Not untimely for our current global situation our humble Shalabhasana (locust posture) teaches us about the significance of the Yoga of Hatred (Krodha Yoga) and the Yoga of Love (Bhakti Yoga). Although sharing the same destination, they couldn’t be more different in regards to the type of passage that they provide. Both these yogas are the driving forces behind the main characters in India’s three great epics and tales, the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata Purana, which although ancient stories contain characters all too similar to contemporary ones. For those of you who savor Indian myth, this is one of its spiciest legends and one of my favorites.
Shalabha means “locust” or “grasshopper.” In the Mahabharata, the asura (demon) Shalabha is listed as the previous embodiment of the demon emperor Prahlada. After Shalabha breathed his last breath, he was reborn with the name Prahlada, son to the mighty demon king Hiranyakashipu.
Hiranyakashipu had a brother named Hiranyaksha, and they both were born with an extraordinary destiny. To understand the significance of these two brothers we have to go back many, many millennia to a fateful day, the events of which not only triggered the two greatest wars of India’s ancient history but also caused a conflict that spanned three world ages.
In an earlier life the two brothers were Jaya and Vijaya, gatekeepers at the celestial abode of Lord Vishnu. Both were absorbed in Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion to their master. One day a group of rishis (sages), approached the gate wishing to address the Lord. Jaya and Vijaya were in an arrogant mood that day and, wishing to keep the Lord’s glory to themselves, refused entry to the rishis.
The group of rishis pronounced a terrible curse on the two gatekeepers, condemning them to spend their lives roaming the Earth as asuras (demons) engaged in acts of hatred against their master, the Lord Vishnu.
In despair, Jaya and Vijaya turned to Lord Vishnu and asked him to modify the curse of the rishis. Lord Vishnu pointed out that he could not do so and didn’t want to as they had acted wrongly, but he told them that since all their thoughts had always been bent only on him, from now on they would practice Krodha Yoga. Krodha Yoga is the practice of reaching an intense state of concentration on a chosen object, not through love but through hatred. (Krodha Yogis, like Bhakti Yogis, eventually become what they focus on, with the important difference that during the process Krodha Yoga bestows incredible pain, whereas Bhakti Yoga bestows bliss.) Lord Vishnu then promised his two devotees that they would hate him with such fervor that inevitably they would be drawn toward him like moths into the flame of a candle, only to be killed by his hand and thus again become one with him.
The curse ran its course, and the words of the rishis came true as Jaya and Vijaya were born as fierce demons in three consecutive world ages. The wars and conflicts that arose through their insatiable hatred of the Lord stimulated the latter to manifest ever-greater avataras to quell the activities of his former devotees. They also gave rise to the greatest Indian tales and epics, the Bhagavata Purana, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata.
The point of this story about Jaya and Vijaya is that the brothers Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu were Jaya and Vijaya reborn. Both grew up into very powerful warriors and lived for the sole desire of destroying the Lord. Hiranyaksha eventually challenged the Lord when the latter lifted the Earth from the bottom of the primordial ocean, assuming his mighty Varaha (celestial boar) avatara. After an arduous fight, Hiranyaksha met his end at the tusks of the Varaha. Varaha is the third avatar of Vishnu and this tale is part of the Bhagavata Purana.
Hiranyakashipu did not take very well to the news of his brother being killed by his archenemy. His hatred grew even stronger. He performed intense austerities to such an extent that eventually Lord Brahma had to descend from heaven and ask him which boon he wanted to obtain. Like every true demon before him, Hiranyakashipu asked for his present body to be immortal, since identification with the body is known as the demonic teaching. Significantly, Lord Brahma answered that he could not bestow this boon since even he himself was not immortal.
Hiranyakashipu then asked for the second best boon he could think of: to be killable neither by man nor by beast, neither during day nor at night, neither in a house nor outside a dwelling, neither on the ground nor up in the air, and by no weapon of any kind. Brahma happily granted this boon, since although quite comprehensive it was still finite.
With renewed vigor, Hiranyakashipu then tackled the pursuit of the Lord’s peril. Since he was invincible, he easily became the king of the asuras (demons) and amassed a mighty army. He soon embarked on his various campaigns of looting and ransacking the three worlds (earth, heavens, and netherworld) with the aim of finally meeting and challenging his chosen enemy, Lord Vishnu.
One day when Hiranyakashipu was away, his own city was attacked and looted by Lord Indra and his army of devas (although ‘gods’ the Indian devas are not averse to the pastime of ransacking and pillaging). Hiranyakashipu’s wife, Kayadhu, was dragged away as booty but subsequently rescued from Indra’s humiliation by the celestial Rishi Narada. Narada is described as having the gifts of eternal youth and flattering speech and being most handsome and a great musician and singer. It is said that by the time Kayadhu left Narada’s ashrama and returned to Hiranyakashipu, the love-smitten demon queen was pregnant.
Hiranyakashipu was too engaged in wreaking destruction to notice that his first son, Prahlada, nevertheless had many traits unworthy of a demon and was rather like a celestial. While Hiranyakashipu was abroad to practice pillaging and ransacking, Prahlada was trained in the demonic arts to be a worthy successor to the demon king. On returning, Hiranyakashipu inquired about Prahlada’s progress, only to find his son spontaneously bursting into praises of the much-despised Lord Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu at this point developed serious stomach ulcers. After several attempts to retrain Prahlada in the demonic arts failed — he tried to get him to devour pious devotees of the Lord, roast people on spits, and defile sacred sites through strategic placement of chunks of roasted meat — he decided to have his son killed.
