The appropriation and/or downgrading of each others ancient narratives is a common practice seen among shaiva-s, vaiShNava-s shAkta-s, gANapatya-s and to a lesser extent the kaumAra-s. Many years ago when we first began our studies in the purANa-s we became interested in the sharabha narrative that we we first encountered in the shiva puraNa [Footnote 1]. The shatarudra saMhitA (chapters 11-12) of the shiva purANa has an account of the killing of nR^isiMha by sharabha. This account is a clearly polarized sectarian version in which vIrabhadra first tries make viShNu give up his nR^isiMha form. Upon his refusal rudra attacks him in his sharabha form, cuts his head off and skins him. A similar sectarian account is narrated in the li~Nga purANa (1.95-96), but here after the defeat of nR^isiMha by sharabha he is described as merging in rudra even as water in water and milk in milk. A very different version of the same myth is narrated in the vAmana purANa chapter 36. Here, viShNu after having killed the dAnavAdhipati as nR^isiMha was enjoying his life amongst the lions. The deva-s and gandharva-s wanting him to return to his original form asked shiva to enable the same. Then rudra assumed the form of a sharabha and attacked nR^isiMha. In course of their pitched fight that lasted several thousands of years they fell into middle of the anyajanma lake in the vicinity of kurukShetra. Thereupon viShNu resumed his four armed regular form while rudra became a li~Nga. nArada who was on the bank of the lake then profusely praised both the deva-s and said that the lake had become a holy tIrtha due to their presence. Now in the padma purANa (uttara khaNDa 18.82) the narrative undergoes a further transformation via insertion into a distinct myth. In course of the great battle between the dAnava jalandhara and rudra, the former deployed the jvarAstra. The jvarAstra assumed form a nR^isiMha – a leonine head combined with a anthropic body. Roaring loudly, this jvarAstra in the form of a nR^isiMha attacks rudra. In return rudra uttered a terrifying roar whose reverberations congealed into the form of sharabha who attacked the jvarAstra in the form of a nR^isiMha and destroyed it. The versions of this narrative from the shatarudra saMhitA and li~Nga purANa can be interpreted as sectarian shaiva escalation of the more ancient nR^isiMha narrative that “belonged” to viShNu, whereas the versions from the vAmana purANa and the padma purANa may be interpreted as different smArta attempts at reconciliation or toning down of the sectarian element of the myth. The examination of the proto-skanda purANa [Footnote 2] suggests that the shaiva original of the sharabha narrative in the context of the nR^isiMha narrative was not as extreme as the shiva and li~Nga purANa versions.This narrative (proto-skanda purANa 70-71) might be summed up thus:
The other deva-s asked the illustrious viShNu to hatch a plan to kill the mighty asura hiraNyakashipu. Thereupon viShNu asked the deva-s to enter him; now with his body made up of all the gods he assumed the form of nR^isiMha. He went in that form to the beautiful garden surrounding the daitya’s palace. He destroyed the garden with great ferocity and churned the ponds in the garden. He was attacked by the daitya guards but he hammered them. They flew to hiraNyakashipu and reported what had happened. He asked the daitya-s like prahlAda, anuhlAda, namuchi, baShkala and viprachitti to catch the lion cub and bring it as a pet for this wife. Led by viprachitti they hurled pAsha-s at nR^isiMha, but he easily cut them and killed some daitya-s and the put the rest to flight. Then hiraNyakashipu headed out in his chariot equipped with numerous weapons. nR^isiMha seized the chariot and smashed it right away. The daitya attacked nR^isiMha with a tree but he crushed it like a lump of clay. Then nR^isiMha struck the daitya with his paw and killed him right away. Lifting him up he then tore his chest apart with his vajra-like claws. Then the deva-s regained control of the universe and told rudra of the events that had transpired and asked him to restore viShNu to his old form. To make viShNu abandon his nR^isiMha form, rudra assumed his sharabha form. Approaching nR^isiMha he roared loudly, who struck him hard with his paw. But sharabha was not harmed by the blow, instead nR^isiMha felt pain and wondered who the sharabha might be. Then nR^isiMha realized it was rudra and recited the nR^isiMha-virachita sharabha stotra. Then rudra said: “you have done all that needed to be done and the daitya has been killed; Now resume your own pure and glorious form.” Then sharabha jumped on top of nR^siMha and he resumed his divine viShNu form again. Then rudra gave viShNu the boon that he will be a great slayer of daityas and vanished.
