Insights on Sudāmā’s “Rags to Riches” Story
The story of Sudāmā and Kṛṣṇa in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is popularly known as an example of “rags to riches.” Sudāmā, an extremely poverty-stricken brāhmaṇa became greatly wealthy by the grace of Lord Kṛṣṇa, his childhood friend. But why was Sudāmā so poor? What was the mysterious reason behind Kṛṣṇa’s making him so rich overnight?
Sudāmā was an exemplary brāhmaṇa endowed with all noble qualities. He was peaceful, self-controlled, and learned in scriptures. He was detached from materialistic desires and enjoyment. He maintained himself with whatever came of its own accord and was satisfied at heart. Such satisfaction is an important quality of brāhmaṇas. Ideal brāhmaṇas are not ambitious to accumulate riches but spend their valuable time in pursuing spiritual life and educating people. They voluntarily choose to live a simple life with only essential facilities.
Sudāmā’s poverty, however, was so extreme, that he didn’t have even sufficient food to eat or proper cloth to wear. He was so emaciated that his bones and veins were visible. He was very detached from worldly enjoyment. There are two kinds of detached devotees. One is inimical to material enjoyment, and the other is indifferent to material enjoyment. The Supreme Lord does not force opulence upon His devotee who is extremely averse to worldly enjoyment. This is seen in devotees like Jaḍa Bharata. On the other hand, the Lord may give limitless wealth and power to His devotee who is neither repelled nor attracted by material things. An example of this type is Prahlāda. Sudāmā was averse to sense enjoyment and he also had a slight pride in his renounced spirit. In this story, Kṛṣṇa purifies His dear devotee of that little pride.
One day, Sudāmā’s chaste wife approached him with a request. She was fatigued from hunger and said hesitantly, “The Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa is your friend. He is affectionate to the brāhmaṇas. Please go to Him and He will certainly give you enough wealth. He is so merciful that He even gives Himself to anyone who simply remembers His lotus feet.” She knew that Sudāmā didn’t like to beg anything from anyone. Yet she requested him repeatedly, not out of greed for material opulence, but out of love for her husband. She could not see him suffer so badly due to hunger and poverty. She was unhappy that she was unable to serve him food. To satisfy his wife’s desire, Sudāmā finally agreed to her proposal. Though he did not intend to ask for money from Kṛṣṇa, he felt that in this pretext he could see Kṛṣṇa, his worshipable Lord, and dearest friend. Both the wife and husband had no desire for wealth, but they selflessly wanted to see each other happy. And this made the meeting of Sudāmā and Kṛṣṇa possible. Material enjoyment is not very desirable for devotees because it cannot give real satisfaction to the heart in the long run.
Sudāmā asked his wife, “Is there anything in our house that I can take as a gift to my friend?” She had nothing, so she went and begged for four handfuls of flat rice from neighboring brāhmaṇas. She tied the rice in a torn piece of cloth and gave it to Sudāmā. Sudāmā’s desire to serve Kṛṣṇa was beyond his capacity to serve Him. Though he had nothing, he went out of his way and against his nature, to beg and offer something to Kṛṣṇa. This is love. When devotees serve Kṛṣṇa within their capacity, Kṛṣṇa is certainly satisfied. But when the devotees take extra efforts to go out of their way to serve Kṛṣṇa, His heart becomes so obliged to them, that He gives even Himself in return to their selfless loving service.
Taking this flat rice, saintly Sudāmā set off for Dvārakā. He had great anticipation and excitement that he was going to see Kṛṣṇa, yet his mind was filled with doubts about whether he would get the audience of Kṛṣṇa. He assumed that the gatekeepers might stop a beggar and mendicant like himself.
When Sudāmā reached Dvārakā, he entered one of the palaces unobstructed and felt as if he attained the bliss of liberation. He stood for a moment in silence in the doorway. That was the palace of Kṛṣṇa’s foremost queen Rukmī ṇī Devi. Kṛṣṇa, who was then seated on his consort’s bed, spotted Sudāmā from a distance. He immediately stood up and went forward to meet Sudāmā and embraced him. This was unexpected for Sudāmā.
Kṛṣṇa is brahmanya deva. He naturally worships brāhmaṇas who come to His palace, but Sudāmā was not only a brāhmaṇa but His childhood friend too. Kṛṣṇa did not just give him some formal reception as per etiquette or culture but treated him with deep intimacy and affection with tears of love. Kṛṣṇa welcomed Sudāmā with pleasing words, made him sit on His bed, washed his feet, and sprinkled that water on His head. He offered him divinely fragrant sandalwood and other paraphernalia. Rukmī ṇī Devi personally offered cāmara to the poor brāhmaṇa. All the people in the royal palace were astonished to see Kṛṣṇa so lovingly honoring this shabbily dressed brāhmaṇa.
Generally, rich people do not like to identify with poor people. For instance, King Drupada and Droṇācārya also studied under the same guru in the same school when they were boys. But after some years, when poor Droṇā approached Drupada for some financial assistance, Drupada gave him a cold reception. In contrast to this, Kṛṣṇa’s reciprocation with Sudāmā was very loving. Kṛṣṇa unpretentiously and openly displayed His emotions, affection, and love for Sudāmā, as if he were His elder brother.
