By Gauranga Darshana Dasa
Why would a former classmate of Lord Krishna’s, now grown up and married, be living in abject poverty?
Insights on Sudama’s rags-to-riches story.

The story of Sudama and Krishna in Srimad-Bhagavatam is popularly known as an example of “rags to riches.”* Sudama, an extremely poverty-stricken brahmana, became greatly wealthy by the grace of Lord Krishna, his childhood friend. But why was Sudama so poor? And what was the mysterious reason behind Krishna’s making him so rich overnight?

The Pride of Poverty

Sudama was an exemplary brahmana endowed with all noble qualities. He was peaceful, self-controlled, and learned in scriptures. He was detached from materialistic desires and enjoyment. He maintained himself with whatever came of its own accord and was satisfied at heart. Such satisfaction is an important quality of brahmanas. Ideal brahmanas are not ambitious to accumulate riches but spend their valuable time in pursuing spiritual life and educating people. They voluntarily choose to live a simple life with only essential facilities.

Sudama’s poverty, however, was so extreme that he didn’t have even sufficient food to eat or proper clothes to wear. He was so emaciated that his bones and veins were visible.

Sudama was very detached from worldly enjoyment. There are two kinds of detached devotees. One is inimical to material enjoyment, and the other is indifferent to material enjoyment. The Supreme Lord does not force opulence upon His devotee who is extremely averse to worldly enjoyment. This is seen in devotees like Jada Bharata. On the other hand, the Lord may give limitless wealth and power to His devotee who is neither repelled nor attracted by material things. An example of this type is Prahlada. Sudama was averse to sense enjoyment, and Srila Jiva Goswami says that he had a slight pride in his renounced spirit. In this story, Krishna purifies His dear devotee of that little pride.

Selflessness in Seeking Wealth

One day, Sudama’s chaste wife approached him with a request. She was fatigued from hunger and said hesitantly, “The Supreme Lord Krishna is your dear friend. He is affectionate to the brahmanas. Please go to Him, and He will certainly give you enough wealth. He is so merciful that He even gives Himself to anyone who simply remembers His lotus feet.”

She knew that Sudama didn’t like to beg anything from anyone. Yet she requested him repeatedly, not out of greed for material opulence, but out of love for her husband. She could not bear to see him suffer so badly due to hunger and poverty, and she was unhappy that she was unable to serve him food.

To satisfy his wife’s desire, Sudama finally agreed to her proposal. Though he did not intend to ask for money from Krishna, he felt that under this pretext he could see Krishna, his worshipable Lord and dearest friend.

Both the wife and husband had no desire for wealth, but they selflessly wanted to see each other happy. And this made the meeting of Sudama and Krishna possible. Material enjoyment is not very desirable for devotees because in the long run it cannot give real satisfaction to the heart.

A Poor Man’s Gift to the Richest Man

Sudama asked his wife, “Is there anything in our house that I can take as a gift to my friend?”

She had nothing, so she went and begged four handfuls of flat rice from neighboring brahmanas. She tied the rice in a torn piece of cloth and gave it to Sudama.

Sudama’s desire to serve Krishna was beyond his capacity to serve Him. Though he had nothing, he went out of his way and against his nature to beg and offer something to Krishna. This is love. When devotees serve Krishna within their capacity, Krishna is certainly satisfied. But when devotees take extra efforts to go out of their way to serve Krishna, His heart becomes so obliged to them that He gives even Himself in return for their selfless loving service.

Taking the flat rice, saintly Sudama set off for Dwarka. He had great anticipation and excitement that he was going to see Krishna, yet his mind was filled with doubts about whether he would get His audience. He assumed that the gatekeepers might stop a beggar and mendicant like himself.

An Unexpected Reception

When Sudama reached Dwarka, he entered one of the palaces unobstructed and felt as if he attained the bliss of liberation. He stood for a moment in silence in the doorway. It was the palace of Krishna’s foremost queen, Rukmini Devi. Krishna, who was then seated on His consort’s bed, spotted Sudama from a distance. He immediately stood up and, without Sudama expecting it, went forward to meet and embrace him.

Krishna is brahmanya deva, “the Lord who favors the brahmanas.” So He naturally worships brahmanas who come to His palace. Because Sudama was not only a brahmana but His childhood friend too, Krishna did not just give him some formal reception as prescribed by etiquette or culture but treated him with deep intimacy and affection, with tears of love. Krishna welcomed Sudama with pleasing words, made him sit on His bed, washed his feet, and sprinkled the water on His head. He offered him divinely fragrant sandalwood and other auspicious items of welcome. Rukmini Devi personally fanned the poor brahmana with a camara whisk. All the people in the royal palace were astonished to see Krishna so lovingly honoring this shabbily dressed brahmana.

Generally, rich people do not like to identify with poor people. For instance, King Drupada and Dronacharya studied under the same guru in the same school when they were boys. But after some years, when poor Drona approached Drupada for financial assistance, Drupada gave him a cold reception. In contrast to this, Krishna’s reciprocation with Sudama was very loving. Krishna unpretentiously and openly displayed His emotions, affection, and love for Sudama as if he were His elder brother.

