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59: Narakasur

Deepavali (Diwali) is one of the biggest festivals in Hinduism. Several things are believed to have happened during this auspicious time. There is the emergence of Lakshmi the goddess of wealth from the ocean of milk during to the great Churning of the Ocean that the gods and demons did together (Bhagvata Purana). Then there is the return of Rama to his kingdom in Ayodhya from his self-exile and subsequent successful campaign against Ravana of Lanka (Ramayana). There is also the return of Pandavas from their exile in the forest - with their taking down their divine weapons from the sami tree, and finally resolving to go to war against their cousins the Kauravas, for their rightful inheritance.

Different epochs of the "serpent of time" seem to have left over some residue (Shesha) during this specific fortnight of the year as a reminder. One of the things that is commemorated during the second (or first, depending on your tradition) day of Diwali is the killing of demon Narakasur, and today we will examine the myth surrounding this episode.

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Initially, there was a deluge, a global flood (in which Vishnu takes his first avatar of a fish – Matsya – and saves Manu, the first-born son of Vivasvat Surya and Sanjana, progenitor of all humans, see the earlier post) and then there was the Churning of Ocean (in which Vishnu takes the second form of a turtle – Kurma – and supports the mountain used for churning).

The churning was a herculean enterprise and led to emergence of Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, Amrita the elixir of life, and all the good things. But the gods took them all, and although the daityas (demons) were their elder cousins and equal partners in the enterprise, the demons got tricked and were left with nothing (see here for more about this). 

Enraged, the king of daityas Hiranyaksha, the first-born son of Diti and one of the most powerful demons, also the elder brother of Hiranyakashyapu, abducted the Earth (or the personification of Earth called goddess Bhoodevi) and carried her below the waters.

Consider how there is a wonderful overlap of characters of these ladies – Prithvi the Earth, Bhoodevi the ground, Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, and later Sita, the daughter of Earth and Rama’s wife, as well as Satyabhama, Krishna’s wife. All are consorts of Vishnu in some form, the king, the preserver, and the protector. All are related to wealth, that too material wealth, splendor, in most cases – in most cases simply called “Sri”. All are related to the Earth, the ground, and the underground. The Hindu narrative easily explains this relationship with the most common motifs in Hindu myths – they are either related (one is daughter of another) or are forms and reincarnations of the same entity.

The world was once again flooded, with Bhoodevi being dragged under the waters. It was this time when Vishnu took his third form, that of a wild boar – Varaha – and plunged into the water. He wrestled Hiranyaksha in his own dominion, defeated and killed him, and then emerged with the goddess Bhoodevi being carried on his tusk. (see this for all ten avatars)

However, during the time with Hiranyaksha, Bhoodevi bore him a son, who was called Naraka. Even now, the netherlands (where there are several levels of hell, see here for more details) are called Naraka. Naraka was also called Bhauma (son of Bhumi, an epithet of Earth). In some versions, Naraka is not the son of Hiranyaksha, but actually the son of Vishnu, but that does not fit into the overall narrative, so we will go with this version.

It is said that Naraka was initially a good, pious child while growing, but the incidents of his father’s battles with Vishnu and subsequent departure of his mother left him orphaned, and bitter, as would happen. He continued to perform penance and remained underground for several years / eons.

Meanwhile the world was getting repopulated and reorganized above. The demons were super mad at the death of their leader, and chose his younger brother Hiranyakashyapu as the new king. He decided to take revenge on all gods, but was unable to convince his own son Prahlad to follow him. Enraged, he tortured Prahlad, and Vishnu took his fourth form – Narasimha – to finally kill him.

Prahlad succeeded his father, and there was a complete role reversal. Prahlad was pious, generous and a great leader. Under him the demon kingdoms prospered. Prahlad was succeeded by Mahabali, who was even more generous, kind and overall a great king. 

However, he became so powerful that the gods feared him. Vishnu came to the rescue once again, took the fifth form – that of Vaman – and pushed Mahabali down under the ground.

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Here is where Naraka, Hiranyaksha’s descendant, came across his cousin family again. Mahabali was defeated, but his eldest son Banasur befriended the orphaned and directionless Naraka. He fuelled the desire of vengeance in Naraka, and directed his penance and practices towards gathering power to defeat the gods. Banasur went on to rule Shonitpur (present day Champawat region in Northern India, see this for more about Banasur) and was later defeated by Vishnu in the form of Krishna.

