[The following history describes how another great sage, Viśvāmitra Muni, helped another righteous king to realize and correct his misconception regarding his own identity. In days of yore, kings greatly honoured holy men, and therefore Viśvāmitra was able to help him.]
In ancient India there lived a great and very powerful emperor named Hariścandra. His wife’s name was Śaibya and his beautiful young son was Rohitasva. Hariścandra was extremely truthful; he never told a lie or tolerated any untruth, and he was renowned throughout the world for his generosity to all creatures. Although he possessed such qualities, an exalted sage named Viśvāmitra was concerned for his welfare.
Viśvāmitra thought, “The truth that Hariścandra follows is merely worldly truth, and worldly truth has no real value. Except for devotees of the Lord, no one in this world can speak the actual truth. If I ask him, ‘What is your name?’, he will say, ‘My name is Hariścandra.’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am the Emperor.’ ‘Who is he?’ ‘He is my son.’ ‘Who is she?’ ‘She is my wife.’ But in reality there is only one truth: We are not mortal bodies. We are spirit souls, servants of the Supreme Truth.”
Viśvāmitra Muni’s concern grew. He was convinced that King Hariścandra’s happiness and eternal well-being would lie only in a proper spiritual understanding, and he was convinced that his misfortune would lie in his lack of such understanding.
One night, by his mystic power, he appeared to the king – as if by entering his dream – and he told him, “You are an excellent king. You are very generous, a truthful speaker and you worship God. Because you are so pious I am confident that you will give me whatever I ask you for. I want something from you.”
Hariścandra awoke from his sleep and replied, “Certainly, I will donate anything you ask for.”
Viśvāmitra voiced his request, “I want your entire kingdom.”
Hariścandra replied, “Of course, I will give it to you.”
Viśvāmitra at once left, the king fell back asleep, and by the next morning he forgot what had happened. Later that morning, Viśvāmitra again approached him. He asked, “Do you remember any dream you had last night?” “Yes, I remember.” “You gave me your entire kingdom.” “I may have given it, but it was in a dream.” “No, it was not a dream. I really came to you last night.”
Aware that by divine power great sages can go practically anywhere and perform wondrous activities that would appear to ordinary people as magic, the king believed his words.
Viśvāmitra continued, “So now, in your fully wakened state, you should say, ‘I vow to give you my kingdom.’”
Hariścandra said, “Yes, I declare that the kingdom is yours.”
According to ancient Indian culture, if someone gives in charity, he gives some coins in addition to his gift. Viśvāmitra therefore asked Hariścandra to give him some additional money. “Without a donation of coins,” Viśvāmitra said, “no vow is complete. Something has to be given – even if it is only one percent of the value of your gift.”
“How much would you like?” Hariścandra asked.
Viśvāmitra replied, “Ten thousand gold coins.”
Hariścandra immediately ordered his treasurer, “Give the sage ten thousand gold coins.”
Viśvāmitra smiled and said, “Liar, it seems that you are going back on your word. You gave me your entire kingdom. Since your treasury is now also mine, how can you instruct the treasurer to give me gold? You will have to think of another way to give me this donation.”
Hariścandra agreed, and said that he would take a loan from someone in the kingdom. But Viśvāmitra said, “The citizens are also mine. You may not take a loan from any of them.”
The king thought, “All I have left are my wife, my son and myself – everything else is gone.” He told the sage, “I will sell myself, my wife and my son, and then I will pay you.”
Viśvāmitra replied, “You cannot sell yourself within my kingdom. You can do so only outside.”
Since the kingdom of Hariścandra encompassed the entire Earth, he was now quite perplexed as to what to do. Viśvāmitra then said, “Although Kāśī is within my kingdom, it is not considered part of this world. It is the abode of the demigod Lord Śiva. If you go there you will be outside my kingdom. You can go there to sell yourself, but do not forget to pay me.”
Hariścandra, his wife and his son had to go to Kāśī by foot, because his chariots and horses now belonged to Viśvāmitra. After traveling for many days they finally arrived in Kāśī and Hariścandra began calling out to the residents, to see who would purchase him. At that time a lowly person, the guard of a crematorium, told him that he would purchase him if he would perform duties at the cremation grounds. No one else had offered to purchase him, so Hariścandra accepted and was paid five thousand gold coins. To make up the other five thousand gold coins, he sold his wife and child to a very cruel person of the priestly caste and then he paid Viśvāmitra.
When someone sells a cow, he is no longer the owner of that cow. Similarly, Hariścandra was not the king now, nor was he the husband of his wife or the father of his child. However, he still somewhat identified himself as such. He thought, “I was a king. I am the husband of Śaibya and the father of Rohitasva.”
After some time, by the mystic power of Viśvāmitra, a snake bit Hariścandra’s son and killed him. It was late at night during the rainy season and bitter winds now blew along with a heavy downpour of rain. The cruel owner of Śaibya told her, “Make your own independent arrangements to cremate your child. I have already purchased you and I will not spend any more coins to cremate your son. Take this dead body away from here.”
So, on that dark night, the weeping Śaibya took her son’s body in her arms and carried him to the cremation grounds on the bank of the Ganges, the same cremation grounds where her husband stood guard. Hariścandra did not recognize her and, although she was poor and destitute, he told her, “You cannot cremate this child without paying the fee.” She had no money with which to pay. All she had in the world was the dead body of her son wrapped in her veil.
Just then a lightning bolt flashed, and Hariścandra saw that it was his own wife standing before him. He never expected to see his son there – dead – nor did he expect to see his wife in her distressed and worn condition. His heart broke and he began to weep, crying out, “Oh God, what has happened?”
Now he was in a dilemma. He wept – but he tried to be true to his new identity as a guard at the cremation grounds. Being very strict in what he considered his sense of duty, he told Śaibya, “Still you should pay me. I am the watchman of this crematorium.”
“I have nothing to give,” she replied, “except half of my veil.”
As Śaibya began to tear that veil, Viśvāmitra, along with Lord Nārāyaṇa (one of the incarnations of the Supreme Personality of Godhead), and demigods such as Yamarāja (the lord of death) and Lord Brahmā (the creator of the universe and the head of the demigods) immediately appeared on the scene, calling out, “Rohitasva will be king!”
Viśvāmitra placed his hand on the dead body of the son and said, “Rise quickly, my child!” Within a moment the boy stood up, his eyes gazing toward the sky.
Viśvāmitra told Hariścandra, “I took everything away from you and now I am returning it. The kingdom is again yours. With your new realizations, you are now qualified to leave your worldly responsibilities and enter the forest to meditate on God. “In this world no one can speak the truth, in the real sense. You are not Hariścandra. This is the name of your physical body. And what is this body made of? It is a combination of blood, flesh, urine and stool. When you think, ‘I am a father, husband, king and so forth,’ how is it the truth? You, the soul within the body, are the eternal servant of God. You are part and parcel of Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Lord. You are not of this world. Try to serve God and chant His holy name.”
King Hariścandra had previously believed in some conception of the Supreme and had dutifully worshipped Him, but his heart was not devoted nor was he surrendered to Him. He was devoted to the false truths of this world. Therefore, even in his palace he could never experience any happiness in truth. By the mercy of Viśvāmitra Muni he achieved the full-fledged freedom of his transcendental nature, the freedom for which every living being is anxious. Moreover, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord, Śrī Rāma, later appeared in his dynasty.
What would have taken many lives of endeavour to achieve, he achieved in only a few moments by the arrangement of the powerful sage. And, by that same arrangement, others may learn from hearing this history from the Vedas.
―Śrīla Bhaktivedānta Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja