Harischandra- Edited

It has always been my desire to read at least a concise version of the Indian epics. This desire was slowly kindled by the stories that sometimes my friends related to me.

Most recently, I was reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and the references to Karna and the accompanying imagery she conjured with her expressive words made me extremely curious of the full story. I like stories which deal with moral and ethical dilemmas and which contain subtle hints of a particular philosophy of life. Also, the stories themselves offer a glimpse into the mindset of a certain era and helps you understand better people who are raised surrounded by these stories and myths. Myths and stories have a very subtle way of influencing thought and morality and I think understanding them is crucial to understanding some aspects of a culture.

I just read this story about the King Harischandra. He is often touted as the golden standard that a man should aspire to and is an example of virtue and uncompromising morals. He was once confronted by the great sage Vishwamitra who told him that the he had made a promise once (in the sage’s dreams or in some forest sometime) that he would hand over his entire kingdom and belongings to the sage. Vishwamitra had come to redeem the promise. Harischandra, being the sort of guy who never breaks promises kept his word and handed over the whole kingdom and his belongings to the sage. He then set out with his wife and child. But, before leaving the sage told him that he needed a dakshina as well. Harischandra, thus, being the very epitome of goodness, sold his wife and child and himself into slavery and used the money to give dakshina to the sage. The rest of the story is a tale of their hardships and of course, how in the end, the Gods reward his goodness.

I had a few problems with the story. They were with the part where he sells his wife and child into slavery for the sake of his virtue. There are mainly 3 problems I see with this part. First, who should be paying the price for his idea of righteousness? Shouldn’t he have figured out some way of pacifying the sage that did not involve his wife and child? I mean it was he who made the decision to not even think of refusing to satisfy the sage’s whims.

Secondly, the way in which the woman meekly agreed to be sold along with her child for the sake of her husband’s idea of fairness deeply disturbed me. If I were in her position, I would have told the king, ” Listen Mr., if you want to really please that guy, that is perfectly alright. But, I don’t belong to anyone and it is not up to you to sell me and look good at my expense. I am going to take my child with me, go now, find someone with a less screwed up moral compass and live with him.”

This notion that the suffering of a woman is inferior to the righteousness of a man is pretty idiotic. Say, my wife went to a beauty parlor and made some stupid bet about whether one brand of henna is better than another with a crazy nun there and agreed to give everything away if she lost. What if she finally loses the bet? How will it look when she comes home and tells me, ” Dude, I am really sorry, but I just lost us everything. But, it is okay, I have safe guarded my honor and virtue. Oh, and btw, I also sold you and our child into slavery. I also sold myself into bonded labor, just so that you won’t think that I am unfair or anything, you know! I knew you wouldn’t mind!”.

Somehow, despite this story being very similar to the one in the myths, I have a feeling that my imaginary wife won’t be considered a model of virtue. But, that won’t be her fault. It is simply because our society has grown up listening to stories like this which have a divine aura about them. They belong to a bygone era and espouse a set of morals which are somewhat biased and out-dated..

Also, it is rather obvious that the story tries to sow the insidious seeds of irrational reverence of sages and priests and an idea that the ideal man should be completely subject to their whims and fancies. It would be very understandable if this story was actually written by a sage or a priest.


This story does raise some interesting questions about boundaries and commitment in a marriage. I guess it is perfectly okay that one spouse might want to cover for the other. But the credit for that should go to the spouse going to the unnecessary trouble for the other’s sake. It should not be something that should be taken for granted. Here, somehow, Harischandra is the guy who gets all the credit despite the greatest hardship being born by his wife and child. Their suffering magnified by the fact that they are doing it for someone else’s sake!

I think our stories and myths need to either be enjoyed purely for it’s literary value or should evolve with the times to reflect our changing sensibilities.