Something similar happened with Naraka too – now called Narakasur (‘asur’ means demon, and the once-pious Naraka seems to have gained several evil qualities due to his cousin Banasur’s influence).

Narakasur emerged from Mithila in present-day Bihar (consider this coincidence – it is the same place that king Janaka ruled and Sita was born from the Earth); but later went on to establish the kingdom of Pragjyotishpur (present-day Assam in North-Eastern India, also called Kamarup in historical times). This kingdom was earlier ruled by Danavas, the sons of Danu, the younger sister of Diti, mother of Daityas. These Daityas continued to rule under Banasur from Shonitpur. So these Daityas and Danavas are together considered demons in Hinduism.

By this time, Narakasur had received training and strength and was very powerful due to his penance over the years. He fought and defeated the last Danava king at that time called Ghatakasur, and became the self-proclaimed king. He became drunk with power and ego, and like all other demons, started to dream to things well beyond his capability.

There is a side-story about Narakasura that is more commonly heard in the North-Eastern India. One day he saw the goddess Kamakhya (a form of Kali) on Nilachal hill (lit. blue mountain), and wanted to marry her. The goddess, like a woman who would try to avoid any unwanted advances by brushing them off, told playfully to him that he can only marry her if he builds a stairway from the bottom of the Nilachal hill to her palace on the mountain top in one night.

Naraka, drunk on power, took this as a challenge, and actually laboured the whole night. He was so powerful that he could move big blocks of stone all by himself, and went on putting layers after layers of the staircase. He was almost about to finish this job while the night was still young, to the absolute horror of the goddess watching the labour, first with playfulness, then with anxiety, and finally with terror.

Panic-stricken, she decided to play a trick on the demon. She quickly found a cockerel and strangled him to make him crow. Naraka was shocked. He had thought that he was almost done, but the bird’s voice meant that it was dawn and he had lost. Dejected, he left the labour halfway and went back. Later he found he was duped, and in his anger, found the cockerel and killed him, as well as renewed his vow of vengeance towards all things godly, including goddess Kamakhya. (Kalika purana)

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Naraka renewed his rigor of penance, and finally appeased Lord Brahma to offer him to ask for boons. As usual when he asked for immortality, Brahma said he cannot give that. So, after a bit of thought, Naraka asked that he be killed only by his mother. Maybe he thought that this would be impossible since his mother Bhoodevi was already dead. Or maybe he simply thought that no mother would be able to garner courage enough to destroy her own progeny. Whatever the thought behind it, Naraka asked for this and Brahma granted it.

Equipped with this solid boon, Naraka became almost invincible. He bought all kingdoms on the earth under his reign. He then attacked Indra’s heaven and defeated all the gods. While Indra’s palace, he also had the indecency to enter their mother Aditi’s chamber. Indra could not stop him nor protect his mother. While in the chamber, Naraka caught the sight of Aditi’s celestial earrings (kundala), which were renowned to be exquisite. He liked them and so he took them with him, like a plunderer. None of the gods could stop him and he returned victorious to his palace.

Naraka launched various campaigns, on the earth, on the heaven, on the waters and ruled like a despot. He also looted Varuna’s palace on the waters of the ocean, and took away his imperial umbrella. He also plundered many other places, destroyed ashrams, kingdoms, and apparently kidnapped and enslaved 16,000 women and populated his personal harem. These girls were daughters of gods, rishis, and lesser kings, and in some versions, they were apsaras. (in some accounts, there were 16,000 princesses, and 100 apsaras, so a total of 16,100 women).

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Finally, unable to bear the despotic rule any longer, the gods, led by Indra, go to Vishnu. By this time Vishnu is in his eighth avatar – in the form of Krishna. He is now sitting in his palace with his second wife Satyabhama. As Indra and the gods narrate their plight, Krishna gets increasingly agitated and decides to launch a full-frontal attack on Naraka. 

As Satyabhama is also listening to it, she comes forward and tells Krishna that she would like to accompany him on his mission. She says she is particularly upset with the details of the ill treatment to all the women by the demon, and especially the humiliation of Aditi and the theft of her property.

