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Harishchandra, in Hindu religious texts is the 36th king of the Solar Dynasty, Surya Maharishi Gothram (See: Vivasvan). His legend is very popular and often told as a benchmark for an ideal life. He was renowned for his piety and justice. His name is Sanskrit for "having golden splendour". Harishchandra had two unique qualities. The first being, he kept his word and never went back on what he uttered as a promise. The other being, he never uttered a lie in his life. These twin qualities were tested heavily in his life by various circumstances that led him to penury and separation from his family. But he stood to his principles in the face of all ordeals and persevered to become a symbol of courage.
The Legend of Harishchandra's ideal life
It is said that the great sage Vishwamitra, once approached Harishchandra and informed him of a promise made by the king during the sage's dream to donate his entire kingdom. Harishchandra was so virtuous, that he immediately made good his word and donated his entire kingdom to the sage and walked away with his wife and son.
Since, the entire world was under the sage after he donated his kingdom, the king had to go to Varanasi, a holy town dedicated to Lord Shiva. This was now the only place outside the influence of the sage. But the sage proclaimed that for an act of donation to be completed, an additional amount as Dakshina (honorarium) had to be paid. Harishchandra, with no money in his hands, had to sell his wife and son to a Brahmin Grihastha to pay for the Dakshina. When the money collected still did not suffice for the purpose, he sold himself to a guard at the cremation ground, who was in charge of collecting taxes for the bodies to be cremated.
The king, his wife and son had to sustain tremendous hardships doing their respective chores. The king helped the guard cremate the dead bodies, while his wife and son were used as household helpers at the house of the Brahmin. Once, the son had been to the garden to pluck flowers for his master's prayer, when he was bitten by a snake and he died instantly. His mother, having nobody to sympathise for her, carried his body to the cremation grounds. In acute penury, she could not even pay the taxes needed to cremate him. Harishchandra did not recognise his wife and son. He asked the lady to sell her golden mangalasutra and pay the tax. It is at this instance that his wife recognises the man as her husband. She has a boon that her husband only could see her mangalasutra. Harishchandra then came to her and recognised her as his wife and was stung by pangs of agony.
But, Harishchandra, was dutybound by his job to perform the cremation only after the acceptance of the tax. So, he asked his wife, if she was willing to undergo further hardships and stand by him in this hour of calamity. The faithful wife readily gave assent. She had in her possession only a saree, a part of which was used to cover the dead body of her son. She offers half of her lone dress as the tax, which Harishchandra could accept and perform the last rites of his son. When she proceeded to remove her dress, miracles happened.
Lord Vishnu, Indra and all Devas and the sage Vishwamitra himself manifested themselves on the scene, and praised Harishchandra for his perseverance and steadfastness. They brought his son back to life. They also offered the king and his wife, instant places in heaven. Harishchandra refused, stating that he was bound to his master, the guard. The Devas then reveal that the guard was none other than Yama. He again refused, saying that he cannot leave behind his subjects, by Kshatriya Dharma. He asked for a place in heaven for all his subjects. But the gods refused, explaining that the subjects had their own Karma and they have to undergo them. The king was then ready to forego all his virtues and religiousness for his people, so that they could ascend to heaven leaving him behind. The gods, now immensely pleased with the unassailable character of the great king, offered heavenly abode to the king, the queen and all their subjects. The sage Vishwamitra helped to populate the kingdom again and installed Harishchandra's son as the king.
Rohitashwa was the son of Harishchandra. He founded the town of Rohtas Garh in Rohtas district, Bihar as well as Rohtak, originally Rohitakul, meaning from the Kul (family) of Rohit. Rohatgi's are descendants of Rohitashwa. They are found mostly in Delhi, Patna (Bihar), Agra (UP) in North India. They are also present in Ajmer (Rajastan) with surname Chattree.