An Embarrassment Turned into Excitement

Just as Sudama’s devotion to Krishna was deep, Krishna’s reciprocation was also profound. When Sudama had entered the city and the palace, people only saw him as a poor brahmana, but Krishna exposed Sudama’s greatness by treating him royally. Krishna was purchased by Sudama’s selfless and pure love. The friends talked pleasantly about their childhood days and fondly remembered some special incidents that happened in their guru’s school.

Krishna then asked his friend, “What gift have you brought for Me?”

Sudama felt ashamed to offer his flat rice, thinking it unfit for Krishna.

But Krishna said, “I regard as great even the smallest gift – a flower, a fruit, a leaf, or water – offered by My devotee in pure love. But even the greatest offerings presented by nondevotees do not please Me.”

Krishna sees the devotee’s heart behind the offering, and not the offering itself.

Even after being addressed in this way, Sudama felt shy and simply kept his head bowed in shame, thinking, “How can the Lord eat this hard and stale flat rice? My dear master, even if you request me repeatedly, I will not give this flat rice to You. I have made up my mind.”

But Krishna snatched Sudama’s flat rice and said, “Why are you hiding this from Me? These grains of flat rice will satisfy not only Me but also the entire universe.”

Saying this, Krishna ate one palmful of flat rice with great excitement and satisfaction.

When He was about to eat a second, Rukmini stopped Him, for three reasons: (i) She meant to tell Krishna, “This much of Your grace is sufficient to assure anyone vast riches, which are merely a play of my glance. But please do not force me to surrender to this brahmana, as will happen if You eat one more handful.” (ii) She also felt, “If You eat all this wonderful treat of Your friend, what will I have for my friends, cowives, servants, and myself?” (iii) She felt that the hard rice would upset Krishna’s tender stomach.

If one pleases Krishna, naturally one will attain the blessings of His consort Lakshmi. But if one desires only Lakshmi (or wealth) without worshiping Narayana (Krishna), Lakshmi won’t give her blessings to such a so-called devotee.

No Expectation, No Frustration

Sudama spent that night in Krishna’s palace and felt great bliss, as if he had entered the spiritual world. The next day he set off for home. He never expressed that he wanted some money, and Krishna didn’t offer him any wealth in Dwarka. Because Sudama didn’t expect any wealth from Krishna, he wasn’t disappointed but was grateful for Krishna’s loving treatment.

If we have undue expectations from others and if they are not fulfilled, we get frustrated or discouraged. But if we don’t expect favors from others, yet receive some support, we become grateful for it. We need to make this conscious choice whether we want to be frustrated or grateful. All this depends on adjusting our expectations. Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.8.44) therefore says, “Material desire is the cause of the greatest unhappiness, and freedom from such desire is the cause of the greatest happiness” (asha hi paramam duhkham nairashyam paramam sukham).

Further, when one’s mind is filled with undue expectations, one cannot appreciate whatever gifts or blessings one has already received. When one thinks that one is entitled to certain reciprocation, comforts, treatment, or privileges, one’s mind tends to demand them. An unsatisfied mind always hankers for what one doesn’t have, and cannot value or acknowledge what one has. A person with an unsatisfied mind cannot be grateful. If Sudama had expected a specific quality or quantity of wealth from Krishna, he wouldn’t have felt so greatly delighted and overwhelmed by Krishna’s reception.

Cultivating Gratitude

Also, Sudama never felt that he deserved Krishna’s special treatment. He felt utterly unqualified. He even doubted whether the guards would allow him into Dwarka. A devotee never feels qualified for special treatment from the Lord but thinks that the Lord, out of His causeless mercy, showers His blessings. Sudama knew well the difference between his lowly position and Krishna’s exalted position. He contemplated while traveling:

kvaham daridrah papiyan
kva krishnah shri-niketanah
brahma-bandhur iti smaham
bahubhyam parirambhitah

 

“Who am I? A sinful, poor friend of a brahmana. And who is Krishna? The Supreme Personality of Godhead, full in six opulences. Nonetheless, He has embraced me with His two arms.” (Bhagavatam 10.81.16)

When the brahmana Ajamila was protected by Vishnudutas, he felt very grateful by considering his own fallen position and the exalted nature of the Lord, His name, and His associates. Similarly, when Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu cured the brahmana Vasudeva of leprosy, Vasudeva felt very grateful remembering his fallen state and the causeless mercy of Lord Chaitanya. By remembering our previous fallen situation we can be grateful to all those who are instrumental in raising us to an elevated state.

A Pleasant Surprise

Humble Sudama considered his poverty the result of his previous sins and didn’t expect anything from the Lord. He also reasoned, “If a poor wretch like me suddenly becomes rich, he will forget Krishna in intoxication. Krishna, considering this, has not bestowed any wealth upon me. He is the genuine well-wisher; he wanted to protect me from the false pride of being a wealthy person.”

Sudama could only see good intentions in Krishna. Thinking thus, he reached his house.

