Harishchandra Story – King Harishchandra is an epitome of truth and virtue in ancient Indian history. He is known for his truthfulness and commitment.
Due to his commitment to Sage Vishwamitra to give Dakshina (donation) for his rajasuya yajna, he gave away everything he had including his wife and his son.
Fun Fact: Raja Harishchandra, the first full-length Indian feature film is based on the legend of King Harishchandra. It was a silent film directed and produced by Dadasaheb Phalke, the Father of Indian Cinema in 1913.
There are many stories related to King Harishchandra but the most famous one is from Markandeya Purana.
King Harishchandra lived in Treta Yuga. He was a virtuous king known for his good deeds.
During his regime, everyone was happy and prosperous. He had a wife named Shaivya (also known as Taramati) and a son named Rohitashva.
Once he was pursuing a deer in the forest. Suddenly he heard cries of a woman saying “Save Me”.
Hearing this, he proceeds towards the direction of sound which in reality is an illusion created by Vighnaraja, the lord of the obstacles.
Actually, Vighnaraja is trying to create obstacles in the meditation (Tapasya) of Sage Vishwamitra.
Seeing king Harishchandra, he (Vighnaraja) possessed his body and started abusing the sage to disturb him (sage). Due to this, Vishwamitra lost all the learning that he gained through his Tapasya (meditation).
Sage Vishwamitra was filled with rage and anger due to this. Suddenly the king came back to his senses and apologized for his mistake.
Sage Vishwamitra told him:
If, O king, you observe fully all the duties of a king, I appear before you as a Brahmana desirous of begging something: give me my desired-for gift.
Harishchandra was delighted hearing this and promised him (Vishwamitra) to give him whatever he wants – be it silver, gold, son, wife, body, life, kingdom, fortune or any other thing.
Vishwamitra told him to give everything he has except his own body, his wife and his son.
The king happily gave away his kingdom, his forces and everything he has to Sage Vishwamitra as a donation.
Vishwamitra also asked him to leave the kingdom with his family as now the kingdom does not belong to him.
Vishwamitra stops him again:
As he was going away from his kingdom with his wife Shaivya and son Rohitashva, Vishwamitra stops him and demands for another donation for Rajasuya Yajna.
Harishchandra told him that he has nothing to offer now but promised him to give the donation for Rajasuya Yajna within a month’s time.
Vishwamitra agreed and wishes him good luck for his new journey.
Vishwamitra beats his wife with chastising rod:
The citizens of his kingdom began to lament over his departure saying:
…Why do you renounce us? Wherever you will be we will go; wherever you live there is our happiness; wherever you reside there is our city – where the king is there is our heaven.
Upon hearing this, king possessed by grief and compassion, stopped on the way. Seeing this, Vishwamitra get enraged and starts beating his (Harishchandra’s) wife with chastising rod to make them go away sooner.
Seeing this, five Vishwadevas (guardians of the directions) condemned this action of Vishwamitra.
Hearing their words, he (sage) gets angry and cursed them to take birth as human beings. Also that although they were born as men, they will not get children nor wives.
Therefore, these five guardians deities were born as five sons of Pandavas and Draupadi in Mahabharata. This is the reason why the sons of Draupadi did not obtain wives.
Harishchandra reaches Varanasi:
Nearly after a month, they reached the holy city of Varanasi but at the entrance of the city, they saw Sage Vishwamitra.
The sage reminded him of his promise to give him Dakshina for his Rajasuya Yajna within one month. He also told him that one month’s time is completed today.
Harishchandra requests him to wait for half a day more.
Vishwamitra agreed to this and told him that if his (Vishwamitra’s) demand is not fulfilled today then he (Vishwamitra) will curse him.
Harishchandra was worried about how to give Dakshina to the sage which he has promised as he has nothing to give.
Meanwhile, Harishchandra’s wife suggested him to sell her and whatever money he gets can be used to give Dakshina to the sage.
Hearing this, Harishchandra, deprived of consciousness, fell down on the ground.
Again Vishwamitra came there and reminded Harishchandra of his promise and warned him about the outcomes of not fulfilling his promise.
Harishchandra sold his wife and son:
Again his wife suggested the same. This time after some hesitation he agrees to sell her for money. An old Brahmana bought her as a maid-servant.
Rohitashva, his son started crying seeing his mother going away from them. Shaivya (his wife) requested his owner (old Brahmana) to buy her son as well so that he can be with her.
