The divine protector Nrsimhadeva, with his ferocious half-man half-lion form, is one of the most recognizable avatars of Lord Krishna. Vaishnavas pray to Him when they're in danger, remembering how he saved the boy devotee Prahlad from his tyrannical father, the demon Hiranyakashipu. But how much do we really know about Nrsimha? Would we recognize the more than seventy forms of Him described in the Vaishnava worship texts, the Pancharatra-Agama?
Dhruva Dasa, an ISKCON youth who grew up worshipping Nrsimhadeva, has spent the last ten years of his life researching the feline Lord and his many aspects. "As Nrismha burst out of the pillar in Hiranyakashipu's palace, and the dust settled, he took in the sight of both Prahlad and Hiranyakashipu," he says. "As soon as he saw the demon, he flew into such a formidable rage that he was ready to destroy the world, taking on the form known as Sthanu Nrsimha." Depictions of this form show half of Nrsimha looking at Hiranyakashipu in anger, while the other half gazes on Prahlad with love.
Nrsimhadeva fought the demon, and in his anger took on the form of Jwala, or fire. Next, in his form known as Vira, he seized Hiranyakashipu, dragged him onto his lap, and tore him open with his fingernails, embodying the famous form of Ugra-Nrsimha. At this point he became so terrifying that even his consort Lakshmidevi ran away from him. Hurt and offended, she turned to Prahlad. "I don't know my Lord like this," she said. "He'll only accept you, Prahlad - you must go to Him." As Nrsimhadeva finally became pacified by Prahlada's prayers, Lakshmi returned to sit on his lap.
"It's generally directed that family men don't worship Ugra Nrsimha, as they have their wife with them, and that form of the Lord doesn't," Dhruva explains. "It's like being unfaithful -- there's no devotion that will override that fact." Householders are therefore advised to worship the form of Lakshmi-Nrsimha, who is enjoying with his wife and in a peaceful mood.
According to Dhruva, even the seventy forms of Nrsimha described in the Pancharatna Agama only touch the tip of the iceberg. "After years of searching, I've realized that there's only so much you can learn in books about Nrsimha worship in India," he says. "Every different caste, dynasty, and province worship him differently. In Kerala, they dress Him as Nrsimhadeva at night, and as Krishna just before the sun comes up. In Rajasthan, they worship a form of Him as a child with adorable glittery ornaments, who barely even looks like Nrsimha. In Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, they worship Him opulently and with awe and reverence. And in Andhra Pradesh, he's worshipped by uneducated, tribal people who actually offer Him meat."
Over three hundred temples in India house these different forms of Nrsimhadeva. Perhaps the most famous of all is Ahobilam, a remote place in the hills of Andhra Pradesh, South India, said to be the very spot where Nrsimhadeva killed Hiranyakashipu. Ahobilam Dham was widely introduced to ISKCON by Indradyumna Swami, whose dramatic account of his visit there in 1979 inspired several young men to undertake a spiritual adventure and see Vaishnava culture in its authentic, raw element.
One of these was ISKCON News managing editor Ekendra Dasa, who at twenty-four, embarked on his journey armed with a large Crocodile Dundee style knife, a compass, a one-man tent, a basic survival kit, and a prayer book called Nrsimha-Mala-Stotra. Fortunately only the last item turned out to be essential, as in the close to twenty years since Indradyumna Swami had visited, there were now some dirt roads and even a guesthouse at the remote temple of Lower Ahobila Nrsimha.
"It still wasn't without danger though," says Ekendra, who visited Ahobilam in 1998. "A young man who became my tour guide took me to the nine Nrsimhadeva shrines located in a 5 km circle around the main temple, and we did have to travel through some jungle. As we hiked, I chanted prayers from my book to Nrsimha, asking him for his protection. When I saw the occasional cobra creep across our path, I was surprised to find that they didn't frighten me. I felt very safe and secure, just like my child does when he's in my arms. And I realized that Lord Nrsimha really does protect his devotees, and that he enjoys doing it."
Upon visiting the shrines, Ekendra found that they contained stone carvings, with the original deities kept in the temple of Prahladavarada Varadhan ("Protector of Prahlad") for security reasons. When Ekendra saw the deities, he realized why - they were beautifully decorated in solid gold and what seemed like precious jems.
Next to the deities, the most popular pilgrim spot is a large stone column on Ahobilam's highest peak, which members of the Sri Vaishnava Ahobilam Math say is the original pillar that Nrsimha emerged from. This is a somewhat controversial claim because the Srimad-Bhagavatam relates that the fight between Nrsimhadeva and Hiranyakashipu took place in the heavenly planets, not on Earth.
Adding to this is Srila Prabhupada's lack of reference to Ahobilam, and the fact that the Ahobilam Math are an esoteric group, to say the least. Their first Jeeyar, or guru, claims to have been initiated into sannyasa by Lord Nrsimhadeva Himself in 1398, while current Jeeyar Krishnamacharya headed for the US recently to preach, saying that Nrismha instructed him to do so in a dream.
