Long, long ago, in ancient India there lived a great king named Bharat. The king was famous for his righteousness and valor. He ruled with kindness for many years until, one day, when his hair had turned gray, he decided it was time to leave for the jungle and worship the Supreme Lord. So Bharat divided his kingdom between his sons and bid everyone farewell.
It was a tradition in the king’s family that one would abandon wealth and human desires and seek enlightenment when nearing old age. It was not difficult for the king to leave his rich palace behind.
He was even at peace with never seeing his children and wife again. So he set out for the jungle to spend his last days in the worship of the Supreme Lord.
There, living in a secluded hermitage, he was worshiping the Lord every day using fresh flowers, tender leaves, various roots found in the forest and waters from the streams flowing nearby. Soon all desires for sensory objects ceased within him, and he attained a tranquil state of mind, leading to an experience of immense bliss.
Wearing only a deer skin, Bharat was taking three ritual baths daily, and because of that his hair became curly and matted, granting him a charming beauty. His heart was filled with love for the Lord and he was already close to enlightenment.
Once he was sitting on the bank of a river, chanting the sacred mantras, and following his daily ritual when a pregnant deer came to the water to quench its thirst. Suddenly a lion roar thundered from the jungle, and the poor deer tried to jump across the breadth of the river to the other shore to save itself. As it leapt over the waters, the fetus dislodged and fell into the river. Unfortunately, the deer also fell dead on the river bank.
Seeing the newly born floating helplessly in the river, king Bharat’s heart ached with compassion. He jumped into the water, saved the young one and took him to his hermitage intending to take care of it until it would be able to survive on its own.
Since the baby deer was so small, he was spending a lot of his time feeding, tending and loving the fawn.
He said to himself: “What a pity! This poor unfortunate deer has no father, mother, brother or companion other than me. Hence it is up to me to look after this young one which depends solely on me.”
As time went by he developed an intense attachment to the fawn. The baby deer was constantly on his mind no matter what he was doing.
When he was collecting flowers, roots and water from the jungle for his worship he would take the fawn with him. On the way he would carry it on his shoulder. When taking a break he would place it on his lap or hug him to his bosom. Even during the course of performing his religious duties, which required single minded devotion, he would rise up again and again to check on the young one.
His attachment was so strong that sometimes when he did not see the fawn nearby he felt extreme anxiety, tenderness and compassion, and his heart suffered from the pain of separation.
Little did he know that the fawn was actually his karma accrued in his previous lifetimes and this karma was trying to stop him from reaching enlightenment by occupying his heart and mind to the point of stopping his worship of the Supreme Lord.
It was a pity that Bharat, who had abandoned his own sons and his kingdom to attain Moksha was led astray by a cute little deer.
As time passed, the aging king came close to death, and when the inevitable end came, the last moments of Bharat were centered on the fawn and not on Supreme Lord. Thus Bharat left this world with his mind fixed on the baby deer.
As a result, in his next birth, king Bharat was born a deer.
Because he was so devoted to the Supreme Lord, Bharat kept the memory of his previous birth and recalled why he had become a deer. Greatly tormented by repentance he cried out: “Alas, how painful it is! I strayed away from the path trodden by the enlightened. With great patience I freed myself from attachment to my family and kingdom. I was in control of myself and had devoted my mind completely to the Supreme Lord. However, the same mind suddenly started following a baby deer and strayed from its aim.”
Filled with deep regret, Bharat left the herd he belonged to and returned to the hermitage from his last life as a king. There he did nothing but wait for his last moment. He had become so terrified of any attachment to anybody that he stayed all alone, living on dry leaves, grass and creepers. When he realized that the end was near, he stepped into the waters of the Gandaki River.
This was the river where he had found the fawn in his previous life. His soul left the body of the deer into the water and went on to his next reincarnation, hoping that it would be into a human again so that he can finally reach Moksha.