Old Brahmana agreed to this and bought her son as well for the extra money.
Immediately after this, Vishwamitra came there to the king and asked for the donation.
Harishchandra gave him all the money he gets from the sale of his wife and son.
But Vishwamitra gets angry and says that the amount of money is not enough. He told Harishchandra that a fourth of the day still remains and he will wait till then.
Immediately after the sage, a Chandala came there who is actually the Deity of Virtue in disguise and offered to buy him in return of whatever amount of money he wants.
Harishchandra asks him, “Who are you?”.
The Chandala replied:
I am a Chandala. I am the executioner of those that are sentenced to death and take the blankets from the corpses.
(Basically, a Chandala is someone who deals with the disposal of corpses.)
Harishchandra refused his offer saying:
I will not be a servant of a Chandala so highly degraded. Rather I would be consumed by the fire of imprecation than be a slave of a Chandala.
Basically, Harishchandra refused to be his servant because he belongs to the lower caste.
Harishchandra sold himself:
In the meantime, Vishwamitra returns and question Harishchandra that, why he refused to be a servant of a Chandala in exchange for money which he can give as a Dakshina to him.
Harishchandra requested Vishwamitra to make him his servant. Vishwamitra agreed but declares that:
If you are my servant, I make you over to this Chandala for the consideration of a hundred million coin.
This way Vishwamitra sold King Harishchandra to the Chandala in exchange for hundred million coins.
The Chandala used Harishchandra as an employee at his cremation ground. He job was to strip the clothes of the corpses at the cremation ground.
He was instructed by the Chandala to take fees for everybody cremated there.
A part of the fees goes to the king, another part goes to the Chandala and the remaining is his (Harishchandra’s) commission.
Death of Harishchandra’s son:
Harishchandra started living in the cremation ground itself.
One day he dreamed about his past life. He thought that his present condition is a result of his past sins. In his dream, he also sees his wife crying before him.
One day his bewailing wife came to him with their son who had died due to snake bite.
At first, they both did not recognize each other because of the change in appearance due to their miseries.
But soon Harishchandra recognized his wife from the tone of her lamentations and after that his wife also recognized him.
Both began to lament over the death of their son.
Harishchandra thought of committing suicide. But then he realized that if he does so without the permission of his master, he has to bear the consequences of it in his next birth.
After some hesitation, he decided to devote himself to death on his son’s funeral pyre (fire) irrespective of the consequences. He told his wife:
If I have practised charities, if I have performed sacrifice, if I have pleased my spiritual guide, I shall again, in another world, be united with you and my son.
The queen also decides to die in the same manner.
After placing their son’s dead body on the funeral pyre, they began to meditate upon the Lord Narayana (Vishnu).
In the meantime, all the gods along with Vishwamitra headed by Dharma arrived.
Dharma (the god of Righteousness) stopped him from his rash decision of devoting himself to death.
Dharma told them that he is pleased with Harishchandra’s forgiveness, self-control, truthfulness, and other qualities.
Indra, the king of gods, told him that he, his wife and his son have acquired a place in heaven because of their good deeds.
Harishchandra, his wife and his son go to heaven:
Harishchandra’s son is restored to life by Indra.
However, he refused to go to the heaven without the permission of his master (Chandala).
Dharma then reveals to the king that he himself assumed the form of a Chandala.
The king again refused to go to the heaven without the people of his kingdom who laments over his departure and are equal sharers in his merits.
He requested Indra to allow the people of his kingdom to accompany him to heaven, at least for one day.
Indra accepted his request. After that, Harishchandra along with his people ascend to heaven.
Fight between Sage Vashistha (Ari) and Sage Vishwamitra (Heron):
Vashistha is the sage of Harishchandra’s royal dynasty.
He spent 12 years in meditation (Tapasya) on the Ganges. After his meditation gets over, he learned about misfortunes happened to Harishchandra and his family.
Sage Vashistha gets enraged and curses Vishwamitra to be transformed into a Heron (crane). In return, Vishwamitra also curses Vashistha to be transformed into a bird of species called Ari.
Both with mighty strength and power fought with each other.
Finally, this fierce battle was stopped by Lord Brahma when he restored them to their original forms.
Brahma explained Vashistha that Vishwamitra was only testing the king. And in this process, he had eventually helped King Harishchandra ascend to the heaven.
- Markandeya Purana