The British emphasised the feminine nature of Hinduism, upsetting Hindu radicals who were determined to prove the masculine side of Hinduism. For both, masculinity was associated with violent aggression and femininity with passivity, and at best, passive manipulative aggression.
In Hindu mythology, however, there is no such binary divide. Violence and aggression can be embodied in male and female forms of the divine, as can non-violence and passivity. Vishnu’s avatars reveal the range of ideas that God can embody from helplessness of a fish, to patience of a turtle, to the violent defensive aggression of a boar and a man-lion who rescues those in trouble, to the manipulative nature of one priest, and the outrage of another, to the uprightness of a king to the seductive charm of a manipulative cowherd, to the detachment of a sage and the exasperated violence that follows invasion.
Amongst these various avatars, Ram and Krishna, the upright and the charming, are the most popular. At Simhachalam, located on a hill not far from the port city of Vishakapatanam, Andhra Pradesh, is worshipped a composite image of not-so-popular ‘masculine and aggressive’ avatars of Vishnu, Varaha (boar) and Narasimha (man-lion), making this temple rather special.
Known as Varaha-Lakshmi-Narasimha-Swami, the enshrined deity is unusual in that he has two arms, not four or more, as in case of most Hindu deities, he stands in a tribhangi pose, bent at hip and waist like a dancer, suggesting a feminine energy, with the head that looks more like a boar than a lion, hence the name. We don’t see the image of the deity when we visit the shrine. It is covered completely in layers of sandal paste, which is removed for just twelve hours once a year, when thousands throng to the shrine. The sandal paste is meant to calm the aggressive (‘ugra’) deity consumed by bloodlust, a rare emotion for the otherwise calm, and rather ‘feminine’, Vishnu.
The story starts with Jaya and Vijaya, two doorkeepers of Vaikuntha, who did not let the Sanata Kumars enter Vishnu’s heavenly abode as Vishnu was asleep, and so were cursed to be born on earth as asuras. They took birth as the brothers Hiranayaksha and Hiranakashipu who decided that the fastest way to end their life at the hands of Vishnu was by terrorizing the world. So Hiranayaksha dragged Bhu-devi, the earth-goddess, to under the sea while Hiranakashipu tortured his son, Prahalad, an ardent Vishnu devotee. The cries of Bhu-devi and Prahalad rent the three worlds.
Vishnu woke up from his slumber. In the form of a wild boar, Varaha, he dived into the sea, gored Hiranayaksha with his mighty tusks, and then lovingly placing Bhu-devi on his snout, raised her to the surface.
Killing Hiranakashipu was tougher: he had secured a boon that he could be killed neither inside a dwelling nor outside, neither at day nor at night, neither by a man nor an animal, neither above nor below, neither by tool or weapon, by a creature born neither of womb nor egg. So Vishnu emerged from a pillar (neither womb nor egg), as a creature that was part human and part animal, and he grabbed Hiranakashipu, dragged him to the threshold (neither inside nor outside), placed him on his lap (neither above nor below), and at twilight (neither day nor night) and ripped out his guts using his claws (neither tool nor weapon).
If the story of Varaha deals with brute force (shakti), then the story of Narasimha deals with cunning (yukti). Both tales deal with reverse devotion (viparit-bhakti): where hatred is a perverse form of love.
But the story does not end with the killing of the asura, in local tales. A raging Narasimha is dangerous and can only be calmed down by the presence of Lakshmi. Hence, one worships only Lakshmi Narasimha, not Narasimha alone. If alone, he has to be in yoga pose, the Yoga Narasimha. An Ugra Narasimha or furious Narasimha, without any goddess by his side, is served only by celibate male priests.
The Shaiva-Vaishnava sectarian conflict of medieval times adds a new twist: Shiva takes the form of an eight-legged serpent tailed feline beast called Sharabha to subdue Narasimha who has gone wild in bloodlust. Vishnu then has to take the form of the two-headed giant bird, Gandabherunda, to subdue Sharabha.
Natural historians inform us that lion never roamed in the island of Sri Lanka or in South East Asia, yet we hear of Sinhala (people of the lion) and Singapore (city of the lion). In all probability, the idea of the lion spread there from the eastern coast of India, from merchant ships sailing from ancient ports of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where the Ganga and Chola kings patronized the worship of Narasimha. The oldest temple in Puri’s Jagannatha complex, for example, is a shrine dedicated to Narasimha. Not all Narasimha temples are at the coast, however. At Ahobilam in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, far from the coast, is a complex of nine Narasimha temples, each one located on top of a hill. In lands where Hindu kingship declined, the worship of Narasimha, and Varaha, also declined, giving way to avatars more amenable for devotion, viz. Ram and Krishna.
It is not by accident that in the 20th century the lion capital of Ashoka was made the emblem of India and that in the 21st century the symbol of ‘Make in India’ campaign is a lion, even though lions manufacture nothing, unlike say a baya weaver bird. Since ancient times lions have embodied sovereignty and royal authority. Lion was used even by monastic orders to represent the spiritual triumph of the Buddha and the Tirthankara Mahavira. To kings who assumed they were invincible, the tale of Narasimha who emerges from a palace pillar serves as a Puranic warning: God outsmarts even the smartest of kings.