Nobody is too junior to be brave or too senior to be foolish

  • Renuka Narayanan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 03, 2015 16:36 IST

Narasimha Jayanti fell on May 2 this year and reminded us that nobody is too junior to be brave or too senior to be foolish.

We must imagine a time when north India was covered with dense forests and vast green pastures through which mighty rivers ran to the sea. In those days, says tradition, a king grew so powerful that he began to think he was invincible and, because of that, immortal. From one delusion to the next was a short step - he wanted his subjects to worship him as God, praise him always, obey him unquestioningly and loyally justify everything he did as divine will.

'Subjects', of course, included family and there he met with unexpected opposition. His young son, Prahlad, a much-petted and indulged boy, bright, good-looking, sturdy, well-mannered and otherwise a most pleasing child, did not fall in line. "Mahavishnu is God, not you, father," he said, politely but firmly, and that was that. Prahlad was not just a by-the-way boy of not much account in the royal scheme of things. He was the crown prince, and his refusal to worship his father as God was unfortunately too public to be ignored.

Of course, his father was not really angry at first and excused it as childish confusion. Perhaps he was even a little pleased that his son was so attached to him as a father that he valued him most as that. But as big festivals came and went and the praja obediently offered him dhoop-deep-phal-mala-tilak and hymns were sung in his praise with prizes to the best poet, and the crown prince remained conspicuous by his absence, the praja noticed and began to gossip (some say the talk went from house to house with bundles of washing, a portent of things to come in later ages).

Things grew unpleasant when some courtiers persuaded the king to throw the crown prince down into the forest from the highest hilltop to teach him his duty. But Prahlad came home unhurt, wearing a ridiculous garland of forest flowers on his head, whistling cheerfully.

"Lucky escape!" thought the king, who had lost all fatherly feeling because of his wounded pride as God. He bullied his sister Holika into taking the crown prince on her lap and spontaneously combusting while coming to no harm herself - a useful trick that had never actually been put to use yet since her status was too high for everyday work and no invading army dared come near the kingdom. But Holika liked her nephew and covered herself with a special sari so that, while she burst into flame, nothing happened to the prince.

Matters came to a head then in the darbar hall, the usual place for such things. The crown prince was brought in chained and even the wiliest courtier felt a pang of conscience at the sight. "So where exactly is this Vishnu to be found who has made you forget your duty to your father?", began the king conversationally, standing over the prince and absently tapping a pillar, "Is he in here, for instance?"

But you know the rest.

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