IT is an error to think that it is easy for a person to lead a life of chastity if he is brought up in complete ignorance of sensual pleasures. Virtue guarded only by ignorance is very insecure as illustrated by the following story. It is told in the Ramayana also, but not in the same detail.
Vibhandaka who was resplendent like Brahma, the Creator, lived with his son Rishyasringa in a forest. The latter had not come across any mortal, man or woman, except his father.
The country of Anga was once afflicted with a dire famine. Crops had withered for want of rain and men perished for lack of food. All living things were in distress. Romapada, the king of the country, approached the brahmanas to advise him of some means of saving the kingdom from famine.
The brahmanas replied: "Best of kings, there is a young sage called Rishyasringa who lives a life of perfect chastity. Invite him to our kingdom. He has won the power, by his austerities, of bringing rain and plenty wherever he goes."
The king discussed with his courtiers the means by which Rishyasringa could be brought from the hermitage of the sage Vibhandaka. In accordance with their advice, he called together the most charming courtesans of the city and entrusted them with the mission of bringing Rishyasringa to Anga.
The damsels were in a quandary. On the one hand, they feared to disobey the king. On the other, they also feared the sage's wrath. Finally, they made up their minds to go, relying on Providence to help them, in achieving the good work of rescuing the stricken land from famine.
They were suitably equipped for their enterprise before being sent to the hermitage. The leader of this band of courtesans made a beautiful garden of a big boat, with artificial trees and creepers, with an imitation ashrama in the center.
She had the boat moored in the river near Vibhandaka's hermitage, and the courtesans visited the hermitage with quaking hearts. Luckily for them, the sage was not at home. Feeling that this was the opportune moment, one of the beautiful damsels went to the sage's son.
She thus addressed Rishyasringa: "Great sage, are you well? Have you sufficient roots and fruits? Are the penances of the rishis of the forest proceeding satisfactorily? Is your father's glory constantly growing? Is your own study of the Vedas progressing?" This was how rishis used to accost one another in those days.
The youthful anchorite had never before seen such a beautiful human form or heard such a sweet voice.
The instinctive yearning for society, especially of the opposite sex, though he had never seen a woman before, began to work on his mind from the moment he beheld that graceful form.
He thought that she was a young sage like himself, and felt a strange irrepressible joy surging up in his soul. He answered, fixing eyes on his interlocutor:
"You seem to be a bright brahmacharin. Who are you? I bow to you. Where is your hermitage? What are the austerities you are practising?" and he rendered her the customary offerings.
She said to him: "At a distance of three yojanas from here is my ashrama. I have brought fruits for you. I am not fit to receive your prostration, but I shall return your greetings and salutation in the way customary with us." She embraced him warmly, fed him with the sweets she had brought, decorated him with perfumed garlands, and served him with drinks.
She embraced him again, saying that that was their way of salutation to honored guests. He thought it a very agreeable way.
Shortly after, fearing the return of the sage Vibhandaka, the courtesan took her leave of Rishyasringa saying it was time for her to perform the agnihotra sacrifice and gently slipped out of the hermitage.
When Vibhandaka returned to the hermitage, he was shocked to see the place so untidy with sweet meats scattered all over, for the hermitage had not been cleansed. The shrubs and creepers looked draggled and untidy.
His son's face had not its usual lustre but seemed clouded and disturbed as by a storm of passion. The usual simple duties of the hermitage had been neglected.
Vibhandaka was troubled and asked his son: "Dear boy, why have you not yet gathered the sacred firewood? Who has broken these nice plants and shrubs? Has the cow been milked? Has anyone been here to serve you? Who gave you this strange garland? Why do you appear worried?"
The simple and ingenuous Rishyasringa replied: "A brahmacharin of wonderful form was here. I cannot describe his brightness and beauty or the sweetness of his voice. My inner being has been filled with indescribable happiness and affection by listening to his voice and looking at his eyes. When he embraced me, which it seems is his customary greeting, I experienced a joy which I have never felt before, no, not even when eating the sweetest fruits," and then he described to his father the form, beauty and the doings of his fair visitor.
Rishyasringa added wistfully: "My body seems to burn with desire for the company of that brahmacharin and I should like to go and find him and bring him here somehow. How can I give you any idea about his devotion and brightness? My heart pants to see him."
When Rishyasringa had thus brokenly expressed yearnings and disturbances to which he had hitherto been a stranger, Vibhandaka knew what had occurred. He said: "Child, this was no brahmacharin that you saw, but a malignant demon who sought, as demons do, to beguile us and hinder our penances and austerities. They take recourse to many kinds of tricks and stratagems for the purpose. Do not let them come near you."
After that Vibhandaka searched in vain for three days in the forest to find out the wretches who had done this injury, and returned baffled it his purpose.
On another occasion, when Vibhandaka had gone out of the hermitage to bring roots and fruits, the courtesan again came softly to the place where Rishyasringa was seated. As soon as he saw her at a distance, Rishyasringa jumped up and ran to greet her gushingly, as pent up water surges out of a reservoir that has sprung a leak.
Even without waiting for prompting this time, Rishyasringa went near her and after the customary salutation said: "O shining brahmacharin, before my father returns let us go to your hermitage."
This was just what she had hoped and worked for. And together they entered the boat, which had been made to look like a hermitage. As soon as the young sage had entered, the boat was freed from its moorings and floated easily down with its welcome freight to the kingdom of Anga.
As might be expected, the young sage had a pleasant and interesting journey and when he reached Anga, he certainly knew more about the world and its ways than he had done in the forest.
The coming of Rishyasringa delighted Romapada infinitely and he took his welcome guest to the luxuriously provided inner apartments specially prepared for him.
As foretold by the brahmanas, rain began to pour the instant Rishyasringa set his foot in the country. The rivers and the lakes were full and the people rejoiced. Romapada gave his daughter Shanta in marriage to Rishyasringa.
Though all ended as he had planned, the king was uneasy in his mind, for he was afraid that Vibhandaka might come in search of his son and pronounce a curse on him.
So, he sought to mollify Vibhandaka by lining the route he would take with cattle and kind and by instructing the cowherds in charge to say that they were Rishyasringa's servants and had come to welcome and honor their master's father and place themselves at his service.
Not finding his son anywhere in the hermitage, the enraged Vibhandaka thought that this might be the work of the king of Anga.
He crossed intervening rivers and villages and marched to the capital of the king as if to burn him in his anger. But as at each stage of the journey he saw magnificent cattle which belonged to his son and was respectfully welcomed by his son's servants, his angry mood passed gradually as he approached the capital.
When he came to the capital, he was received with great honor and taken to the king's palace where he saw his son sitting in state like the king of the gods in heaven. He saw by his side his wife, the princess Shanta, whose great beauty soothed and pleased him.
Vibhandaka blessed the king. He laid this injunction on his son: "Do all that will please this king. After the birth of a son, come and join me in the forest." Rishyasringa did as his father bade him.
Lomasa concluded the story with these words addressed to Yudhishthira: "Like Damayanti and Nala, Sita and Rama, Arundhati and Vasishtha, Lopamudra and Agastya, and Draupadi and yourself, Shanta and Rishyasringa repaired to the forest in the fullness of time and spent their lives in mutual love and the worship of God. This is the hermitage where Rishyasringa. lived. Bathe in these waters and be purified." The Pandavas bathed there and performed their devotions.