The history of three lifetimes of one soul – as an exemplary king, an enlightened deer, and an incognito saint.
By Ishvara Dasa and Bhumapati Dasa
Srimad-Bhagavatam relates the ancient history of pious King Bharata and of his next two lives.
[From Pauranic Caritavali: Legends of the Puranas, Compiled by Ishvara Dasa and Bhumapati Dasa. Copyright 2018 Ishvara Dasa and Touchstone Media. All rights reserved. Available at touchstonemedia.com.]
On the request of his father, Rishabhadeva [an incarnation of the Lord], Bharata was crowned king. He was married to Pañcajani, daughter of Vishvarupa, with whom he fathered five sons: Sumati, Rastrabhrit, Sudarshana, Avarana, and Dhumraketu. He strictly practiced religious principles in his rule and his life. His father had also taught him to rule his subjects with the affection of a father for his children, and so he was a good king.
Bharata performed many sacrifices and chose to offer the results of them to the Supreme Lord, Vasudeva. Because he pleased Lord Hari, the supreme controller and enjoyer of all sacrifices, his heart was purified and he developed steady and unwavering devotional service to his Lord. Through his pure devotion, King Bharata knew the Lord’s form to be decorated with Srivatsa, the Kaustubha gem, a garland of forest flower, a conch, disc, club, and lotus flower, and he knew that great devotees saw this form in their hearts.
Retiring to the Forest
According to Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.7.8), Bharata Maharaja ruled for “one thousand times ten thousand years,” during which time he enjoyed his kingdom and also exhausted the reactions of his past deeds. Then, at the end of his life, he distributed whatever wealth and property he had inherited from his father and grandfather among his sons and went to the forest, settling at sage Pulaha’s ashram, a beautiful hermitage sanctified by the nearby Gandaki River. King Bharata lived there alone and spent his time worshiping Lord Vasudeva with the ashram’s flowers, tulasi leaves, water, fruits, and roots. His heart was filled with so much love and devotion for the Lord that his material desires were vanquished and he attained bhava [the stage of spiritual ecstasy].
Then one day, after bathing in the Gandaki, the king sat down beneath a tree to chant his mantras. He saw a pregnant deer come to the river’s edge to drink. A lion roared nearby, and the deer, startled and frightened, tried to leap to the river’s opposite bank. As she did so, she had a miscarriage, and the fawn fell into the water. The doe’s heart gave out and she died on the spot. But the king could see the fawn struggling as it was swept away by the river’s current. The king’s heart melted, and he rescued the orphaned fawn and took her to his ashram.
Bharata raised the fawn with care, and often petted her, scratched her neck, and kissed her. He also protected her from jackals and other animals. As the deer grew, he became so absorbed in her care that he gradually gave up his worship. Soon he had fallen from his bhakti path.
Sastra tells us that we should never neglect the helpless, and certainly this sense of duty lived in King Bharata. But the king became so attached to the deer that he thought of her constantly – while bathing, eating, walking, sitting, and sleeping. This undue attachment for a person who had given up an opulent kingdom could only be due to some reaction from a past misdeed or some sort of offense.
One day, the king lost sight of the now half-grown deer. He was beside himself with grief and worry, and he began to wander the area, calling out the deer’s name. But as providence would have it, the king died while searching for the deer, all his attention focused on her. As he was leaving his body, he could see the deer lamenting for him as if she were his own child.
In a New Body, Life with the Sages
Since Bharata died while meditating on the deer he received the body of deer in his next life. But due to his advanced devotional practices, he was given the blessing of remembering his life as the king. Finding himself in this unfortunate circumstance, he repented profusely and thus again became materially detached. He then left the doe who had given birth to him at Kalañjara Mountain and returned to the sacred place known as Salagrama, near the ashrams of Pulaha and Pulastya and where, in his previous birth, he had performed his own worship. The area was filled with sages, and the saintly king remained alone, in his deer body, near enough to hear their discourses. He now feared any sort of association that would again drag him back to material consciousness, so he waited for death to free him of the deer body and otherwise avoided association even with other deer.
