Story of Harischandra

The story of Harischandra emphasizes the value of truth and denounces the degrading influence of falsehood. Jupiter represents truth; Saturn when afflicted represents falsehood. The Harischandra story enables Yudishtira to tide over his adversities. This story exists in the Veda-s and is repeated in the Purana-s, as poetry and drama.

The story of Harischandra, who lived for truth, who renounced everything for the cause of truth, is sacred. Harischandra at the end of his suffering is supposed to have pronounced a curse on Saturn that those who are truthful and of pious conduct can never be subjected to the negative influence of Saturn. In this context I wish to highlight Mantreswara:

Ahimsakasya dantasya Dharmarjitha Dhanasya cha|
Sarvadaa niyamas tasya sadaa sanugraha grahaha||
― Phaladeepika, Ch 26; verse 50

Planets always bless those, who are committed to ahimsa and have self-control and who earn money through fair means and are disciplined.

Characters in the story and astrological symbolism
Harischandra’s character represents Mantreswara’s remarks. In this story, Vasishta and Viswamitra characters bear similarity to Jupiter and Venus, respectively. Harischandra’s character is similar to Sun. Viswamitra is also comparable to Venus, since he tempted Harischandra with beautiful women; Chandramati to the Moon, since she remained faithful to her husband. Just as the Moon reflects the light of the Sun, Chandramati reflected the glory of Harishchandra. As Mercury is the son of the Moon, we can consider Lohidasa as Mercury, being Chandramati’s son. The Brahmin who extracted work from Chandramati and her son could be Mars, since the latter part of the story reveals that he is Agni, who is related to Mars because of his fiery nature. Virabahu represents Saturn as the final part of the story shows him to be Lord Yama. The nodes, Rahu and Ketu are represented by the snake, which kills Lohidasa. This is a remarkable story where all the nine planets can be seen to play a key role in the unfolding of the plot. It is also an allegory, which describes the impact of the nine planets in an individual’s life.

The Story
Harischandra was a king of the Ikshwaku dynasty, who did not have progeny for long. Harischandra and his wife Chandramati observed many rituals and went on pilgrimages. Propitiated by Harischandra, Varuna blessed them with a son, whom Varuna wanted to be sacrificed. Even as the father put off his promise, the boy disappeared from his kingdom. Varuna is angered, resulting in Harischandra contracting a serious form of dropsy. Pitying Harishchandra, Varuna said: “I do not want the sacrifice. Let Harischandra be cured of the disease.” Harischandra realized his mistake. It was clear to him that he had been punished for not having fulfilled his promise to Varuna, out of his love for his son.

Harischandra was happy that he kept up his word, although belatedly. What could have been his family reputation had he not kept up his word? Therefore, he decided that, in future, he would never to go back on his words under any circumstance: he determined that any human should be as good as his/her word. One ought to realize the value of truth. He decided that thereafter he would rigorously practice truth in his daily conduct. Accordingly he lived a life of truthfulness and gained the reference as Satyavrata — a passionate observer of truth.

In the celestial court of Devendra, some earthly matters came up for discussion. Devendra wondered whether any truthful people existed on the earth. Vasishta said: “Yes, there are” and mentioned the name ‘Harischandra’. Vasishta’s words infuriated Viswamitra: “Harischandra could not keep his word to Varuna; how can he be called truthful? He suffered dropsy because of Varuna’s curse.” “All that is past”, said Vasishta; “now I will confidently say that he is committed to be a truthful person”. “Suppose, someone finds him telling a lie…?” asked Viswamitra.

Vasishta was confident of Harischandra: “In case Harischandra either tells a lie or is found dishonest at any time, I shall let my plaits of hair fly unkempt; I shall walk away southwardly bare-bodied, drinking toddy from a cast-away human skull.” On Narada’s prompting, Vasista continued: “In case Harischandra remained truthful, what would be your vow?” Vishwamitra: “I shall give away to Harischandra half the quantum of the divine grace I have earned in my life and I will make him renowned” The contest between these two sages, Vasishta and Vishwamitra,caused immense difficulty to Harischandra. His ordeal began.