In some versions, Aditi goes to Satyabhama (they could be related, or would just know each other) and narrates her humiliation, who then tells Krishna about it, and they together launch the attack on Narakasur.

Satyabhama is always depicted as very strong-willed, courageous, skilled archer and is always up for an adventure. So Krishna agrees, and the two of them mount the golden eagle Garuda and attack Naraka’s fortress. Now Naraka is a powerful demon king, and his palace and kingdom is guarded by a formidable general called Mura. It is also fortified with several moats, some say there are four impregnable walls that surrounded his castle. 

Mura has five heads, is well-versed in the art of war and has a large and strong army. He seems to command 11 Akshauhinis forces – (one Akshauhini is about 110,000 soldiers, 65,000 horses, 22,000 chariots and 22,000 elephants. See here for details about Akshauhini)

The demon Mura tries to defend Naraka's fortress as Krishna and Satyabhama attack on Garuda

He, along with his seven sons, defend the fortress with success initially, until Krishna hurls his mace and breaks the defense. Krishna then uses his disc Sudarshan Chakra and cuts off Mura’s heads one by one, and then also kills all his sons. This feat earns Krishna the epithet of Murari (‘ari’, or enemy of Mura).

It is my theory that this Mura is the same as the demon king (chieftain) Muru from Pragjyotishpur, whose daughter Muravi or Morwi was a learned scholar, who had a battle of wits with Ghatotkach, the son of Bhima, and went on to marry him and have a son Barbareek. Back home Mura defended Naraka's castle (actually the castle of Danavas, usurped by Narakasur), and died in the line of duty at the hands of Krishna. See here for Barbareek.

When the news of the killing of his general reaches Naraka, he charges to the battlefield,  gives a terrible cry and plunges into the middle of action. Krishna attacks his enemy with all his might, while Satyabhama controls the mount Garuda. However, Naraka is too powerful even for Krishna due to his boon. He counters all assaults by Krishna, and makes all his weapons ineffective. Finally, Naraka hurls a Shakti (an astra, a powerful magical weapon) that hits Krishna on his forehead and he faints.


Krishna and Satyabhama infiltrate all fortresses of Naraka
Satyabhama is shocked and enraged. She drops the reigns, picks up a bow and arrow and attacks Naraka herself. To her wonder and amazement, her arrows pierce Naraka and he bleeds to the ground. In the meanwhile, Krishna regains consciousness, takes the advantage of the moment, and together they cut off Naraka’s head.

Krishna, being the Supreme God, realizes and shares with Satyabhama that she is actually a reincarnation of Bhumi / Bhoodevi, and in effect the demon lying in a pool of blood is her child. It is this way that the boon given by Brahma took effect, and Narakasur was destroyed by his own mother.

Satyabhama feels sorry for the dying demon. Meanwhile Naraka, on his deathbed, also seems remorseful and asks for a blessing from his mother Satyabhama, that his killing be remembered on the earth. This Narakasur Vadh is what is celebrated on the second day of Diwali.


Narakasur Vadh - final scene
In the aftermath of the story, Krishna finds and returns Aditi’s earrings. He also releases the 16,000 women from their captivity on the top of a mountain called Maniparvata. But they told him that they could not return to their fathers or families due to being in Naraka’s harem for a long time. To save their humiliation, Krishna agrees to give them shelter and makes them his wives. So along with his 8 principle wives (Rukmini, Satyabhama, Jambavanti, Kalindi, Mitravinda, Nagnajiti, Bhadra and Lakshmana), Krishna is said have a total of 16,008 or 16,108 wives.


Krishna and Satyabhama return Aditi's earrings while Narakasur is lying dead
Later, Naraka’s son Bhagdatta took charge of the kingdom of Pragjyotishpur. He rebuilt the fortresses, and ruled the kingdom till the time of the Great Epic War. During the war at Kurukshetra, he obviously sided with Duryodhana and the Kauravas against the Pandavas to settle old scores, the moment it was known that Krishna will be with Pandavas. He was a formidable warrior, with an Akshauhini of fighting force, and some very powerful and renowned warrior elephants. Bhagdatta, the son of Narakasura, was finally killed by the great Pandava Arjuna.

Peace, and wish you all a Happy Deepavali,

Shreekant

Naraka Chaturdashi, 
18 Oct 2017


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