The sculptor, full of his own realization, achieved an image conveying his religious experience of Visnu as man-lion. The god is shown seated in a unique way. The legs are almost as if running, the left leg is thrown upward.... Although the human body carries the head of a lion there is no ferocity in that lion's mien, it is a calm face.... The demon stands for ignorance. Narasimha as an embodiment of wisdom is rendered by the sculptor with grace and power. In no other image is the robe of the deity shown with such detail and care.... Iconographically inventive also is the mane of the lion's head with two long strands of hair on either side of his face connecting the head of the lion with the body of the man.
The chief conservator of the museum found no traces of modern tooling and, although the image had been cleaned, traces of older accretions remained.
This figure deserves close attention (Fig. 1). Its furled brow, fangs, and lolling tongue conform to later images of Narasimha but its robe, simplicity, and stance set it appart. Under the robe on his chest appears the suggestion of an amulet, which Kramrisch chose to associate with Visnu's cognizance, the Kaustubha jewel. The upper garent flows over both shoulders; but below Hiranyakasipu, the demon figure placed horizontally across Narasimha's body, a twisted waist-band suggests a separate garment covering the legs.
The demon's hair streams behind him, cushioning his head against the man-lion's right knee. He wears a simple single strand of beads. His body seems relaxed, even pliant. His face is calm, with a slight suggestion of a smile. His eyes stare adoringly up at the face of Visnu. There is little tension in his legs or feet, even as Narasimha gently disembowels him. His innards spill along his right side. As the Matsya Purana describes it, Narasimha ripped "apart the mighty Daitya chief as a plaiter of straw mats shreds his reeds."
Narasimha, is shown two-armed, carrying no emblems, his right leg bent at the knee. His right foot is firmly placed on the ground above a pattern suggesting a pillared platform (vedika). His left knee also rests on this platform, the lower part of his leg turned up, his left foot tautly touching his elbow, as if to reflect an Indian dancer's earth-bound means of portraying flying.
The image, stable and symetrical above, active below, is centered on Narasimha's hands, which plunge their limpid fangs into the demon's belly directly in front of Narasimha's centering navel. The significant male figure, lying across Narasimha's lap thus divides the composition in half.
Kramrisch originally compared the rippling robes worn by Narasimha in this image to experiments with the classical robe-type of Gandhara that can be found in Mathuran sculpture dating from the second-third century A.D. The vedika fencing also, in part, somewhat resembles that on Buddhist or Jain stupa-uprights at Mathura or Sanghol of that period. I would alter Kramrisch's dating, however, to suggest a date in the fourth century A.D. The robe folds resemble more, for example, that transition in technique found among the late-fourth century Buddhist images from the Mathura site of Govindanagar. The heavy but expressive plasticity of the figures and the expressivity of the face of the adoring demon can perhaps better be compared to figures from a site such as Pawaya (ca. 400 A.D.), or to Jina figures found at Vidisha with inscriptions from the reign of Ramagupta (ca. 370-375 A.D.). The iconographic ambiguity of the figure, compared to slightly later representations of Narasimha from the fifth century (Figs. 2, 3, 4), also would suggest such a date.
Few images of Narasimha do, indeed, pre-date this example. Doris Srinivasan has identified a lion to one side of a Caturvyuha figure from Bhita as perhaps a representation of Samkarsana/Narasimha. In Andhra Pradesh in South India a panel discovered some years ago from the third-fourth century A.D. shows a full theriomorphic squatting lion with two human extra arms behind his shoulders holding Vaisnava emblems. This lion, flanked by five heroes (viras), has been identified as an early depiction of Narasimha.
Images of Visnu with a boar's head to one side and a lion's head to the other also begin to appear in the Gupta period, and temples from that period survive that were dedicated to the worship of Visnu-Narasimha. Standing cult images of Narasimha from the early Gupta period, for example, survive from Eran and Vidisha (Fig. 2). These sculptures are two-armed, long maned, frontal, wearing only a lower garment, and with no demon figure (see also side view).