Influence on Mahatma Gandhi
Banishment of the Royal Sage Harischandra and his family from his kingdom The pathetic story of Raja Harischandra is described in detail in the chapter VII of the Markandeya Purana. The story is narrated in the form of a dialogue between some very intelligent and all-knowing birds and the sage Jaimini. The sage came to the birds to get answers for some doubts lurking in his mind regarding the great epic Mahabharata. One of the doubts expressed by him was, “Why were the five children of Draupadi murdered though they were under the protection of Lord Krishna and the great warrior Arjuna?” In answer to this question the birds narrated the tragic tale of Raja Harischandra, who because of his strict adherence to Truth and honesty had to lose his kingdom, sell his wife and son as slaves and sell himself also as a slave to a man, who worked as an agent in the cremation ground. The details of the episode are as follows- In Treta Yuga there lived a royal saint named Harischandra . He was virtuous and famous for his adherence to the path of truth. He was renowned as the king who kept his word at any cost (as is the custom of kings that were born in the solar dynasty). He performed many horse-sacrifices and even performed the great ‘’Rajasuya Yagna’ which is normally performed after subduing all the neighboring kings. The people did not suffer from any natural calamities such as draught, floods, famine, disease or untimely death and no woman gave birth to any child before her marriage in his kingdom.
One day it so happened that when the king was chasing a deer with his bow and arrow in a forest, he heard a female voice in distress calling for help. The king stopped chasing the deer and rushed to the spot from where the sounds had come to render necessary help. During that time the great sage Viswamitra was engaged in a very severe meditation, through which he could control all the Bhavas (feelings and emotions like forgiveness, silence, self-control etc. which are free and universal in nature). When Viswamitra was trying to conquer them one by one they let out a cry asking for help so that they may be liberated from his control. As Harischandra was rushing towards the hermitage from where the cries originated, the dreadful deity of Obstacles (something like Nemesis) saw him. Then he thought of a plan to disturb the sage from his great attempt to gain control over the bhavas (emotions). He entered the body of the king and made him shout in a harsh voice, so that the sage will be disturbed from his meditation. The king entered the cottage and saw that some person, who had molested a woman, was now sitting like a sage in deep meditation. The king shouted, “Who is the fellow that is trying to control fire with the ends of his cloth, While I am present here? Who is this man that is going to sleep eternally being pierced with the arrows from my bow?” Listening to these words the sage was greatly disturbed and lost his concentration. He had also lost control of himself and became terribly angry. When the great Sage was overcome with anger all the emotions he was trying to control, became free and flew away from him. Recognizing the great sage King Harischandra began to tremble like the leaf of an Asoka tree. He bowed down before the sage with humility. He asked the sage to forgive him as he was simply performing his duties as a king. He said that the main duties of a king are to perform charities, to protect people in distress and fight by lifting his bow. Then Viswamitra asked the king to who should he give charities, who should he protect, and with who he was he expected to fight. The king replied that the charities should be made to the Brahmanas, who are knowledgeable persons, and who do not get any profit out of their knowledge. He also said that the king should protect those that are afraid or oppressed, and a king should always fight with robbers. Then Viswamitra told him that he was standing before him as a Brahmana who is desirous of asking for something from him. He wanted to know whether the king was ready to grant his wish. The king felt greatly relieved as if he got back his life after certain death. He told the sage that he may wish for anything and as a king he will provide the same to him. He enquired whether the sage was interested in silver, a son, Wife, body, life, kingdom, fortune or any other thing.
The sage accepted the offer and asked the king to donate the Dakshina of the Rajasuya sacrifice which was performed by him earlier. (Dakshina is something like an honorarium or remuneration paid to all the priests and scholars who attend a sacrifice or a holy ritual). The king said that he will give enough money to cover his dakshina. Then the king asked the sage whether he wanted anything else. Now the cunning sage asked for the entire kingdom of the king including his chariots, elephants, horses wealth and everything he owned, except his body, his wife and his son. He also asked the king to donate all the Punya (fruits of all good works) acquired by him in this birth. The King gave away all that the sage demanded without any hesitation.