The following paragraph is the result of a long debate that I had with a commentator:

This story is meant to demonstrate the value of dharma and satya. Harischandra was a king, a husband and a father. He had several rules to follow and commitments to keep. To satisfy the sage’s whim he decided to violate his dharma as a husband and as a father. If the story was intended to demonstrate the value of rule-based ethics, then  I don’t think it has been very successful at it. It is possible that the story was okay. But, maybe the rules in those times placed greater value on the desires of sages and Gods than on promises and commitments made to one’s family. In that case there is something wrong with the rules themselves. In either case, we need to be wary of imbibing morals from them and seeing them in a spiritual light. It is also likely that there is the less than holy intention of reinforcing the hierarchy of the varnas and encouraging uncritical acceptance of the divine behind it. In my opinion, these are not healthy tendencies.

Also, to see them as a factual record of history and/or as a divinely inspired story does little justice to the imagination and literary prowess of the people who actually wrote it. It is an amazing work and all the triumphs and failings of the human spirit are reflected in stories like these. I think that instead of teaching us absolute truths, they should make us think, reflect and question.

P.S. I was a little hasty with the first draft of this article. There are several versions of the story and I had mentioned unnecessary details of it. This prevented me from being clear about what I really found troubling about the story. Also, I think I was a little harsh then. So, I edited out some sections of the post.


12 thoughts on “Harischandra- Edited

  1. Hi

    The part which you have mentioned here about how Sage Vishwamitra got hold of kingdom is somewhat different from what I have read. I think you need to dig deep in more to get to know about the story how Harishchandra came to be called as Sathyawadi Raja Harishchandra [1]. It clearly mentions how he came be known as someone who keeps his promise at whatever cost he has to bear.

    And from what I have read from ‘Gods, Demons and Others’ by R. K. Narayan, the story of King Harishchandra is somewhat different from what you have narrated. There, it mentions that, after an arguement with Sage Vasita, Sage Vishwamitra decides to test Raja Harishchandra. In due course, the king comes across a lady, Siddhi who was in deep grief due to Sage Vishwamitra. (Please try to read it). To relieve his subject, (Siddhi) from her grief, the king decided to intervene Vishwamitra’s meditation. Clearing the first test by Vishwamitra, the king fearlessly roused Vishwamitra from his meditation. He prayed to the sage to stop tormenting the lady. Later, after these events, once the king was back in kingdom, he was informed of a wild boar causing havoc in his kingdom. Then he had to hunt down the boar and on this course, he chased the boar for long time. Being thirsty and tired, the king was given given refreshments and food by Sage Vishwamitra in some other form. This is when the king asks the saint to ask for anything in return for his help to him. Sage Vishwamitra, taking the opportunity in hand, asks for his kingdom and all other wealth he possess and asks him to leave the kingdom. This is how he loses his kingdom. And then Vishwamitra asks for dakshina with the gift and the king requests for a 30 days time to get it for him. Eventually, he could not get enough to give dakshina as a result of which he had to sell his wife and son to a brahmin.

    And I don’t agree to what you interpreted from how the king treated his wife and son and how Chandramati responded to his orders. As far as I have read, women were given high stature and respect in all puranans and in ancient time. According to Manusmriti, this is how a woman should live. “In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her lord is dead, to her sons; a woman must never be independent.” [2] But, according to Chanakya, women were given more freedom in his times. A woman could remarry if her husband did not return after a specified period of time to home. Please have a look at how Kautilya narrates how the women were treated in ‘Arthashaastra’.

    I don’t think the ‘myths’ you said should be rewritten should necessarily be rewritten. Do not take the story just literally. I believe one needs to look deeper into what the situation is and understand what it is trying to convey. All ideas and thoughts emerging out of it need not be relevant to modern society. Just try to imbibe what the story gives you to ponder upon.

