Bhrigu Muni was on a quest to find out which of the three lords was supreme. His father, Lord Brahma, created vast universes and was the chief engineer of everything that existed. Lord Vishnu ensured that everything operated perfectly by living in every atom and in the heart of every living being. At the time of universal destruction, Lord Shiva took charge of annihilation and prepared for the new age. All three figures were powerful beyond measure and worshipped by all.
Bhrigu Muni was himself an illustrious sage. He had agreed to test which lord manifested the highest qualities of tolerance and humility, after an intense debate among sages congregated on the banks of River Saraswati.
First Bhrigu Muni went to his father who lived on the grand planet of Brahmaloka. Deliberately, Bhrigu Muni did not offer any respect to Lord Brahma. Ordinarily, he would have bowed or made prayers, but this time he did nothing. Lord Brahma very angry; such rudeness deserved punishment but because the offender was his own son, Lord Brahma controlled his temper. Bhrigu Muni understood the truth of his father’s heart and bowed before leaving.
Next, the sage went to Mount Kailash where Lord Shiva, who was also his brother*, stood up in eagerness to welcome him. With open arms, Lord Shiva affectionately reached to embrace Bhrigu Muni but received unkind words instead.
“Dear brother, please do not touch me,” said Bhrigu Muni, “You are impure because of your unsavoury habit of smearing your body with ashes. Please do not embrace me.”
Lord Shiva was incensed. In a fit of rage, he picked up his mighty trident to kill Bhrigu Muni and was only deterred by the speedy intervention of his wife, Parvati Devi, who was also present. She fell at her husband’s feet in supplication and calmed his temper with sweet words.
Bhrigu Muni left to make his final test in Vaikuntha where Lord Vishnu resided with Lakshmi Devi, the goddess of fortune. The sage made an unannounced entrance into their private quarters and marched up to the lord. Without warning, he kicked Lord Vishnu in the chest. Unimaginable and unforgivable; this was the most severe offensive anyone in creation could possibly make towards the lord.
Lord Vishnu respected Bhrigu Muni as a revered brahmin. He stood up immediately, bowed and said:
“My dear sage, how wonderful to see you, welcome to our home! Pardon us for not noticing your arrival. Please take a seat and let me wash your tender feet, such sacred water will purify us. By your touch, my chest is already purified of all sins; I am only sorry that it must have been hard like thunderbolts and may have hurt you soft lotus-like feet.”
After such magnanimous words, Lord Vishnu started to massage Bhrigu Muni’s feet.
The sage was dumbstruck. He cried tears of wonder and gratitude at the unimaginable depths of humility and tolerance Lord Vishnu possessed.
Overwhelmed with loving devotional feelings, Bhrigu Muni reported back his experience to the assembly of sages. He narrated how he had offended the lords with his mind, speech and body respectively. Lord Vishnu’s humble and forgiving reaction touched everyone’s heart. They understood the glorious character of the lord and concluded that anyone who took complete shelter of Lord Vishnu would gain the deepest peace, integrity of character, fearlessness, supreme wisdom and detachment.
*Lord Shiva (sometimes) manifests from the brow of Lord Brahma and is therefore brother to all the other sons of Lord Brahma.
**It is said that Lakshmi Devi was so upset with Bhrigu Muni’s behaviour that she decided to withhold her benediction towards all brahmins thereafter. Consequently, they are generally always poor.