Editor's Note: Since  "Yoga: The Art of Transformation" is currently at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 3200 Stories invited Monica Desai Henderson to share one of the classical stories she tells as a storyteller at the Museum. Monica, who was born in India and raised in San Francisco, was trained in Iyengar Yoga as well as Kathak, a North Indian classical dance.  She teaches yoga at the JCCSF, and is a regular storyteller at the Asian Art Museum, where her parents, Helen and Rajnikant Desai, have also been docents. They are among the sponsors of the exhibition, described by the museum as the world's first major exhibition to explore yoga. 

"Yoga: The Art of Transformation"  explores the visual culture in the form of sculpture, illustrated manuscripts, prints, photographs, books, and film, which illuminate key aspects of yoga practice as well as its hidden histories. It themes include yoga and the body; yogis and power; and yoga and science. The exhibit opens Friday, February 21, 2014, with a weekend-long Festival of Yoga, for which tickets can be purchased online or at the Museum.

In the classic story below, Monica tells us of Lord Vishnu in his manifestation as Narasimha. In the Hindi language, "Nara" means Man and "Simha" means lion, hence the half man/half lion figure who triumphs against his adversary

"In Hinduism, there are hundreds of gods and goddesses," Monica says. "Two very important gods take part in this story. The first is Lord Brahma, the God of Creation, who gives birth to all life in the Universe. The second is Lord Vishnu, the Preserver of the Universe. Whenever the world is thrown out of balance, when evil dominates good, when darkness overtakes light, Lord Vishnu comes to the rescue. He comes to earth as an Avatar, in the form he thinks best, defeats evil and restores balance to the Universe.

"The gods use their powers for good in the Universe. But there are those so hungry for power, they are blinded by it. These are the demons. And their misuse of power often threatens the very existence of the Universe!"


Long, long ago a terrible demon King grew restless. His name was Hiranyakashipu. He, like all the demons, was greedy for power and jealous of the gods who controlled the Universe.  He knew if he performed a difficult pose for a long period of time with unwavering focus, he would build up enough holy energy that even Lord Brahma himself might grant him a special boon or wish. So Hiranykashipu chose the most difficult pose he could imagine and balanced on one foot without pause for 100 years!

At last, Lord Brahma took notice and appeared before him. “What is it that you wish?”

“Oh, something so insignificant: that I never be killed by anyone in the Universe!?”

“I cannot grant you an escape from death. You will have to come up with another wish,” replied Lord Brahma.

“Well, then I wish I cannot be killed under these conditions:
1) I cannot be killed by either a man or beast
2) inside a house or outside of it
3) during the day or night
4) and finally, that I cannot be killed by any weapon made by man

“As you wish,” said Lord Brahma.

“HA! My cleverness has given me the greatest power of all…the ability to live forever!” King Hiranyakashipu truly believed that now, he was immortal like the Gods. 

If the King was arrogant before, now he was cruel and quick to punish. If he said, “this bread is stale,” the palace cooks would have to bow and throw out all the freshly baked loaves of bread. If he said, “The Ganges River flows up from the sea to highest peak of the Himalaya Mountains,” all the courtiers would have to nod their heads in agreement, even though they all knew that the Ganges River began as icy trickles at the mountain top and flowed gracefully down to the sea!”

Vishnu on his Man-Lion Avatar. Courtesy Asian Art Museum of SF.

He strutted around his new kingdom like a peacock, proud and vain. He became so bigheaded he demanded his subjects kneel and pray to him as a god.

Then one day, all of this changed. King Hiranyakashipu’s wife gave birth to a baby boy whom they named Prahlada.

The courtiers exclaimed, “Congratulations, your majesty, on the birth of your heir to the throne!”

“Bah, what do I need an heir for? I shall live forever. Heirs mean nothing to me!”

Curiously, Prahlada was nothing like his demon father. You see, months before he was born, his mother was taught the art and science of yoga from a great teacher, or Guru. Everything she learned, he also learned while in her womb. So Prahlada was born knowing yoga and as a baby he could easily see Lord Vishnu’s energy in the world. As a boy, the prince practiced yoga postures every day and noticed how yoga steadied his body, mind and breath. As a youth, Prahlada would point out to others the presence of the great preserving god. “See the great power of Vishnu! His presence is everywhere at once, even in the air we breath.”