Let us pause here for a moment and contextualize the story so far. Initially Harischandra did not keep up his word to Varuna and underwent a change of heart. This marked the advent of an auspicious period in his life. Perhaps this was the Jupiter dasa. Immediately in the Vimshottari-dasa sequence, Jupiter is followed by Saturn. In any academic programme, the study period is followed by an examination to verify the learner’s learning. Harischandra’s ordeal is supposed to have commenced at the start of Saturn’s period in his life. It is a period, which tested his commitment to honesty.

Harischandra had a loving wife, an affectionate son, a clever minister, and remained committed to his subjects. He was unaware of the vows of Vasishta and Vishwamitra in Indra’s court. Viswamitra, coming to the earth, wondered how best he could tempt Harischandra into falsehood. Viswamitra thought, “Why not attach his wealth and thus ruin him and compel him into situations where he would necessarily seek to telling lies?”

One day a few disciples of Viswamitra approached Harishchandra and talked about the Bahu Suvarna Yaga. They persuaded Harishchandra that he was the most qualified to conduct the yaga. Harishchandra agreed to conduct it with the cooperation of sages. A key criterion of this yaga was that ‘do-er’ should limitlessly give away gifts to the seekers and the deserving after the sacrifice. Harischandra was aware of this. He completed the yaga successfully. The poor and the needy were happy with the gifts given away by Harishchandra.

Viswamitra met Harischandra. Harischandra welcomed him with customary hospitality. When asked what he, Harischandra, could do for him, Viswamitra said: “I have come for my gifts on the occasion of the yaga you have conducted.” Harischandra readily agreed. Viswamitra listed his demand: that a person stood on an elephant and tossed a coin; Harishchandra would pile money and jewelry measuring up to the height the coin was flung and that quantity would be the gift for him. The king conceded to the demand. Viswamitra was surprised with Harishchandra’s ready response. Failing in his attempt to demoralize Harishchandra, Viswamitra left the gift with Harishchandra saying that he would ask for them, when he needed it.

Viswamitra was worried as to how to fulfill the vow taken in Indra’s court. He thought of an alternate diabolical plan. Wild animals wrought havoc to crops in Harishchandra’s kingdom. Famine spread in his country. On receiving grievance calls from his people, Harishchandra set out to hunt. During hunting, he came close to the hermitage of Viswamitra, who ‘created’ two charming girls to entice Harischandra. They entertained Harishchandra singing and dancing.

Delighted Harishchandra gifted them his pearl necklace. They expressed their desire to marry him. Harishchandra, amused thus far, was angry. He ordered them to be punished and chased them out. They returned to Vishwamitra and appealed for mercy. Viswamitra scoffed at Harishchandra: “What have you done? You have slain my animals, ruined my hermitage, and manhandled my girls! The girls entertained you and you roughed them up. I shall pardon you only if you would marry them.” On Harishchandra’s refusal, Viswamitra demanded, “Surrender your kingdom to me”.

Harischandra made over his kingdom and his other personal property to Viswamitra. Harischandra directed Chandramati and Lohidasa to wear the clothes handed over to him by Viswamitra. Viswamitra then demanded his fees. Harishchandra was confused. He had given him everything in his possession and was unable to understand Viswamitra’s grievance. Viswamitra argued that the kingdom and the property belonged to him – Viswamitra — presently. The gift Harishchandra had made was supposed to be in his – Harishchandra’s — custody until sought by Viswamitra. And now he wanted the gift back.Vishwamitra entrusted the job of recovery of this sum to a disciple named Nakshatraka.A time limit for repayment was also fixed.

Vishwamitra told Nakshatraka : ‘Whether they can give or not, you better torment them mercilessly. You must be a nuisance, wherever they go; you starve them and see that they lose their way. Threaten them that the time limit for payment of debts is over. Never relent, never be kind and considerate. Never let him rest for a while anywhere. When Harishchandra is tired, pretend as though you are exhausted and you need his care; somehow or other, ensure that he utters a lie. You will be merely an instrument, whereas I will be the power behind it. I will assume the shape of wild storms, scorching sun and scalding fire. I will haunt him in the form of hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, and sickness. I shall somehow win my gamble.” Thus he instigated Nakshatraka.

