Narasimha: The Man-Lion Avatara of Visnu

Narasimha is the man-lion avatara of the Hindu god Visnu. This particular incarnation is most well-known for his victory over the demon Hiranyakasipu. Narasimha’s victory required a circumventive nature in order to slip through the loopholes in the boon granted to Hiranyakasipu by the powerful god Brahma, which quite nearly ensured the demon’s immortality (Soifer 3). In later versions of the myth Visnu manifests in the form of the man-lion in order to save Hiranyakasipu’s son Prahlada from the wrath of his powerful father (Soifer 73). Prahlada is saved because of his loving devotion to Visnu which Prahlada maintains despite his father’s forceful efforts to change his son’s beliefs (Soifer 74). The increased importance of the role played by Prahlada alters the portrayal of Narasimha greatly in later versions of the myth (Soifer 74).

Before discussing the depictions, mythology, temples and worship of Narasimha it is beneficial to briefly discuss the nature of the god Visnu whom this avatara embodies. Of little importance in the Rg Veda, Visnu’s popularity grew over time and he became highly influential in the Puranas (Soifer 15). Visnu is described as a benevolent, bountiful guardian willing to help mankind (Soifer 16). He has the ability to take on different forms, avataras, which retain the characteristic of benevolence so central to Visnu’s basic character (Soifer 18). Visnu’s purpose and character is deemed so righteous that even when he performs deceitful acts they are considered to be done in the name of dharma (Soifer 23).

The Narasimha (Man-Lion) Avatara of Visnu (Gwalior Archaeological Museum 2017)

In the most famous versions of the Narasimha myths Visnu takes on the man-lion form which is described as ferocious and beastly in nature with one intent and purpose: to kill Hiranyakasipu and restore order to the cosmos. There are several depictions of Narasimha that show him in exactly this fearsome light. The Philadelphia sculpture of Narasimha’s central focus is on the man-lion’s two arms with claws being plunged into the belly of Hiranyakasipu who lies on Narasimha’s lap with innards spilling along his right side (Meister 291-92). The image of Narasimha found at Madhia also depicts a two-armed Narasimha supporting the demon’s back on his knee as he “leans over, his arms stiff, to thrust his ‘neither wet nor dry’ nails into the demon’s belly” (Meister 297). The image of Narasimha as a threat to demons in general instead of solely to Hiranyakasipu is depicted in the image at Nachna where a four-armed man-lion holding weapons, chases a sword bearing demon who is attempting to flee the fearsome wrath of Visnu’s ferocious avatara (Meister 297).

There are however, less gruesome and ferocious depictions of Narasimha. These images are found primarily in Andhra Pradesh where the Narasimha mythology has evolved to include local traditions, locations, and people. In this region Narasimha is often depicted with Chenchita who was a woman from a local forest tribe that Narasimha is believed to have married. There is a panel in the Korukonda temple that depicts Chenchita with a bow and Narasimha in a sitting posture removing a thorn from her foot (Vemsani 47). The Ahobaleswara temple houses sculptures of the couple that are each one foot tall and show Narasimha with his lion’s face and thick mane holding Chincheta’s chin with his right hand and a bow in his left, “clad from the waist and adorned with elaborate jewelry” (Vemsani 48). The Prahladavaradanarasimha temple houses two sculptures that stand two feet tall and portray Narasimha as having four hands (Vemsani 48). His upper right hand holds a sudarsanachakra (wheel), his upper left hand is obscured from view, the lower right hand touches Chenchita’s chin, and the lower left hand is wrapped around her (Vemsani 48). Again in these sculptures the couple is covered from the waist but in addition to jewels they are both wearing crowns (Vemsani 48). Through these depictions of Narasimha the observer gains a sense of human emotion associated with the powerful deity being a sensitive lover in contrast to his deadly and fierce portrayal in classical Hindu texts (Vemsani 48).

The very different depictions of Narasimha as a fierce demon slayer, and as a gentle, loving husband described above show that beliefs regarding this deity have evolved and changed over time as the myths concerning his exploits changed. The earliest form of the Narasimha myth is short and found in the Mahabharata (Soifer 73). Soifer states that “how the myth arrived at its rudimentary form, and where the figure of the man-lion came from remain unsolved mysteries” (Soifer 73). While the origins of this myth are unknown, Soifer’s study of eighteen versions of the Narasimha myth concluded that “central structural changes in the myths pivoted around the Asura Prahlada” (Soifer 73). As Prahlada’s role in the myths became ever more predominant the tone and structures of the myths changed until eventually they were centered on Prahlada (Soifer 73). It was the increased significance of the role played by Prahlada in later myths that ultimately altered the characterization and role of Narasimha (Soifer 74).