    [1] http://ur1.ca/50grs
    [2] http://ur1.ca/50gvt


    • Well, there are different versions of the story and I really appreciate you taking the time to share a more comprehensive version with me. But, I will say why it doesn’t change my conclusion.
      I said that the king should be considered stupid IF he believed that the promise was made in a dream that the sage had. This was what I read. I knew it was a little strange and that is why I put in a qualifier.
      “Eventually, he could not get enough to give dakshina as a result of which he had to sell his wife and son to a brahmin.”
      Secondly, though you took a lot of effort to correct the details of the story you simply breezed past it’s most outrageous part and the one that I took exception to. That part is unchanged even in the other versions. If you try and grasp the spirit of the post, you will find that what I am trying to convey is the sheer injustice of the woman and the child being sold into slavery because of Harischandra’s inability to either say no to an unreasonable request or to accept that he might not be that righteous after all and maybe valiantly offer his life in exchange for his honor or at the very least try and find some way out that doesn’t make his innocent wife and child suffer, That would have been really and truly great of him.
      In the real world, the submissive and stupid behavior of Chandramati would have directly resulted in the destruction of a childhood. Stories like these inject into society an inverted system of morals which values abstract and extreme ideals based on the immaterial and the other worldly over pragmatic and genuinely humanistic ones.
      I personally would hate to do what he did. But, that is just a personal opinion.

      “And I don’t agree to what you interpreted from how the king treated his wife and son and how Chandramati responded to his orders. ”
      You are welcome to disagree. But, you did not yet explain away the problem I raised with the particular story I was discussing. Maybe in the other works something else might be suggested. But, don’t you think that to be adequately sure of your disagreement you have to use the same story and try and find where exactly I made a mistake? I mean a mistake in interpreting the way in which Harischandra managed to satisfy the sage.

      ” According to Manusmriti, this is how a woman should live. “In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her lord is dead, to her sons; a woman must never be independent.” [2] ”
      Thanks for bringing this passage to my attention. Again an example of biased authorship. While you might be correct that there are other works which convey an opposing view, you must understand that the story of Harischandra is intended to at least implicitly convey an idea of what an ideal man should be like. Apart from this, it also does in a more subtle manner indicate that it is expected of the Kshatriyas to be subservient to the Brahmins. I can clarify this feeling of mine if you ask me to.

      While it might be possible to come up with other works which give a different impression from this one you must understand that each story has an impact. They slowly but surely condition people who are exposed to them at a young age. It can take away a certain conviction that there are some things that are absolutely wrong. It can also alter their views of the opposite sex in a way that might be to the detriment of the society and everyone’s happiness. The stories should come with a disclaimer saying that they are in no way intended to inculcate a moral sense. If they don’t do that, then the contradictory view points espoused by several works can only serve as a justification for whatever it is that a man wants to do. I hope I am being very clear here.

      “I don’t think the ‘myths’ you said should be rewritten…”
      The way you have put quotes around “myths” seems to indicate that you have some resentment against my usage of the word. I really would like to know your views on it. I think stories need to be dynamic and change with the evolution of moral standards. That is a personal opinion and I can see that you disagree with the sentiment.
      “Do not take the story just literally. I believe one needs to look deeper into what the situation is and understand what it is trying to convey.”
      That is an absolutely noble sentiment and I completely agree with that. Though I have a feeling that you did not apply the same principle when assimilating my post. Anyway, that is not really important. What is really important is this. It is okay for a piece of literature that is used as a basis for a system of morals to have an allegorical/metaphorical meaning, It is up to everyone to try and understand that and enjoy the additional insight it brings. But, what is far more important than a hidden allegory is a certain benignity of the literal meaning. If the first impression that it conveys is not noble or at least harmless, then I feel that the story might do more harm than good on young minds. If you think otherwise I would be happy to spar with you on the topic.
      “Just try to imbibe what the story gives you to ponder upon.”
      I really tried and guess what, I had a really good time reading and analyzing it. I intend to pursue Hindu literature more vigorously from now on.
      Looking forward to more valuable comments!