Thus, while the proto-skanda purANa, as a shaiva narrative, sought to downgrade viShNu vis-a-vis shiva, it does not display the stark antipathy seen in the shatarudra saMhitA and the li~Nga purANa. It simply sought to establish the hierarchy in pantheon, with rudra at the top and viShNu as secondary to him. This version in the proto-skanda purANa also throws important light on the evolution of the sharabha-nR^isiMha encounter. Some points of note are: 1) In this narrative prahlAda is merely one of the daitya warriors and not a specially chosen viShNu-compliant successor of hiraNyakashipu. He has no role in the specific event of the death of hiraNyakashipu. 2) The pillar-shattering myth is absent. 3) The battle between the daityAdhipati and nR^isiMha is short. Now this form of narrative is typical of what we see as potentially more ancient narratives of the myth, i.e. the versions found in the brahmANDa, vAyu, brahma and the original version in the harivaMsha (chapter 41). All of these parallel the version in proto-skanda purANa in terms of lacking a role for prahlAda, the absence of the pillar-shattering motif and a relatively brief fight. More specifically, the versions in the brahma and harivaMsha 41 have nR^isiMha kill the daitya king with a blow from his paw. This suggests that the working of the sharabha myth into the nR^isiMha narrative by the shaiva-s happened relatively early in the history of the nR^isiMha narrative using one of the early forms of that narrative. Now the versions in the shatarudra saMhitA and the li~Nga purANa are clearly not directly related to the proto-skanda purANa version. Instead, they share key synapomorphic features, such as the association of prahlAda with the death of his father and an elaborate combat between nR^isiMha and hiraNyakashipu with the matysa purANa, padma purANa uttarakhaNDa 5.42, bhAgavata purANa, viShNu purANa and the rudra saMhitA of the shiva purANa. Further, the version in the shatarudra saMhitA shares the synapomorphy of the pillar-shattering motif with the bhAgavata. This suggests that the versions in the li~Nga purANa and the shatarudra saMhitA represent a second reworking of the sharabha myth into the nR^isiMha narrative using one of these more derived versions as the base, rather than being an evolute of the proto-skanda purANa version. Interestingly, the presence of a derived version of the nR^isiMha narrative, without sharabha or any downgrading of viShNu, as a prelude to the andhaka narrative in the rudra saMhitA, which represents the ancestral core of the shiva purANa [Footnote 1], again supports the idea that the earlier shaiva-s did not aim for an extreme degradation of viShNu.
Indeed, examination of the evolution of the nR^isiMha narrative points to footprints of several episodes of back and forth shaiva-vaiShNava rivalry and smArta reconciliation. One of the early sectarian shaiva attempts at establishing the supremacy of rudra is seen in the mahAbhArata 13.14 (vulgate), where upamanyu narrates the supremacy of rudra to kR^iShNa. Here it is stated that hiraNyakashipu obtained a boon from rudra that made him the supreme operator of the universe for ten million years. Thus, here the shaiva-s are seen appropriating for rudra the role uniformly ascribed to brahmA in the other texts. Further, this text adds that rudra gave a similar boon to hiraNyakashipu’s son mandara who appeared like a giant comet in firmament. This boon allowed him to fight indra for million years and in course of this indra’s vajra and viShNu’s chakra were unable to kill him. The same section also presents one of the earliest mentions of the jalandhara myth and describes the sudarshana chakra as being made by rudra to kill that daitya, and later he gives it to viShNu. Thus, in this early shaiva narrative, the powers of hiraNyakashipu are directly attributed to rudra and a new comet-like daitya mandara is described as being impervious to indra and viShNu’s weapons due to rudra’s boon. This is consistent with the relatively low popularity of the nR^isiMha narrative in this period. While it gets occasionally mentioned in the mahAbhArata, it is not described in detail, rather being just one of viShNu’s many acts of valor. Thus, the main shaiva action with respect to this myth only related to the source of hiraNyakashipu’s power. In the interim period, as indicated by the harivaMsha 41, brahmANDa, vAyu and brahma narratives the nR^isiMha narrative gained traction as one of the great exploits of viShNu. This attracted shaiva attention for further intervention and resulted in the narrative seen in the skanda purANa, with the appropriation of the previously unconnected sharabha motif [Footnote 3]. This growing rift between the two deva-s also attracted the attention of smArta-s who appear to have facilitated the emergence of the equalizing narratives as seen in the vAmana purANa.
