25 June 2008

King Harischandra

On my way home by autorickshaw I noticed work is underway desilting and deepening the Simha Tirtham, (which I nickname the Sphinx). As this is one of my favoured spots around the Hill, immediately decided to check it out. Took some nice snaps and will post them with information in a day or two. But for now want to mention the shrine of Harishchandra adjacent to the Simha Tank.

First off - below is a photograph of the patron of the newly renovated Harischandra Shrine who kindly showed me an album of very nice photographs of the Abishekam recently performed at the Shrine. Originally burial and burning grounds were located well out of Tiruvannamalai town limits, but as the town has grown, things are now very different. Interestingly the whole area occupied by Ramana and Seshadri Ashrams used to be burial grounds.

This shrine is located off the Chengam Road, about a half kilometre west of Ramana Ashram and it is the place that burial and cremation groups stop on their way to the burning grounds. Traditionally at the place of the Harischandra Shrine, the vehicle carrying the corpse has to turn around and thereafter reverse the last couple of hundred yards to the cemetery/ghat.

In the below photograph, the iconic representation of King Harischandra.

The below legend of this king of ancient Hindu religious texts, explains his connection with burning and burial grounds and why he is so scrupulously placated by the relatives of the deceased.

Legend of Harishchandra

Harishchandra, a king of ancient Hindu religious texts, is renowned for 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 this life. As he stood to his principles through dire and difficult circumstances, he has become a symbol of courage, piety and justice.

The legend goes that the 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 Benares, 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 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.

Harishchandra and his family is sold into bondage and separated
Painting by Raja Ravi Varma

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 duty bound 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 sari, 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. The virtuous king, refused saying that he cannot leave behind his subjects, and 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 abodes to the King, the Queen and all their subjects.

The sage Vishwamitra helped to re-populate the kingdom and installed Harishchandra's son as the king. Interestingly the legend of Harischandra was the model of Truth that Mahatma Gandhi took as his inspiration throughout his life.

1 comment:

Janice (Australia) said...

Thanks for all this amazing information.