Maharaja Harischandra, a scion of the solar race, a powerful king, endowed with uncommon virtues and skilled in all arts, sees a vision of misfortune to come. Apprehending future evils for his subjects, he confers with his priest, and acting on his advice, spends a whole night in religious contemplation in a temple of God. Next morning the king enters the inner apartments of his palace to greet his wife. The queen, who is jealous on account of his absence during the night, says to him, "Oh! I see your eyes are red for want of sleep. The sight is not uninteresting; only, I am being consumed with the fires of agony of mind." The king, on hearing this, smiles and says, "Oh my dear queen! do not be angry. Be assured, you have no rival in Harischandra's affections".
The queen is not altogether satisfied with this assurance, for love is suspicious. Just then, a messenger comes to request permission to bring in a hermit who is standing at the door. The permission is granted and the hermit enters. Addressing the King, he says, "The family priest has sent you some holy water, which will bring you peace of mind and ward off the evils for fear of which he made you keep up a whole night." The king and the queen thankfully accept the water. The hermit retires. The queen, now learning from the hermit the cause of her husband's absence from her, and of his wakefulness all night, becomes ashamed of herself and asks her lord's pardon for the false insinuation she had made. On this he kisses the queen.
Again, the king goes on a hunting expedition. Hunting is a favourite pastime with kings. It promotes health and courage and gives immense pleasure to all who engage in it. When the king enters a thick forest, he finds the great sage Viswamitra deeply engaged in religious austerities with the view of acquiring the three unattainable arts of creation, preservation and destruction, which properly belong to Brahma, Vishnu and Siva respectively. The gods plot to prevent this consummation, and send a servant named Bighna. Bighna assumes the form of a boar and appears before the king. The king discharges an arrow at him, but in vain. The animal enters the thick forest. The king follows. It now enters the hermitage of Viswamitra. The king addresses his followers thus, "It is the duty of kings to get rid of carnivorous animals from the forest of meditation and austerities. I have, on the contrary, made a carnivorous animal enter it. How can I now retire? But the hermits will be disturbed in their religious exercises if you all enter. So, do you all wait here. I will proceed alone." With these observations, the king enters the forest of meditation and is charmed with its exquisite beauty.
The king thinks, "Tearing off the bonds of the world is the cause of hermits' ease and happiness. With no attachments, no desires, no bereavements, no worldly anxieties, they are happily absorbed in divine contemplation." The king is thinking thus when distant cries are heard, as if females are crying out, "Maharaja Harischandra! save us! save us! Save us from the fire-place of this mighty hermit. We three helpless women are being burnt up."
At this, the king is at a loss. His heart melts at the tender cries of the women. He extinguishes the flame with his weapon dedicated to Varuna, the god of the waters.
The three ladies are the three arts of creation, preservation and destruction. They, thus delivered, go away to Heaven, showering blessings of victory on their deliverer.
The meditations of the dreadful sage Viswamitra are thus broken off. His eyes are red with anger. Seeing Harischandra standing before him he cries out, "Oh wretch of a Kshattriya! I will burn you up as Siva did the god of love."
The king is at a loss. He trembles as a plantain tree tossed up by tempest. He touches the feet of the sage and most piteously begs pardon of him.
But the sage is obdurate. He will not be appeased. He is about to consume the offender with imprecation.
The Raja again and again implores him thus:--
"My lord Kausika! Forgive me. I was touched by the piteous appeals of the women and disturbed you for the sake of duty."
At this, the sage becomes still more furious and says trembling, "O Villain! speak of duty! What is your duty?"
The king replies,
"O god! gifts to virtuous Brahmans, protection of those afflicted with fear, and fight with enemies are the three chief duties of Kshattriyas."
The sage thereupon observes,
"If compliance with duties be your aim, make some gift to me commensurate with my merit."
The king replies, "Oh great sage! what have I got with which to make a due gift to you? I am prepared to give you what I have----this world with all its wealth. Please accept it."
Then the sage becomes calm and says,
"Be it so. I will not burn you up. I accept your gift of a kingdom. Now that you have made a gift, give me a fee of one thousand gold coins, commensurate with the gift. I will not accept the gift without the fee. But as you have made a gift of the world with all its wealth, you must not take the fee-money out of that world. Collect the money elsewhere."
At this, the king is in a fix. After much thought it strikes him that it is said in the scriptures that Benares is separate from the world. So he resolves to collect money from that holy city.
Then the king placing the crown and the sceptre of royalty at the feet of the sage, obtains from him one month's time to pay the fee and taking the queen Saibya and his son Rohitasya with him, starts for Benares. The month allowed him is drawing to a close. Not a single gold coin has been collected--to say nothing of one thousand coins. Alms is the only way of collection. Alms barely suffices for maintenance. On the morning of the last day, when he is deeply anxious for the money, the sage arrives. Seeing the latter, he almost faints.