The story of Narasimha had simple origins in the Mahabharata which grew in later versions of the myth. The Mahabharata bluntly describes a part lion, part man who tore the asura Hiranyakasipu apart with his nails and gives no explanation of the motive behind this event (Soifer 75). The Bhagavata Purana describes Hiranyakasipu as a club wielding threat to the gods which provides the motivation necessary for Narasimha to tear the demon apart with his nails, but this version fails to mention the man-lion features (Soifer 76). In the version described by the Agni Purana Narasimha kills Hiranyakasipu, the demon’s brother and all of the other asuras so that the suras, who had been vanquished by Hiranyakasipu, could be restored to their rightful place (Soifer 76). These versions show the first major shift in the myth as the motive for Narasimha’s presence and actions become clear because of Hiranyakasipu increased description as a threat to the gods and the triloka.

The next obvious development in the myth involves the granting of a boon to Hiranyakasipu by Brahma; the boon also begins simply and grows more complex. The Brahmanda and Vayu Puranas both begin by describing the austerities performed by Hiranyakasipu that earned him a boon from Brahma, and end with Hiranyakasipu being torn apart by the nails of the man-lion to restore cosmic order (Soifer 77). The Harivamsa, Brahma Purana, and Visnudharmottara Purana are remarkably similar versions of the myth that claim the events described took place during the Krta Yuga as Narasimha is said to have arrived at the end of this Yuga (Soifer 79). Again in these versions Hiranyakasipu is granted a boon by Brahma for his austerities but the demon specifically seeks invincibility by listing several conditions he wishes not to die from (Soifer 80). These versions describe a reign of terror that followed the granting of Hiranyakasipu’s boon, as well as the displeasure of the gods who are upset with Brahma for granting such a boon to the demon (Soifer 80). The protests of the gods are quelled when Brahma assures them that Visnu will eventually conquer Hiranyakasipu, which he does in the classical man-lion form, however in these stories he kills the asura with one hand instead of the alternative clawing sequence (Soifer 80-81). Thus these versions introduce the idea of a boon given to Hiranyakasipu that upsets the balance of power and requires a clever solution, but also a change in Narasimha’s behaviour as he uses a less animalistic approach in killing his enemy.

The introduction of Hiranyakasipu’s son Prahlada in the Siva and Kurma Puranas marks the beginning of significant change in the focus of the myth as well as Narasimha’s role within it. In these myths Hiranyakasipu is power hungry and wreaks havoc on the world after Visnu’s boar avatar kills his brother, forcing the gods to live on earth in disguise (Soifer 83). In these versions it is the gods who seek Visnu’s aide, who like in the other versions takes on the form of the man-lion, this time setting out at sunset to destroy Hirankyakasipu (Soifer 83). Prahlada is introduced when he announces Visnu’s arrival as the man-lion and advises Hiranyakasipu to submit, but his advice is ignored and the demon is clawed apart on Narasimha’s knee (Soifer 83-4). These myths end not with the gruesome death of Hiranyakasipu, but with Narasimha crowning Prahlada king (Soifer 84). This again is a development in Narasimha’s character that moves him toward human characteristics and away from the original purely beastly mentality.

The final and perhaps most significant factor that influenced the evolution of the Narasimha myths is the introduction, and acceptance, of the concept of bhakti. The Skanda, Bhagavata, and Visnu Puranas depict most clearly the influence of bhakti on the myth. Like some of the versions mentioned above Hiranyakasipu is granted a boon but in these versions he asks that if should be killed, it be done by Visnu in the form of the man-lion (Soifer 93). The marked differences found in these versions are Prahlada’s devotion to Visnu and the fact that he is presented as a child (Soifer 93). Prahlada’s life is threatened several times because of his belief in Visnu and finally Hiranyakasipu demands that Prahlada make Visnu appear from a palace pillar or die by the sword (Soifer 93). As a result of Prahlada’s devotion to Visnu Narasimha appears from within the pillar to tear Hiranyakasipu to shreds with his nails, thus fulfilling the terms of the boon and also saving the devoted child (Soifer 93).

The ever evolving and malleable story of Narasimha gained the deity supreme status among Vaishnavites in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh where several temples to Narasimha can be found (Vemsani 35). The Narasimha temples that will be discussed each have their own local mythology stories associated with the temples and worship of Narasimha (Vemsani 37), however as the evolution of several Narasimha myths have already been traced above this section will focus on the temples themselves and the ritual practices performed in each, instead of the associated myths.

The Simhachalam temple is located in the northern coastal region of Andhra Pradesh and is one of the oldest Narasimha temples in the state (Vemsani 37). There is an image of Narasimha on the hill that is said to have self-manifested where the temple was built, presumably by Prahlada, in antiquity (Vemsani 40). Brahma and several other gods are said to have visited the temple which acts to sanctify the temple.

