Stepping out of the house, Rishabha took a vow of absolute silence and stopped replying even when spoken to. He became deaf and mute like a stone. He acted as if he was blind who did not know where he was going. Rishabhadeva wandered through cities, villages, mines, valleys, hills, forests etc. Wherever he went he was surrounded by wicked fools who would mock and torment him. He was threatened, belabored, spat upon, pelted with stones and abused. But like an elephant surrounded by flies the majestic Rishabha ignored them. As he had renounced all identification and attachment to his body, he was established in his essential glory and thus these happenings did not bother him at all and he continued his march through the world alone.
Physically he was perfect. He had a broad chest, lissome limbs and a beautiful face made all the more charming by the natural smile. His reddish eyes were large and refreshing like full-blown lotus petals. His cheeks, ears, nose etc were sharply chiseled. His slightly smiling graceful face attracted the hearts of women wherever he went. However, the strands of unkempt curly hair hanging down his face and the uncared for body covered with dust, made him seem possessed by the devil.
Very soon Rishabha Ji understood that this world would not let him practice his avadhuta-yoga. He realized that the only remedy was to adopt a reprehensible behavior which would be unacceptable to the public’s sensibilities. Therefore he started to live like a python (ajgar vritti), meaning that he started performing all his actions lying down – including eating, drinking, chewing and other biological actions. As he rolled on the ground very soon, he was covered in waste. Similarly, he adopted at various times the modes of a bull, deer and cow, meaning he would be performing his actions while standing, sitting or moving even. In this manner did the former king Rishabha, who was none other than an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, showed the world the way of Paramahamsa yogis. He was always situated in the highest Ananda. Nothing external - not even his own body, could distract his mind. He had realized that the Lord Vasudeva was the inner soul (Atman) of all beings. Very soon, due to his intense practice of yoga, various yogic powers like travelling through space, power of invisibility, entering the body of another etc, all presented themselves before him. However, being wary of such powers, he did not respect them and turned them away.
Doubt: Rishabha was admittedly the purest of the purest yogis. These yogic powers could not have distressed or disturbed him in any way. Why then did he have to send them away?
Reply: After capturing an animal, a cunning hunter does not trust him at all, for he might run away. Similarly, even those who are extremely advanced spiritually never trust the mind, which is fickle by its very nature. One should never make friends with one’s mind. Like an unfaithful wife gives occasion to her lover to enter the house and kill her own husband, the yogis who trust their minds suffer a similar fate because the mind allows enemies like kama and krodha to attack and destroy the yogi. It is the mind which leads one to the bondage of karma. How then can one trust it at all?
Therefore, even though he was the crown jewel of all the gods Rishabhadeva’s avadhuta behavior hid his glory making him unattractive to the world.
Finally, Rishabha decided to demonstrate how yogis should give up their lives when the time was right. He had realized that his soul was none other than the Supreme Soul. Thus he became free from all vasanas and fruits of his previous karmas. He also became free of the subtle body. Rishabha Ji continued travelling towards South India. He now kept a piece of stone in his mouth, which, combined with his sky-clad body and disheveled hair gave him the appearance of a madman. Then, in a forest he was wandering in, a chance friction of bamboos caused a fire and the resulting conflagration carried by the wind reached Rishabha and consumed him. He made no attempt to save himself. Thus, at the end of his life, Rishabha gave trouble to no one for performing even his last rites. Nobody had to collect wood to cremate him, or dig the earth to bury him or even to make the effort of chucking his body in a river.
A Warning from the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana: In Kaliyuga, when adharma reigns supreme, there will be many ignorant people who, not understanding the true essence of king Rishabha’s asceticism, would start their own cults in his name, which would be far from his Vedic ideals. King Rishabha was a committed follower of Varnashrama Dharma. It was only after he had finished all the scriptural duties prescribed for his caste and ashram did he finally give it all up. In contrast, in Kaliyuga, people will take the example of Rishabhadeva, an avatar of Vishnu, to oppose the Varnashrama Dharma and propagate their own avadhuta cult, erroneously claiming themselves to be the true inheritors of Rishabhadeva’s heritage.
Conclusion: The avatar of Rishabhadeva was intended for instructing people who are immersed in Rajoguna, i.e. obsessed with karma. The greatness of this land can be gauged from the mere fact that Rishabhadeva once graced it with his feet.
(The life of Shri Rishabha occurs in detail in the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana, 5th Canto, Chapters 3-6).
References & Further Reading:
- G. P. Bhatt & J. L. Shastri (tr). The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes): Delhi, 2002.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavata Darshan (Collection of Discourses in Two Volumes): Mumbai, 2003.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.
- Swami Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta. Srimad Bhagavatam (47 Volumes): Mumbai.