The Story of King Harischandra
The great king of Harischandra of the Purana was the embodiment of generosity. No one ever went away from him empty-handed. The sage Viswamitra, wanting to test the extent of the king’s charity, extracted from him a promise to grant any boon that he might ask. Then the sage asked for the gift of the sea-girt world, of which Harischandra was king. Without the slightest hesitation the king gave away his kingdom. Then Viswamitra demanded the auxiliary fee, which alone makes charity valid and meritorious.
Viswamitra said to the king: “O King, you have given away the entire world, which was your kingdom. It now belongs to me; you cannot claim any place here. But you may live in Varanasi, which belongs to Siva. I shall lead you there with your wife Saibya, and son, Rohitasva. There you can procure the auxiliary fee that you owe me.” The royal family, accompanied by the sage, reached Varanasi and visited the temple of Siva.
The king could not procure the fee and was compelled to sell Saibya, his royal consort, to a Brahmin. With her went Prince Rohitasva. But since even that was not enough to redeem, his pledge to the sage, Harischandra sold himself to an untouchable who kept a cremation ground. He was ordered to supervise the cremations.
One day, while plucking flowers for his Brahmin master, Prince Rohitasva was bitten by a venomous snake and that very night died. The cruel Brahmin would not leave his bed to help the poor mother cremate the body. The night was dark and stormy. Lightning rent the black clouds. Sabiya started for the cremation ground alone, carrying the body of her son in his arms. Smitten with fear and overpowered with grief, the queen filled heaven and earth with her wailing. Arriving at the cremation ground, she did not recognize her husband, who demanded the usual fee for the cremation. Sabiya was penniless and wept bitterly at her unending misfortunes. The impenetrable darkness was illuminated only by the terrible flames of the cremation pyres. Above her the thunder roared, and before her the uncouth guardian of the cremation ground demanded his fee. She who had once been queen of the world sat there with her only child dead and cold on her lap.
When the queen, wailing bitterly, uttered the name of her husband, Harischandra at once recognized his wife and son. Then the two wept for the dead prince. Yet in all these misfortunes the king never once uttered a word of regret for his charity.
Finally, the sage Viswamitra appeared and told them that he had only wanted to put the king’s charitable impulses to the crucial test. Then, through his spiritual power, the sage brought the prince back to life and returned to the king his lost kingdom.