Worship at the Simhachalam temple is particularly complex because its Narasimha is the composite form of Visnu’s Varaha (boar) and Narasimha avartaras, known as the Varahanarasimha (Vemsani 37). Varahanarasimha is worshipped as a multiple deity because the statue of it located in the Simhachalem temple is a form of Siva on the outside but of Narasimha on the inside (Vemsani 46). This shows the combination of Saiva and Vaisnava traditions by the worship of Narasimha (Vemsani 46). Ritual practices at this temple involve covering the Narasimha with thick sandalwood paste throughout the year so that it comes to resemble a Sivalinga (Vemsani 46). The paste is removed only once per year in the month of Vaisakha on Suklatrtiya for twelve hours during an annual pilgrimage to the temple (Vemsani 46).

There are nine temples in Ahobilam, located on the hills Garudadri and Vedadri which are dedicated to the worship of Narasimha. Each of the nine temples is dedicated to one of nine forms of Narasimha that is said to have manifested in the area (Vemsani 41). The Bhargavanarasimha temple is located near the lake it is named for; similarly Pavananarasimha is located on the river it derives its name from. Yoganandanarasimha is dedicated to the form of Narasimha in meditation. Chatavatanarasimha and Karandanarasimha are both named for the trees they are located under. Ahobalanarasimha is the central temple which is located on the hilltop (Vemsani 41). Malolanarasimha is a peaceful form depicted with Laksmi, while Jwalanarasimha is located in a temple to the fiery Narasimha which is said to be built in the exact location Hiranyakasipu was killed (Vemsani 41). The ninth temple is dedicated to Krodhanarasimha which makes it the second location in Andhra Pradesh where Narasimha is worshipped in the composite form of boar and man-lion avataras (Vemsani 41).

Ritual practices of Ahobilam regard Narasimha as a son-in-law because of his mythical marriage to a local tribeswoman name Chenchita (Vemsani 47). Rituals therefore include a communal performance of the wedding during the annual festival Brahmotsava, as well as the offering of new clothes and gifts to the deity (Vemsani 47). Another festival that takes place in the area is known as paruvetautsava which is a hunting trip that includes a procession of the deity Narasimha through thirty-two villages and may last up to forty days (Vemsani 47).

The temple in Mangalagiri is noteworthy because Narasimha is worshipped not for his well-known victory over Hiranyakasipu, but for the destruction of Namuci (Vemsani 43). The hill that the temple is built upon is said to have been formed by the blood of the slain demon (Vemsani 43). At this temple Narasimha is depicted as Visnu and not just an incarnation of the god which is shown visually by the garland of 108 salagramas which are a symbolic representation of Visnu (Vemsani 43). Rama, Yudhisthira, and the Pandavas are said to have once visited this temple to offer prayers to Narasimha (Vemsani 43).

One of the unique and well known ritual practices at the temple in Mangalagiri involves offering panakam (jaggery water – jaggery is brown sugar) to Narasimha who is represented by a boulder projecting from a back wall (Vemsani 47). Half of the panakam is poured into the mouth of the deity which creates gurgling that is said to be made by the god and is interpreted as the sound of satisfaction, while the other half is given to devotees (Vemsani 47). Another ritual performed at this temple involves embracing palachettu, the tree of milk, which is said to bless people with children (Vemsani 47).

Lastly the temple in Yadagirigutta is found in the naturally formed caves of the western mountain range (Vemsani 44). Within the temple there are stone images of three manifestations of Narasimha including Jwalanarasimha, Yoganandanarasimha and Gandabherundanarasimha (double headed eagle Narasimha) (Vemsani 44). This temple worships Narasimha as a physician who cures the ill and assists people with worldly problems which places the avatara in a new light in which he is not the fierce, animalistic deity of classical texts but instead an amicable and approachable deity (Vemsani 44).

The most common ritual practice performed at the temple in Yadagirigutta is performed by the cured and those wishing to be cured (Vemsani 47). The ritual involves the performance of a mandala pradaksina (circumambulation of the temple), those wishing to be cured first take a dip in the Tank of Visnu and then visit the temple while their clothes are still wet (Vemsani 47).

In conclusion it can be seen that the incarnation of Visnu as Narasimha grew in terms of nature, significance, mythological complexity, visual depictions, and eventually in relation to the types of worship bestowed upon him as well. This is a deity with humble Vedic beginnings that evolved into a supreme deity in a large portion of India who is worshipped by both Vaishnavites and Saivites alike.



References and Further Recommended Reading

Meister, Michael W. (1996) “Man and Man-Lion: The Philadelphia Narasimha.” Artibus Asiae 56 #3/4: 291-301.

Soifer, Deborah A. (1991) The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana: Two Avataras in Cosmological Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Vemsani, Lavanya (2009) “Narasimha, the Supreme Deity of Andhra Pradesh: Tradition and Innovation in Hinduism-An Examination of the Temple Myths, Folk Stories and Popular Culture.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 24 #1 (January): 35-52.


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Article written by Ashley Malcomson (2013) who is solely responsible for its content.