At this juncture Viswamitra was the ruler and Harischandra had to fulfil his promise to repay the debts within the stipulated time. But he could not earn it as a subject in Viswamitra’s kingdom. He had to go elsewhere and collect the money either by working or by getting a loan. He thought of Varanasi, the seat of Mahadeva – known as Visweswara.

A new town and strangers: how Harishchandra would find money to clear his debts? Since the stipulated time was drawing closer, a desperate Harischandra prayed to Visweswara, the Lord of Varanasi. Chandramati suggested that Harishchandra sell her and their son to repay debts. Shocked Harischandra thought: “How could anyone sell one’s wife and son?” Chandramati encouraged Harischandra to carry out her suggestion. Harischandra saw no other way out. A king of Ikshwaku dynasty prepared himself to sell his wife and son. He hawked in the streets of Varanasi offering his wife and son for money. A Brahmin buyer secured them, although after much criticism. When Harischandra paid the money to Nakshatraka, he debited it against ‘daily allowance’, and the loan amount remained unsettled.

As the date for the repayment was drawing closer, Harischandra began to panic and was getting ready to put himself up on sale. Virabahu, a person in charge of the cremation site bought Harischandra, who, for a minute, was disturbed by a doubt whether it was correct for a king to sell himself to a person of Virabahu’s calibre. But the very thought of the burden of the debt tormented him. Harischandra stipulated his price: “I want as much gold as, when piled up, would reach the height of a coin tossed up by a human standing on an elephant.” “If I give you as much gold as you specify, what would be the volume of work you do?” asked Virabahu. Harischandra agreed to do anything Virabahu would order him to do. Virabahu paid the price and employed Harischandra as his servant. He appointed Harischandra as the caretaker of the cremation site. Harischandra handed over the entire sum to Nakshatraka, who reflected, for a moment, on the meanness of Viswamitra and the nobility of the king. “I am fortunate to enjoy such proximity to Harischandra”, he mused. Viswamitra was further disturbed: here is a person, who remains undefeated by any ordeal. Viswamitra decided to apply more horrifying trials to Harischandra.

One day when Lohidasa was gathering faggots for the ritual sacrificial fire, in the woods, he was bitten by a snake. Chandramati could not even afford to wail and cry. Her master was so ruthless that she could cremate her dead son only after the day’s stipulated work was done.. Carrying the body, she went to the cremation site. She had no money to buy any wood to cremate. Using the half-burnt faggots, she was about to light the pyre. Then, Harischandra, the keeper of the cremation site, came there and told her that she could not cremate until the stipulated fee was paid. When Chandramati pleaded that she had nothing to pay, Harischandra demanded that she pawn the mangalasutra and bring the money.
That night some robbers kidnapped the prince of Varanasi and robbed the prince and in the process inflicted injuries on the prince. When the prince was crying in deathly throes, Chandramati came there and mistook the dying boy for her son. The robbers decamped, leaving the stolen jewels and the dying boy.

Chandramati was caught by the king’s soldiers and charged with the murder of the prince. She was summoned for interrogation before the king, who ordered her execution by Virabahu, the hangman. The task was assigned by Virabahu to Harischandra. Harischandra led Chandramati to the gallows and requested her to say her last prayers. He made no attempt to identify the woman. Chandramati squatted on the ground, closed her eyes and prayed to God. She remembered her ‘Guru’ Vasishta and offered her salutation. Then she said: “Let Harischandra, grow immortal through his truthfulness. Let his name last till the sun and moon last. Let the dead son come back to life. Let the lord of the land, Viswamitra, become immortal. This is my last wish. Now you may strike the blow.”

