by Atma-tattva Dasa (as told to Srimati Devi Dasi)
ON MARCH 24, 1984, at 12:20 A.M., thirty-five men armed with weapons and bombs attacked Sri Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir, ISKCON’s centre in Mayapur, West Bengal. When the dacoits tried to steal the deities of Srila Prabhupada and Srimati Radharani, the devotees fearlessly challenged the attackers. How could the devotees see Srila Prabhupada and Srimati Radharani carried away? Both sides fired shots, and people on both sides were injured. Srila Prabhupada was rescued, but the Deity of Radharani was not.
The incident greatly disturbed the devotees. They had faced violence and harassment before, and now the management wanted a permanent solution. One manager suggested installing a Deity of Lord Nrsimhadeva, Krsna’s ferocious incarnation as half-man, half-lion, worshiped especially as the protector of His devotees. The manager cited a precedent: When dacoits had threatened the devotees at the Yoga-Pitha, the nearby birth site of Lord Caitanya, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and his son Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura had promptly installed Sri Sri Laksmi-Nrsimhadeva (the Lord and His consort). There were no further disturbances.
Other devotees in Mayapur were not so keen to follow that example. According to scriptural rules, Lord Nrsimhadeva’s pujari, or priest, must have been celibate from birth, and the worship must be strict and regulated. Who would be prepared to worship Him?
Despite such hesitancy, the managers asked me and an artist, Bhaktisiddhanta Dasa, to draw some sketches. They said the Deity’s legs should be bent, as if He were ready to jump, He should be looking around ferociously, His fingers should be curled, and flames should be coming from His head. We sketched a Deity in this mood, in which He is known as Ugra Nrsimha “Fierce Nrsimha.”
The devotees liked it, and Pankajanghri Dasa agreed to worship Him. Radhapada Dasa, a devotee from Calcutta, offered to sponsor the carving and installation of the Deity. It seemed Lord Nrsimhadeva’s appearance in ISKCON Mayapur would be a simple straightforward affair. Radhapada Dasa promptly gave 130,000 rupees, and we planned to have the Deity ready for installation in three months.
I left for South India to get the work started. By Krsna’s grace I soon found a famous sthapati, or Deity sculptor. The man was obliging until I mentioned that the Deity we wanted carved was Ugra Nrsimha. He emphatically refused to make such a Deity. I then approached many other Deity sculptors, but the answer was always the same no.
After six months and several trips to South India, Lord Nrsimhadeva had not yet manifested in His Deity form. Radhapada Dasa was anxious to see Lord Nrsimhadeva installed in Mayapur, and he asked me to visit the first sthapati and once again plead our case.
This time the sculptor was a little more congenial and offered to read me a chapter from the Silpa-sastra, the Vedic scriptures on sculpture and temple architecture and engineering. He read aloud some verses describing Lord Nrsimhadeva His flamelike mane, His searching glance, and His posture, knees bent, one foot forward ready to jump out of a pillar.
I was amazed. This was exactly what we wanted. I showed him the sketch I had done. He was impressed and offered to draw an outline based on the scriptural description. We could use the outline as a guide for carving the Deity. He reminded me, though, that he would not carve the form himself.
The sthapati took a week to do the sketch, and it was impressive. I returned to Mayapur and showed the sketch to the temple authorities. Everyone wanted this same sthapati to carve the Deity. Once again I was sent back to South India to convince him.
I went straight to the sthapati’s house. I felt anxious. What could I do but pray to Lord Nrsimhadeva to be merciful and agree to manifest Himself in our temple in Sridham Mayapur? I had hardly said two sentences when the man matter-of-factly said he would carve the Deity.
