Muchukunda was a brave warrior king, who lived at the very beginning of time. The gods or devas were always at war with their step brothers the asuras or demons. In one such long ongoing war, the asuras keep gaining ground, and the gods loose all hope of ever winning the war.
At last, the gods ask the brave Muchukunda for help. He quickly complies and comes to their rescue. Truth be told, he was getting tired of all the world had to offer. He had everything that a man could wish for on earth; beautiful palaces, many queens and royal gardens, untold wealth and honour but he was always afraid of loosing it all. The call from the Gods is seen as a welcome reprieve, and he thinks they have the answer out of this wretched life. He fights long and hard alongside the gods, for many years and defeats the asuras and brings victory to the gods.
The Gods are pleased with Muchukunda and grant him a wish. He wants to ask for moksha, salvation, an escape from this repetitive cycle of life and death. But he is told that he can ask for anything but salvation. Tired and sleep deprived Muchukunda asks for undisturbed sleep and that anyone who disturbs his sleep be immediately turned to ashes. His wish is granted and the weary king staggers back to earth, finds a deep dark cave, curls up and goes to sleep. He sleeps undisturbed through centuries, as the world moves from one Yuga to another.
Eons later, around the time of the Mahabharata, Vishnu comes down to earth as Krishna , to rid the world of evil men. Kalayavan is one such man, he is a mighty and cruel king. One day while Kalayavan, is pacing around his courtyard, planning a full attack on Krishna and his kingdom, who should he see, standing right in the centre of his own courtyard? Just a few paces away from him, is Krishna himself; smiling, unarmed and unattended. His yellow silken robe rustling in the cool evening breeze, the peacock feather on his head dancing in the wind, and his flute playing a plaintive tune, while his eyes filled with mischief, seemed to be saying, ‘ catch me if you can!’
Kalayavan chases the playful Krishna. Krishna keeps running and leads Kalayavan into a dark cave. It is the cave where the ancient warrior king Muchukunda is asleep. Krishna quickly drops his yellow silken upper garment on the sleeping monarch and moves away into the shadows. Kalayavan follows Krishna in hot pursuit, On entering the cave he sees a figure in the well known yellow robe lying on the floor, he lands a quick royal kick on the sleeping Muchukunda. Muchukunda awakens and immediately Kalayavaan is turned into a pile of ash.
Krishna comes out of the shadows and Muchukunda recognizes him for the God he is, Well rested and fully awake, he asks to be released from this aimless cycle of life and death, this meaningless endless fluctuating between pain and joy, light and dark. He had been a glorious king and had everything that a human could ask for, but there was always the fear of things being taken away; he had fought alongside gods, but they too were fearful of the asuras taking away, all that was theirs. He had long wanted moksha, but was forced to chooses deep sleep instead to escape the constant battles that a man fought within himself and without in the outer world. He asked for refuge at the feet of God, he asks for moksha .
Krishna, tells him he has this one lifetime to complete, before he can attain moksha. Muchukunda, leaves the dark cave and enters into the world. He notices how tiny the men and women are and realizes that he has awakened at the end of time, the kaliyuga, when both lifespan and stature of mankind have been reduced drastically. He walks towards the mountains, where he leads the life of an ascetic till it is his time and he finds moksha.
To me this seems to be one more instance of the need to visit the dark underworld, before one can truly be free. Here was one of the greatest king of his time, ruler of the earth, He then gets to be one of the Gods, but he was not allowed to ask for salvation. He had to enter the dark cave for thousands of years till he could move towards achieving freedom from the cycle of life and death.