Just as Sudāmā’s devotion to Kṛṣṇa was deep, Kṛṣṇa’s reciprocation was also profound. So far, people only saw Sudāmā as a poor brāhmaṇa, but Kṛṣṇa exposed Sudāmā’s greatness by treating him royally. Kṛṣṇa was purchased by the selfless and pure love of Sudāmā. Both the friends talked pleasantly about their childhood days, and fondly remembered some special incidents that happened in their guru’s school.
Kṛṣṇa then asked his friend, “What gift have you brought for Me?” Sudāmā felt ashamed to offer his flat rice, thinking it to be unfit for Kṛṣṇa. But Kṛṣṇa said, “I regard as great even the smallest gift – a flower, a fruit, a leaf or water – offered by My devotee in pure love. But even the greatest offerings presented by non-devotees do not please Me. He sees the heart of a devotee behind the offering, and not the offering itself.
Even after being addressed in this way, Sudāmā felt shy, and simply kept his head bowed in shame questioning himself, “How can the Lord eat this hard and stale flat rice? My dear master, even if you request me repeatedly, I will not give this flat rice to You. I have made up my mind.” But Kṛṣṇa snatched Sudāmā’s flat rice and said, “Why are you hiding this from Me? These grains of flat rice will satisfy not only Me but also the entire universe.” Saying this, Kṛṣṇa ate one palmful of flat rice with great excitement and satisfaction.
When He was about to eat a second, Rukmī ṇī stopped Him for three reasons: (i) She meant to tell Kṛṣṇa, “This much of Your grace is sufficient to assure anyone vast riches which are merely a play of my glance. But please do not force me to surrender to this brāhmaṇa as will happen if you eat one more handful.” (ii) She also felt, “If You eat all this wonderful treat of your friend, what will I have for my friends, co-wives and servants and myself.” (iii) She felt that hard rice would upset Kṛṣṇa’s tender stomach. If one pleases Kṛṣṇa, naturally one will attain blessings of His consort Lakṣmī. But if one desires only Lakṣmī (or wealth) without worshiping Nārāyaṇa, Lakṣmī wouldn’t give her blessings to such a so-called devotee.
Sudāmā spent that night in Kṛṣṇa’s palace and felt great bliss as if he had entered the spiritual world. The next day Sudāmā set off for home. He never expressed that he wanted some money, and Kṛṣṇa also didn’t offer him any wealth in Dvārakā. Because Sudāmā didn’t expect any wealth from Kṛṣṇa, he wasn’t disappointed but became grateful for Kṛṣṇa’s loving treatment. If we have undue expectations from others and if they are not fulfilled, we get frustrated or discouraged. But if we don’t expect favors from others, yet receive some support, we will become grateful for it. We need to make this conscious choice whether we want to be frustrated or be grateful. All this depends on adjusting our expectations. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam (11.8.44) therefore says, “Material desire is the cause of the greatest unhappiness, and freedom from such desire is the cause of the greatest happiness (āśā hi paramaṁ duḥkhaṁ nairāśyaṁ paramaṁ sukham).”
Further, when one’s mind is filled with undue expectations, one cannot appreciate whatever gifts or blessings one had already received. When one thinks that one is entitled to certain reciprocation, comforts, treatment, or privileges, one’s mind tends to demand them. An unsatisfied mind always hankers for what one doesn’t have and cannot value or acknowledge what one has. Such people cannot be grateful. If Sudāmā had expected specific quality or quantity of wealth from Kṛṣṇa, he wouldn’t have felt so delighted and overwhelmed by Kṛṣṇa’s reception.
Also, Sudāmā never felt that he deserved Kṛṣṇa’s special treatment. He felt utterly unqualified. He was even doubtful whether he would be allowed by the guards in Dvārakā. A devotee never feels oneself qualified for special treatment from the Lord but thinks that the Lord, out of His causeless mercy, showers His blessings. Sudāmā knew well the difference between his lowly position and Kṛṣṇa’s exalted position. He contemplated while traveling:
kvāhaṁ daridraḥ pāpīyān
kva kṛṣṇaḥ śrī-niketanaḥ
brahma-bandhur iti smāhaṁ
“Who am I? A sinful, poor friend of a brāhmaṇa. And who is Kṛṣṇa? The Supreme Personality of Godhead, full in six opulences. Nonetheless, He has embraced me with His two arms.” (SB 10.81.16)
For instance, when brāhmaṇa Ajāmila was protected by Viṣṇudutas, he felt so grateful considering his own fallen position and the exalted nature of the Lord, His name, and associates. Similarly, when Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu cured brāhmaṇa Vāsudeva of his leprosy, Vasudeva felt so grateful remembering his fallen state and the causeless mercy of Lord Caitanya. By remembering one’s previous fallen situation one can be grateful to all those who are instrumental in raising us to an elevated state.