He first ordered his palace guards to chop him to bits. But the guards found their blades went right through Prahlada with no effect. Hiranyakashipu then had him bitten by venomous cobras, trampled on by his biggest elephants, thrown into a furnace, attacked by his most terrible demon warrior, submerged in the ocean, and finally thrown off the highest peak in his empire, all to no avail. While Prahlada remained in samadhi, the cobras’ fangs fell out, the elephants’ tusks broke off, the fire died down, the terrible demon warrior ran away, the ocean spat him out, and from his fall from the highest peak he landed lightly like a feather on a bed of lotus flowers.
Hiranyakashipu finally lost his temper and decided to finish off this unworthy son himself. He committed his final mistake on the stairs at the entrance to his palace when he dared Prahlada to invoke his mighty Lord on the spot and let him burst forth from one of the entrance pillars of the palace to prevent Hiranyakashipu from finally killing his son.
Prahlada only smiled and, closing his eyes, invoked the Lord. At that moment a huge cloud darkened the sky so much that there was hardly any daylight anymore; it was neither day nor night. With a clap of thunder, the huge pillar split apart and the Lord came forth in his terrifying Narasimha (man-lion) form, his fifth avatar. In this form, being half human-half lion, he was neither man nor beast, but in between. He grabbed Hiranyakashipu on the stairs of the entrance to his palace, where he was neither inside nor outside of a dwelling. He lifted him up and placed him on his lap, where he was neither in the air nor on the ground. Without using any weapon at all — thus following the boon granted by Lord Brahma to the letter — the Lord in the form of the terrible Narasimha then tore Hiranyakashipu to shreds. (Here is a frequently occurring theme of Indian mythology: If we are in the position to ask a boon of a celestial, we should choose the wording of this boon very, very carefully.)
Whereas everybody else ran away in terror when Narasimha appeared, Prahlada just looked on, smiling, for he recognized the Lord Vishnu even in this terrifying form. The Lord then reverted to his benevolent four-armed form, placed Prahlada on the throne, and made him emperor of the demons
Thus ends the story of Prahlada, the incarnation of the demon Shalabha. His father, the demon Hiranyakashipu, formerly Vijaya, the jealous doorkeeper of the Lord, had to go through two more demonic incarnations before becoming one with his master.
The above passage is an excerpt from my 2009 text Ashtanga Yoga The Intermediate Series. What I will delve into from here on is the question whether this myth can give us some clues about our present situation? There are of course a lot of different angles from which we can look at this and in fact this myth is so rich that it would take a book to analyze it. However, the most potent passage that stands out for me is the moment when a group of rishis, a group of ‘others’ are trying to intrude into Jaya’s and Vijaya’s petty, domestic scene of the Yoga of Love. Most of us would have had glimpses of this yoga. We may have found it briefly in the arms of a lover, the smile of our newborn baby, in rapture when seeing the beauty in nature, or even when opening our hearts to the Beloved, the Divine. Some may consider it heretic to mention all of these in one breath but it is not a new teaching that love itself is sacred and how you arrive at it is secondary.
If you deeply enter into the sentiment of love, you will find that it is eternal and infinite. Because it is eternal and infinite there is no place and time where it isn’t and it cannot be increased nor decreased by adding or detracting to or from it. From that point of view Jaya and Vijaya’s yoga of love was only skin deep. Yes, they were intensely loving what they had identified as being lovable (in this case Vishnu) but it had not (yet) transformed them into pure love. In the moment when a group of rishis appeared to share into the worship of the Divine, the two gatekeepers became jealous. True love cannot increase or decrease because it is in itself complete, perfect, eternal and infinite. It is the pure consciousness, the self.
Interestingly Jaya’s and Vijaya’s lapse from the yoga of love to the yoga of hatred was brought about by a group of outsiders, of others. Today we encounter these others in many disguises and “othering” has and is the way in which politicians apply the Machiavellian adage of “divide and conquer”. As whites we are offered to see the Latinos or Blacks as “other” and vice versa. As non-Muslims we are held to “other” as Muslims and vice versa. Men may objectify and “other” women, Neoconservatives may “other” the Neoliberals, many English are currently “othering” the Europeans, and in many countries around the world including my home Australia it is en vogue for citizens to “other” immigrants and foreigners. And of course not to forget that humanity has made a cultural decision long time ago to “other” the rest of the biosphere, that is the whole of nature.
If somebody is firmly established in the business of “othering” (such as many current politicians) we may become provoked to enter the yoga of hatred ourselves and start vilifying them. If I look deeper though I can see that politicians who do so are actually themselves deeply afraid. If I start hating and attacking them I make their fears come true and in a strange way that is actually what they expect. If, however, I stay established in the yoga of love I do actually provide an environment in which they can heal and change.
The Indian epics teach us that the yoga of love and the yoga of hatred after a long, long time converge to the same experience (which we may call the end of othering). The difference between the two yogas is not the goal but the passage. If we continue the yoga of hatred, that is creating categories of “other” in which we put other nationalities, ethnic or social groups, our passage to this same goal is only much more painful.
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