All activities of Ambarisha were devoted to Krishna. His mind was devoted to the lotus-feet of the Lord. His voice was always engaged in singing the glories of Krishna, his hands in cleaning and maintaining the temples of the Lord and his ears in listening to the excellent stories of Krishna.
He engaged his eyes in the darshan of the images and temples of Krishna, his sense of touch in touching the devotees of the Lord, his nose in smelling the tulsi leaves offered to Him and his tongue in tasting the the food offered to Krishna (prasad).
He engaged his legs in visiting the holy places of Krishna and his head in bowing down before the images of the Lord. In this manner had he converted his karma into a yajna, offering all his actions unto the Lord. He ruled the world according to the advice of brahmins who were also devotees of Lord Krishna.
Ambarisha, the great bhakta, under the guidance of great sages like Vasistha and Gautama, performed the ultimate worship of Lord Krishna by successfully completing the horse sacrifice known as Ashwamedha Yajna. This is a complicated sacrifice with many parts. However, Ambarisha, with the blessings of the brahmins, was able to perform it successfully. His yajna became noted for the sumptuous amount of dakshina offered to the priests. In fact, the brahmins in his yajna were so richly attired that they looked like gods themselves.
In this way the king, through his bhakti combined with austerities, propitiated Lord Krishna by following his dharma and thus was gradually able to disassociate himself from all attachments. He gained the firm conviction that one’s house, wife, children, relatives, friends, chariots, armies, wealth - all are fleeting and transient. This exceptional devotion prompted God to assign His weapon, the powerful Sudarshan Chakra, in the protection of His bhakta Ambarisha.
King Ambarisha’s wife too was similarly pious. Once, with a desire to worship Lord Krishna, the king, along with his wife, undertook to observe the fast of Ekadashi for one year, meaning that he would not eat anything on the eleventh day of each (lunar) month and break his fast only on the next (twelfth day).
When the year ended the couple fasted for three nights in the month of Kartik and after bathing in the Yamuna river performed puja of Lord Krishna at Madhuvana (modern Mathura). At the end of the puja they distributed lavish gifts on brahmins, including milk-bearing cows decorated with gold. Then, after the brahmins had partaken of a fabulous feast, the king himself decided to end his fast and took permission for the same from the brahmins. No sooner had he decided on having his food than there appeared on the scene the great saint Durvasa.
King Ambarisha rose to greet the sage and offered him a respectful seat. He then washed the saint's feet and humbly requested him to have food. The sage gladly accepted and went to have a bath in the Yamuna first. There the saint entered samadhi while meditating on the Supreme Lord and lost track of time. Meanwhile, the auspicious hour for breaking Ambarisha's fast was passing away. The king, conversant with the nuances of dharma, knew that eating before a guest was a fault and so was also not breaking one's fast at the auspicious hour. He then consulted the wise brahmins who reminded him that it is mentioned in the Vedas that drinking water is equivalent to eating and also non-eating. Thus deciding, king Ambarisha, remembering Lord Krishna, had a little water and waited for the return of the sage.
After some time Durvasa came back and was respectfully greeted by Ambarisha. However, no sooner had the sage laid an eye on the king he understood that he had broken his fast before Durvasa himself had had his food. Now in Indian history Durvasa is known as ‘the angry saint’, and at that moment his anger revealed itself manifold because he was extremely hungry too. With a trembling body and frowning brows he furiously admonished the king, who stood all the time with folded hands: “Look at this cruel man! He is maddened by the pride of his wealth. Not only does he lack devotion towards the Lord but considers himself as God. Today he has crossed all limits by transgressing dharma. He had extended an invitation to a guest but instead of feeding him, has himself eaten first. Now I will punish him for his offence."
Flared up with rage, the great sage pulled out a lock of his hair and created from it a demoness to kill Ambarisha. This fearsome ogress resembled the blazing fires which consume the world at the time of pralaya (dissolution of the world). Spitting fire she rushed towards the king with a sword in hand, the earth trembling under her feet. However, the king remained unperturbed. He did not even stir and remained where he was. The Shrimad Bhagavatm says: 'Narayana-parah sarve na kutashchana bibhyati - Those who have surrendered to God do not have anything to fear’ (6.17.28).
The Sudarshana Chakra, already deputed in the protection of Ambarisha, immediately came to his rescue and burnt down the demoness, much like a forest fire destroys a serpent. The Chakra then started towards Durvasa himself. The latter, on seeing the failure of his efforts and the advancing Sudarshan Chakra, started fearing for his life and ran in all directions to save himself. The Chakra closely pursued him, like a forest fire following a serpent. Observing it so close behind him, he took to his heels, fleeing to different quarters, including the sky, earth, underworlds, seas and even the heavens. However, wherever he went he saw the Sudarshan Chakra close behind him.
When he could not find escape anywhere, the terrified Durvasa decided to take refuge with Brahma Ji and applied to him saying: “O Creator of the Universe!, protect me from the Chakra of Lord Vishnu”.
Brahma Ji replied: “My own life is dependent on the great Lord. The whole world, including myself, will vanish at the mere contraction of Lord Vishnu’s brow. Me and all the other gods are subject to the commands of Lord Vishnu and live within his divine law. (Hence how can we help you?)”.
When he was thus refused protection by Brahma Ji, Durvasa, tormented as he was by the scorching heat of the Sudarshan Chakra, sought asylum with Lord Shiva at the latter’s abode on mount Kailasha. To his request the Great Shiva replied: “Durvasa Ji, we cannot prevail against the Supreme Lord who is the source of infinite jivas like Brahma and from whom are born thousands of universes like this one. The Chakra is the weapon of the Supreme Ruler of the universe. It is unbearable and irresistible even for us. You should take refuge in Lord Vishnu Himself. He will save you from your misery.”