The Philadelphia image - not a cult image - is, in contrast, remarkable in its free and expressive embodiment of narrative action. Other small images that represent the narrative of Narasimha slaying Hiranyakasipu also survive from slightly later Gupta-period temples: one at Marhia (Fig. 3) and one from a temple-doorway now set into the Kumra-math at Nachna (Fig. 4). Both date to the late fifth or early sixth century A.D. Williams refers to the "sprightly" figure at Nachna (Fig. 4) as "one of the earliest illustrations of the role of the Man-Lion as a destroyer of demons" and comments that there "is a care and freshness in the treatment of every element that make one regret the loss of the rest of the large temple to which this belonged." Of the figure at Madhia (Fig. 3) she writes that "the lion is wrapped around one of the Man-Lion's legs in the type current later" and that "the interlocking legs of the two is an explicit feature of later texts."
The image at Madhia (Fig. 3) shows a two-armed Narasimha, his right leg bent to support the back of Hiranyakasipu. He leans over, his arms stiff, to thrust his "neither wet nor dry" nails into the demon's belly. The image at Nachna shows a four-armed man-lion holding weapons who chases a sword-bearing demon that is attempting to flee (Fig. 4). Each of these Narasimha figures wears a necklace, bracelets, garland, and is bare-chested, as with the much larger cult-image from Vidsha (Fig. 2).
The narrative of Narasimha slaying the demon Hiranyakasipu is recorded, with both increasing complexity and changing agendas, in a succession of narrative compliations known as the Puranas. Deborah Soifer, a scholar who has worked on these texts in relation to Narasimha, on the whole believes that "the traits basic to Visnu in the Veda remain central to Visnu in his avataras." She points out, however, that:
we have virtually no precursors in the Vedic material for the figure of a man-lion, and only one phrase that simply does not rule out the possibility of a savage side to the benign Visnu.
It is perhaps precisely Visnu's violent side represented by Narasimha that is not "natural and understandable given Visnu's Vedic roots." Soifer speaks of "the enigma of Narasimha avatara" and comments that "how the myth arrived at its rudimentary form [in the Mahabharata], and where the figure of the man-lion came from remain unsolved mysteries."
That "narasimha" means both "man-lion" and "lion among men" is clear from its use as an epithet for many of India's later kings. Friar Bala's bodhisattva image from Mathura found at Sarnath, dating from early in the reign of Kaniska (first-second century A.D.) represents the Buddha as a vira with a lion as emblem set between his feet. It is perhaps this tradition of "lion among men" that was also being co-opted by the fourth-century Vaisnava panel of "narasimha" from Andhra Pradesh, where Visnu as a theriomorphic lion is surrounded by figures of heros.
The Philadelphia sculpture (Fig. 1) shows Narasimha as part man part lion. He is enrobed in cloth folds that cover both his shoulders. These folds somewhat resemble the garment of a Buddhist figure, but with the "Kaustubha jewel" of Visnu visible underneath and a medial sash below Hiranyakasipu. Narasimha in the Brahma Purana (213.44-79) is described as "looking like a dark cloud, glowing with the energy of a dark cloud, and swift like a dark cloud." In the Visnudharmottara Purana (I.54) he is described as "resembling a cloud that is red like the twilight, dressed in dark clothes like Acyuta"....
having two hands that were shining and that would cause the destruction of the Daitya lord as if with the blades of anger; having a mane of curled and matted hair, golden as the flaming fire.... His tongue was moving up and down, to and fro, visible and invisible, and it quivered like the lightning of the cloud at the end of pralaya..... [H]aving flaming breath that, going in and out, sounded like the cloud at the end of the kalpa, he was difficult to look at, invincible and terrifying like the center of the thunderbolt.
Stella Kramrisch in her last few years became fascinated by this Mathura image and by the relationship it suggested between the demon so gracefully poised in his lap and Visnu. To her, the figure seemed youthful, devoted, a forerunner of Prahlada, Hiranyakasipu's son in developed versions of the story. Early medieval depictions of Narasimha's fierce battle with the demon, as on the Vaisnava temples at Osian near Jodhpur in Rajasthan in the eighth century, often show Prahlada bowing in devotion and submission to Narasimha as his father lies prostrate and eviscerated (in this image shown with flowing hair much like that of Narasimha himself) across Narasimha's lap (Fig. 5).
Several scholar's of Narasimha's myth have pointed out that the introduction of Prahlada marks a sharp change in the nature of this myth, its rationale, and of its use. Soifer points to:
that slow transformation from a mythological mode of expression of the Narasimhavatara to a mythologically framed vehicle for the outpourings of bhakti teachings, coming from the mouth of its most popular Puranic advocate, Prahlada.
