Adventures in Humility

News, Views, and Chews on spiritual issues.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Maharaja Rantideva

I'd like to talk a little bit about Maharaja Rantideva. I first heard about him when I was very young, and then too I heard about him through the famous Amar Chitra Katha comics! The title was "Tales of Vishnu" I believe, and I was very impressed with Maharaja Rantideva's story at that young age. I was extremely surprised to see that while his story is contained in the Srimad Bhagavatam, he is essentially a minor figure and hardly ever mentioned.

Here is his story, taken from Prabhupada's chapter summary of SB 9.21:

The son of Bharadvaja was Manyu, and Manyu's sons were Brhatkṣatra, Jaya, Mahavirya, Nara and Garga. Of these five, Nara had a son named Sankrti, who had two sons, named Guru and Rantideva. As an exalted devotee, Rantideva saw every living entity in relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and therefore he completely engaged his mind, his words and his very self in the service of the Supreme Lord and His devotees. Rantideva was so exalted that he would sometimes give away his own food in charity, and he and his family would fast.

Once, after Rantideva spent forty-eight days fasting, not even drinking water, excellent food made with ghee was brought to him, but when he was about to eat it a brahmana guest appeared. Rantideva, therefore, did not eat the food, but instead immediately offered a portion of it to the brahmana. When the brahmana left and Rantideva was just about to eat the remnants of the food, a sudra appeared. Rantideva therefore divided the remnants between the sudra and himself. Again, when he was just about to eat the remnants of the food, another guest appeared. Rantideva therefore gave the rest of the food to the new guest and was about to content himself with drinking the water to quench his thirst, but this also was precluded, for a thirsty guest came and Rantideva gave him the water.

This was all ordained by the Supreme Personality of Godhead just to glorify His devotee and show how tolerant a devotee is in rendering service to the Lord. The Supreme Personality of Godhead, being extremely pleased with Rantideva, entrusted him with very confidential service. The special power to render the most confidential service is entrusted by the Supreme Personality of Godhead to a pure devotee, not to ordinary devotees.

One really should read the whole story in the text for the astounding details but it is easy to see what a great devotee Rantideva is. Who can imagine that even after a mega-vrata of 48-day fasting, Rantideva was nonchalant about sharing his well-deserved food and even sacrificed his drinking water in respect to the principle of charity. Bhagavatam mentions that the brahaman, sudra etc. were actually the devas Brahma, Shiva, and so on. And also Bhagavatam doesn't say so, the ACK version held that Rantideva was vouchsafed a vision of his beloved Lord Vishnu. The whole drama took place because Vishnu and the devas were in Vaikuntha discussing Rantideva's devotion, and the devas wanted to test his dedication to charity.

I don't really know why I enjoyed this story so much when I was young. I think, in some ways, I observe similar principles myself. There have been several incidents in my life over the years where I ended up sacrificing something or other so that other people could enjoy. I still do this to some extent, even when unnecessary. I think that the trick is to think nothing of it. Sometimes it doesn't even register in my mind. It doesn't seem to register much in the minds of other people either, but that's another story.

But anyway, I think that this is in connection with the idea that we are supposed to dedicate every thought and act to Krishna, by which we need not worry about our own upkeep too much. Maybe such things happen through the will of the Lord. Who knows how many of us could be tested like Rantideva, and would we pass or fail? Here is a nice verse from Bhagavatam that was spoken by Rantideva:

na kAmaya 'haM gatim izvarAt parAm
aStarddhi-yuktAm apunar-bhavaM vA
ArtiM prapadye 'khila-deha-bhAjAm
antaH-sthito yena bhavanty aduHkhAH

"I do not desire to attain the abode of the Supreme Lord, nor do I desire the eight yogic perfections or the cessation of birth and rebirth. I simply want to stay among the living entitities and accept all sufferings on their behalf, so that they may be freed from distress." (SB 9.21.12)

Whoa! This is big! It is impossible to describe the glories of this one Bhagavatam verse, as it expresses spiritual sentiments that are so deep that only a rare soul can plumb. This shows how Rantideva's heart was so deep that, even when he was on the point of death, his heart never moved an inch away from his principles and even went further as to say that he was willing to suffer even more on behalf of others. Learned readers will be reminded of a similar petition to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu by His great devotee Vasudeva Datta, who similarly prayed that he would be willing to suffer the karma of all living entities so that they may be delivered. He did this because it broke his heart to see people suffering (CC Madhya 15.159-171). And after hearing his prayer, how did Mahaprabhu react? "When Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu heard Vasudeva Datta's statement, His heart became very soft. Tears flowed from His eyes, and He began to tremble." (CC 2.15.164)

Such a prayer touched the heart of Mahaprabhu, do you know how great that is? Mahaprabhu may listen to everybody's prayers with His ears, but how many prayers touch His heart? Shouldn't we all aspire for that? Mahaprabhu Himself noted that Vasudeva Datta's prayer was relatively "unsurprising" as Datta was the reincarnation of Prahlada Maharaja. By this, He meant that Prahlada had similarly prayed for the welfare of all suffering living entitites when he was granted the darshan of Lord Nrsimhadeva. One may look at the Prahlada-stuti of Srimad Bhagavatam for further information, especially SB 7.9.41-44. So this shows that Mahaprabhu is especially touched when one is not so concerned about oneself, but desires to ease the endless sufferings of others and to see them get deliverance from the same.

This is in perfect consonance with devotional sentiments. In Sri Vilapa-Kusumunjali (6), Sri Raghunatha das Gosvamipada praised his guru, Sanatana Gosvami, by referring to him as "kripambudhi" (ocean of mercy) and "para-duhkha-duhkhi" (rough translation: conscious of the suffering of others). The heart of the Vaishnava is like that. The Vaishnava may be self-satisfied in his worship of the Lord (yayAtmA suprasIdati, SB 1.2.6) but sooner or later one's attention will be called to the sufferings of others and how they are essentially bereft of the solution to their problems. A Vaishnava's deep heart is always considering how to relieve the suffering of others and how to deliver them. This is the reason why Caitanya Mangala begins with the story of Devarishi Narada and his petition to the Lord at Dvaraka.

And, of course, the most important reason for desiring the welfare of all is that such a sentiment is immensely pleasing to the Lord.

Wow, I wanted to talk about Maharaja Rantideva and look what's happened!

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