Narasingh, and Narasingha and Narasinghar in Dravidian languages, is an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, who is regarded as the supreme God in Vaishnavism and a popular deity in the broader Hinduism.
Narasingha is often visualised as having a human torso and lower body, with a lion face and claws. This image is widely worshipped in deity form by a significant number of Vaiṣṇava groups. Vishnu assumed this form on top of Himvat mountain (Harivamsa). He is known primarily as the ‘Great Protector’ who specifically defends and protects his devotees in times of need. Vishnu is believed to have taken the avatar to destroy the demon king Hiranyakashipu.
Lord Narasiṃha and Prahlāda
Bhagavata Purāṇa describes that Vishnu, in his previous avatar as Varāha, killed the asura Hiraṇayakṣa. The younger brother of Hirṇayakṣa, Hiraṇyakaśipu, wanted revenge on Vishnu and his followers. He undertook many years of austere penance to take revenge on Viṣṇu: Brahma thus offers the demon a boon and Hiraṇyakaśipu asks for immortality. Brahma replies that he himself is not immortal, so he can’t grant immortality to anyone else. Though disappointed, the wily demon tries to get immortality indirectly by seeking the benediction that his death happen only in certain conditions, conditions that he believes will be impossible to be met.
O my lord, O best of the givers of benediction, if you will kindly grant me the benediction I desire, please let me not meet death from any of the living entities created by you.
Grant me that I not die within any residence or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought about by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal.
Grant me that I not meet death from any entity, living or nonliving created by you. Grant me, further, that I not be killed by any demigod or demon or by any great snake from the lower planets. Since no one can kill you in the battlefield, you have no competitor. Therefore, grant me the benediction that I too may have no rival. Give me sole lordship over all the living entities and presiding deities, and give me all the glories obtained by that position. Furthermore, give me all the mystic powers attained by long austerities and the practice of yoga, for these cannot be lost at any time.
Brahma said, Tathāstu (so be it) and vanished. Hiraṇyakaśipu was happy thinking that he had won over death.
Prior to this, while Hiraṇyakaśipu was performing austerities at Mandarācala Mountain, his home was attacked by Indra and the other devatās. At this point the Devarṣi (divine sage) Nārada intervenes to protect Kayādu, whom he describes as sinless. Following this event, Nārada takes Kayādu into his care and while under the guidance of Nārada, her unborn child (Hiraṇyakaśipu’s son) Prahālada, becomes affected by the transcendental instructions of the sage even at such a young stage of development. Thus, Prahlāda later begins to show symptoms of this earlier training by Nārada, gradually becoming recognised as a devoted follower of Viṣṇu, much to his father’s disappointment.
Hiraṇyakaśipu is furious at the devotion of his son to Viṣṇu, as the god had killed his brother. Finally, he decides to commit filicide but each time he attempts to kill the boy, Prahlāda is protected by Viṣṇu’s mystical power. When asked, Prahlāda refuses to acknowledge his father as the supreme lord of the universe and claims that Viṣṇu is all-pervading and omnipresent.
Hiraṇyakaśipu points to a nearby pillar and asks if ‘his Viṣṇu’ is in it and says to his son Prahlāda:
O most unfortunate Prahlāda, you have always described a supreme being other than me, a supreme being who is above everything, who is the controller of everyone, and who is all-pervading. But where is He? If He is everywhere, then why is He not present before me in this pillar?
Prahlāda then answers, He was, He is and He will be.
In an alternate version of the story, Prahlāda answers, He is in pillars, and he is in the smallest twig.
Hiraṇyakaśipu, unable to control his anger, smashes the pillar with his mace, and following a tumultuous sound, Viṣṇu in the form of Narasiṃha appears from it and moves to attack Hiraṇyakaśipu in defense of Prahlāda. In order to kill Hiraṇyakaśipu and not upset the boon given by Brahma, the form of Narasiṃha is chosen. Hiraṇyakaśipu can not be killed by human, deva or animal. Narasiṃha is neither one of these as he is a form of Viṣṇu incarnate as a part-human, part-animal. He comes upon Hiraṇyakaśipu at twilight (when it is neither day nor night) on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and puts the demon on his thighs (neither earth nor space). Using his sharp fingernails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disembowels and kills the demon.
Kūrma Purāṇa describes the preceding battle between the Puruṣa and demonic forces in which he escapes a powerful weapon called Paśupāta and it describes how Prahlāda’s brothers headed by Anuhrāda and thousands of other demons were led to the valley of death (yamalayam) by the lion produced from the body of man-lion avatar.
The same episode occurs in the Matsya Purāṇa 179, several chapters after its version of the Narasiṃha advent.
It is said that even after killing Hiraṇyakaśipu, none of the present demigods are able to calm Narasiṃha’s wrath. So the demigods requested Prahlada to calm down the Lord, and Narasimha, who had assumed the all-powerful form of Gandaberunda returned to more benevolent form after that. In other stories, all the gods and goddesses call his consort, Lakṣmī, who assumes the form of Pratyangira and pacifies the Lord. Before parting, Narasiṃha rewards the wise Prahlāda by crowning him as the king.
Narasiṃha and Ādi Śaṅkara
Narasiṃha is also a protector of his devotees in times of danger. Near Śrī Śailaṃ, there is a forest called Hatakeśvanam, that no man enters. Śaṅkarācārya entered this place and did penance for many days. During this time, a Kāpālika, by name Kirakashan appeared before him.
He told Śrī Śaṅkara that he should give his body as a human-sacrifice to Kālī. Śaṅkara happily agreed. His disciples were shocked to hear this and pleaded with Śaṅkara to change his mind, but he refused to do so saying that it was an honor to give up his body as a sacrifice for Kālī and one must not lament such things. The Kāpālika arranged a fire for the sacrifice and Śaṅkara sat beside it. Just as he lifted his axe to severe the head of Śaṅkara, Viṣṇu as Narasiṃha entered the body of the disciple of Śaṅkarācārya and Narasiṃha devotee, Padmapada. He then fought the Kāpālika, slayed him and freed the forest of Kapalikas. Ādi Śaṅkara composed the powerful Lakṣmī-Narasiṃha Karāvalambaṃ Stotram at the very spot in front of Lord Narasiṃha.
The Narasiṃha Avatara – Dashavatara Stories