, however hot, even if it were more than a million degrees centigrade. Her request was granted, and the words 'The Lady's not for Burning' appeared in letters of fire on her forehead. People came from miles around in order to admire the miracle.
Holiká (Holika) was immeasurably happy. Now she could play with fire as much as she liked, she could admire its purity, its heat, its beautiful colours, its flickering lights. She set out to test whether the boon was working or not.
First she helped her mother flame chapatis on the gas fire and it never hurt her hands. That shows what a nice girl Holiká (Holika) was when she was young (nobody is entirely bad), even though she came to a sticky end when she was big.
Then she joined the Preston fire brigade. Not only was she unafraid of fire, she actually loved it and walked right into it whenever she could and rescued many people who would otherwise had died. Therefore in no time at all she was promoted to Captain of the Preston Fire Brigade, and she was the first woman to reach that exalted position. A few years later she became England's first woman Fire Minister.
For a while she worked in a circus as a fire-eater. The nice thing about fire-eating is that it does not make you fat, but after a while it makes you hot and transparent. People started noticing that Holiká's (Holika's) skin became red, then it started emitting a glow as if it were made of glass and a fire were burning inside. People passing her in the street could feel the heat coming out of her. When she entered a house, people switched off the central heating, because she heated any room she entered. Her hands were so hot that when you put an uncooked chapati onto it, it would cook in no time at all. Finally she became so hot that flames were flickering all around her body, and even her hair was on fire. As a result, Holiká (Holika) could no longer enter any houses, because she would have set them on fire. She could not sit down on a chair, she could not sit in a car (because the cars started burning and exploded), and she could not travel by plane. Life became quite boring for her, and she saw that she had to stop eating fire and cool down as quickly as possible.
She dived into a lake at the border of Egypt, which started boiling and turned red immediately because she was so hot. When she came out, she was cool again, but the lake never lost its red colour and that's why it is still called The Red Sea today.
Now Holiká (Holika) became ambitious, and perhaps that is the time when she started to become bad because she no longer used her boon for good purposes. But I am not sure what it really was that made her bad except for the last thing when she tried to deceive her nephew Prahlada.
Holiká (Holika) decided to put her boon to the test. 'If it works,' she thought, 'I am really unburnable. And if it doesn't, I'll be dead, but I will sue god Christopher Fry under the trade descriptions act, for giving me a boon which does not keep what it promises.'
Holiká (Holika) booked a flight to the sun, which is the hottest thing you can possibly imagine. Even stones would melt on the sun as if they were made of wax. She landed safely on the sun, she did not melt and did not feel any pain. The surface of the sun consists of hot gasses and below it are molten metals and minerals. Holiká (Holika) took one big dive and swum to the centre of the sun. That's where the sun is hottest. There she sat for a thousand years waiting to see if she would melt or not.
Well, she didn't, and she was therefore well satisfied with her boon. It was a high-quality boon, probably Made-in-Germany by Vorsprung durch Technik.
So Holiká (Holika) came to the surface of the sun again and started splashing around in the ocean of molten rocks as if she were swimming and frolicking in water. As a result of her splashing about, some waves cooled down slightly and became black and made spots on the surface of the sun, the so-called sunspots, which astronomers can still observe today.
After this most demanding test of her boon, Holiká (Holika) had complete confidence in it and returned to her planet. This was just two months before her fortieth birthday.
At just this time King Hiránya-Kashípu had failed in his latest attempt to kill his son Prahlada. When he heard of his sister's exploits on the sun, he had a marvellous idea for his next attempt. He went to visit his sister. They plotted for one week and then the King returned to his capital.
He sent for his god-fearing and recalcitrant son and said: 'My dear Prahlada, on the first of March, your Phua Holiká (Holika), a.k.a. Miss Pyrex, will celebrate her birthday with a big fireworks display. Would you like us to go there and attend the celebrations? You know how fond she is of you and I am sure you will have a seat of honour by her side from which you can see everything.'
Young Prahlada also loved fireworks and was very happy about the proposal. He also looked forward to the idea of going to another planet and to travel through space, which he had not done very often in the past.
Therefore a few weeks later Father and Son went to Cape Canaveral and mounted a space rocket, that is to say, the father went inside the rocket but his son, who enjoyed fresh air and the feeling of freedom, and who at home had been a great lover of powerful motorbikes (he even admired the Hell's Angels, but his parents had never allowed him to join them), well Prahlada decided to travel by sitting on the rocket, as if he were on horseback.
