King Parikshit asked Shukadeva to describe the dreadful places where wicked people are sent after death. Upon hearing about the severe punishments imposed there, he inquired of Shukadeva about how one can escape these agonies.
Shukadeva responded that to avoid the tortures of the terrible regions, one must do penance for the wrong actions committed in life. However, this can only negate the effects of specific wrong actions, and as long as ignorance remains, a person will continue to commit wrong actions. Therefore, one must practice spiritual disciplines to purify the mind and attain knowledge of God. By practicing austerities, chastity, mind control, charity, kindness, japa, and worship, one can obliterate the effects of many terrible deeds, similar to how a fire consumes a grove of reeds. However, if one can wholly surrender oneself to Shri Krishna with intense devotion to Him, then all bad actions are eliminated, akin to fog disappearing with the rising of the sun. Shukadeva then introduced the story of Ajamila.
Ajamila, a righteous and truthful brahmin, lived with his parents and young wife, studied the scriptures, and dutifully performed all his household duties. One day, he ventured into the forest to gather fruits, flowers, and firewood. There, he encountered a wicked girl who tempted him, and he became overwhelmed by desire, forgetting all his moral obligations. He left his family to live with the girl and had ten children with her. In order to provide for his family, he resorted to robbing, cheating, and stealing from the innocent. In short, he led a despicable life of vice. Nonetheless, he had a strong affection for his youngest son, Narayana, and would always call him, fondle him, and keep him on his lap.
As Ajamila grew older, he remained fixated on his youngest son. In fact, on his last day, when three terrifying messengers of Death arrived to take him away, Ajamila was overwhelmed with fear. The messengers bound him with ropes, and he knew that his time had come. In his despair, he called out for his son Narayana with such intensity that his cry reached the heavenly realm of Lord Vishnu, who is also known as Narayana. Hearing his plea, Lord Vishnu sent four of his attendants from Vaikuntha to aid the distressed brahmin.
Upon their arrival, the attendants from Vaikuntha witnessed the messengers of Death binding Ajamila to take him to the netherworld. The attendants intervened immediately, causing the messengers to object by stating that Ajamila had abandoned his wife and had led an immoral life with another woman. Therefore, they were merely taking him to Yama, the king of Death, in accordance with the laws of the universe.
The attendants of Vishnu argued that the messengers of Death should not be hasty. They reminded them that the man, despite his sinful life, had already been absolved of his sins from countless previous births by calling out to Lord Narayana, the supreme refuge, in a state of total helplessness. While acts of charity and austerity can only remove the effects of sins, the name of the Lord purifies the heart and removes their very cause. It is like taking strong medicine; its effects are certain, whether one knows it or not. Since the man had earnestly called out to the Lord at the very moment of death, he had been freed from all his sins and was now under the protection of Lord Vishnu. Therefore, the messengers of Death had no right to take him to hell.
The fearsome messengers of Death had no choice but to acquiesce. They released Ajamila from their grasp and went back to Death’s realm to inform Yama about what had occurred. For the moment, Ajamila had been spared from death. Overwhelmed with gratitude and joy, Ajamila prostrated himself at the feet of the Lord’s messengers. However, before he could speak to them, they vanished.
Ajamila began a new life after the angels departed. Filled with immense shame and remorse, he acknowledged the terrible things he had done. He abandoned his virtuous wife to live a life of sin with a wicked woman, and he resorted to robbery and theft to support his new family. He also deserted his aging parents. He believed he was a great sinner deserving of punishment in hell. However, because he earnestly called out to his son Narayana, the Lord's angels came to his aid and saved him from death. Henceforth, he resolved to live a pure life of self-discipline, austerity, peace, and benevolence. He also planned to devote himself to spiritual practices such as repeating the Lord's name and glorifying him. Ajamila journeyed to Haridwar, where he spent his days meditating on the lotus feet of the Lord. When his time came, the Lord's messengers arrived in a golden chariot to take him to Vaikuntha, the Lord's heavenly abode.