She argues that early versions of Narasimha's myth (or at least its earliest layers) represent "orthodox, bramanic concerns" about the order of the three worlds (trailokya) "free ... from the superseding universe of bhakti":
The rhythm stressed ... is not that of yugas or pralaya (kalpa), but of the upside-down-rightside-up oscillation that characterizes the relationship between the Devas and the Asuras.
It is true that the story of the demon Hiranyakasipu that first emerges from written versions of the myth stresses his upsetting of the order of the three worlds (trailokya) by the power of his asceticism. This gained him a boon from Brahma that protects him from anything but a "twilight" destruction (neither "wet nor dry, dark nor light," etc.). For this reason, the gods approach Visnu to find a way to slay the demon, whose over-arching power is disruptive to the order of the universe. In many respects, however, this story shares a structure with those of many other deities who subdue demons and protect order. Another Vaisnava example is that of Krsna subduing the snake-king Kaliya who, however, submits to Visnu Kaliya, pleading for mercy on the grounds that his actions are the fulfilment of his karmic nature. As he addresses Visnu:
Thy own clemency must alone influence thy mind to show me compassion. It is the nature of snakes to be savage, and I am born of their kind; hence this is my nature, not my offence.... Even such as thou has created me in kind, in form, and in nature, such I am, and such is my actions.
Once subdued, Kaliya becomes converted as Visnu's devotee.
What seems startling in the introduction of Prahlada to the myth of Narasimha and Hiranyakasipu is that it is the son's pure powerful devotion to Visnu that becomes the excuse for his father's disembowelment. Hiranyakasipu, in these versions of the myth, becomes enraged by his son's devotion to Visnu and his seeming disloyalty to his father's importance and riches. By trying to kill his son, Hiranyakasipu brings on Narasimha's wrath. Asceticism (tapas), the source of Hiranyakasipu's power, thus is set against the transforming power of devotion (bhakti) by pairing these two demon figures, son with father.
In the Visnu Purana, "after Prahlada's liberation, he is granted a boon by Visnu and he asks for a pardon for his father, that he might obtain 'liberation from existence'." Prahlada's devotion itself thus becomes the source of Hiranyakasipu's salvation (as in Fig. 5). As Prahlada preaches in the Visnu Purana:
These are the reasons for suppressing hate.... This whole world is but a manifestation of Visnu, who is identical with all things; and it is therefore to be regarded by the wise as not differing from, but as the same with themselves.
Hiranyakasipu and Prahlada - father to son, who are of the same flesh - thus between them separate into a "before" and "after" scenario the transforming power of Visnu's bhakti.
Kramrisch, with prescience, had wanted to see in the youthful figure of Hiranyakasipu in the Philadelphia sculpture (Fig. 1) a forerunner of his son Prahlada. "The legend of Prahlada and the myth of the Narasimha avatar intertwined," she wrote. She, however, recognised that the image had to predate the development of Prahlada's myth by several centuries as she found it recorded in the sixth-seventh century A.D. Visnudharmottara. It was in the Narasimha Purana's even later version of the story that she found what she felt to be the myth's most nearly perfect embodiment. There Prahlada first has a vision of cosmic Visnu days prior to the appearance of Narasimha as the source of the destruction of Hiranyakasipu. Prahlada's bision occured on the shores of the ocean into which his father had had his minions fling Prahlada to punish his continuing expression of his devotion to Visnu. In this version, Kramrisch saw a forecast of Narasimha's and Hiranyakasipu's typical relationship - that of demon-slayer with transformed devotee (Figs. 1, 5):
Full of anxiety he [Prahlada] fell senseless to the ground when all of a sudden the Lord appeared fondling poor Prahlada in his tender arms.... When Prahlada regained consciousness and opened his eyes he found himself clasped in the arms of the Lord.... Then the Lord began to fondle the boy with his tender and delicate arms. Like a loving mother the Lord pressed Prahlada to his bosom with affection. In his waking trance of experience Prahlada realized that he had been reposing in the lap of Visnu.
Kramrisch's vision of the transforming nature of Narasimha's violent act - with Hiranyakasipu placed across Visnu's lap, centered at the level of Visnu's cosmos-generating navel, as Prahlada previously had lain in the lap of Visnu - seems to me both a correct projection and fore-shadowing of how narrative images of Narasimha came to function.