He enjoyed the ride enormously and saw the earth and the planets and the stars from many unusual angles. He saw many strange animals, such as space squirrels, space dragons, celestial elephants and sky monkeys. Perhaps you, Yamuna, can think of a few more examples.
After one week, they arrived on Mars, Aunt Holiká's (Holika's) planet. She was waiting for them at the rocket-port, touched her brother's feet respectfully and hugged her nephew affectionately. She hugged him so tight, even though only for a few seconds, that Prahlada was surprised that a woman should have such strong arms, and it took his breath away, just for a moment. He touched her feet, and then they went to her palace. Outside the palace a huge pyramid-shaped structure had been erected with just one throne on top. 'From there you and I will watch the fireworks on my birthday,' said Aunt Holiká, 'and you will have the best view of anyone on this planet'.
'I look forward to that, Phua-ji,' said Prahlada gratefully.
Now I must explain to you how the viewing pyramid had been prepared. In those days there was a celestial railway, a heavenly railway, on which only gods were allowed to travel. This connected the earth, the planets and all the stars to each other. The trains travelled at an enormous speed, at a time when ordinary people on earth still had to walk or ride on donkeys, camels, elephants, parents or uncles. It was like a roller coaster on a fun fair, but shooting down much lower and racing up much higher and with the trains moving as fast as shooting stars. It was breath-taking and divine.
King Hiránya-Kashípu did all he could to make life difficult for the gods. Whenever he conquered a planet, he demolished the divine railway connecting it with the rest of the world. He send the rails to the sun for smelting and for making into superguns. The railway sleepers (that is the wooden logs on which the rails rest), however, went to Holiká (Holika) so that she could make them into fires. Since there are incredibly many stars in the universe and at least one god residing on each of them, and Hiránya-Kashípu conquered them one after another, Holiká (Holika) always had a large supply of railway sleepers on her planet.
After she had agreed her little surprise with her brother, she started preparing these sleepers, or logs. They were thousands of years old, since they belonged to a very ancient railway system, and had been thoroughly dried by the hot stars during this time.
First she soaked them in paraffin for four weeks. Then she dipped them in liquid asphalt. That made them even more burnable but they now looked black and ugly, and everyone could see that they were dangerous. When the asphalt had solidified, Holiká (Holika) had to disguise it and make the sleepers look pretty and festive. She therefore dipped them into barrels with coloured wax, red, blue, green, yellow, orange, white and brown.
Then her servants built a huge pyramid in front of her palace. The base was one mile long on each side. The logs were put one foot apart so that plenty of air could circulate between them, and each layer of logs was at right angles with the previous one. When the pyramid was half a mile high and its peak had been constructed, they built a glorious throne on top of it. From here Holiká (Holika) was going to watch the fireworks to be held in her honour.
When Hiránya-Kashípu and his son Prahlada arrived on Mars and passed that pyramid on their way into Aunt Holi's palace, it was almost ready: 'Tomorrow the two of us, just the two of us, will sit on that pyramid to watch my birthday fireworks, I always call it my hot-seat - that's my sense of humour, you know. We will have a better view than any of my subjects. Never in your life will you have seen such fireworks and never again will you see them,' Holiká (Holika) promised.
The following morning, the birthday celebrations for Princess Holiká (Holika) started. At four o'clock, the Bráhma Vela, the sacred hour of Lord Bráhma, which is the best time to get up to bathe, meditate and pray, one hundred and eight cannon stationed on the mountain tops and on the highest stars and planets fired a salute. Then an army of trumpeters started to play: 'Happy birthday to you, ..., happy birthday, happy Holi, happy birthday to you'. They played so loud that Holiká's (Holika's) palace shook in its foundations. Fairy tale palaces always do. Even the people in far-off Blackburn fell out of their beds. If you see anyone with a bruised face today, then you know how it happened, because those bruises never disappeared. The neighbours complained and wrote angry letters to the Council. Sometimes even today, so many millions of years later, you can still hear a loud bang or a rumbling noise arriving from outer space. These are the echoes of the salute which they then shot for Princess Holiká on Mars. People who don't know any better call it 'thunder'.
They spent the day getting drunk and stuffing themselves with food, something we should never do, but that's what demons do. That's why they are called demons and when we are angry and tell somebody to 'get stuffed', we are in effect saying that she is a demon and that she might as well go and join them. We shouldn't really say this, but you know what people are like when they get angry.
When it got dark, the people assembled in front of the palace to watch the fireworks, 'the biggest in recorded history', Holiká had claimed. They had been advertised on all the television stations of the universe and people had come from all the stars and planets, and even from earth and from Blackburn to watch it. I can swear to it because I was there myself when I was your age."