In the vaiShNava mythosphere nR^siMha developed further to occupy the role of rudra. Steps in this direction are seen in the version provided by the kUrma purANa, wherein there is no sharabha, but viShNu prominently enters the domain of rudra, especially in his nR^isiMha form. The chief features of this involved narrative deserve some attention:
By pleasing brahmA parameShThin, hiraNyakashipu acquires boons that allow him to take control of the universe and oppress the deva-s. Directed by brahmA the remaining deva-s go to viShNu who was dwelling on the northern shore of the Milky Ocean. From viShNu emanated a terrible being the puruSha, whom he dispatched to attack the daitya-s. The daitya led by prahlAda, anuhlAda and others attacked the puruSha, whom they recognized as viShNu, but were trashed by him. But in the battle that followed the puruSha was mangled by hiraNyakashipu and he was forced to retreat to viShNu. Then viShNu used his yoga to assume the form of nR^isiMha, resembling the fire at the end of the yuga, and attacked the daitya-s. prahlAda led the daitya-s in battle against nR^isiMha but struck by viShNu’s missiles was quickly routed. Thereupon hiraNyakashipu joined the battle, and in course of the fierce fighting discharged the unstoppable pAshupata missile of rudra against nR^isiMha, but it simply failed to have any effect on him. At this point prahlAda realized supreme power of viShNu and asked his father to surrender. But hiraNyakashipu fought on. He was finally seized by nR^isiMha and torn to pieces by his great claws. Then a fierce lion emanated from the body from nR^isiMha and slew anuhlAda and thousands of other daitya-s. Thereafter, the andhaka, hiraNyakashipu’s nephew became the lord of the daitya-s. This is followed by the andhaka narrative in which he is struck by rudra’s weapons and thousands of new andhaka-s emerge from this blood. These andhaka-s threaten to overwhelm rudra, who rushes to seek viShNu’s aid. Then viShNu generated a hundred glorious mAtR^ikA-s (so .asR^ijad bhagavAn viShNur devInAM shatam uttamam |). These goddesses born of the might of viShNu dispatched the thousands of andhaka’s to the abode of death. This is followed by the remaining andhaka episode; finally rudra, directed by viShNu, impaled andhaka with his trident and completes his subjugation. Thereafter, the mAtR^ikA-s with the bhairava who has emanated from rudra go to pAtAla, where viShNu in his nR^isiMha form was being served by rudra in the form of the great snake sheSha. There the the mAtR^ikA-s tell bhairava that they would need to eat up the three worlds to satisfy their hunger. Seeing them set out to eat up the universe, bhairava invokes nR^isiMha to intercede. He does so by recalling the mAtR^ikA-s and making them bestow their power to bhairava. He then informs them that only rudra directed by viShNu would have the right to destroy the universe at the end of the kalpa.
Thus, we see in this example that the vaiShNava-s are asserting the apex position of viShNu in their vision of the pantheon. Symmetric to the some of the early shaiva narratives, they do not seek to entirely denigrate rudra, they merely seek to place him a notch below viShNu in the hierarchy, and as acting under the directives of viShNu. But there is another important point – here nR^isiMha persists beyond his avatAra and takes on the functions of rudra himself – he explicitly declares that he is the kAla who brings about the destruction of the universe. Further, viShNu’s generation of the mAtR^ikA-s in this narrative and his control over them in his nR^isiMha form also illustrates an extension of viShNu into the functionality that is typically in the domain of rudra and kumAra: In the earlier texts the mAtR^ikA-s are generated by rudra to aid kumAra or to aid him in battles. We encounter a similar account in one of the two versions of the andhaka episode narrated in the matsya purANa (chapter 179). Here rudra emanates 190 goddesses to help him kill andhaka by drinking his blood. After the battle they ignore rudra’s command and threaten to devour the world. Then rudra takes the help of nR^isiMha to control them and he emanates 32 mAtR^ikA-s from different parts of his body and they pacify the destructive shaiva matR^ikA-s [Footnote 4]. Finally, bhairava is enshrined along with all these mAtR^ikA-s at the spot where the andhaka battle took place. Interestingly, the devI-s emanated by nR^isiMha include several kaumAra goddess like shuShkarevatI, indicating viShNu-s entry into the old kaumAra domain. Few other points of convergence between rudra and nR^isiMha are seen in course of the paurANika development of the nR^isiMha episode – in the li~Nga purANa version he is described as having three eyes like rudra. Thus, it is possible that the increasing convergence of nR^isiMha and rudra resulted in vaiShNava-s effectively creating a replacement for rudra in their pantheon. Indeed, among sectarian vaiShNava-s the old mantra-s and rituals of rudra came to be declared as mantra-s and rituals of nR^isiMha. It is possible that these developments sparked a reaction among the shaiva-s to conceive more extreme versions of the sharabha narrative (as in li~Nga and the shatarudra saMhitA) to counter to minimize nR^isiMha and assert the position of rudra in his domain.