To his surprise, he didn’t find his hut but instead saw a splendorous palace filled with royal facilities. It had courtyards, gardens, attendants, and gem-studded pillars.

As Sudama was wondering whose property it was, many beautiful maidservants came to greet him. Then came Sudama’s wife, adorned with an opulent dress and jeweled lockets. She looked effulgent, like a demigoddess in a celestial airplane. With tears of love she embraced Sudama within her heart. The night before, Sudama’s poor, emaciated wife had been sleeping in rags under their crumbling roof, but when she woke up in the morning, she found herself in a palace. She was confused, but only for a moment. She immediately realized that all that opulence was a gift of the Supreme Lord Krishna to her husband, who must be on the way home.

Sudama felt very happy, and he entered the palace with his wife. His body became young and beautiful at that very moment, and he wore fine clothing and jewelry.

“I have always been poor,” he thought. “This opulence is certainly due to Krishna’s merciful glance. He must have noticed that I secretly intended to beg from Him. Thus, even though I said nothing about it, He bestowed this wealth upon me like a merciful rain cloud, by accepting a single palmful of flat rice from me. He considers even His greatest benedictions to be insignificant, while He magnifies even the smallest service rendered to Him by His devotee.”

Even God Feels Incapable

When Sudama was at Dwarka, Lord Krishna did not reveal to him that He had bestowed such opulence on him. Because Krishna felt ashamed!

He thought, “My dear friend Sudama gave Me this flat rice, which is greater than all the treasures I own. Even though in his house he had nothing, he took the trouble of begging this rice from neighbors. Therefore it is only proper that I give him something more valuable than all my possessions. But nothing is equal to or greater than all I possess. Therefore, all I can do is to give him such meager things as the opulence of Indra or Brahma.”

Thinking thus, Krishna became embarrassed at being unable to reciprocate with his devotee’s loving offering. So He bestowed His favor upon Sudama secretly; it was revealed to him only after he returned home. Out of Krishna’s humility and soft heart, He felt Sudama’s flat rice to be more valuable than the riches He offered him. Ultimately it is the love between the Lord and His devotees that nourishes the hearts of the Lord and His devotees with eternal spiritual bliss.

Seeing the Heart Behind the Dealings

Although Sudama received inestimable wealth from Krishna, he didn’t become attached to it, because he knew that any amount of wealth in this material world is temporary and at some point one has to give it up.

Sudama thought, “I just wanted to serve that supremely compassionate Lord Krishna with love, friendship, and sympathy life after life. May I cultivate attachment for Him by associating with His devotees.”

Humble Sudama considered himself unworthy of Krishna’s most rare and valuable benediction of pure devotional service.

“If I had any true devotion,” he reasoned, “the Lord would have granted me unflinching devotion rather than distracting material riches.”

Thus he continued to perform bhakti by hearing about, chanting about, and remembering Krishna always and attained the spiritual world.

Krishna may provide unlimited material wealth to some of His devotees when He is confident that they will not be distracted by it. The Lord bestowed immense wealth upon Dhruva, Prahlada, and the Pracetas. But when the Lord finds opulence to be distracting His devotees from bhakti, He takes it away. Thus He took away wealth from Bali Maharaja and the brahmana from Avanti.

On the other hand, when the Lord sees that a devotee is proud of his detachment from material wealth, He may humble him by bestowing wealth. That is what He did in Sudama’s case. Although Sudama was undoubtedly an exalted devotee, the last trace of his illusion lay in the subtle pride of being a renounced brahmana. And this was also destroyed by his contemplating Krishna’s kindness upon His devotees. In this way Krishna purifies His devotees in all respects and lovingly takes them to His abode.

Sudama recognized Krishna’s compassionate heart behind His boon of riches. Similarly, a fruit vendor in Vrindavan received gold and many jewels from Krishna when she offered fruits to Him. But she didn’t become attached to that wealth; she just wanted to serve the boy Krishna and see Him smile in happiness. Although devotees sometimes receive material boons from the Lord, they only become captivated by the Lord’s loving heart rather than attached to the material wealth. This is similar to the Supreme Lord’s being captivated by His devotees’ loving attitude even if their specific offerings may not be impressive externally.

Sudama offered flat rice, but Krishna saw Sudama’s heart behind the rice. Krishna bestowed riches to Sudama, but Sudama saw Krishna’s love behind His wealth. In doing so, Sudama found his heart filled with an ever-increasing love for Krishna. And that is the real richness he attained.

*This article is based on Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 10, chapters 80 and 81, and the commentaries on these chapters by Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti as well as the purports of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples, which are drawn from Vishvanatha Chakravarti and other Vaishnava commentators.

Gauranga Darshana Dasa (www.gaurangadarshan.com), a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, is the dean of Bhaktivedanta Vidyapitha at ISKCON Govardhan Eco Village, outside Mumbai, and a member of ISKCON Board of Examinations. He is a shastric teacher and is the author of over twenty books, including the Subodhini series of study guides and storybooks like Bhagavata Pravaha and Bhagavatam Tales.