The sage whirls his eyes and asks, "Oh Harischandra! where is my fee? Pay at once, or I will burn you up." He replies in piteous and trembling tones, "The month will be completed by sunset. Please wait till sunset."
The sage observes, "I will not listen to any more of your prevarications. I cannot grant your request."
The king cries and repeatedly entreats the sage to wait till sunset.
At this the queen and his son both weep.
After many entreaties, the sage consents. Then the king again goes out a-begging, but in vain. Then he resolves to sell his person and goes about hawking himself in the streets.
No one responds to his efforts. No buyer appears. At this time, a Brahmin with a disciple, asks whether a male or a female slave is for sale and intimates that he requires a female slave.
The queen wipes her eyes and replies, "Yes, a female slave is for sale for fifty thousand gold coins. I, who am for sale as such, will obey all orders except eating table-refuse and indulging in improper intimacy with males." The Brahmin consents to the terms laid down, pays the required sum into the hands of the king and takes away the queen. The king then bewails her thus:--
"It were far better if a thousand thunderbolts had fallen on my head. Oh my dear queen! Never even in a dream did I think that such a misfortune would befall you. You mistook a poisonous tree for a sandal-tree. Oh, how hard is my heart! It does not melt at the sight of my wife sold away as a slave. Even iron is melted by fire. Oh Providence! I can no longer bear up my sorrows. Oh Indra I break my head in pieces by thy thunderbolts."
At this lamentation of the king, all present become sorry and express their regrets. After a little while, the sage arrives again, his body emitting sparks of fire. Seeing him at a distance, the king begins to tremble.
As the sage comes up, the king bows to him and says,
"My lord Kausika! I have procured only a half of your fee by the sale of my wife. Accept it. I shall presently pay the remaining half by the sale of my own person."
The sage whirls his eyes and exclaims, "Is it a joke? Am I a fit object for a joke? What shall I do with only half the money? Just pay down the whole amount. See the sun is setting."
The king replies, "O God! if this does not satisfy you, I pray you wait a little. If a Chandal is available, I will sell my person to him and pay your fee." The sage remarks:--
"Then I will stand here and wait. Collect the money without delay."
The king then hawks himself about, "Will any one buy me with half a lakh of gold coins, and deliver me from an ocean of sorrows." No one responds to his offer. No buyer appears. The sun is about to set. Death stares him in the face. Not that he fears death. Why should he fear it? He has given away his kingdom. His queen has been sold. Life has no further attraction for him. Death has been stripped of its terrors. But death by the fire of a Brahmin's anger leads to everlasting hell. He sees the vision of hell, falls down on the ground like a plantain tree blown by a tempest, and faints.
Virtue preserves him who practises virtue. Virtue assumes the form of a Chandal and accompanied by an attendant, makes his appearance, with a half-burnt bamboo on his shoulders and a chain of skeletons round his neck. He is ready to buy the king, who now weeps bitterly, and holding the feet of the sage, entreats him thus:--
"Oh lord Kausika! Do me a favour I pray you. Do not sell me to a Chandal. Do you rather buy me. I shall be your slave for ever."
On this, the sage flies into a rage and exclaims:--
"Oh villain! Do not trifle with me. You have all this time been pretending that you want buyers. As soon as a buyer appears in the field, you feel ashamed to be sold to a Chandal! I cannot brook any more delay. I take up water to destroy you."
The king begs his pardon, sells himself to the Chandal and pays down the fee to the sage, who then retires.
The king now puts on the dress of a Chandal and is appointed with two others to collect rags in a burning-ground. Hideous is the burning-ground. Dogs and jackals are tearing up carcasses which lie scattered all round. Vultures are quarrelling among themselves. These sights unloosen the bonds that bind him to the world. The king is trembling with fear. His two colleagues have left him. But he will not leave his station. He must do his duty. The night deepens. The burning-ground becomes still more hideous. To try the king's sense of duty, Virtue once more becomes incarnate and this time appears before the king in a horrible form. The king has never before seen such a terrible sight, but still he will not leave his station. Not one or two but myriads of such forms dance before him, but in vain. The king exclaims, "No one shall be allowed to burn any corpse without depositing rags and couches with me. I am the agent of the lord of this burning-ground. I make this proclamation by order of my lord."
No one responds. No voice is heard; only horrible figures are seen playing around him. After a while, a hermit comes and says.
"I am a hermit. I have resolved to practise some mantras. I have come to know everything about you by my powers of yoga. You are a king and you should protect me from the demons that disturb my meditations."
The king most humbly submits, "My body is not my own; I have sold it to the lord of the Chandals. How can I forsake my duty to my lord to save you?"