We might also finally consider the unique sharabha narrative from the kAlikA purANa that shows multiple rounds of vaiShNava-shaiva rivalry within the text. Briefly, that narrative goes thus:
Here the sharabha incident is moved to varAhAvatAra (who normally is placed in conflict with kumAra rather than rudra). After having killed hiraNyAkSha, viShNu in the form of varAha engaged in coitus with the with pR^ithivI in the form of vArAhI and fathered sons off her. In his passion for vArAhI and attachment to his sons he is supposed to have completely lost the sense of identity as the divine viShNu. So rudra decided to intercede to in the form of sharabha and attacked varAha and his three sons. All the deva-s transmitted their powers to sharabha and he became enormously strong imbued with their might. A fierce war followed with varAha emanating several varaha-s each time he grunted. Likewise, from the saliva of sharabha emanated numerous sharabha gaNa-s who were possessed of all manner of mammalian, reptilian and pisciform heads or of the form of ardhanArIshvara-s, equipped with a crescent moon on their head and armed with all manner of weapons. Thus, they engaged in combat. Finally, after a prolonged fight varAha and this three sons were reduced to a state of defeat. At this point viShNu separated in part from varAha and came to sharabha to surrender to him. When he opened his mouth to state his surrender, varAha saw within viShNu’s mouth a nR^isiMha. He captured the energy of nR^isiMha and possessed viShNu to make him assume the nR^isiMha form and join varAha to continue the battle against sharabha. Now sharabha with his manifold gaNa-s fights both nR^isiMha and varAha. He first kills nR^isiMha and then varAha. At this point the energy of varAha described as being equivalent to that of ten million suns enters the divine body of viShNu and re-establishes that form of his. Then viShNu reabsorbed the energy from the 3 sons of varAha and attacked sharabha and after a fight crushes him.
Thus, this narrative appears to show signs of the shaiva attempt at establishing dominance over both the key vaiShNava forms that constitute two of the faces of the pA~ncharAtrika chaturmUrti followed by the vaiShNava re-assertion by having the sharabha crushed by the revived viShNu. This indicates that the narrative was being repeatedly reworked by the two rivals in the later phases of its development.
The lions of the veda
Finally, to understand the origin of the leonine manifestation of viShNu and other deities in the later texts we need to look back to the oldest texts. In the veda several deities are described as lions.
pra tad viShNu stavate vIryeNa mR^igo na bhImaH kucharo giriShThAH |
yasyoruShu triShu vikramaNeShv adhikShiyanti bhuvanAni vishvA || (RV 1.154.02)
upastutiM namasa udyatiM cha shlokaM yaMsat saviteva pra bAhU |
asya kratvAhanyo yo asti mR^igo na bhImo arakShasas tuviShmAn || (RV 1.190.03)
stuhi shrutaM gartasadaM yuvAnam mR^igaM na bhImam upahatnum ugram |
mR^iLA jaritre rudra stavAno .anyaM te asman ni vapantu senAH ||(RV_2.033.11)
dhArAvarA maruto dhR^iShNvojaso mR^igA na bhImAs taviShIbhir archinaH |
agnayo na shushuchAnA R^ijIShiNo bhR^imiM dhamanto apa gA avR^iNvata || (RV 2.034.01)
mR^igo na bhImaH kucharo giriShThAH parAvata A jaganthAparasyAH |
sR^ikaM saMshAya pavimindra tigmaM vi shatrUn tALi vi mR^idho nudasva || (RV 10.180.02)
In the veda, rudra is also explicitly described as being of tiger-like form. On the whole, in the veda the epithet of the lion was not exclusive to viShNu. But over time he came to gradually monopolize it. If we trace of this process we find that in the epics the lion form of viShNu is only barely making its presence felt. It is absent in the core rAmAyaNa though varAha and trivikrama are mentioned (only in one Punjabi recension of the uttararAmAyaNa do we find a mention of nR^isiMha). In the mahAbharata, the nR^isiMha is mentioned, but not very frequently. At the same time the mahAbharata has allusions to rudra being of the form of a lion. However, by the harivaMsha the nR^isiMha form is an important manifestation of viShNu in the developing early pA~ncharAtra system. It appears that nR^isiMha probably emerged first in the vaikhAnasa system and spread more widely in the vaiShNava world only around the time of the later growth of the mahAbhArata. Around the same time rudra was also being identified as a lion among other animals. However, as the purANa-s diversified viShNu became increasingly identified with the lion, but in the case of rudra the identification shifted from him to his great gaNeshvara vIrabhadra. In the dakShAdhvara narrative of the vAyu purANa, vIrabhadra is said to be of the form of a lion unleashed by rudra, while he is also described as riding a car drawn by numerous lions. More explicitly, in the varAhapurANa, vIrabhadra