Both Ekendra and Dhruva, who first visited Ahovalam in 1999, say that while some may question their credibility, there is much that points towards the authenticity of the Sri Ahobilam Math.
Most prominent is the fact that according to the Caitanya-Caritamrita, Lord Chaitanya Himself visited Ahobilam on his South Indian pilgrimage, which could validate that it is in fact the holy land of Lord Nrsimha, just as Vrindavana is Krishna's holy land.
Next is the story in the Stala Purana describing how Ahovalam came into being when the great devotee Garuda asked for a vision of Nrsimhadeva. To fulfill his wish, the Lord manifested Ahovalam Dhama, now also known as Garudadri and Garudacalam. This implies that while Ahobilam may or may not have been the original place of Nrsimha's appearance, it became so through the wish of a pure devotee.
"Whether it is the original place or not, what's the difference?" Dhruva says. "Nrsimhadeva is everywhere, and so he's in Ahobilam too."
Dhruva adds that there is without doubt something special about the Ugra-stambha pillar. "If you stand on it, gazing out over Ahobilam, and try to remove all your doubts, all your modern scientific rationalizing, you'll realize that there's something there. You'll also notice that although the rest of Ahobilam is lush, green jungle, there aren't many nice trees in the area around the pillar, and what's more, every year there's a forest fire that destroys any remaining greenery. The locals say that it's a residual effect from when the pillar exploded and Nrsimhadeva burst from it."
But more convincing than any of this is the genuine compassion, warmth, and devotion for Lord Nrsimhadeva that the residents of Ahobilam show. "I felt very fortunate to be there," Ekendra says. "Despite the caste consciousness prevalent in Indian temples, these devotees treated me, technically an untouchable, like a Vaishnava. I remember once when I was hungry, I asked a family cooking rotis in a shop there if I could have one. They kindly invited me to share their lunch with them, and affectionately called me the 'Australian Brahmana'. The temple priests were very concerned that I got to see the Deities and take Their prasadam. Everything they did proved to me that they were authentic Vaishnavas."
Dhruva adds, "They didn't want to take anything from me - they just wanted to share their love of Nrsimhadeva with me."
However, the effects of a darker age are falling upon even such a pure place, and Dhruva advises those who want to visit Ahobilam and other Nrsimha temples to go as soon they can. "They're very quickly losing their charm," he says. "It's very sad. Ahobilam has become a tourist hub like Tirupati and Sri Rangam - at the cost of attracting more interest, they're destroying the antiquity of the place."
But there's a much darker reason why devotees should visit immediately. "Most of these temples won't be around in a couple of years," says Dhruva. "Antique collectors and treasure hunters are stealing Nrsimhadeva deities and selling them for millions of dollars to fine arts auction houses and other companies."
He relates how last year, he finally found a temple in South India that he'd been searching for years, home to a large solid gold deity of Nrismhadeva with thirty-two arms. He was too late. Treasure hunters had pillaged the temple, stolen the deity and killed the brahmana priests.
"We have to put the word out there that these temples need to be protected," says Dhruva, who has already enlisted some wealthy private individuals to help him secure several. "And we have to educate and protect the temple's priests, who often are so poor that they'd rather sell the deities, and make the kind of money that they would otherwise never have seen in their entire life. We must keep them encouraged in their service to these beautiful temples and deities."
Dhruva also urges people who have visited Nrsimhadeva temples to write about their experiences. He's currently working on Divine Protector: Nrsimhadeva, a four hundred page coffee-table book featuring temples of the half-man half-lion avatar. The book also gives a factual, modern academic viewpoint on Nrsimha, why and how he's worshipped, and the artwork, paintings and sculptures that he inspires.
Dhruva has seen over 300 Nrsimha temples on his travels. But he's opted to feature only 108 of these, excluding more well-known temples such as Ahovalam, Simhachalam and Mangala Giri and instead highlighting unique and lesser known places of worship. "The book also focuses on the different types of worship in each province, historic devotees of Nrsimhadeva such as Ramanujacarya, and contemporary devotees I've met on my travels, such as Indradyumna Swami and Gaudiya Math guru Puri Maharaja."
Dhruva, who took many of the book's photographs himself along with professional ISKCON youth photographers Bimala and Radhanath, says that the book will be available sometime next year. "This project has taken up so many years of my life - I've been working on it since 1998," he says. "It's given me so much joy, and introduced me to so many great people. I hope readers will find it upbeat and fun and gain joy from it too."
One thing is for sure: Whatever cruel effects modern times have on India's ancient Nrsimhadeva temples, this wonderful incarnation of Krishna will continue to protect his devotees forever, and they will continue to worship Him, somehow or another.