It is the summer of 1983. A jury in Orange County, California—that bastion of “traditional American values,” that home to Disneyland and the pioneering mega-church Crystal Cathedral—a jury stares at a large poster. Faces register shock and awe. They behold the astonishing Narasiṁha, the avatāra with the body of a man and the head of a lion, sitting before a shattered pillar. Across his lap stretches the disemboweled body of the demon-lord Hiraṅyakaśipu, having just been slain by Narasiṁha in the typical fashion of a lion. The Avatar has garlanded his own divine form with the demon’s bloody entrails. Narasiṁha roars in victory. Standing before the Lord is the devotee Prahlāda, the abused and tortured son of the demon, his eyes now filled with tears of love, as he lifts up a flower garland to honor his deliverer.
The jury is hearing a lawsuit against ISKCON, which stands accused of “brainwashing” an underage girl who had sought refuge in the Krishna consciousness movement from her own parents. The wayward daughter was returned to her parents, a lawsuit had been filed, and the jury has heard “cult experts” testify about the “mind-control techniques” used by ISKCON.
So the standard ISKCON painting of Narasiṁhadeva is displayed to the jury. Its members are informed that, by aid of this picture, the run-away daughter had been brainwashed into believing that were she to abandon Krishna consciousness or to rejoin normal society—as Orange County, California, defines “normal”—Narasiṁha would deal with her as he dealt with Hiraṅyakaśipu.
It is true that we revere Narasiṁhadeva. It is true that Śrīla Prabhupāda established, as part of ISKCON’s standard liturgy, congregational prayers to Lord Narasiṁha to form the coda of every āratī ceremony. It is true that he stipulated that a painting of Narasiṁha be placed upon every altar.
But what is the real meaning of this devotion? “Cult experts” or reclaimed teenage run-aways may not offer reliable testimony.
Let me here submit the expert testimony of Prabhupāda in this matter. In particular, let’s consider his comments on the imposing Upaniṣad-like prayer offered to Narasiṁhadeva by Prahlāda in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 5.18.8.
oṁ namo bhagavate narasiṁhāya namas tejas-tejase āvir-āvirbhava vajra-nakha vajra-daṁṣṭra karmāśayān randhaya randhaya tamo grasa grasa oṁ svāhā; abhayam abhayam ātmani bhūyiṣṭhā oṁ kṣraum.
Here, to begin with, the sheer power of Narasiṁhadeva is emphasized both semantically (through meaning) and syntactically (through the profuse employment of repetition). Thus, repetition is used to address Narasiṁha as the power behind all power (tejaḥ-tejase); repetition is used again to implore him to appear (āviḥ-āvirbhava). When Narasiṁha appears, his superpower is concretely manifest in his leonine features, for he is one whose claws and fangs are hard like lightening bolts or diamonds (vajra-nakha vajra-daṁṣṭra).
Then he is implored—here repetition expresses strong feeling—to use that power to annihilate (randhaya randhaya) our deepest longings to enjoy in this world (karmāśayān) and to devour or swallow up (grasa grasa) our darkness or ignorance (tamaḥ). To do this, Narasiàha is entreated to appear (bhūyiṣṭhāḥ) specifically within us—within our hearts or minds (ātmani)— thereby blessing us with total freedom from all fear (abhayam abhayam).
Here is Prabhupāda’s translation:
I offer my respectful obeisances unto Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, the source of all power. O my Lord who possesses nails and teeth just like thunderbolts, kindly vanquish our demonlike desires for fruitive activity in this material world. Please appear in our hearts and drive away our ignorance so that by Your mercy we may become fearless in the struggle for existence in this material world.
Let’s look at Prabhupāda’s rendering of the compound word karmāśayān. Karma denotes actions performed out of a desire to enjoy the fruits; these are the acts that produce repeated birth in the material world. Āśaya means the disposition of the mind or heart, and here it indicates one’s deepest longings and hopes. Karmāśayān then means the illusory but deeply rooted expectation that we can find happiness or satisfaction in this world.
Prabhupāda goes further. In the synonyms he rendered karmāśayān as “demoniac desires to be happy by material activities” and in the translation as “our demonlike desires for fruitive activity in this material world.”
In the commentary to this verse, its becomes clear why Prabhupāda calls these desires “demoniac” or “demonlike:”
Every living being within this material world has a strong desire to enjoy matter to his fullest satisfaction. For this purpose, the conditioned soul must accept one body after another, and thus his strongly fixed fruitive desires continue. One cannot stop the repetition of birth and death without being completely desireless. . . . . Unless one is completely freed of all material desires, which are caused by the dense darkness of ignorance, one cannot fully engage in the devotional service of the Lord. Therefore we should always offer our prayers to Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, who killed Hiraṅyakaśipu, the personification of material desire. Hiraṅya means “gold,” and kaśipu means “a soft cushion or bed.” Materialistic persons always desire to make the body comfortable, and for this they require huge amounts of gold. Thus Hiraṅyakaśipu was the perfect representative of materialistic life. He was therefore the cause of great disturbance to the topmost devotee, Prahlāda Mahārāja, until Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva killed him. Any devotee aspiring to be free of material desires should offer his respectful prayers to Nṛsiṁhadeva as Prahlāda Mahārāja did in this verse.
In other words, our own deep-rooted longings for pleasure in the world form a complex which is a kind of Hiraṅyakaśipu in our own hearts. Therefore, our daily prayer to Narasiṁhadeva is a request for him to enter into our hearts and destroy our own hiraṅyakaśipu-like desires to that plunge us into competitive sense gratification as we try to further our own god-project in this world.
In his comment to the next verse, Prabhupāda continues this line of thought:
Therefore we should pray to Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva to sit in our hearts. We should pray, bahir nṛsiṁo hṛdaye nṛsiṁhaḥ: “Let Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva sit in the core of my heart, killing all my bad propensities. Let my mind become clean so that I may peacefully worship the Lord and bring peace to the entire world.”
All followers of Śrīla Prabhupāda will immediately recognize the words bahir nṛsiṁo hṛdaye nṛsiṁhaḥ. They form part of the daily prayers I’ve already noted. This is the simple translation: “Nṛsiṁha is outside; Nṛsiṁha is in the heart.” The full import, however, is given by Prabhupāda. When we sing those simple words, we invite Narasiṁha into our hearts to destroy all our “bad propensities.” When we do this for ourselves, then we will be able to help Narasiṁha to be manifest outside too.
The world will not become peaceful and clean outside unless we are able to become pure and peaceful inside.
This fact explains why the world is perpetually tormented by war and conflict, even though no one professes to want it. And this fact explains why the internal purification is necessary to any successful ecological restoration of the earth.
Now we have the full purport to Pogo’s famous mantra:
Let me note one problem: When we try to purify our minds and hearts, we soon discover that it is not at all easy. Most of us quickly become discouraged and give up. Our bad propensities turn out to be far more powerful than we are. In fact, they are like the demon Hiraṅyakaśipu.
Although we cannot destroy him, Narasiṁhadeva can. We need help. That is why we are well advised to follow Prabhupāda’s advice, and, like Prahlāda, ask him to appear in our hearts.
We need Narasiṁhadeva. The entire world needs him. Particularly Orange County, California. And all the Orange Counties everywhere.