in the form of a lion participates in the andhaka battle. In this version the gajAsura motif is inserted within the andhaka narrative. When rudra was preparing to fight andhaka his aid, the daitya nIla, assumed the form of an elephant and tried to crush rudra. However, he was sighted by nandin who promptly asked vIrabhadra to intercept him. vIrabhadra assuming the form of a lion attacked nIla and killed him. Then vIrabhadra as the lion skinned the daitya’s elephantine form and gave the skin to rudra to wear. This appears to be part of a trend observed in the early phase of paurANika development wherein rudra tends to act via his agents rather than directly: nIlalohita, bhairava, vIrabhadra, vIraka, nandin, bhadrakAlI and the naked goddess koTavI, among others. As a result the leonine identification slipped away from rudra even as it was taken by vIrabhadra. There are faint indications that indra’s leonine form too survived until relatively late even though he declined in the purANa-s. The only evidence for this comes from the frame story of the mR^igendra tantra, an upAgama of the kAmika group of saiddhAntika tantra-s. Here, indra is said to have assumed the form of a man-lion; hence, he is described as mR^igendra. In this form he is said to have received shaiva teachings from sadAshiva and transmitted them to the brAhmaNa-s. Thus, it appears that the lion form survived with at least three deva-s beyond the veda.
With the rise of the bhAgavata system and the associated proto-pA~NcharAtra viShNu became nArAyaNa the supreme being. Previously, for example in the rAmAyaNa, the narratives had the deva-s collectively appoint or elect viShNu to perform particular tasks, such as taking the form of trivikrama to subdue the daitya-s or a human form to kill rAvaNa. This is similar to the Vedic narratives where the deva-s chose viShNu to do a particular task or chose rudra to destroy the tripura-s. But as viShNu was transformed into the supreme nArAyaNa in the bhAgavata system, he became the one who out of his volition to cause good to the deva-s performed various acts. In this reconfiguration of viShNu as the supreme nArAyaNa, the avatAra of nR^isiMha became an important image of his destructive power. In doing so he effectively occupied the powerful imagery of the lion, displacing the other deva-s who had earlier shared it, and also moved into the domain of rudra as the destroyer. Hence the shaiva-s appear to have singled out this incarnation of viShNu for the development of counter-narrative, right from the inception of their competition.
Footnote 1: The recension we are talking about was published first by the Venkateshvara Steam Press and later translated by a “board of scholars” in four volumes. It consists of 7 saMhitA-s in over 450 chapters. The core of it is the rudra saMhitA that represents the an archaic core of a shaiva purANa with 5 khaNDa: sR^iShTi, satI, pArvatI, kumAra and yuddha. The gANapatya narrative was originally supposed to be in a separate vinAyaka saMhitA that has been lost. But a gANapatya section has been inserted between the kumAra khaNDa and the yuddha kaNDa in the current rudra saMhitA.
Footnote 2: The proto-skanda purANa is the kR^iShNaprasada bhaTTarai edition published under the patronage of the assassinated former ruler of Nepal as the ambikA khaNDa. This is one of the key purANa-s that the Indian and Nepali government should have made the highest priority to produce an electronic copy (some Dutch and Japanese scholars provide certain fragments as electronic copies, claiming access to a further medieval Nepali manuscript of the same text). It is one of the rarest published purANa texts that to my knowledge exists only in a single library in India where no copies of it can be made. We spent many an afternoon imbibing its content rather than attend college.
Footnote 3: In the mahAbhArata (12.117, vulgate) bhIShma narrates a tale he had heard at the Ashrama of ramo bhArgava. In it a brAhmaNa using his yoga powers converts a dog successively into a leopard, tiger, elephant, lion and sharabha. Here the sharabha is said to defeat the lion. However, it should be note that in the mahAbharata it is viShNu who is called sharabha in the sahasranAma section.
Footnote 4: The 32 mAtR^ikA-s mentioned in the matsya purANa as being emanated by nR^isiMha are the arNa-devI-s of either the ugra-viShNu/vaiShNava mantrarAja or the 4th mantra of the vaiShNava pa~Nchabrahma. They are visualized on the 32 petaled waterlily on which these mantra-s are inscribed in the respective yantra-s. The combination of their mantra-s with the respective 32-syllabled root mantra-s are central to the great secret prayoga of nR^isiMha or the south facing form of viShNu. The 100 mAtR^ikA mantra-s are combined with the 4 faced form of viShNu as hinted in the kUrma text itself.