Long long ago there reigned a king named Nabhi, who was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. He had no offspring; therefore, he along with his wife performed various sacrifices to propitiate the Lord. Even though Shri Vishnu cannot be achieved through any karma, the fact remains that he does bestow His grace on His true devotees. Hence, He manifested Himself before the eyes of the king when the sacrifice was being performed. Seeing the effulgent Lord in front of them gladdened the hearts of everybody, much like a poor man is rejoiced when he comes across a fabulous amount of wealth.
The Lord then asked the king to name his desire. It was the learned Brahmin’s performing the sacrifice who answered on the king’s behalf: "Dear Lord! You have already granted us the greatest wish by appearing before us in person. The best of saints rejoice in singing your glory. Hence, we too ask for the boon that whenever we stumble, fall down, cough, yawn, face trouble, are unwell or on our deathbed, we may be able to utter your divine names which express your various qualities. In addition to this, even though it is not worthy to be asked of you, this king, like a poor person approaching a very rich man begging only for a few husks of grain, wants to ask to you for a son like yourself; because he thinks of progeny as a covetable object of human life. Oh Lord! The king’s desire is not surprising. Nobody can cross over your Maya, nor gain control over it. Dear Lord! You fulfil even the biggest desires of your bhaktas. However, we have called you here for an insignificant thing. It is a pointer to our dim-wittedness that we regard a son as the highest object of life (because a person will ask God only that which he considers the highest goal of his life). We apologize for our ignorance."
To this Vishnu Ji replied: "Oh Sages! This is a very difficult boon you have asked for. There is no one equal to Me, so how can there be a son like Me? The only solution is to incarnate Myself as your son." Saying this He vanished. Thus did Lord Vishnu take avatar on this earth as the son of king Nabhi. The true purpose of this incarnation was to demonstrate to us the life of an ideal householder who, after fulfilling his obligations, finally gives it all up and leaves his house to become a Sannayasi.
At his birth, king Nabhi’s son was named Rishabha, meaning ‘the most excellent’, because of the exceptional qualities he was born with. Rishabha grew into a deserving prince, the object of universal affection. This made his father extremely happy. King Nabhi, who was the very essence of Dharma, then placed his son on the throne under the care of elderly Brahmins, and himself, along with his wife left for the sacred site of Badrinath.
There the couple engaged in severe austerities and eventually merged into the Supreme Soul. Indeed, who can emulate the deeds of king Nabhi, satisfied by whose conduct the learned Brahmins manifested before him the great Lord Vishnu Himself.
Meanwhile, Rishabha himself had left no stone unturned to present before the world the model way of life. He spent the student days of his life at the house of his teacher (gurukula), where he studies the Vedas and also learned other worldly sciences. After finishing his education Rishabha satisfied his guru through appropriate dakshina and then taking the latter’s permission entered the grihastha-ashrama. For teaching the world the duties of a householder, he first married a girl dutifully handed over to him by her father and then led his life performing karma prescribed by both kinds of scriptures – shruti (Vedas) and smriti (texts based on the Vedas). Through his queen he begot several sons, all of whom were endowed with excellent qualities befitting their exalted lineage. The eldest son was the great yogi Bharata, after whom this great country derives its name (Bharat).
Even though Rishabha was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu Himself, and therefore had no unfulfilled desires (Bhagavad Gita 3.22), even then, in keeping with the message of the Gita (3.20), he continued performing karma as if he was an ordinary human being. By his actions he laid down, for the sake of the ignorant, the righteous way of life, known as Dharma. During his life as a king, he especially demonstrated to the world how to lead a regulated life as a householder.
This was particularly effective since he instructed others by example. Indeed, the world follows the deeds of the great (Gita 3.21). In keeping with his station in life, Shri Rishabha also performed numerous Vedic sacrifices; consequently there was peace, prosperity and contentment in his people.
Very soon the time arrived when his sons were grown up and capable enough to take responsibility of the throne. Seeing the moment ripe, the great king Rishabha called upon an assembly of his sons, and in the presence of learned Brahmins, addressed them thus: "My dear sons, this human body is superior to that of all beings. It has not been granted to us to work hard day and night merely for obtaining sense-gratification, which is available in same measure even to dogs and stool eating hogs. The aim of human life is to engage in penance and austerities which purify the mind and eventually lead to absorption into the Supreme Self - Brahman, which is nothing but undiminishing, eternal pleasure. The gate to this liberation is to serve saints (who worship the Lord), and in contrast, the company of those who worship women should be shunned because it is the sure gateway to hell. Saints consider love for God as the highest objective of human life. They have no attachment to materialistic life which is characterized merely by eating, sleeping and mating. They feel no attraction whatsoever for a house teeming with wife, children and wealth. Saints are devoid of all desires beyond the minimum necessities required for maintaining life (hence you too should strive towards inculcating these qualities).