The sage said that now since he owned all that the king had possessed once, the king may remove his jewelry, dress etc. and go away from the kingdom with his wife and son wearing only the bark of a tree. The king started to leave the kingdom with his wife Saivya and his son Lohitaswa (Rohitashwa). Then Viswamitra stood in the way of the king and asked the king to pay the dakshina regarding the Rajasuya Yagna which he had promised earlier to give. King Harischandra was taken aback. He replied that he had nothing to give at present and requested the sage to give him one month’s time to pay him the Dakshina. Viswamitra agreed to give him one month time and asked him to leave immediately. The queen who was never used to walk on earth followed him with her son. . When the citizens of the capital saw their King Harischandra walking on foot they could not control their anguish. They wanted to follow him saying that they will follow him wherever he went. Listening to their pitiful cries the king stopped on his way for a while. Sage Viswamitra approached him immediately and scolded him for stopping on his way. The king began to walk speedily dragging his wife along with him. The queen, who was tender and exhausted, could not walk so fast. Then Viswamitra began to beat her with his wand. But the king kept his cool and continued to walk. The five universal Gods who are called Viswadevas who were witnessing this from above, were moved with pity. They commented about, how this Viswamitra, who was once a King himself, and who after being deprived of his kingdom could become a great sage full of anger and arrogance.
Listening to the above remarks Viswamitra became still angrier. He cursed the five Gods that they will henceforth take birth as human beings. The Gods were agitated, came down and offered their apologies to the sage. Then Viswamitra told them that though they would be born as human beings, they would not get wives and children, and thus remain unstained from lust and anger. Thereby they would regain their celestial status after their death as human beings. The intelligent Birds who were narrating the story told the sage who was listening to the episode that these Gods at a later date were born as the five sons of Draupadi, the noble wife of the five Pandavas, a few years before the Mahabharat war took place. Just as the sage has predicted these five boys were murdered at midnight on the last day of the Mahabharat war, by Aswathama the son of the illustrious teacher Dronacharya.
The king proceeded on foot with his wife and his son and reached the main gate of the city of Kasi after a month. But the king was surprised to see sage Viswamitra already waiting for him at the entrance of the holy city.
Reference: Markandeya Puranam, published by Manmathnath Dutt,Printed at Elysium Press, Beadon street, Calcutta, in the year 1896.
Representations in Hindu Scriptures
He is the central figure of some legends in the Aitareya-brahmana, Mahabharata and the Markandeya Purana. In the first he is represented as so desirous of a son that he vows to Varuna that if his prayer is granted the boy shall be eventually sacrificed to the latter. The child is born, but Harishchandra, after many delays, arranges to purchase another's son and make a vicarious sacrifice. According to the Mahabharata he is at last promoted to Paradise as the reward for his munificent charity.
In popular culture
Harishchandra has been the subject of many films in India. The earliest is Raja Harishchandra from 1913, written and directed by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, which is the first full-length Indian feature film., The first "talkie" of Marathi cinema, Ayodhyecha Raja (1932) directed by V. Shantaram, was also based on his life, starring Govindrao Tembe and Durga Khote as the lead roles. The film was later remade under the name Ayodhya Ka Raja (1932) in Hindi, making it the first double-language talkie of Indian cinema. A very popular Kannada film, Satya Harishchandra, was based on the life of Raja Harishchandra. It was released in 1965, with the Kannada actor Dr Rajkumar playing the lead role. The film originally in black and white, was so popular even after four decades that it was later digitally colored and re-released on Dr Rajkumar's birth anniversary in 2008.
- My Experiments with Truth, Chapter 2, Autobiography of M.K.Gandhi
- Overview New York Times.
- The Firsts of Indian Cinema: Milestones from 1896-2000 Film and Television Producers Guild of India
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- A good look at this man's life story
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