Yamuna cast a doubtful look at her uncle.
"Well, not quite," said the Pandit quickly, "but my grandfather when he was a boy knew someone who had a brother who knew somebody who was there and told him all about it. So it must be true. Trust me!
To entertain the huge crowd, a jumbo band was playing outside the palace and since it was music from Mars they called it 'martial music'.
Now Princess Holiká and her nephew Prahlada stepped out of the palace, dressed in glorious garments of gold and silver and covered with gems, especially amber, which was Aunt Holi's favourite.
Can you imagine why, Yamuna?"
"Because of its pretty colour?"
"Perhaps," said Pandit-ji, "but there is another reason. Remember that she loved fire. What is the connection between amber and fire?"
"I think it burns easily because it is really resin from fir trees that has hardened over millions of years," said Dinésh proudly.
"Right you are," said Uncle-ji. "If you put a lighted match to anything made of amber, it will burn very hotly, you will destroy a beautiful and expensive ornament, the amber will melt and when drops of molten amber fall on your hands, you will get badly burnt.
Holiká and Prahlada now slowly ascended the pyramid, one step after another, a total of 333 steps, until they reached the throne. There was only one throne, obviously for the Princess, but not even a simple chair for Prahlada. He, of course, was used to sitting on the floor, lower than his elders, as is right and proper, so he sat down on one of the sleepers while his aunt sat down on her throne. 'Come up here, my dear boy,' she said with a false smile, 'this is my birthday, and I want you to sit on my lap so that I can hug you and kiss you, for my own children are all big now and have left home to become generals in their uncle's army, and I miss them soooo much.'
Prahlada, who trusted his aunt and did not know how wicked she could be when she put her mind to it, did not hesitate to accept her invitation, and happily sat down on her lap. Immediately she clasped her two arms around him so tightly that even a professional wrestler would have found it impossible to free himself from her vice-like grip, to say nothing of a little boy, who is much weaker. German engineers were in the crowd and saw what happened and Holiká gave them the idea of designing the first vice. Today there is no engineering workshop which does not have one.
But when Prahlada felt his aunt's steely grip around his waist, he was beginning to get worried: 'Was this the pressure of love or of hatred?'
Do you know what Aunt Holiká was up to?"
"She wanted to stop Prahlada from running away," said Dinésh.
"But Lord Vishnu was protecting him and had never let him down before. So he had no reason to run away from any danger," said Yamuna.
"No, he didn't. But Holiká didn't know that. She knew that she could not be burnt but was sure that he could, like most ordinary people, and that therefore he would try to escape from the fire that she had prepared. She wanted to sit together with him in the fire, hold him like a vice made of iron, then he would burn but the vice, that is Holiká, would survive because of the boon she had. Let us see if it turned out that way.
Holiká gave the signal for the fireworks to start and her band struck up music by her court composer Handel composed especially for the occasion. But there were no rockets and no catherine's wheels as in ordinary fireworks. The fireworks she had planned were a bonfire, and she and her nephew were sitting right in the middle of it. A hundred of her servants came with blazing torches and lit the pyramid of railway sleepers, wax, tar, tyres and petrol which she had prepared, and in an instant the whole pyramid was ablaze.
Prahlada thought of Lord Vishnu as he always did when he was in danger, and also when he was not in danger, and the flames and the heat and the tremendous smoke from the car tyres did not harm him in the slightest. Strangely enough, Holiká did not think of God, not even of the god who had given her the boon that she would not be hurt by fire. She was so sure of her boon. It had been given once and for all, unconditionally, and it would always work, whatever she was thinking at the time. Or so she thought.
For this time was the one exception. She had been trying to use her boon for decidedly evil purposes - to kill an innocent child, after having misled that child who trusted in the love of his aunt, and to make it worse, all this was part of a plot to kill a devotee of Lord Vishnu. On this occasion the boon did not work. Seconds after the bonfire had been lit, Holiká let out shrieks of pain as the fire was burning her hair, and the heat was singeing her skin and the smoke of the car tyres was suffocating her. The fire was so tremendous that its flames reached into outer space and scorched the sun and some of them even touched the earth, somewhere in North Africa, and where its flames burnt away the plants and destroyed all seeds we now have a desert in which there is only sand and in which nothing grows. That desert is called the Sahara.
The fire on Mars burnt for a whole week. Holiká was burnt to ashes, but Prahlada did not come to any harm at all. His trust in God had been stronger than any boon or promise from God.
