Once Lord Vishnu was relaxing in Vaikunta. Lord Brahma, Indra and the Devas had come to see him. The Dark Lord was sitting and enjoying himself as Indra asked a question, 'My Lord! Who is your favourite devotee?'
The Dark Lord replied without any hesitation, 'It is definitely Rantideva!'
Brahma looked surprised, 'Who? Do you mean the son of Sankriti?
The Dark Lord nodded not saying anything.
Indra frowned, 'Of all the people in the fourteen worlds, why do you think that human is your best devotee?'
The Dark Lord smiled, 'The devotion with which he worships me and the way he sees me....' Lord Vishnu shook his head in admiration, 'I have no doubt, he is one of the best devotees, I have...'
Brahma, Indra and the other Devas talked with Lord Vishnu for some time and then left Vaikunta. As they were returning home, Indra spoke, 'Rantideva? Do you really think Lord Vishnu was right in thinking that a mere human would be his best devotee, when there are countless Devas and gandharvas, who are so devoted in him?'
Vayu also nodded his head, 'I do not think that a human being can ever be devoted to God so much...Anyway what do humans know about devotion...They only pray for what they want and then forget about God...' Vayu said contemptuously.
Varuna nodded his head, 'I think we should test this man Rantideva...'
All the devas agreed to this....
Rantideva was a king and he was a very good king. Rantideva was also very spiritual. He was devoted to Lord Vishnu and saw Lord Vishnu everywhere. He felt that making his people happy was best ways of keeping Lord Vishnu happy, so he ruled them kindly and firmly and took good care of them. His people in turn adored him.
The crops were good and the country was rich...everybody prospered....However all that changed very fast.
Rantideva's kingdom found that all of sudden, there were unseasonal rains and winds...Crops were destroyed and suddenly there was famine in the country....Rantideva however did not let his people down. He opened up his his treasury and his granary and asked the people to take it...The people were happy with their king who had protected them....
However the situation became worse and the crops kept failing...Rantideva then gave up his palace and all his belongings so that the people could use them...The people were happy for a short time and felt that things would turn around now...But things still went from bad to worse....The entire kingdom seemed to become arid with no crops and water...People were hungry and thirsty with no place to go.
Rantideva could not bear the misfortune of his people. He was already living on very little food himself and provided all his food to his people. Rantideva decided that only Lord Vishnu could protect him. He decided to fast and meditate to Lord Vishnu to protect his people. He gave up everything and meditating on the Lord....
For forty-eight days this went on...Rantideva had nothing to eat in these forty-eight days and meditated on the Lord....Rantideva was hungry and happy praying to the Lord.
Rantideva's ministers looked at the shriveled and pathetically thin king and were worried about him. They convinced him to break his fast on the forty eighth day. With great reluctance, Rantieva agreed.
The ministers and family members provided the king with some food and water. Rantideva was about to start eating when he saw a man tottering and coming towards him. Rantideva ran towards the man who was stumbling and walking. Rantideva asked him to sit down and talked to him.
'What is it sir! You look tired....' The man nodded feebly and spoke, 'I am hungry sir! I have nothing to eat....' He eyed at the king's plate but did not say anything.
Much to the dismay of the ministers, the king handed over a portion of his food to the man, 'Sir! Please take a portion of my food and eat it...'
The man looked too hungry even to refuse the food. He did not even look at the thin king and gulped down the portion of the food as fast as he could.
After eating the food, the man looked more cheerful and thanked the king, 'Sir! I am grateful to you...I really thought I was not going to get any food....You really saved my life...' The king nodded his head and the man left praising the king. The king looked happily at the man.
His ministers looked at each other with exasperation. They had got their king to eat with so much difficulty....And now he had given away a portion of his food... One of the ministers came forward and spoke hastily, 'Sir...Please have whatever food is left over....' before anyone else comes and asks for the remaining food....He thought to himself but did not say it out loud.
The king nodded and sat down before his food and was about to start eating. Another man came with tattered clothes. Before the ministers could shoo the man away, the king saw him. The man with the tattered clothes also looked like he had not had anything to eat for a long time....He looked so tired that he did not even have the energy to talk. He just collapsed before the king.
The king once again got up. He revived the man. The man opened his eyes and looked like he could not even talk....
The ministers watched helplessly as the king handed over another portion of his food to the man. The man who took the portion of the food, ate it without even thanking the king. Only after he had taken a little amount of food, he saw the king, his family members and ministers. But he ate the portion offered to him and looked at the king, 'Sir! You have saved my life...My eyes began to water and I could not even see properly....I thought I would starve and....' The man shook his head and spoke quietly, 'Thank you sir!'
The king nodded his head and the man also left after thanking the king.
The minsters watched the king apprehensively looking at the pitiful food which was remaining and the king...What if someone came and took away this portion of the food too....
Unfortunately for the ministers that is exactly what happened... A man came with some of his dogs. The man looked at the king and said, 'Sir! Me and my dogs are hungry...Can you...'
Without any hesitation, the king handed over the remaining portion of the food to the man and his dogs. The man ate a portion of the food and threw the remaining portion to his dogs. The dogs chewed all the remaining food and soon all the food was over...The man thanked the king and left with his dogs.
Now only the water was remaining, The king was about to drink the water when a huge man came in. Looking at the man, the ministers swerved away from the man...The man was a chandala...The minsters were about to talk the guards and ask the man to be thrown out of there when the chandala spoke, 'I...am thirsty...can you please....'
The ministers were stunned to see the king hand over his water to the man. The chandala however hesitated, 'Sir! I am not sure whether I can take your water....I am a chandala sir...I am an …'
The king shook his head and handed over the water to him, 'You were also created by the great Lord Vishnu...I see him in you also....I cannot say that you are any different from my own people....'
The chandala took the water from the king and happily drank it....
The king watched the man happily drink the water and leave, and had a smile on his face. His minsters were looking unhappily at the king....
That was when there was a flash of light. The king opened his eyes in surprise as he saw Lord Brahma, with Indra and the Devas....And between them, Rantideva saw the Dark Lord....The beautiful black God who looked at Rantideva with pride.
Lord Vishnu spoke softly, 'Rantideva! I had told the Devas that you were my greatest devotee....' Lord Vishnu looked at Indra with mischievous twinkling eyes, 'I don't think Indra believed me....So everything that happened to you....the famine for your kingdom and everything after than...the Devas were testing you to see whether you were indeed one of my greatest devotee....And I must say...I am proud of you...I have no doubt that you are the one of the best devotees I have ever had....'
Yama, the God of death spoke, 'All the Devas had come disguised as the first three man and their dogs...I still did not believe them...I came as the chandala...And I must say that you stumped me...I believe that you are one of the the greatest devotee ever...'
Rantideva looked at all the Devas and Lord Vishnu as he bowed to them. Lord Vishnu spoke, 'You have understood me in a way, no one ever has....For this I grant you moksha...' Rantideva felt a blissful feeling come over him...His Dark Lord had come to make him a part of him...Lord Vishnu spoke, 'Don't worry about your people....All the famine was a part of the ploy of the Devas...Everything will be back to normal and your people would always be happy and prosperous....'
Rantideva smiled as he merged with Lord Vishnu attaining moksha....