"When a person considers sense-gratification as the sole aim of his life, he becomes infatuated with materialistic things and starts engaging in all kinds of sinful activity. This is not a very intelligent thing to do since this why he had received this miserable body in the first place. Through this body we can give rise to further misery or achieve Moksha, the choice is ours. A person is not liberated from the bonds of this body until he starts cultivating love for Lord Vishnu. Till man, maddened as he is by selfishness, does not realize that his efforts for sense-gratification do not serve his true interests, his attachment centers around merely his home, which is based solely on man-woman intercourse and which eventually brings him only immense misery.
"The attraction between man and woman is the knot in their mutual hearts which binds them together. It is this knot which leads a man to consider the house he lives in, his wife, son etc. as his own (thus it is this basic knot which needs to be cut asunder by following the karma laid down in the scriptures). When this knot, hardened as it is by previous karma, starts to slacken, one becomes absolved of the man-wife relation. In this way he gives up the notion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and becomes free. The way to this liberation is (following any one is sufficient): Devotion towards God and Guru, withstanding the dualities of pleasure and pain, constantly listening to stories about God, association with bhaktas, study of Vedanta, living in seclusion, observance of complete celibacy, vigilance in performing one’s sacred duties and restraint of speech. One should make all efforts to cut asunder this knot in the heart because it is the reservoir holding all our previous karma. Having done this, even these means can then be given up.
"The one who regards the obtaining of God’s grace as the highest objective of human life, he should – if he be a king to his people, if a Guru to his disciple and if a father to his children – transmit these teachings. If they do not abide with these instructions one should get angry with them but in no case encourage such people who are already deluded by karma into performing even more karma whose sole result is sense-gratification. Indeed, driving them towards such karma is equivalent to deliberately pushing a blind man into a pit. What alas can be achieved by this?
"People engrossed in samsara do not know where their real good lies. Hence they become overwhelmed with a powerful lust for enjoyment of pleasures and intense desire for sensual enjoyment. For a mere particle of insignificant pleasure they entertain an enormous amount of enmity with each other. Deluded as they are, they have no idea of the unending misery resulting from such hostility. Seeing such a person steeped in Avidya, what compassionate person will misdirect him further into the way of karma, any more than one would lead astray a blind man who has already lost his way. Actually, the one who does not save his dear ones from the noose of death by initiating them in the way of bhakti, such a person, even though he be a guru is not a guru, if a father he is not a father, if a mother she is not a mother, if a god he is not a god and if a husband he is not a husband.
"Dear Sons! You are born of my pure heart and hence are extremely pure too. Therefore, you should without any jealousy serve your elder brother Bharata (whom I crown king). By serving him you will be serving me only and will equivalent to your looking after the people of your kingdom. Remember, virtuous Brahmins are the most exalted beings on this earth. I do not consider any other beings as equal to Brahmins, how then can anyone be superior to them? Indeed, Lord Vishnu does not as much enjoy the oblations offered into the sacred fires of Agnihotra, as much as He relishes the food liberally offered into the mouths of Brahmins with faith. It is the Brahmins who have continuously maintained in this world the body of Lord Vishnu in the form of the eternal Vedas."
Finally king Rishabha said: "God is situated in all things – whether moving or unmoving; therefore, you should serve all beings at each step. This is the true worship of God. The ultimate fruit of all human endeavour is to worship God in this manner. Without this, you cannot free yourself from the noose of Yamaraja which is nothing but the great entanglement of material existence."
Thus did the great Rishabha teach his sons. Although they were already educated and perfectly cultured, he instructed them in order to set an example for us as how to a father should instruct his sons before retiring from family life.
Having installed on the throne his eldest son Bharata, who himself was a great bhakta, Rishabha set out to lay down the path of supreme detachment, that of Paramhamsas, or the ‘great free swans’ - Sannayasis who are no longer bound by fruitive karma. This fascinating, highly instructive and eye-opening part of Rishabhadeva’s life will form the subject matter of next month’s article.
(The life of Shri Rishabha occurs in detail in the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana, 5th Canto, Chapters 3-6).
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