The Unicorn Hermit of India
Long ago, deep in the Indian
jungle, there lived a hermit called Vibhandaka, whose name means Unicorn.
He lived all alone and his only visitors were people from the nearest village
who occasionally came with offerings of food for their holy man. His real
disciples were the birds and beasts who came to bathe in the glow of his
serenity as he sat cross-legged in the mouth of his cave, meditating on
the mysteries of the universe.
One animal in particular,
a female gazelle, became his constant companion. She grew so enamored
of him that, in time, she miraculously conceived and gave birth to a child.
The boy was human in every way, apart for the single horn that grew from
the center of his forehead. He was named Rishyashringa, which means Gazelle's
Rishyashringa also became a hermit
and under the tutelage of his father went on to study and master even greater
mysteries. Animals flocked to him and he seemed able to speak to each in
its own tongue and even the trees and flowers seemed to bend to listen.
It was also rumored that the sky and the rain were his friends, keeping
the area where he lived green and fertile.
After some time a terrible
drought seized the country and people believed the gods had deserted them
because their ruler had fallen into evil ways. When their mutterings; reached
the Rajah's ears, he began to fear for his life and called all his wise
men together to ask what he should do. None dared suggest he mend his ways
and make peace with Heaven, but one Brahmin had an idea. Stepping forward
and bowing low, he said, 'Most illustrious and all-powerful master, there
lives in a far comer of your kingdom a holy man on whom, it is said, the
grace of the gods still falls. Where he dwells there is still rain in abundance
and the earth brings forth every kind of fruit. The beasts grow fat and
sleek there while everywhere else they are dying of thirst and hunger.
If anyone can end this drought it is he. Only have him brought here to
the heart of your kingdom and I believe our troubles will be over.
So the Rajah sent messengers
to Rishyashringa inviting him to the palace, but they returned alone, saying
that the sage had only smiled at their request. Then the Rajah sent soldiers,
telling them to use force if need be. They, too, came back empty-handed,
saying they could not bring themselves to lay hands on the saint, even
though he had offered no resistance. The Rajah had them flogged and thrown
into prison before summoning the most loyal of his bodyguards. 'Bring me
this hermit,' he commanded them, 'and if you also fail I will have you
trampled by elephants under the eyes of your loved ones.'
Then the Rajah's daughter,
Shanta, spoke up, 'Father, let me go instead. I will persuade the hermit
to come. If you force him against his will it can only bring worse luck
on us all.' Seeing the sense of this, her father agreed and, after
making a sacrifice to Ganesh, the elephant headed god of successful enterprises,
the princess set off with her retinue.
Riding in a howdah on the
back of her favorite elephant across the wide, dusty plain, Shanta saw
evidence of the drought on all sides and her heart bled for the people's
plight. Her father only feared their wrath, but she pitied them and this stiffened her
resolve to do what she could to end the kingdom's troubles.
In time the mountains where
Rishyashringa lived drew near, looking green and lush beyond a broad, though
much shrunken, river. Here, Shanta left her followers at a distance and
went on alone, crossing the water on a raft roped to both banks. Following
directions she had been given, she came finally to a cave in front of which
the hermit was sitting in the lotus position, deep in meditation. Around
him various birds and beasts were gathered and Shanta noticed that in his
presence the hunter and the hunted took no notice of each other. She saw,
too, that Rishyashringa was much younger than she had expected and beautiful
in face and limb. Even the single horn projecting from his brow seemed
a mark of distinction and she longed to touch it.
Approaching quietly, she
knelt before the hermit and waited. It was a long time before his eyes
opened and when they did he smiled. She immediately fell in love with him
and wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of her life by his side. However, she
did not completely forget her purpose and all the starving people she had
passed. She even thought of the wicked old Rajah who, for all his sins,
was still her father and had a place in her heart. So she smiled back, not as a supplicant or a disciple or a love struck maiden
but with all the confidence of a beautiful young woman.
The hermit was dazzled. Never
before had he seen or even imagined an earthly creature such as she. So
at first he took her for an angel from heaven.
'Master,' said the princess,
'my father's kingdom has need of you. 'With that she rose and walked
slowly back towards the river, with all the grace of a gazelle. When she
passed from sight Rishyashringa could not help himself. He rose and followed
her as if in a trance. Seeing the trace of her footsteps on the ground,
he now knew that she was not a spirit but still he followed, thirsty for
another glimpse of her.
Without looking back, Shanta
threaded her way down through the forest to the river. When she reached
it, she still did not turn, but sat down on the raft, gazing at the far
bank as if lost in thought. This indifference was entirely affected but Rishyashringa
had no notion of this. As he watched from the shelter of the overlooking
trees her motives were a closed book to him. For the first time in his
life, his heart and loins tingled with desire for another human
being. Even his spirit, usually dedicated to pursuits of a higher plane,
was suddenly eager to unravel the mystery of the maiden's charms.
Behaving as though she thought
herself alone, Shanta undressed and bathed in the river and then relaxed
on the raft to dry in the sun. There, she seemed to fall asleep. When at
last she opened her long lashed, almond shaped eyes, it was to find the
hermit kneeling beside her in reverence, just as she had earlier knelt
by him. With one crimson tipped foot she pushed the raft off from the shore.
As the princess made her
way back across the kingdom with Rishyashringa, clouds gathered overhead
and rain began to fall. By the time they arrived at the palace the drought
was broken and they were greeted by tumultuous crowds.
his former existence, Rishyashringa married the princess and in due course
became king himself. However, even before this his influence was such that
the old Rajah saw the error of his ways. He began to dispense justice
and bounty with such a free hand that when he died he was as much mourned
by his people as he had formerly been hated.