The Unicorn Hermit of India

a tale from the Ramayana


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 enamoured 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 centre of his forehead. He was named Rishyashringa, which means Gazelle's Horn.

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 rumoured 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 corner 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 favourite 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 had 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.

Abandoning 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 had formerly been hated.