The sthapati had approached his guru, the Sankaracarya of Kanchipuram, about our request. His guru had at once replied, “Don’t do it. Your family will be destroyed.” But then, after a moment’s reflection, the guru asked, “Who has asked you to carve this Deity?” When he heard that it was the Hare Krsna people from Mayapur, he became very concerned. “They want Ugra Nrsimha? Are they aware of the implications of carving and installing Ugra Nrsimha? Such Deities were carved over three thousand years ago by elevated sthapatis. There is a place on the way to Mysore where a very ferocious Ugra Nrsimha is installed. The demon Hiranyakasipu is torn open on His lap, and the demon’s intestines are spilling out all over the altar. Once the standard of worship there was very high, with an elephant procession and a festival every day. But gradually the worship declined. Today that place is like a ghost town. The whole village is deserted. No one can live there peacefully. Is that what they want for their project?”
The sthapati replied, “They are insistent. They are constantly coming to talk to me about the Deity. Apparently they have some problem with dacoits.” Handing his guru a sketch of the Deity, he said, “This is the Deity they want.”
His guru took the sketch and looked at it knowingly.
“Ah, this is ugra category,” he said. “But a Deity in this particular mood is called Sthanu Nrsimha. He doesn’t exist on this planet. Even the demigods in the heavenly planets don’t worship a form like this. Yes, this Deity belongs to the ugra category. Ugrameans ‘ferocious, very angry.’ There are nine forms within this category. They are all very fierce. The one they want is Sthanu Nrsimha: stepping out of the pillar. No. Don’t carve this Deity. It will not be auspicious for you. I will talk with you about this later.”
A few nights later the sthapati had a dream in which his guru came to him and said, “For them you can carve Sthanu Nrsimha.”
The next morning the sthapati received a hand-delivered letter from Kanchipuram. The letter, from the Sankaracarya, gave some instructions regarding temple renovations. There was a footnote. It read, “For ISKCON you can carve Sthanu Nrsimha.”
The sthapati showed me the letter and said, “I have my guru’s blessings. I will carve your Deity.”
I was overjoyed. I gave him an advance payment and asked him how long carving the Deity would take. He said the Deity would be ready for installation within six months. I returned to Mayapur.
After four peaceful months in Mayapur, I decided to go to South India to buy the heavy brass paraphernalia required for Nrsimhadeva worship and then collect the Deity. The trip was well organized and trouble-free until I visited the sthapati. I explained to him that I had bought all the paraphernalia for the worship and had come to collect the Deity.
He looked at me as if I’d lost my senses. “What Deity?” he exclaimed. “I haven’t even found the suitable stone!”
I couldn’t believe my ears.
“But you told me He would be ready in six months.”
“I will keep my promise,” he said. “Six months after I find the stone, the Deity will be ready for installation,”
His reply was emphatic, but I just could not understand or accept the delay. In frustration I challenged him, “There are big slabs of stone all over South India. What’s the problem?”
He looked at me the way a teacher would view a slow student and said deliberately, “I’m not making a grinding mortar. I’m making a Deity. The scriptures tell us that only a stone that has life can be used to make a Visnu Deity. When you hit seven points of the stone slab and each makes the sound mentioned in the scriptures, then that stone may be suitable. But there is a second test to indicate whether the stone is living stone. There is a bug that eats granite. If it eats from one side of the stone to the other and leaves a complete trail visible behind it, then the second test of living stone has been passed. That stone is living stone, and expression can manifest from it. Only from such a slab can I carve your Nrsimhadeva. Such stone speaks poetry. All features of a Deity carved from such stone will be fully expressive and beautiful. Please be patient. I’ve been searching sincerely for your six-foot slab.”
I was amazed and a little anxious. The devotees in Mayapur were expecting the arrival of the Deity soon. How was I going to explain the “living stone” search to them? Maybe they would decide to make Nrsimhadeva from marble. I turned to what I thought would be an easy subject: “Please forgive me, but I forgot to tell you last time I came that we also want a deity of Prahlada.* We want to worship Prahlada-Nrsimha-deva. What do you think?”
“I don’t think that will be possible,” the sthapati replied matter-of-factly. I looked at him incredulously, not sure what to say. He smiled and continued.
“You want everything done exactly according to the scriptures. Your Nrsimhadeva will be four feet high. Comparatively speaking, that will make Prahlada Maharaja the size of an amoeba.”
“But we want Prahlada Maharaja one foot high,” I interrupted.