Harischandra heard the words. It was clear to him that the woman was his wife and it was the same woman who had gone out to fetch the fee for cremation. The son’s dead body was still lying nearby. ‘One more trick of fate,’ he thought. ‘Yesterday the son died and the cremation is not over yet. Now I am going to kill my wife. This is our master’s bidding, and this is what fate wills. I cannot refuse my duty.’ Thus he calmed himself and lifted the sword up. The Sun was just rising on the mountain top; the angels and Gods assembled witness the occasion when an earthling, by his unparalleled conduct, was about to achieve Godhood. Vasishta was eagerly hoping that at least, at that point, Vishwamitra would relent. “You marry my girls and I will suspend all hostilities. I will bring your son back to life. I will save your wife from death and I will return the glory of your kingship” said Viswamitra. Harischandra replied, “My revered master, never repeat those offers. I yield not to temptation. I am tempted by nothing but the observance of truth. I have witnessed my son’s death. Now my wife, has to be put to death by me. Let me not go back on my word. May you bless me always!” He lifted his sword and in a wild sweep hit at his wife’s neck.

But a miracle happened. Even before the blade of the sword touched Chandramati’s neck, the sword itself took a different form. Iswara and Parvati with a gesture of protective assurance appeared. Harischandra prostrated at them. Harischandra’s extraordinary adherence to truth had enabled every one to get darshan of Lord Siva.

The Gods were pleased. Viswamitra stood in obeisance. Iswara ordered Lohidasa be brought back to life. Vishwamitra conceded to Harischandra’s victory. He narrated the origin and the consequence of the feud between Vasishta and himself. He said that the sufferings of Harischandra, and his family were all an illusion. The Brahmin who bought Chandramati and Lohidasa was Agni.

Veerabahu, the Executioner, was none other than Yama. He returned to Harishchandra half of the divine purity and virtue he had garnered over time.
Vasishta was full of admiration for his disciple’s noble conduct. Indra and others showered flowers on Harischandra and his kingdom was restored to him. The sufferings and agonies inflicted on Harischandra by the sage were a blessing in disguise, since they announced Harischandra’s commitment to truthfulness to the world. “Viswamitra is not angry with you. He does not resent your triumph. He is as reverential as Vasishta,” assured Iswara and blessed him with eternal happiness.

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The following verses bring out the malefic aspect of Shani’s nature in Shani Chalisa.

Reference to Ramayana- Sita Haran episode:

Vanhun mein Mrig kapat dikhaee| Matu Janaki gayee churaee||.
When Sita was in the Forest and Lord Rama was away, Shani created the Maya (illusion) of a beautiful Deer, which Sita wanted to have and that resulted in her getting abducted by the evil- minded Ravana .

Reference to Harischandra episode:

Harish Chandra nrip naari bikani|
Aaphun bhare dom ghar paani||

A Truth loving king like Harischandra had to sell his beloved wife and resort to filling water in a low-caste dome, owing to unfortunate events that occurred, when Shani’s evil eye fell on him.

There are references to many mythological stories, where people of noble virtues experienced adversities on falling out of Shani’s favour.

A few astrological concepts could be understood from this story. Jupiter and Venus are rivals. This is explained by the rivalry between Vasishta and Viswamitra. Rahu and Ketu are enemies of the Sun and Moon. The snake, which bit Lohidasa could be considered as Rahu, since it brought grief to the king (Sun) and his wife (Moon). Cremation site and hangmen are denoted by Saturn as explained by the character of Virabahu. The aspect of Jupiter on the Sun denotes success through divine grace, which is explained by Harischandra’s devotion to sage Vasishta.

Venus binds a person to the material world as it denotes desires and illusions.If a person manages to resist the temptation he/she would be rewarded with eternal happiness. On many occasions Viswamitra( denoting Venus)tempted Harischandra with pleasures but since the king did not accept the bait he was blessed with eternal happiness in the end. The Yoga of Sun with Jupiter is a combination for Moksha. Here the devotion of Harischandra (Sun) to Vasishta (Jupiter) indicates that devotion to Guru leads to eternal bliss.

Whether we understand this story as a moral fable or seek astrological truths, in either way the story is a mine of wisdom carrying the message

‘Truth will triumph’ (Satyameva Jayate) and is bound to have eternal relevance.