Story of Harishchandra


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Apr 28, 2019
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This story has been repeated many million times in the Indian folk lore! It is almost a part of Indian ethos! The maxim “Sathyameva Jayate” acquired a status of national slogan through Mahatma Gandhi who was influenced by Harischandra’s story.

Why Harischandra had to suffer to uphold truth? Why Sage Viswamitra without any let up hounded him and gave him such a test that would drive any human being crazy?

This story also throws light on some bizarre rituals of the Vedic days that are defunct now! There had been human sacrifice with full consent of the person who would willingly submit himself and offer himself to the higher powers!

This might shock you but it was true at that period! There are few instances in the Vedic period and later when these have happened.

During the reign of Ambarisha where he conducted a Aswamedha yagna and the sacrificial horse was taken away by Indra. The King Ambarisha was worried and wanted to complete the Yagna and consulted the learned sages who suggested that he should get a person who could out of his free will offer himself to the Gods as sacrifice.

That yagna would be named Purushamedha. He went to all the acquaintances in the forest and requested them to help complete the sacrifice but could not succeed. Then he came across a sage Richika with three sons, and the King explained the predicament and said he would gladly give away thousand cows and calves and equal amount of gold and other riches.

The sage replied that he could not give his first son like that , listening to the whole story his wife said that she would not give away her last son, soon the second son realized that he had not been mentioned by his parents, and immediately came forward and offered himself and in return the King may offer the promised riches to his parents!

The parents too reluctantly agreed, as their son was quite clear about his decision. Ambarisha took the boy Sunakshepa along with hims back to his palace. On the way he had to rest in a forest clearing and while he was taking rest, Sunakshepa wandered in the forest with a sadness visible on his face that the life upon this earth was soon to end for him and he cannot enjoy the riches of mountains any longer!

While wandering he came to asram of Viswamitra and saw many saintly persons performing yagna, and he entered the premises. He was soon brought before the sage Viswamitra by his disciples. The sage inquired about the reason for his sadness and he explained what had happened.

By now Sage Viswamitra was very angry with Sage Vasishta who had defeated him and refused to part with Surabhi the celestial cow! He told him that he would teach him mantras to the celestial Gods Indra, Varuna and Agni and he must recite these mantras while the priests chant mantras to offer him as sacrifice and the Gods appearing therein would be pleased and release him.

Then he gave a garland of red flowers too to the boy. Sunakshepa went away memorizing that mantra! The he reached the camp of the King who praised him for his truthfulness and took him along to his palace. On the appointed day the priests prepared for the yagna and bathed him and gave him new clothes to wear and tied him in front of the fire altar, he had carefully preserved the garland and he wore it on his neck and the priests too permitted this as it was customary to wear such a garland!

When the time for actual sacrifice approached they started chanting the mantras calling Indra, Vayu and Agni. Sunakshepa too recited the mantras that were taught by Viswamitra, soon the gods appeared in person were delighted at the yagna and were even more pleased to hear the boy reciting the mantras praising them. They told him to ask for a boon first, promptly he asked for his release, and they readily granted the boon and also offered him many more years of glorious life!

After many generations the story repeats! Harischandra was the son of Trishanku. He did not have a progeny for long and approached Sage Naradha who suggested that he can take the protection Varuna the God of waters and be blessed by him.

Then he prayed to God Varuna who was pleased by his prayers and appeared before him. Harischandra pleaded with the Lord for a progeny and said that he be blessed with a son and once he is celebrated as a warrior he would give his son to the God of Waters as an offering!

Within a while a son was born to Harischandra and named Rohita, promptly the God of waters, Varuna appeared before him and reminded him of his promise! Harischandra said that only ten days have passed since his birth and he would offer him when the teeth have appeard!

When the teeth had grown back, Varuna promptly returned and asked for Rohita. Since Harischandra was so fond of his son, he did not want to part with him at the same time did not want to deny his promise and hence wrongfully quoted right reasons from our scriptures that amounted to cheating !

This time he said that it would be appropriate for him to offer that person who could defend himself with bow and arrow, since Rohita lacked that trait it would be appropriate for the Lord Varuna to wait.

At this answer the Lord of waters was annoyed and cursed Harischandra to be afflicted by a decease called “Dropsy”. This illness makes excess water accumulate in soft body tissues and cause inflammation.

In the meanwhile Rohita understood what his father was upto and quickly retired into the forest to contemplate and learn archery skills. Years rolled, at the end of every year Indra would appear and ask him to continue his stay in the forest, finally one day he met Sage Naradha who advised him to search for a person who is well endowed like him and convince him to offer himself instead of Rohita as an offering to Lord Varuna and that would put matters at rest.

Then he began his search and found Sunakshepa in his own capital living with many children, and Rohita approached him and asked for his second son. Rohita wondered at the turn of events and asked his second son who agreed to the request. Rohita took the boy to the King who offered him to the Lord of Waters and soon the Lord appeared before them and restored the boy as well as blessed the King and his son Rohita and freed him from the dreaded illness. Thereafter sage Viswamitra came to the Kingdom of Harischandra and got to know about his adherence to truth and wanted to test his resolve.

He was aware of his attachment to his son Rohita and about the episode of promise to Varuna and his subsequent delaying tactics in fulfilling the promise to Lord Varuna. He came to Harischandra’s court and said that in the dream he saw the King who promised him to give away his kingdom.

Receiving the sage reverentially and offering his respects, Harischandra along with his family accepted his version and promised to hand over the country. Sage Viswamitra asked the king to reside outside his country, and Harischandra agreed and went to Varanasi as it is the only place outside the jurisdiction of sage Viswamitra as it belonged to Lord Siva! Then he suggested the act of giving the kingdom would be solemnized only when the person giving something away does it by pouring water and gives dakshina suitable for the occasion.

Since Harischandra did not have any money oh him he sold his wife and son to a wealthy Brahmin as servants. Still the money was insufficient. Then Harischandra decided to employ himself at a burial ghat as an assistant and would get paid a share of cremation charges fixed. Days passed and Harischandra collected his share of the charges and kept them away for giving to the sage. One day a lady in the night carried the body of lad with difficulty and stood before Harischandra requesting him to carry out the cremation himself as she had no one to support.

Promptly Harischandra demanded the charges, she replied that she had come to the town recently and was sold as servants to a Brahmin and she has no money on her and her son has been bitten by a snake and died. But Harischandra did not relent. She continued and said she lost track of her husband and does not know where he is now and all that is left with her is her Mangal sutra tied by her husband.

It was then Harischandra saw the mangal sutra, that was visible to him. It brought the old memories to him back and realized that the women standing before him is his wife and the body waiting to be cremated is that of his son!

He was shaken and sobbed at the turn of events and lamented how difficult it is to accept the reality. Then he steadied himself and asked for the Mangal sutra, which she removed and handed over to Harischandra.

It was then the whole area lit up and the Lord Siva, Vishnu, Yama, Varuna and sage Viswamitra stood before him. Then the Lord Siva spoke to him and said that the man who ran the burial ghat is none other than Yama, and appreciated his straight forward nature and granted him a place in the heavens, and brought back Rohita to life and blessed him to rule the Kingdom justly and return to the heavens!

Sage Viswamitra too blessed him and gave him a number of boons and restored the Kingdom to him and all were happy about the return of their King!

Then when it happened Lord Varuna asked Harischandra again, and he replied that when he loses his milk teeth then he would offer, once again the Varuna approached him and the King said with fallen teeth he is unfit to be offered and when they grow back he would offer, Varuna accepted and disappeared.

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