Muchukunda, hermit of ancient India

The archetypal quest or hero's journey of ancient mythology is summarized (indeed, popularized) by Joseph Campbell in his The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation--initiation--return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

But what if the hero does not return? Campbell does distinguish the attempted return deliberately thwarted by jealous gods, but only cites Muchukunda, the mythic Hindu king turned hermit, as an example of the refusal to return.

Muchukunda is cited in the Mahabarata and the Puranas; the story is consistent in all of the sources. He was king at Karur, in southern India, and exceptionally devout. A rational account would note his cooperation with other lords, his valor and success in battle, and his retirement, yielding the kingdom to his son in order to pursue various religious austerities in old age -- nothing unusual. But his life is not so colorless in the literary and scriptural sources.

According to the Mahabarata, Muchukunda, "chastiser of foes," ruled the entire earth. He assisted the gods themselves in fighting the Asuras, the demons. He declared that he would not accept rewards for his service but only those "obtained by the might of my own arms." After his great labors, his only request for a boon was to be able to sleep without disturbance, for he was quite exhausted. It was arranged that if anyone should disturb Muchukunda's sleep, his mere glance upon awakening would burn the intruder to ashes. Muchukunda retired to a Himalayan cave to enter his indefinite sleep.

At this time, according to the Vishnu Purana, Krishna walked the earth. So, too, his fiercest enemy, the Yavana warrior-king Kalayavana, who sought out Krishna to destroy Krishna's allies. Krishna knew that his allies were weak. He intended to build fortifications to protect them. One day Kalayavana saw Krishna and began pursuing him.

Krishna entered a large cavern where Muchukunda, king of man, slept. The rash Yavana entering the cave, and beholding a man lying asleep there, concluded it must be Krishna, and kicked him, at which Muchukunda awoke, and casting on him an angry glance, the Yavana was instantly consumed, and reduced to ashes.

Noticing Krishna, Muchukunda asked who he was, and Krishna told him. Muchukunda bowed and explained his presence in the cave -- not exhaustion from battle but rather that he had fallen into delusion and pride in his kingship, "intoxicated by my kingly opulence" and attached to "children, wives, wealth, and land." But Muchukunda lamented his past and had renounced all of these things, and now sought the benediction of Krishna, who bestows it happily and tells him:

Wander over the earth at will, with your mind fixed on Me. May you always possess such unfailing devotion. Because you were engaged as a kshatriya, you killed many living beings while hunting, and so you must vanquish the sins thus incurred by the performance of austerities in full surrender to Me. In your next life, you will become a fully qualified Vaishnava, and thereafter certainly come back to Me.

Thus a spiritual and realistic tale of Muchukunda reveals itself. He was a fearless warrior become king, but one day saw the emptiness of his life and turned his back on it, becoming a wanderer and sadhu. The hero refused to return to the world and all that it represented. He had taken up solitude, meditation, and tapas (austerities) in a mountain cave. Muchukunda represents an eremitic archetype that illustrates the possibility for anyone of any class or asrama in ancient India to opt to become a hermit.