Being thus disappointed, Durvasa then went to Vaikuntha where Lord Vishnu lives with His wife Goddess Lakshmi.
All the while Durvasa was being scorched by the Chakra’s heat. Trembling with fear, he fell at the Lord’s feet and said: "O Lord! You are the one desired by all saintly people. O Almighty God! You are the protector of the universe. Protect me too, who am an offender. I was ignorant of your supreme power and committed an offence against your beloved devotee Ambarisha. Save me from that sin, as even a being in hell is released when he utters your divine name.”
The Lord replied: “O Brahmana! I am not at all independent, being completely under the control of my devotees. My heart has been won over by My selfless devotees and hence My heart is in their possession. I love them and they Me. I am the sole refuge of My devotees. Therefore, other than My devotees, I do not desire anybody, not even Myself or My wife Lakshmi. How can I even think of giving up those who have renounced their wives, homes, sons, relatives, wealth and have taken refuge in Me? Like a chaste wife brings her virtuous husband under control by her service, so have my devotees captured my heart with their devotion. For true devotees My bhakti is an end in itself (and not a means of gaining anything material or even transcendental). Durvasa Ji! What more can I say? My loving devotees are My heart and their heart is none other than Me. They do not know anything except Me and I too don’t know anything other than them.
“Listen O Great Sage! I will tell you a remedy for your torment. It is by offending Ambarisha that you have reached this state of distress. You should therefore go to him only. Remember, a power, when used against a devotee of God, causes harm only to the wielder of the the power while the devotee remains unscathed. There is no doubt that asceticism and learning are spiritually beneficial; but, when the same powers are mishandled through indiscipline, they produce contrary results. Hence O Brahmana! I wish you all good fortune. Go and seek forgiveness of king Ambarisha. Then alone will you gain peace.”
Thus commanded by the glorious Lord Vishnu, Durvasa Ji returned to Ambarisha’s palace and hurled himself at his feet. Ambarisha felt ashamed at Durvasa’s action and with his heart overflowing with compassion prayed aloud: “O Sudarshan Chakra! You are the glorious Agni. You are the all powerful Surya. You with a thousand spokes are extremely dear to your Lord. I pay my respects to you. You are the protector of the whole world; I request you to protect this brahmana too.
“O Divine Wheel, you have an auspicious hub. You are the splendour of the Supreme Lord and the protector of dharma. Your speed is as quick as that of one’s mind. By your splendour of dharma you destroy the darkness of adharma and protect even beings like the Sun. For the sake of our entire clan I request you to bless Durvasa Ji. This will be your grace on us. If I have ever done a charitable deed, or performed a yajna, or followed my dharma or if our family regards brahmins as gods, then may Durvasa Ji be freed of the inflammation tormenting him. If I have visualised God as the soul of all beings then may the Lord be pleased with me and Durvasa be relieved from his distress.”
No sooner had Ambarisha uttered the prayer than the Chakra subsided. Thus freed, Durvasa Ji felt relieved and praised the king bestowing on him the highest blessings: “My dear king! Today I have witnessed the glory of a true devotee of the Lord. Even though I offended you, you wished only for my welfare. For those who have tightly gripped the lotus feet of the Lord, there can never be a deficiency in their karma. Beloved Ambarisha! Your heart is full of compassion. You have done a great favor to me. Oh! You forgave my offence and saved my life.”
A long time had elapsed since all this had happened and yet King Ambarisha had not taken his food. He was waiting for Durvasa Ji to return. Now he caught hold of the saint’s feet, pleased him and fed him sumptuously. Durvasa was extremely satisfied after taking this meal and said respectfully: “O King! Now you too have your food. I am very pleased with you. I feel gratified on seeing you and talking with you. Songs celebrating your spotless character will be sung by the women of heaven. This earth too will always chant your glory.”
After Durvasa Ji had gone, king Ambarisha took the food left, made auspicious by the fact that the great sage Durvasa had partaken it. Pondering on Durvasa’s calamity and finally his release, the humble devotee Ambarisha did not give any credit to himself but felt that everything had been done by God. The great king continued in his path of devotion by dedicating all his actions, performed according to his caste (varna) and stage of life (ashrama), to the Lord. By the strength of this devotion he became detached from all material life and starting considering even heavenly delights as manifestations of hell.
In course of time, Ambarisha entrusted his kingdom to his sons who were of the same disposition as him and entered the forests. There he concentrated his mind wholly on the lotus feet of the Lord and became finally free from all material fetters.
Conclusion: Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: “My bhakta is never destroyed” (9.31), implying that protection is given by God to the one who surrenders before Him Also, people often accuse Durvasa Ji of being tempered and unfair. But that is a mistake. Durvasa is an enlightened devotee and an incarnation of Lord Shiva. He sacrifices his own reputation in order to show the greatness of the Lord’s devotees and how they are protected by Him. People would never have come to know of Amabrisha’s patience and forbearance had Durvasa not shown anger. Nor would they have known how the Lord’s protection is always with the devotees. Sage Durvasa hence becomes a catalyst for revealing the greatness of the Lord and His devotees. A similar innocent occurs in the Mahabharata when Durvasa calls upon the Pandavas who are living in a forest. Actually, we tend to see only the outward behaviour of Durvasa. If we look a bit deeper, we will see that his heart is filled with love.
References & Further Reading:
- G. P. Bhatt & J. L. Shastri (tr). The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes): Delhi, 2002
- Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta. Srimad Bhagavatam (18 Volumes): Mumbai
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Bhagwatamrit: The Elixir of the Bhagawat: Mumbai, 2005.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavata Darshan (Collection of Discourses in Two Volumes): Mumbai, 2003.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.