The legend of Prahlada, as it survives in texts, however, moves the myth substantially away from what is depicted in the Philadelphia image. The Philadelphia Narasimha would seem to record Hiranyakasipu's own personal transformation at Visnu's hands, without the need for any secondary mediation by Prahlada, Hiranyakasipu's later bhakti-besotted son. In this early image, Hiranyakasipu is alive, responding (Fig. 1). In later images, he is a corpse, having transferred the virtues of fulfilling his own karma to his offspring, Prahlada (Fig. 5).
Soifer's and Kramrisch's "cosmological perspective" on the changing myths of Narasimha are exceptionally useful; but an element of cult rivalry must also be described. One of the earliest references to Narasimha in temple inscriptions (ca. 423 A.D.) is rather to his female counterpart, Narasimhi, who leads a host of Vaisnava mother goddesses (matrkas) parallel to similar Saiva forces. If the violent acts of Visnu's Narasimha avatara, from a Vedic perspective, may seem surprising to Soifer, his importance as a Vaisnava parallel to Siva in his roles as earth-protector and demon-slayer is not. The synergy of many Indian cults over time makes some such violent Vaisnava figure as Narasimha necessary. In a whole range of myths - Varaha, Tripurantaka, Mahisamardini - the order of the universe was protected from disruptive forces by gods forcing the supplication of demons. Soifer says of the Siva Purana's version of Narasimha's story that "Narasimha emerges as the master of controlled destruction, destruction in its proper time and place" (although in that version Siva had ultimately to be shown to assimilate Visnu.)
The emergence of Prahlada's story changes the structure of the prior myth of Narasimha by making bhakti (his interior vision of Narasimha) the most potent primary source for devotional transformation. Such faith - as recent events have shown - can lead to revolutions. Hiranyakasipu's fault becomes, not so much his threatening of cosmic order by accumulation of pranic power but rather his obstruction of his son's Vaisnava religion. Prahlada renounces his father's parochial power because of his personal intense vision of Hari's universal order. "Prahlada's `bhakti', his love of God, is an all encompasing dhyana, a total realization at its highest pitch of the omnipresence of Visnu." Prahlada denounces such faith only to his own destruction.
The response of Saivism to such a powerful new sectarian vision was ultimately to reciprocate the new Vaisnava equation. Siva in the Siva and Linga Puranas becomes the bird-figure Sarabha, who is called on to conquer the by then wold-threatening man-lion himself, Narasimha. As Narasimha had first been to Hiranyakasipu, now Siva becomes to Narasimha. As the text concludes:
Just as water mixed with water, milk with milk, and ghee with ghee, all merge into one, in the same manner Visnu has merged into Siva.
Kramrisch came to question her early date for the Philadelphia image, worried by what she saw as its deep commitment to a vision of Visnu embodied in Prahlada's later story. Yet the transformation of Hiranyakasipu by his submission to Visnu precedes and must predicate the separated definition of his demon-devotee, Prahlada. It is that earlier unitary vision that the Philadelphia image embodies, with all the power that drew Kramrisch initially to it. As a unique representation, this Narasimha must now enter the dialogue of those who study India's myths, both in their visual and verbal embodiments. It is a text; and it is a vision.
____________________________________________ FIGURES (IN PUBLISHED PAPER) Fig. 1. Narasimha relief, sandstone, Mathura region, U.P., ca. fourth century A.D. Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Courtesy: Philadelphia Museum of Art.) Fig. 2. Narasimha cult image, ca. 7 ft. high, from the Narasimha temple, Eran, M. P., ca. mid-fifth century A.D. (Courtesy: American Institute of Indian Studies, Varanasi.) Fig. 3. Narasimha narrative panel from the cornice of the Vamana temple at Madhia, Devri, M.P., ca. late fifth century A.D. (Courtesy: American Institute of Indian Studies, Varanasi.) Fig. 4. Narasimha narrative, from a doorway reset in the Teliya Math, Nachna, M.P., early sixth century A.D. (Courtesy: American Institute of Indian Studies, Varanasi.) Fig. 5. Narasimha image, main sanctum, north bhadra, Harihara temple no. 1, Osian, Rajasthan, ca. mid-eighth century A.D. (Courtesy: Michael W. Meister.