In ancient times, there was once a great king called Rantideva. He ruled over his kingdom with the care and generosity of a loving father, always doing everything possible to satisfy the needs of his people. Rantideva loved his subjects as much as he loved Lord Vishnu.
“My Lord, help me to serve every citizen because you are present in every one of them,” he would pray.
One year a terrible drought spread over the lands forcing many people to go hungry. It was a difficult time of suffering and hardship. In sympathy, the royal family gave away their personal supplies and began a long fast.
After forty-eight days, the king agreed to a simple meal, but just as he was about to start eating, a ragged brahmin came begging for alms. Rantideva welcomed the guest and graciously gave him half of the meal. The king was glad to help a starving person.
Rantideva sat down again but before he could take a bite, an emaciated farmer staggered his way. The farmer’s face was hollowed and his skin stretched tight across his ribs. Without hesitation, Rantideva gave half of his food to the labourer who gratefully took it.
Alone once again, the king settled down to eat the handful left on his plate. He lifted a morsel to his mouth but stopped mid-air when he heard the anguished howls of a pack of dogs coming towards him. A beggar strutted along with the animals. He looked as impoverished as the dogs and could barely walk. Rantideva looked at the party with compassion and sorrow.
“My dear sir, please have this little food and share it between your dogs,” he said.
Having given away all his food, Rantideva felt a deep inner satisfaction to have served the brahmin, labourer and beggar. He thanked the Lord for the chance to do some good for others and hoped it would please Lord Vishnu. Ready to open the fast with water, the king raised the bowl to his lips but heard a cry in the distance.
It was a young man, who was considered a ‘chandala’ in society. This meant the community treated him unkindly because they considered him a low-class person. He lips parched, he looked pitiful. Rantideva did not like such unfair treatment and gestured to the young man to come closer.
“Please take it,” Rantideva said as he offered his small jug of water to the poor man.
The young man trembled and took a step back. He shook his head and wobbled on his tired feet.
“People do not touch me. You are a king. I cannot come close to you,” he said.
“My dear friend, you and I are not different. We are made by the same Lord who lives in your heart and my heart. Come, don’t be afraid. Have this refreshing water, it will give you some relief,” said Rantideva.
The king who was himself faint with thirst made a quiet prayer. He wanted more than anything to help others be free of suffering.
As the young man drank the water, a strange sensation came over Rantideva. He felt his own hunger, fatigue and thirst fade away. In fact, he felt rejuvenated and refreshed. Then to his astonishment, the king saw the young man turn into an effulgent demigod. More demigods came and filled the atmosphere with light.
“We disguised ourselves as the starving people to test your selflessness. O king, you proved glorious and righteous,” they said.
Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva celebrated Rantideva’s incredible strength of character and wonderful generosity and blessed him with all the best things of this world. Rantideva, who was completely absorbed in devotional feeling asked only that Lord Vishnu love him and accept him as his own.