  2. I had one more thought regarding Chandramati’s (or Taramati’s) actions. I wanted to share it with you. There were 2 options for her. One would be for her to say, ” look, I love you a lot and know that I owe our child to you and the Gods. But, I don’t think it is fair to our child and myself that I should allow us to be sold into slavery. You are going to have to tell the sage that there is simply no way any more money can be obtained. Allow him to do whatever it is he wants to do with you. Always know that I love you and we owe our lives to you. You have a been great husband and dad. Bye!” Harischandra should have realized that his duty to those dependent on him is greater than his desire to be absolutely pleasing to the sage.
    This one aspect has a lot of implications for our society. This made me think of the movie “Chinthavishtayaaya Shyamala”.
    “I will help you keep your promise by allowing myself and my son to be sold into life long slavery. But we are doing it only for your honor.”
    In this case, shouldn’t Taramati be the real star of the story? I mean, she is the one who sacrificed everything for almost nothing in return, not even the solace of being recognized for her truthfulness. I have this nagging feeling that the king was not the real hero of this story, which is why I made the post in the first place. Though I refer to her as a star I still don’t think that this is the right course of action.
    If possible, let me know your thought on this.

  3. Sabu, I got what you are trying to convey. You mean the woman should have given more decision making powers when it comes to issues relating to herself or her life.

    Let me first try to make my points clear about my last comment. Like you have mentioned, I did not go into the details where Chandramati and her son was sold by Harishchandra as it almost same as you have narrated. So, I did not feel the need to go into it.

    Next, I would like to mention that the whole purpose of the this tale is to convey the importance of ‘satyam’ and the need to fulfill one’s ‘dharma’. What I feel is that the roles of Chandramati and her son is just a part of the story and we need not look into their side of the story. But, let me try to explain the it through my knowledge. Being a king, Harishchandra had to fulfill his promise. So, Harishchandra gave away his whole kingdom to Vishwamitra. And to give dakshina, he had to sell his son and wife. So, he has met what ‘dharma’ requires him to do. Looking into the case of Chandramati and Harishchandra’s son, what they did was just keep upto ‘patni dharma’ and ‘putra dharma’. According to these books, during that period of time, maybe women were treated as dependents and were not given much freedom. If you read through different texts, they gave several such ideas and concepts. Like the link I have shared related to Manusmriti. Hence, what I believe is that, what she did was right according to the times she lived. Maybe looking into it now may not be worthwhile. The way people live have changed. Therefore, whenever I read such spiritual texts, I just try to imbibe the core ideas. The intricate details may not be ever applicable in our society.

    Sabu, you must have heard about the ‘വസ്ത്രാക്ഷേപം’ of Panchali. In Mahabharata, she is depicted as one of the strongest woman. When she was asked to come before the entire courtroom as she had become the slave of Kauravar, she did not just readily accepted the order. She questioned whether she was staked last or last but one by Yudhistra in the gamble. She indeed knew her rights. When she came to know that Yudhistra lost himself first and then lost her, she knew that he had no authority to stake her in the gamble thereafter.

    So there are instances where women have risen and questioned for their rights. Maybe in the case of Raja Harishchandra, Chandramati would have been just an obedient wife. What I feel is that that part of story was not much relevant to what it tries to convey.

    I would like to add something more about the story. Like you have mentioned, Chandramati and her son had to bear lots of hardships. But do not forget that Harishchandra was also going through several difficulties.



