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An Example of Living Vedanta: The Story of King Rantideva
The Bhagavad Gita, while describing the qualities of a wise person says: ‘The wise looks with an equal eye upon a noble brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a chandala’ (5.18).
Commenting on this verse, Bhagawan Shankaracharya says that a jnani looks upon this whole world as his own self (atman); i.e., he does not look upon anybody as different from himself.
This verse is vividly illustrated in the story of king Rantideva occurring in the Srimad Bhagavatam (9.21). Rantideva was a person who satisfied himself with whatever came his way through its own accord without any direct effort on his behalf. In effect, he personified the jnani described in Gita 4.22:
‘He is content with what comes to him without effort. He is unaffected by dualities like heat and cold. He is free from envy and is equipoised in success or failure.'
Day by day his wealth started decreasing because he would give away whatever he received, thinking it to be momentary, even at the cost of remaining hungry himself. He did not believe in hoarding, was above all attachments and was highly patient. His devoted family suffered the hardships along with him.
Once it so happened that for forty-eight days they did not get even water to drink. Only on the morning of the forty-ninth day did he happen to get by chance some eatables and water. His family was in deep distress at that time. They were all trembling due to starvation and thirst. However, as soon as they were about to eat the food, a brahmin guest arrived.
Rantideva used to see God in everyone (sarvam khalu idam Brahman - Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1). Therefore, he received the brahmin with respect and gave him his share of food. The brahmin had his meal and went away.
Now they distributed the remaining food amongst themselves. Just then another guest, this time a shudra, arrived. Rantideva, keeping God in his mind, fed some part of the remaining food to the shudra guest.
When the shudra departed, another guest surrounded by a group of dogs approached him saying, "Oh King! Me and my dogs are hungry. Give us something to eat."
The king received them kindly and gave to him respectfully whatever food that remained with him and bowed to the dogs and their owner.
Now only some water, sufficient enough to quench the thirst of just one person remained. They were about to distribute it amongst themselves for drinking when there arrived a chandala (one who tends to dead bodies in the cremation grounds). The chandala guest said, "I belong to the lowest of the lowest caste. Give me water to drink."
Hearing the chandala’s pitiful voice, which he uttered with great pains and exhaustion, tormented as he was by thirst, the noble king with limitless patience was deeply moved with compassion and though he himself was on the point of death because of thirst, gave that water to the chandala saying:
"I do not desire from God the highest powers. I do not even want moksha. What I want is only this: That I be able to go and live in the hearts of all beings and undergo sufferings on their behalf, so that they may become free from all miseries. This unfortunate man wanted water to drink. His life was saved by giving water. Now my hunger, thirst, exhaustion, distress and grief, all have vanished."
Actually these guests were different forms of Bhagawan’s Maya. They revealed themselves to Rantideva in the form of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The king, being entirely free from all attachments, cherished no desires. He bowed to them all, even as his mind was one with Bhagawan Vasudeva due to utmost devotion. He sought no boons from the Gods. King Rantideva did not want anything other than God Himself. Therefore, the Maya of God, constituted of the three gunas, dissolved before him, like a dream dissolves when a man wakes up. By virtue of their close association with him, all those who followed Rantideva too became absolutely devoted to Bhagawan Narayana.
References & Further Reading:
- G. P. Bhatt & J. L. Shastri (Tr). The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes): Delhi 2002
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (Tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur 2004