His father was troubled by this and sent his son to study with the best Demon teacher with instructions that he learn about trickery and domination. “Most important,” he instructed the teacher, “never allow Prahlada to worship anyone but me, King Hiranyakashipu! “ However, reports came back to the King that Prahlada continued to praise Lord Vishnu above all others.

The king summoned his son to the throne room, “Prahlada, bow down and call me most powerful!”

“Oh Father, you are a but King and that is all you will ever be. Can’t you see the loving power of Lord Vishnu everywhere?”

When King Hiranyakashipu heard this, he flew into a rage. “Take this boy and hurl him off the highest cliff, into the sea!”

The courtiers were very fond of the boy but were so terrified of the King that they scooped Prahlada up, carried him to the highest cliff and flung him down it to the sea below.

All the while Prahlada took deep yoga breaths and fixed his mind on Vishnu with such concentration, that there was no room for fear. Down, down, down he went. But to everyone’s surprise, Prahlada landed unhurt.

The prince was brought back to the throne room and the King demanded again, “Prahlada, bow down and call me most powerful!”

“Dear Father, renounce your kingdom which is like a prison, go the forest to practice yoga and meditate on Vishnu.”

When the King heard this he could not control his anger. He ordered a great bonfire to be built. Huge logs were piled up and Prahlad placed on top of them. Then the logs were lit.

Prahlada took deep yoga breaths and focused his mind on Lord Vishnu with such concentration that all fear left him. He did not notice the intense heat and the tall, flickering, flames that surrounded him.

When the fire finally died it was early evening. Prahlada was found sitting atop the embers in cross-legged position with his eyes closed and his palms folded in prayer, untouched!

The courtiers brought the prince to the King who was pacing back forth on the threshold of his throne room surrounded by his ministers and courtiers.

“What is the meaning of this?” the King shouted. “How have you managed to escape a second time?”

“I did not escape father, Vishnu has protected me. He has taught me that our greatest enemy is the uncontrolled mind, which is distracted by greed, anger, lust, envy, delusion and laziness. Those who have controlled their minds see the presence of Vishnu everywhere.”

“Vishnu, Vishnu!” cried the King. “I am sick and tired of this Vishnu. Where is this all-powerful God of yours anyway?”

“Why, Father, he is everywhere, in the ocean, in the fire, even in that marble pillar you are standing next to,” replied Prahlad with calm.

“HA HA HA! It that is so, tie Prahlada to the pillar,” he commanded his guards. “If your Vishnu is in this pillar, let him appear to me!” Hiranyakashipu shouted as he drew his sword from its scabbard with a  “ZING.”  Held high in his hand, the sword began to vibrate. All the courtiers, guards and servants stared in disbelief. The vibration traveled down the body of the King. The ground itself began to tremble and the low rumble of an earthquake began to fill the air.

Suddenly a terrible roar emerged from the marble pillar as it broke in two, bursting the ropes and throwing Prahlada to the floor. The sound shook the entire Universe, scaring even King Hiranyakashipu.

1) From the pillar leapt Vishnu in the form of a half man, half lion. His name was Narasimha.
So he was neither a man nor a beast!

2) With one muscled arm he swept up the small figure of the king and carried him to the threshold, the doorway, of the palace.
So he was neither in a house nor outside of it.

3) The sun was just beginning to set.
So it was neither day nor night.

4) Narasimha raised his massive paw and with the swipe of his long lion claws, he killed King Hiranyakashipu.
So no man-made weapon was used.

And so, Lord Vishnu, in the form of the Man-Lion Narasimha, restored balance to the Universe by defeating a demon who claimed to be more powerful than the gods.

Vishnu continued to teach Prahlada the way of yoga. So when Prahlada was finally crowned King, equipped with his deep knowledge of yoga, he led his people with equanimity, justice and compassion till the end of his days.

Narasimha is recognized as one who slays the demons of our mind and takes away the obstacles on the path to devotion. So when we practice Simhasana, Lion Pose, we cultivate the fearlessness we need on the path of yoga and also the fearlessness that develops from our practice.

Adapted by Monica Desai-Henderson, Storyteller, Asian Art Museum of SF, 2/20/14

Feature image courtesy of the Asian Art Museum.