Past life of Pundalik – Story of Muchukunda
In the Ikshvaku (Suryavamsha) dynasty, there lived a King named Mandhata, who had a son named Muchukunda, whom he later crowned King. Once, in a battle between the Gods and the demons, the Gods were defeated. They rushed to King Muchukunda and asked for his help. He assumed the role of an able commander and protected the Gods until Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva, could assume the mantle. Lord Indra and the other Gods then thanked King Muchkunda, who had spent time in heaven, where one year equalled three hundred and sixty years of earth. In the meantime, his kingdom and family had all gone due to the passage of time. Indra, then pleased with him, granted him to select any boon (except liberation). Muchukunda was very tired as he had been on guard all the time and unable to get any sleep so he requested the boon for unlimited sleep with the clause that if disturbed, the person who disturbed him would be burnt to ashes. Indra granted him his boon and Muchukunda descended to earth and selected a cave where he could sleep without disturbance.
Meanwhile, there was a great Yavana warrior king named Kalayavan, who became vain and cruel as he was unmatched in battle. He learnt that Lord Krishna was the only person who could defeat him in battle and hence challenged him to war. When they faced each other in battle, Krishna dismounted from his chariot and proceeded to the cave where Muchukunda was sleeping. Kalayavan was surprised and began to follow him. Entering the dark cave, he mistook Muchukunda for Krishna in the darkness and attacked him.
Muchukunda was rudely disturbed, and his gaze fell on Kalayavan, who was immediately burnt to ashes. He then saw Lord Krishna, and was thrilled by this sight. Krishna blessed him and advised him to observe penances to cleanse himself of all sins, and promised him that his next birth would be his last one after which he would get liberation (Moksha).
Muchukunda was reborn as Pundalik which was his last birth, after which he achieved Moksha at the feet of Lord Vithoba of Pandharpur.
Legend of Pundalik
There are three versions of the legend of Pundalik with two of them mentioned in the Skanda Purana.
The first version states that ascetic Pundarika (Pundalik) was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu and a dutiful son who served his aged parents well. Lord Krishna came as a cowherd to meet Pundarika and enraptured with his divine form Pundarika asked him to sanctify the place and make it a holy Thirtha Kshetra, or pilgrimage site by remaining there in the same beautiful form, on the banks of the river Bhima. This image is said to be the present day image of Lord Vithoba and the holy place is identified as the modern day Pandharpur.
The second version of this legend states that Lord Vithoba appeared before Pundalik in the form of infant Krishna (Bala Krishna) which is found in some of the manuscripts of the Puranas.
The third version is the most popular legend which stated that Pundalik was the son of Janudev and Satyavati. They lived in a forest called Dandirvan and he looked after them well. However, after his marriage, he spent all his time with his wife and began neglecting his aged parents. His parents decided to leave for Kashi in order to attain salvation as was believed by many devout Hindus. Pundalik and his wife too decided to accompany them. They made their journey comfortable by riding horses, but his parents were made to walk and perform all the chores during the journey. On the way they reached the ashram of a revered sage named Kukkuta, who hospitably gave them shelter. That night when they were all asleep, Pundalik had a remarkable vision. He saw a group of beautiful women in soiled clothes entering the ashram and after performing chores for the sage like cleaning the ashram, washing his clothes and fetching water they entered the prayer room and after prayer they emerged with clean clothes and disappeared. Pundalik remained as if in a trance with a great sense of calm and decided to witness it the next night too. He approached the women and asked them who they were and the significance behind their actions. They informed him that they were the holy rivers of India, who were defiled when people took a holy dip in their waters to wash away their sins. They then stated that he was the greatest sinner due to his ill treatment of his parents. Pundalik was shocked and suddenly there was an inner transformation in him. He then began to serve his parents dutifully and lovingly. Impressed with him, Lord Vishnu decided to test him and approached him, but Pundalik wished to complete his duties first and throwing a brick he requested Lord Vishnu to stand on it and wait for him until he finished his service. Some legends state that Rukmini was displeased with Krishna and left him, so Lord Krishna had come searching for her. After he had found her, they reached Pundalik’s house, where he asked them to wait while he served his parents. He then rushed to the Lord, thinking that the Lord would be angry at the tardy reception but the Lord impressed with his unflinching attitude of service and devotion to his parents granted him a boon. Pundalik requested him to stay back on earth and bless all his devotees. The Lord agreed and the temple of Lord Vithoba came up there along with his consort Goddess Rakhumai.
Pundalik is credited with the bringing of Lord Vithoba to Pandharpur. He is also said to be the founder of the Varkari sect which propagates the worship and devotion of Lord Vithoba. The legends are classified into three traditions, namely the Varkari tradition, the Brahmin tradition and the third which is an amalgamation of both traditions. The Varkari texts are Bhaktalilamrita, Bhaktavijaya, Pundalika Mahatmya and Namdev abhanga written in Marathi, the Brahmin texts are Panduranga Mahatmya from the Skanda Purana, another Panduranga Mahatmya and Bhima Mahatmya from the Padma Purana and another Panduranga Mahatmya from Vishnu Purana in Sanskrit and the third tradition are written by Brahmins Sridhara and Prahlad Maharaj but in Marathi.
Reference in scriptures
The Padma Purana and the Skanda Purana contain references to Panduranga Kshetra and Paundarikakshetra. There are stories related to various places in Pandharpur. Some archaeological excavations show similarities between Shri Venkatesha and Shri Vithoba. Both the icons have their hands on their waist (Katinyasta Kara)