An emperor visits Tulsidas

Attributed to the Master of the Jagged Water’s Edge, 1710–12
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Sheet, 49.2 × 44.6 cm
Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art, F1986.13

A Defense of Icons

Bahadur Shah, a Muslim, asks the revered Hindu poet Tulsidas, “Why do Hindus worship stones?” Tulsidas responds by telling the story of Prahlad, whose demon-king father, incensed by Prahlad’s devotion to Vishnu, tries to kill the boy, laughing that his god cannot save him. Undaunted, Prahlad insists that Vishnu is present everywhere, even in stone. Vishnu (in his form as the lion-headed Narasimha) then bursts forth from a stone pillar, slaying the demon and proving that Hindu icons are more than mere stones.
—Ariela Algaze, graduate student, NYU

From Poetry to Painting

This painting was inspired by a poem from the Kavitavali of Tulsidas, a sixteenth-century poetry collection in the Brajbhasha language. The poem tells the story of the young Prahlad, a devotee of Vishnu persecuted by his demon-king father.

The Pious Prince

Prahlad and fellow schoolboys inscribe the name of Rama, an avatar of the deity Vishnu, onto their tablets.

The Devotee versus the Demon-King

Prahlad’s demon-king father, Hiranyakashipu, bursts into the room, threatening his son with a sword. Vishnu, in the form of Rama, miraculously stops the sword from hitting Prahlad. The god’s active presence is indicated by his image on the walls and ceiling of the pavilion, and again on the demon-king’s blade.

The Attack Continues

Angrier than ever, the demon-king grabs Prahlad by his ponytail and drags him across the room as the other schoolchildren scatter in fear. Outside, the demon-king’s fire-breathing brother adds to the chaos. Notice how throughout the attack, Prahlad never drops his tablet inscribed with the name of Rama, an indication of his unwavering faith.

The Demon Dethroned

When Prahlad insists that Vishnu’s presence is everywhere, even in a nearby stone pillar, Narasimha—an avatar of Vishnu with the body of a man and the head of a lion—bursts forth from the pillar, splitting it in two. Narasimha takes hold of the demon-king, running his hands across Hiranyakashipu’s stomach as he prepares to disembowel him. The demon-king’s crown clatters to the ground, a symbol of his defeat.

The Cosmos Unbalanced

Rather than telling the story from left-to-right or right-to-left, the painter represented it nonchronologically in the upper register of the painting. Why would the painter make this choice? Perhaps he wanted the narrative to echo the way in which the demon-king upset the cosmic balance and order of the universe.

An Intercultural Encounter

By itself, Tulsidas’s poem invokes the power of Vishnu. But the painter took it one step further, framing the poem as an imagined meeting between the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah and Tulsidas. The poem at the top of the painting is presented as the answer to Bahadur Shah’s question: “Why do Hindus worship stones?”

Iconic Devotion

Through the story of Prahlad, the painting illustrates a Hindu conception of devotional images. The murti (icon) is not a mere representation of a deity; rather, it contains the very essence of the god within it. The icon makes the intangible deity present on earth.

Performing Puja

During worship (puja), devotees interact directly with deities by making offerings that include fragrant garlands.

A Defense of Icons

Tulsidas’s poem:
He drew his sword without mercy,
yet seeing his father terrible as Death, the boy didn’t flee.
“Where is Ram?” “Everywhere!”
“Even in this pillar?” “Yes!” Hearing this Narasimha awoke.
Becoming awful, he rent the foe, but spoke tenderly to Prahlad.
Since then, says Tulsi, love and faith increased, and everyone began worshiping stones.

—Translated by Philip Lutgendorf

Authored by Ariela Algaze

Authored by
Ariela Algaze