“Fine,” the sthapati replied. “But that means your Nrsimhadeva will have to be about 120 feet high.”
We began to argue about Prahlada Maharaja’s form. Finally the sthapati sighed in resignation and agreed to make Prahlada Maharaja one foot tall. At least now I had something positive to report when I returned to Mayapur.
After two months I returned to South India. There had been no developments. I shuttled back and forth between Mayapur and South India every thirty or forty days. Finally our stone was found, and the sthapati became a transformed man. For more than a week he hardly spent any time at home. Hour after hour, day after day, he just sat staring at the slab. He had chalk in hand but didn’t draw anything. He refused to allow his laborers to do anything besides remove the excess stone to make the slab rectangular. The next time I visited him, he had made a sketch on the stone. That was all. I was worried. The Mayapur managers were becoming impatient.
“Are you sure this Deity will be finished in six months?” I asked in desperation.
“Don’t worry. The work will be done,” he replied.
I returned to Mayapur, only to be sent back to South India to check on some details of the Deity. I found the sthapati carving the form with intense care and dedication. The stone had gone and the shape had come. The sthapati had just started on the armlets. He took two weeks to carve them. All the features were so refined and delicate. I was impressed and happy.
The sthapati took a little more than twelve months to finish the Deity. When he completed the work he didn’t inform me at once but decided to visit some friends for a few days. It was the monsoon season, there were few visitors, and he felt it safe to lock up Lord Nrsimhadeva securely in a thatched shed. Two days later his neighbors ran to tell him that the shed was on fire. Despite heavy rain, the coconut-tree roof had caught ablaze. The sthapati ran to the scene to find the shed burned to ashes but Nrsimhadeva untouched.
He phoned me at once.
“Please come and take your Deity. He’s burning everything. He’s made it clear He wants to go now!”
I traveled enthusiastically to South India, hired a truck, and half-filled it with sand. I arrived at the sthapati’s studio thinking this final stage would be relatively simple. I had foolishly forgotten that Lord Nrsimhadeva is a very heavy personality. He weighed one ton! After two or three hours we managed to lift the Deity safely from the shed onto the truck.
To travel across the Tamil Nadu state border safely, we needed police permission, along with signed papers from the Central Sales Tax Department, the Archeological Director, and the Art Emporium Directorate. All the officers demanded to see the Deity before signing the papers. Once they saw Lord Nrsimhadeva, they all became obliging and efficient. We had the papers in hand within twenty-four hours a miracle given the usual quagmire of bureaucracy found in Indian government offices. The trip back to Mayapur was also amazingly trouble-free and peaceful. Our protector was certainly present with us.
Usually the sthapati comes on the day of the installation ceremony, goes into the Deity room, and carves the eyes of the Deity. This is called netra-nimilanam, “opening the eyes.” But our sthapati had already carved the eyes. He had also done theprana-pratistha (installing the life force) and worshiped the Deity. I’m sure that is why all the papers were prepared so obligingly and transporting the Supreme Lord was so easy. The Lord was already present. And who would dare say no to Lord Nrsimhadeva?
The installation of Lord Nrsimhadeva lasted three days July 28-30, 1986. I remember feeling apprehensive that perhaps the installation was too simple. The grave warnings of the Sankaracarya of Kanchipuram had deeply impressed me. But my mind was soon appeased by the loud, dynamic kirtana.
Sankirtana-yajna, the chanting of Hare Krsna, the only true opulence of Kali-yuga, was dominating the scene. I felt enlivened and satisfied. Lord Nrsimhadeva, the protector of the sankirtana mission, had finally decided to manifest Himself at Sri Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir.
Atma-tattva Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, has served in Mayapur for many years. He helped develop the curricula for the Mayapur gurukula. For the past few years he has taught courses on Bhagavad-gita As It Is to more than two thousand high school and primary school students throughout India.
Srimati Devi Dasi, a disciple of Harikesa Swami, has lived in Mayapur for ten years. She engages pilgrims to Mayapur in chanting Hare Krsna, and she heads up a team of brahmacaris who sell Srila Prabhupada’s books.