King Harishchandra was known for two things. The first was that he never went back on his word and the second was that he never told a lie!
The sage Vishwamitra once came to the court of King Harishchandra and narrated a dream he had, wherein the king had promised to donate his kingdom and all his worldly possessions to the sage. And it seems, that the king immediately decides to honour this commitment made to the sage in the latter’s dream! So without a moments hesitation, he hands over his kingdom and everything that he owns to the sage and is about to leave with his wife and son, when the sage tells him, that there was some more wealth promised in the dream, which the king has to fulfil.
The king, now goes to the market and sells his wife and son as slaves to a rich Brahmin and sells himself to a Chandal, a low caste man, whose task is to collect money and burn the dead at the crematorium. The king turned slave gives all the money thus obtained to the sage and fulfils the promise that had been made in the sage’s dream. The king now became a beggarly assistant to the chandal, and spends his days and nights burning the dead in the crematorium and collecting the money to do so.
We do not know what hardships the wife has to undergo as a slave, but one day her little boy gets bitten by a snake and dies. The slave woman carries her dead son to the crematorium to be burnt. Here she meets her husband, who refuses to cremate the body (of his own son) till she can pay the required amount! His master has very strict rules about payment first and service later. She has nothing to pay him with. She has already used half of her garment to shroud the body of her son. She now offers the rest of her garment as payment, and the hapless father starts preparing the fire.
It is at this time, that the Gods come down from the heavens and bless the king for being steadfast in holding on to his principles. They return the kingdom, bring the son back to life and offer the royal couple a place in the heavens. The king refuses at first saying that he is not a free man and belongs to his master at the crematorium. This man too turns out to be Yama, the God of death, who releases the king from bondage.
The Gods make their offer again, but the king refuses to go to heaven until and unless every one of his subjects are allowed to go with him. This demand too is granted, and the whole population of the kingdom is transported to the heavens. The kingdom is populated with new people and the son of Harishchandra becomes king.
As a child, I loved this story and Harishchandra was my idol. As a young woman, I raged at the state of the woman in this story. However, today at a certain level, I see this as a cautionary tale; a tale that tells me not to get too invested in other people’s dreams. At another level, it helps me acknowledge, the many different parts that make up my being – the idealist, the king, the slave, the confused decision maker, the mother, the child, the Gods…. they all live in me.