ASaint in Disguise
In due course, he gave up the deer body by entering the Gandaki. Bharata was liberated from the body of an animal but not yet liberated from material existence, so he took birth again, this time as the son of the youngest son of an exalted brahmana in the lineage of Angirasa. Again he was able to remember his past lives, and so he became particularly determined never to fall again into distracting association. He remained constantly absorbed in thoughts of the Lord’s lotus feet, but externally, he seemed blind, deaf, dumb, and mad. His affectionate father tried to teach him brahminical duties, even performing his sacred thread ceremony, but Bharata intentionally acted as if he could not understand. His father spent four months trying to teach him to chant the Gayatri mantra, but Bharata pretended to be a fool. His affectionate father, however, worried about Bharata’s future.
After some years, the brahmana left his body and Bharata’s mother gave the care of her children to her co-wife, ascending the funeral pyre with her husband. Once Bharata’s parents were gone, his stepbrothers ignored him, considering him mad. His brothers were not bhaktas, so they had no way to recognize Bharata’s actual spiritual status. And Bharata gave no hint. Whenever low-class fools misbehaved around him, Bharata paid them no heed. When people teased or abused him, Bharata ignored them. He worked without pay or for whatever was given to him by the mercy of his masters. Sometimes he begged enough to keep body and soul together. He remained ever fixed in spiritual consciousness and did not identify with mundane happiness or distress, honor or dishonor.
Still, despite the austerity this lifestyle entailed, his body remained strong. Since he slept on the floor and did not bathe often or rub his skin with oil, he appeared dirty, although his heart was spiritually illumined. Fools considered him a degraded brahmana and disregarded him. Even though he was insulted, however, he took no heed. His stepbrothers then began to engage him in working in the paddy fields. Whatever pieces of burned rice or mustard cake they gave him to eat he ate without complaint.
Saved by Kali
One day, the leader of a gang of robbers arrested a man they intended to sacrifice to goddess Kali, but somehow the man managed to escape. The leader sent his men out to find a suitable replacement, and finally, in the dead of night, they saw Bharata protecting the paddy field from animals. The men arrested the innocent Bharata and brought him to their leader. Once the leader judged him suitable for the offering according to their concocted procedures, the thieves bathed Bharata and dressed him in new clothes. They decorated him with sandalwood pulp and a flower garland, and then led Bharata before the deity of Bhadrakali. They then took out a sharp sword and prepared to behead him.
But Bharata, whose heart was fully absorbed in God consciousness and who was a well-wisher of all living beings, was not the kind of sacrifice Kali approved of. Instead, she became angry and her face took on a deeper fierceness. She laughed aloud as she stepped from her deity form, sword in hand, and cut off the heads of the leader and his band of rogues. Bhadrakali and her witches then drank the blood spurting from the headless necks.
Enlightened Palanquin Carrier
Unalloyed pure Vaishnavas remain ever unaffected even when faced with danger because the Supreme Lord protects His surrendered devotees, who do not identify with their material bodies and minds and who remain loving in all circumstances toward all living beings. Those who commit violence against such exalted persons, however, suffer.
After this, there was a day when King Rahugana of Sindhu and Sauvira was being carried on his palanquin to visit Kapila Muni. Although the king had started out with four palanquin bearers, one had somehow been unable to perform his duties, so on arrival at the river Ikshumati, the chief palanquin bearer realized he needed another carrier. When he saw Bharata walking along the riverbank, and especially how young and strong he was, he pressed him into the king’s service. Bharata did not object, but as he walked, he refused to step on the ants along the path, so his gait was uneven as he avoided them. As a result, the palanquin was being tipped and jostled. When the king understood that it was the new bearer who was causing the problem, he ordered Bharata to walk properly.
Rahugana was a pious king, but he was also a passionate kshatriya, and when Bharata ignored him, he became angry. The king looked down at Bharata, whose inner glow was hidden to the king, and said. “Are you tired? Perhaps you’ve carried the palanquin too far and need a rest? Or maybe you are older than you look, or weaker than the strong man we thought you were?” The king continued to ridicule Bharata for some moments, but Bharata, who did not identify with his gross and subtle bodies, remained silent. And yet he continued to carry the palanquin as before. When the king continued to be jostled despite his reprimand, he said, “Do you have no intelligence? I am your master. You are disobeying my order. I will punish you if you don’t come to your senses!”