    • Thanks for the brilliant comment! I now understand that the purpose of the story was to stress the importance of a rule-based or dharmic system of ethics. That is great point and I am happy that the discussion is going somewhere.
      I now have a new doubt. Harischandra had several duties. He was a king, a father and a husband. The dharma of a king is, I believe to follow the rule book prescribed for his position and stage of life. Also, he is obliged to take care of his family. It is I guess also his duty to keep promises. But, to what extent should he go to fulfill one of his duties? I understand that consequences don’t matter now. Now, I am just trying to go by the rule book. Is it okay to violate his obligations to his family to satisfy the requirements of his role as a king?
      Is it not better to slightly violate one rule(no dakshina) than to violate 2 rules(duty to wife, duty to son) and plunge 2 more people into misery? Also, if the purpose of the story is to illustrate the concept of dharma and satyam then how does his abandoning of his duties as a husband and father fit in with the rest of the story?
      I know, I am a die hard skeptic and that might be coloring my views. But, don’t you think that the auteur’s primary aim was not to lay down in stone a really esoteric base for deontological ethics, but to merely illustrate that the duty of a king to a sage/priest/God is greater than his duty to his wife and child?
      Doesn’t that sound a little fishy?
      Also, even if we swallow that part of the story, there is still the unexplained part where Harischandra is praised for his virtue. While, you are right that he was undergoing suffering, you must understand that it was his choice to completely submit to the whims(no promise was made to give more than what he owned and his family was surely not an “asset”) of a sage at the expense of his wife and he is supposed to have the moral satisfaction of having chosen the allegedly right path. But, what about his wife and child? What is the meaning of their suffering? You might say it is their duty. But, honestly, did they have a choice?
      If the purpose of the story is indeed to elucidate the idea of rule-based ethics, I think the part his wife and son plays cannot be dismissed as unimportant. A more likely possibility is, in my opinion, that this is a kind of clever story that is supposed to help encourage the kind of attitudes that would tolerate the hierarchy of the varnas and genders.
      If the story is actually honest to the rules, of which I admit I have little knowledge, then the rules are crap. If it is not, then, the story is crap. I don’t know which one to go for.
      Do you think that the concepts and ideals this story conveys is above an average guy’s sensibilities? I know that there are similar stories everywhere. Jesus’ disciples abandoning their families to go after Him is one another example. I was merely wondering how these stories can be spiritual or considered to be in someway enlightening.
      I understand that there are plenty of places where women are depicted as strong. I just want to focus on this story and it’s claims to containing the description of the ideal man.

  4. One more thought. I have noted your point that the rules might have changed and what was then valid might not seem to make sense now. But, I still can’t stomach the idea that the way he treated his wife and child is not important to the core idea of the story which you say is to illustrate dharma and satyam.
    The way in which the story rankles with a standard of ethics and the subtle manner in which it is trying to push an idea that would be beneficial to the class of the author prevents me from attributing any depth to the story.

  5. “I think it is time someone re-wrote our myths and stories to reflect a more balanced view…”. Though I agree with the general notion, one must realize that these stories, or myths, are just that.. stories that may/ may not have some underlying facts. The whole conflict arises when we assign these myths values that it doesn’t deserve. I for one have always had trouble understanding why the pandavas were supposed to be the good guys in Mahabharata, or why Abraham decided to sacrifice his son to god.
    What I am trying to say is this: the whole take away from this story is-never back down. Period. No point in analyzing stories like these excessively. There are probably many versions of such stories floating around that its a bloody waste of time to indulge in such excessive commentary.

    • Hahaha…. Well, I think after all this I am in the mood to agree with you. But, I must add one thing. The thing about myths is that they tend to be the ones that children hear when they grow up, at least in some traditional families. Though they might not analyse the stories to a great depth it does effect their intuition about how they should treat others and about highly sensitive things like gender roles and the idea of good and bad. Just because of that, I think they have played a huge role in shaping the personalities of people who grew up listening to them. This might even be responsible for some of our failings and triumphs as a society,
      I was merely trying to figure out whether one such story has any intrinsic moral value. When I say we must rewrite the myths to convey newer ideas, I don’t mean that we should go and change some “official” version. We must try and tell our kids newer versions of the stories which are more in line with with our understanding of the world. The myths must evolve with our culture. That is what I feel.

  6. Sabu, to your last comment about the dharma of Harishchandra as a King, as a husband and as a father is indeed something that needs to be answered. But, with my limited knowledge and reading, I am not one to comment on such great notions.

    And I do not agree to what Rajiv has commented on. There are lots to be learn and understand from these puranas and epics. Maybe like I have mentioned earlier all the ideas mentioned in those may not be applicable directly in our lives. But, those values indeed makes lot of sense to me. Sorry that I do not agree with your thoughts.

  7. 2 “bhujiggalude” conversation…..hmm!!! sabu, had been misssing ur philosophies quite badly….bookmarked dis page for a free time read

    • Hehehe, thanks and good to know that you miss my “philosophies”. I really miss college and our hostel and our walks together with thumbi!

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