The smoke from Holiká's (Holika's) fire drifted across the whole of the universe and some remnants of it are still around today, especially in the smog that hangs over big cities and which makes it hard to see or to breathe, especially for asthmatics.
The ashes which remained on Mars were red because the fire had been so terribly hot, and they were scattered over the whole planet and coloured it red. Mars is therefore called "the red planet". You can see its red colour even with your bare eyes if you look at it in the sky during a cloudless night.
In memory of this big fire we have our own bonfire tonight on the eve of Holi, and the festival is named after Holiká who unsuccessfully tried to kill Prahlada by fire but died in it herself.
The coloured powders which we throw at each other in fun on the day of Holi remind us of the red ashes of Holiká's (Holika's) big bonfire."
Yamuna's mother had appeared in the doorway and was pointing at her watch. It was twenty to seven and time to go to temple for arti, the evening prayers.
The temple was more crowded than usual, lots of cars were parked in the street outside, and after arti everyone went to the parking lot behind the temple where a big fire was burning. People had brought grains, coconuts and water which they threw as offerings into the fire, they walked around it clockwise to show their respect while saying their prayers. Mothers carried their babies in their arms. The children gazed with joy and amazement.
At the same time children and adults alike were joking and playing with each other and were taking liberties which are not allowed on normal days when the rules of respect have to be observed. They had brought coloured powders, especially red and green, and were throwing them at each other. Some had brought syringes or bicycle pumps with which they were squirting coloured water at each other. Wisely, most people had not put on their best clothes. Some people looked more and more like punks or tramps. There was now an inextricable mixture between sacredness and profanity, everybody doing what he pleased, be it by praying or spraying. For us everything is sacred, nothing is profane.
The bigger boys and the more cheeky girls were now trying to toss the half-burnt coconuts out of the fire with big poles. Roasted like this they are the most delicious food that can be imagined. But they have to be retrieved before they are entirely burnt. A little girl of eight with a charred coconut between the blackened palms of her hand and the sweetest and cheekiest smile imaginable came up to Pandit-ji because he was a stranger in this small assembly, looked rather dignified and had aroused her curiosity.
"May I do it to you?" she said.
And deftly she smeared his face with her blackened fingers while a look of glee transfigured her face.
(Click on pictures for larger version)
On the next day, the Pandit resumed his story:
"Never in all the history of the world had a dictator been provoked and humiliated as much as King Hiránya-Kashípu. He had been frustrated at every step. It was like running against a brick wall. The King was furious beyond measure. His eyes turned red like tomatoes and started spinning like CD ROMs."
"Quadruple speed, or faster?" asked Dinésh.
His uncle, who was also a computer buff, did not hesitate for a second: "Quadruple-speed my foot", he said. "This was a state of the art fury. 64-speed at least."
"Did they spin clockwise or anti-clockwise?"
"Both. His right eye spun clockwise and his left eye anti-clockwise. Every few seconds they popped out of his head and then popped back in again and then changed direction. That was one of the King's party tricks. It sounded like an infernal champagne party.
The King summoned his son into the main hall of his palace. Its vault was supported by a huge pillar.
'Who is this flipping Vishnu, to whom you keep praying and who, as you say, is everywhere? I am sure he is not in this pillar. Let him come out if he dare to face me. I am invincible.'
The King screamed: 'Hey there, Vishnu boy! Where are you hiding? If you are in this pillar, why don't you bloody come out and show your effing face!'
He drew his sword, spat a mouthful of royal gob on the pillar and kicked it. A tremendous roar was heard. The pillar trembled and the palace seemed to be swaying. The pillar burst open and Vishnu jumped out of it. Above the hips he was a lion (símha) with a wild mane, a huge mouth, sharp teeth and angry rolling eyes. Below the hips he was formed like a man (nára). This form of Vishnu is therefore called Nára-Símha, the Man-Lion. He had huge arms and paws with claws as long as daggers. He grabbed the terrified King and took him to the threshold of the palace. It was about 6 p.m., the hour of dusk, which is neither day nor night. Nára-Símha was standing on the threshold of the building, which is neither inside nor out, he held the King one yard above the ground, which is neither on earth nor in the heavens. Nára-Símha was neither human nor animal, and he tore the King to pieces with his claws, which means he did not kill him with any weapons.
Nára-Símha then gave a bear-hug to Prahlada and tenderly put his hand on Prahlada's head. He installed him on his father's throne. Justice and goodness were once again restored to the world. The gods returned to their former dominions, good people were rewarded and bad people were punished. The world was not perfect (thank God), but it was a better place for a long time to come. Not forever, of course - but that is another story."
© 2001 Ashutosh Vardhana