There was once a king in India who desired unsurpassed power and a kingdom which not even death could cheat him of. He wanted to be undisputed Lord of the Three Worlds.
He knew that he must strengthen himself in order to attempt his high ambitions, so he withdrew to a lonely place in the forest and began to practice tremendous austerities, offering them to Brahma, the Creator. At last his unremitting sacrifices and prayers bore their desired result: Brahma himself appeared, said that he was pleased with his devotee, and offered to grant him any boon he might request. The king immediately requested that he should be killed neither by man nor beast, that he should die neither within his palace nor without, neither within the region of the sky nor on earth, neither during the day nor the night, and neither during one nor another of the twelve months of the year. And Brahma promised that he would grant him this request.
When he heard this, the king became overwhelmed with pride, thinking he had cheated Death. He felt that his austerities and religious practices were no longer necessary in view of the boon he had been granted and began to spend his time in politics and battle. After a few years of ruthless conquest, he was the unquestioned ruler of a vast realm. And he began saying that he was the Destroyer of Demons, God.
Now this king had one son, whose name was Prahlad. One day Prahlad, who was only five years old, was playing in the courtyard, when he heard the sound of children weeping. He climbed up a tree and dropped down on the far side of the palace walls, wanting to know what all the noise was about. The children said that they had hidden their kittens in an earthenware pot, and that now the potter had come along and put the pot into his kiln, kittens and all. By the time they found out what had happened, it was too late, the potter had already left for the market to buy his groceries, and the kittens would be baked to death.
Prahlad too started to cry, but then an older woman came up, and asked what the matter was. They told her about the kittens, and she began to reassure them. She said she would call upon the Supreme Lord and ask him to take care of the kittens.
The children watched as she walked across the yard and sat down under a tree. She closed her eyes, meditating on the inner ight. At last she got up and opened the kiln door. To the complete amazement of the children, their kittens poked their noses out the door of the kiln and jumped down to the ground as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
The children were so excited to have their kittens back, that they ran off with hardly a word of thanks, but Prahlad remained behind. He asked the old lady how he could call the Lord, so that the Lord would hear his prayers, too, and she told him that the Lord only hears those who call him by his true name. Prahlad was fascinated and asked question after question. With each answer he received, his desire to know this true name of the Lord grew stronger and stronger. Finally, seeing Prahlad's pure face and keen interest, the old lady sent him to Sage Narad, who revealed that name to him and instructed him to meditate upon it constantly.
Before too long, this name became Prahlad's life. He began to meditate and sing devotional songs in school. His father was angered to hear his son praising a Lord more powerful than himself and ordered him to cease this meditation. But the name had completely absorbed Prahlad's mind, and when his mother begged him to please his father and
stop his meditation on the name, he replied, "Mother, I am ready to leave the name, but the name refuses to leave me, so what can I do?"
When the king heard this, he dragged his son outside and threw him to the ground in the path of an intoxicated elephant. But the elephant picked Prahlad up with his trunk and set him on his back. The child was unhurt. The father then drew his sword, but, as the blade touched Prahlad's skin, it turned into a flower. Clearly, the king would have to find a very thorough method if he wished to be rid of his disobedient son.
It so happened that the king's sister, Holica, had also practiced great penances and austerities and had received a boon from Brahma. She had been given the power to be unharmed by fire. The king requested Holica to use this power of hers to kill Prahlad, and Holica agreed. A great fire was kindled all around Holica, and Prahlad was seated on her lap. The king's servants stood by with huge bellows to make sure the blaze was complete. But the Lord protects his servants. He took away Holica's immunity to fire and conferred it on Prahlad. Holica was burnt to a cinder.
When Prahlad stepped out of the flames unscathed, the king ordered him bound and thrown off a cliff; but Prahlad simply floated down like a leaf to a lake at the foot of the cliff. From there, he glided over the surface of the water to the shore, and so returned to the palace.
His father was stunned to see Prahlad safe and sound once again. He asked Prahlad how he had escaped, and Prahlad told him he had been saved by the power of his omnipresent Lord. The king became very angry and commanded that a great iron pillar that stood in the courtyard be heated up until it was hed hot. Then he asked Prahlad, "Is your omnipresent Lord in this pillar too?" Prahlad nodded. "Then embrace your Lord," said the King.
Prahlad hesitated because he could see the pillar was red hot. But then he noticed an ant that was crawling up the pillar unharmed. Prahlad embraced the pillar, and at that very moment it split open, and the Lord appeared from inside it in a form that was half lion and half man.
The Lord leaped upon the king and carried him to the threshold of his palace. Now the king was neither inside nor outside his palace, and it was twiight, neither day nor night. The Lord created an extra month, so that it was none of the months of the year and lifted the king onto his lap, where it was neither sky nor earth. And then the Lord, whose form was neither that of an animal nor that of a man, tore the king apart.
This whole episode had made the Lord so furious that even Narad began to quake. Narad begged Prahlad to calm the Lord down and told him, "Only your devotion can please him now, otherwise the whole universe will go up in flames."
Prahlad began to pray to his Lord, and his Lord turned his lion's face towards him and began licking Prahlad like a lioness licks her cubs. He told Prahlad, "Never have I seen so true a devotee as you. Ask me any boons, and I shall be glad to grant them." Then Prahlad asked first that the Lord should have mercy on Prahlad's father and grant him liberation. The Lord agreed. And then Prahlad expressed his devotion in the highest way. He asked the Lord to grant that he would always be as devoted to the Lord's feet, as the people of the world are to their worldly pleasures.
The other devotees of the Lord, many of whom were Prahlad's schoolfellows, celebrated Prahlad's devotion by showering each other with colored paint. This celebration which those school boys began has turned into the Holi festival of today. Lord Rama and Lord Krishna both celebrated Holi with their disciples, and, nowadays in India, everyone celebrates Holi.
On Holi, people forget all about their prestige and self-importance. Any child can throw a balloon full of paint at a Cabinet Minister. And there is an old saying about Holi, that on this day, what is past is past and can be forgotten. On Holi festival, you can splash your worst business rival with colors, and he will smile and embrace you, perhaps pouring a bucket of paint on your head too.
This colorful festival brings us the sweet memory of Bhakt Prahlad, who was always ready to sacrifice himself for the love of the Lord.