The hermit says, "come and help me if I ever suffer extreme distress."
The king replies, "If I can ever help you without detriment to the business of my lord, I am ready to do it." The hermit retires, and after a short time he returns; and says,
"By your help I am now versed in all mantras. I am prepared to give you such a mantra as by its virtue you will be able at once to repair to Heaven. You need not suffer hell by slavery to a Chandal."
The king replies, "Many thanks for your kind offer. But how can I accept your offer as this body belongs to a Chandal? I will not go anywhere before death."
The hermit says, "Then take this money and deliver your wife."
The king thankfully declines the offer with the observation, "I have sold my queen in my hour of need. To buy her back is not in my power." The hermit soliloquizes,
"Blessed is Maharaja Harischandra! What fortitude! what wisdom! what generosity! what a sense of duty! The world has never produced a nobler man. A tempest shakes even the mountains, but behold! this noblest specimen of humanity is not moved by the severest of afflictions!
It is morning. The birds are singing. The sun is up in the horizon. The king is sitting on the banks of the Ganges. He is thinking of his fate when he hears a female voice crying. He approaches the lady. The scene is horrible. An unfortunate lady, the queen Saibya who had been deserted by her husband, has come to burn her son, the support of her life. She was serving as a slave in the house of the Brahmin who had bought her. Her son Rohitashya, was stung by a deadly poisonous snake. No body would help her. She has come to the burning-ground to burn the dead body of her son. The queen weeps and faints. The king stares at the face of the corpse for a long time and at last recognises his dead son. He too faints. After a long time he recovers, and finds that the queen also has recovered. He thinks of committing suicide, but the body is not his own. He thinks of pacifying the queen by introducing himself, but his present costume will perhaps aggravate her sorrows. The queen, looking up to the skies, exclaims; "It is high time for me to return to the house of my master. I forget I am a slave. My master will be angry if I am late. My husband will incur blame if my master is angry. Let me go at once."
The king reflects, "If my queen is so mindful of her duties to her master in the midst of such calamities, I must never forget my duty to my master."
Then he approaches the queen and addresses her thus:--
"Who are you? You are not allowed to burn the corpse before you give up its clothes to me, the slave of the lord of this place." She replies,
"Please wait a little. I will take off the clothes."
As the queen delivers the clothes into the hands of the slave, she notices signs of royalty in his hands and is surprised that such a hand is engaged in so low an office.
"She looks attentively and exclaims in a wild voice, Oh my lord! Oh Maharaja! you a slave in this burning-ground! Oh lord Kausika! are you not yet satisfied?" The queen rushes to embrace the king. The king starts away from her and forbids her saying, "Oh my queen! do not touch me, I am the slave of a Chandal. Be patient." She faints again.
The king cannot touch her as he is in the garb of a Chandal. After a while, the queen recovers, and the king addresses her thus:--
"Oh my lady! Abandon lamentations. It is useless to lament. All this is the result of work in previous lives. I will prepare a funeral pyre. Apply the sacrament of fire to the dead body and return at once to the house of your master." The queen is disconsolate and wants to remain with her husband, who explains the situation thus:--"You have no right to remain here. Do not forget that your person has been sold to the Brahmin."
The queen understands and sighs.
All on a sudden, flowers are showered on their heads from Heaven, and musical voices are heard on high proclaiming.
"Blessed is Maharaja Harischandra; Blessed is Rani Shaibya! unrivalled in this world is the liberality, the patience, the resolution and the wisdom of the king. No nobler man can be found in the three worlds."
The king and the queen stare motionless towards the Heavens.
Now virtue assumes the form of a hermit and makes this address.
"Victory to Maharaja Harischandra! You have astonished the world, I am virtue incarnate. Virtue is never vain. As you have stuck to me all along, I must reward you. I will send you to the heaven of Brahma, where the greatest kings cannot enter by their truth, charity, straightforwardness and sacrifices. You need not lament any more. Be patient. By my blessing, your son Rohitashya will instantly regain life". Rohitashya now starts up.
Then the king perceives, in clear vision acquired by the blessings of Virtue, that lord Kausika, in order to try his virtue, deprived him of his kingdom and placed the government in the hands of his own minister. The Chandal, who is his master, is not a real character but virtue incarnate.
The Brahmin and his wife, who were the master and mistress of the queen, were not ordinary persons. The Brahmin was Siva, the god of gods, incarnate. The Brahmani was the goddess Durga incarnate. By order of virtue, the king and queen annoint, on the banks of the Ganges, Rohitashya as king-associate or Yuvaraja, and return to the capital, amidst the wild rejoicings of the subjects.
After a short stay there, the happy couple repair to the heaven of Brahma.