Humble Sudāmā also didn’t expect anything from the Lord but considered his poverty to be the result of his previous sins. He also reasoned, “If a poor wretch like me suddenly becomes rich he will forget Kṛṣṇa in intoxication. Thinking in this way Kṛṣṇa had not bestowed any wealth upon me. He is the genuine well-wisher that he wanted to protect me from the false of pride of being a wealthy person.” Sudāmā could only see all good intentions in Kṛṣṇa. Thinking thus he reached his house. To his surprise, he didn’t find his hut but saw a splendorous palace instead. The palace was filled with all royal facilities, gem-studded pillars, courtyards, gardens, and several assistants.
As Sudāmā was wondering whose property was this, many beautiful maidservants came to greet him. Then came Sudāmā’s wife adorned with an opulent dress and jeweled lockets. She looked effulgent like a demigoddess in celestial airplanes. With tears of love, she embraced Sudāmā within her heart. The night before, Sudāmā’s poor emaciated wife had been sleeping in rags under their crumbling roof, but when she woke up in the morning, she found herself in a palace. She was confused, but only for a moment. She immediately realized that all that opulence was a gift of the Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa to her husband who must be on the way home.
Sudāmā felt so happy and he entered the palace with his wife. Sudāmā’s body also became young and beautiful at the very moment. He wore fine clothing and jewelry. Sudāmā wondered, “I have always been poor. This opulence is certainly due to Kṛṣṇa’s merciful glance. He must have noticed that I secretly intended to beg from Him. Thus, even though I said nothing about it, He bestowed this wealth upon me like a merciful rain cloud, by accepting a single palmful of flat rice from me. He considers even His greatest benedictions to be insignificant while He magnifies even the smallest service rendered to Him by His devotee.”
Lord Kṛṣṇa did not reveal that He had bestowed such opulence to Sudāmā when he was at Dvārakā. Because Kṛṣṇa felt ashamed! He thought, “My dear friend Sudāmā had given this flat rice which is greater than all the treasures I own. Even though in his house he had nothing, he took the trouble of begging this rice from neighbors. Therefore it is only proper that I give him something more valuable than all my possessions but nothing is equal to or greater than all I possess. Therefore, all I can do is to give him such meager things as the opulence of Indra or Brahma.” Thinking thus, Kṛṣṇa became embarrassed at being unable to reciprocate with his devotee’s loving offering. So, He bestowed His favor upon Sudāmā secretly, which was revealed to him only after he returned home. Out of Kṛṣṇa’s humility and soft heart, He felt Sudāmā’s flat rice more valuable than the riches that He offered him. Ultimately it is this love between the Lord and His devotees that nourish their hearts with eternal spiritual bliss.
Although Sudāmā received so much wealth from Kṛṣṇa, he didn’t become attached to it, because he knew that any amount of wealth in this material world is temporary, and at some point, one has to give it up. He thought, “I just wanted to serve that supremely compassionate Lord Kṛṣṇa with love, friendship, and sympathy life after life. May I cultivate attachment for Him by associating with His devotees.” Humble Sudāmā considered himself unworthy of Kṛṣṇa’s most rare and valuable benediction of pure devotional service. He reasoned, “If I had any true devotion, the Lord would have granted me unflinching devotion rather than distracting material riches.” Thus, he continued to perform bhakti by hearing, chanting, and remembering about Kṛṣṇa always and attained the spiritual world.
Kṛṣṇa may provide unlimited material wealth to some of His devotees when He is confident that His devotees will not be distracted by that wealth. The Lord bestowed so much wealth to Dhruva, Prahlāda, and Pracetās. But when the Lord finds that opulence is distracting His devotees from bhakti, He takes away their wealth. Thus, He took away wealth from Bali Maharaja and Avanti brāhmaṇa. When the Lord sees that a devotee is proud of his detachment from material wealth, He may humble him by bestowing wealth. That is what He has done in the case of Sudāmā. Although Sudāmā was undoubtedly an exalted devotee, the last trace of his illusion lay in the subtle pride of being a renounced brāhmaṇa. And this was also destroyed by his contemplating on Kṛṣṇa’s kindness upon His devotees. In this way, Kṛṣṇa purifies His devotees in all respects and lovingly takes them to His abode.
Sudāmā recognized the compassionate heart of Kṛṣṇa behind His boon of riches. Similarly, a fruit vendor lady in Vrindavan received many jewels and gold from Kṛṣṇa when she offered fruits to Him. But she didn’t become attached to that wealth but just wanted to serve and see the boy Kṛṣṇa smile in happiness. Although devotees sometimes receive material boons from the Lord, they only become captivated by the Lord’s loving heart rather than being attached to the material wealth. This is similar to the Supreme Lord’s being captivated by His devotees’ loving attitude even if their specific offerings may not be impressive externally.
Sudāmā offered flat rice but Kṛṣṇa saw Sudāmā’s heart behind the rice. Kṛṣṇa bestowed riches to Sudāmā but Sudāmā saw Kṛṣṇa’s love behind His wealth. In doing so Sudāmā’s heart was filled with an ever-increasing love for Kṛṣṇa. And that is the real richness he attained.