“Hiranyakashipu could not kill his son by throwing him beneath the feet of big elephants, throwing him among huge, fearful snakes, employing destructive spells, hurling him from the top of a hill, conjuring up illusory tricks, administering poison, starving him, exposing him to severe cold, winds, fire and water, or throwing heavy stones to crush him. When Hiranyakashipu found that he could not in any way harm Prahlada, who was completely sinless, he was in great anxiety about what to do next.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.5.43-44)
When a person does extraordinary things, a mythology starts to build around them. The legend of so and so grows as each new person hears about their past exploits. Because of this tendency relating to the activities of ordinary human beings, the term “mythology” is sometimes invoked to downplay the behavior of past divine personalities. This is the resort of the less informed, whose judgment is clouded by the limits of personal perception. The event of Holi celebrates the ability of one particular person to defy the odds, and though what he did was extraordinary and seemingly miraculous, because of his internal qualities it was actually not surprising at all. In fact, similar feats have been repeated since time immemorial by those who are under the protection of the greatest protector.
The scene: a five year old boy awaiting a ride into a pit of fire. Think of going to an amusement park and getting strapped into a seat which is about to go places that you don’t normally think to be safe. The thrill of the ride is based on the danger, the spinning around in circles of your body at violent speeds, all the while knowing that you probably won’t get hurt. You are controlled in these situations; you are not in control. With this young child a long time ago, he was in the hands of an elder female, who was to take him into a pit of fire.
Oh, but this was no amusement park ride. As fire is not something you want to play around with, the elder woman had a trick up her sleeve. She thought she was immune to the effects of fire, and since the young boy was not, the desired result was her continuing to live and the boy dying. The order came from the boy’s father of all people. Can we imagine such a thing? What could a young child do that would cause us to even contemplate doing something so horrible to them? Where must our mind be if we’re willing to go through with such a dastardly act?
Actually, this father had previously made other vile attempts and would continue on afterwards. That’s correct; the boy would survive the attack. Unfortunately for her and her boss, the elder woman would not. The effects reversed when the young boy was in her presence. You see the child, Prahlada Maharaja, was completely sinless. This doesn’t mean that someone who is free of sin is automatically immune to the effects of fire, but in this particular circumstance the immunity relating to the fire transferred to the right person.
In the father’s eyes, the child was a vile creature for having dedicated his life to worship of Lord Vishnu at such a young age. Vishnu is the qualified form of the Supreme Lord. He is the Personality of Godhead, opulently adorned and responsible for the creation and destruction of every universe. Vishnu is God, but with the features more defined than in the abstract vision. Vishnu is but an expansion of the original personality known as Krishna, who is all-attractive. Regardless of whether these statements are accepted or not, the key point is that devotion to the Supreme Lord, however you choose to see Him, is an innocent practice when followed under authorized guidelines.
If you deny God’s existence, you will worship His external energy of material nature. There is harm with this route in the sense that matter is temporary, so whatever you choose to do will have only temporary effects. At the same time, others are performing the same worship, and since the external energy gives no protection, the competition leads to collisions and thus fosters the worst kinds of sentiments and emotions within people.
If you worship God as an impersonal energy or an abstract person from whom you ask things, your mode of worship is harmless in the sense that it’s not directly hurting anyone else. You may be more prone to surrendering to the same material energy worshiped by the atheists, but there is still nothing wrong with at least thinking about God, knowing that He exists.
In bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, dedicated worship towards the real form of the Supreme Lord takes place. This style of worship is also known as Krishna consciousness, because the aim is to change the way that you think, to alter your thoughts to the point that you’re always thinking about God. What could be the harm in this, especially if you’re a youth? Why would Prahlada’s father object so much?
The atheist takes shelter of material nature, and because of their denial of God’s existence they essentially apply the “God” status to themselves. For all you know, nature does not have any intelligence. And you know that you are intelligent, so this means that you can control nature, as opposed to nature controlling you. Never mind the fact that you can’t tell the sun when to rise and set and when the seasons to come and go, because you can get up at a certain time and speak when you want, you somehow think that you are God.
With Hiranyakashipu, the “I am God” mentality was strengthened by the fact that he had defeated all the powerful kings of the world. Even the celestials in the heavens were afraid of him. He had previously undergone great austerities to receive powers as benedictions, but once he received those strengths he forgot that he wasn’t responsible for generating them.
The father wanted the son to follow in his footsteps, to rule the world with a strong hand. “What could be gained by worshiping Vishnu?”, the father thought. To the atheist, God as a concept stands in the way of material enjoyment. He makes His worshipers suffer and needlessly renounce happiness in a temporary world. Of course, the devotee of Vishnu is knowledgeable, irrespective of the external conditions. Prahlada knew all about reincarnation, the temporary nature of material happiness, and the urgent need for following God consciousness in the precious human form of body. He was so intelligent that he kindly distributed this information to his classmates in school during recess.
Hiranyakashipu eventually became so sick of even hearing about Vishnu from Prahlada. The father decided that his son needed to die. One slight problem though. The boy was unbreakable. Nothing could kill him. The plot with Holika, Hiranyakashipu’s sister, was one of the many schemes tried by the evil king. Though Holika had the boon to remain immune to fire, Prahlada survived the trip into the fire because Vishnu protects His devotees. He makes sure to give them conditions that are conducive to their cherished worship.
In fact, Vishnu gives the same protection to the atheists through the workings of maya, or illusion. The atheist is guaranteed to stay miserable in their surroundings, to have ample opportunities for eating, sleeping, mating and defending, which alone don’t provide any satisfaction to the soul. There is no explicit protection from the Personality of Godhead in interactions with material nature, as the Lord is by default neutral, but at the same time the energy is non-different from the person who created it. Therefore the energy’s dissipation of elements to be used in material enjoyment represents a sort of favor from the master.
The sinless Prahlada survived the trip into the fire, but Holika did not. The ashes from her body were of many different colors, and since that time the tradition has been to throw different colored powders in fun to celebrate the original event. Though a seemingly ghoulish way to celebrate an occasion, the colors of Holi represent the victory of Vishnu’s devotee over the forces of evil. Prahlada thwarted all the attacks of Hiranyakashipu and did so without asking anything from the demigods. The celestials are powerful and act at the behest of Vishnu to grant benedictions, but at the same time Vishnu is the one who can give rewards to even them. This automatically makes Vishnu superior.
The devotee who loves Vishnu or one of His personal expansions like Lord Krishna or Lord Rama can receive the greatest favor. There needn’t be any other master. And the attitude of service can continue in a mood of love, where the master eventually can’t do anything to stop the devotee from offering service. Prahlada was sinless because he had no other desire than to chant the Lord’s names and think of Him. No person, even a powerful king like Hiranyakashipu, can break the devotee’s determination. Prahlada emerged victorious by remembering Vishnu’s names, and so the wise souls of the Kali Yuga can escape the perils of material existence by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
Prahlada Maharaja, devotion to Vishnu in him,
An innocent five year old, completely free of sin.
Boy’s insistence on bhakti path father did not like,
Eventually wanted son out of his sight.
King’s sister Holika immune to fire’s pit,
In it brought Prahlada with him to sit.
Ah, but Vishnu’s devotee from harm escaped,
To burn to ashes was instead Holika’s fate.
Sinless son saved by saying Vishnu’s names,
Tradition of Holi celebrates his fame.