Bharata then looked at the king with compassion, and to benefit the king he spoke spiritual truths, using the same words the king had just said to him: “I am not the body. I am not a carrier, so how can I be fatigued? I am not in any kind of distress about how far we have traveled because my real destination is elsewhere. I have a body made of gross elements, but I am not a product of matter. Because I am not my body, I cannot be strong or weak, fat or thin, healthy or diseased, hungry or full, afraid or brave. I have no mental agony and no desire to quarrel or enjoy the body’s senses. I am neither old nor young, tired nor energetic, angry nor tolerant, lamenting my position nor happy in it. All these states are illusions related to the material body. I do not identify with my body, so I have nothing to do with any of these states. I am not afraid of dying because I am not born nor do I die. Everything in this world has a beginning and an end, and so the material body I inhabit also appeared and will disappear in due course. Whatever relationships this body has between its appearance and disappearance are also temporary, and so the relationship we have as master and servant will not last and has nothing to do with me. One who in this life takes on the role of a king may be a servant in his next life. So please know that the material idea you have that you are the king and I am your servant is a misunderstanding. Both roles are temporary and related only to the material body and mind. Who is the king and who the servant? If I am, as you say, intoxicated or mad, then what will punishing me accomplish? And if I am fixed in spiritual consciousness, your punishment will still have no value.”
Hearing these valuable instructions, King Rahugana’s pride crumbled and he got down from the palanquin and fell at Bharata’s lotus feet to beg his forgiveness. King Rahugana then asked Bharata who he was. “Are you Kapiladeva, who is the form of pure goodness? I am not afraid of anyone – even Indra – but I am very afraid of committing the offense of disregarding a Vaishnava. Are you Kapiladeva wandering about incognito to test others? How can foolish, attached householders hope to recognize him? If someone offends an exalted personality like you, he will be destroyed, even if he is as powerful as Shiva.”
Instructions to the King
Bharata’s invaluable instructions to King Rahugana are presented in Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto Five, Chapters 11–14. They are summarized here:
The mind is the original root of all material miseries. Until the living beings learn this, they will continue to revolve in the cycle of birth and death. It is the mind that identifies with disease, lamentation, illusion, attachment, greed, enmity, and everything else that causes one’s material bondage.
Until we smear dust from the feet of an exalted Vaishnava on our head and thus receive that pure devotee’s mercy, we cannot attain the Supreme Lord’s shelter, even if we perform penance, worship the demigods, accept the renounced order, take to household life, or practice celibacy.
Bharata told King Rahugana, “You have fallen into material enjoyment by coming under maya’s illusion. Give up your royal duties, such as punishing and rewarding others, and become a friend to all. Give up attachment for material enjoyment and cut the ropes of maya that bind you with the sword of hari-seva (service to God). In this way you will become liberated from material existence. This material world is just like a blazing forest fire. There is not even a tinge of happiness here. The point of material existence is distress, not happiness, and so we see that all those entangled in material existence experience the fire of lamentation. Sometimes they think themselves unfortunate and sometimes they think themselves sinful. Regardless, they are always in danger.”
In prelude to his singing the glories of the saintly Bharata, Shukadeva Goswami concludes this part of Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.14.42 and 5.14.46): “My dear Maharaja Parikshit, the path indicated by Jada Bharata is like the path followed by Garuda, the carrier of the Lord, and ordinary kings are just like flies. Flies cannot follow the path of Garuda, and to date none of the great kings and victorious leaders could follow this path of devotional service, not even mentally. . . . Devotees interested in hearing and chanting regularly discuss the pure characteristics of Bharata Maharaja and praise his activities. . . . Whatever one desires can be attained simply by hearing, chanting, and glorifying the activities of Maharaja Bharata. In this way, one can fulfill all his material and spiritual desires. One does not have to ask anyone else for these things, for simply by studying the life of Maharaja Bharata, one can attain all desirable things.”