LORD Indra once held court to ask his courtiers as to whom they considered the most honest and upright king on earth. All of them unanimously named King Harishchandra of Ayodhya. But Sage Vishwamitra, who was present in the court, did not agree with the choice. At this Sage Vashishta, who too was present on the occasion, entered into an argument with Sage Vishwamitra. But the latter continued to insist, “It is necessary to first put King Harishchandra to a tough test to see if he really is honest all the time.”
Now on the earth, King Harishchandra saw a dream in his sleep in which Sage Vishwamitra asked him to donate his kingdom to him. Next morning, Sage Vishwamtira had already reached Ayodhya to personally ask the king for his kingdom. The king did not even get the time to discuss the matter with his queen or son. However, he agreed to vacate the palace and leave. Just as he was about to depart, the sage said, “Oh King, you have not given me any dakshina and that I must have before I depart.”
King Harishchandra promised to pay it as soon as he could find enough funds to do so. As the king had not done any physical labour in his life, he thought the best way would be to offer himself for sale. So in the open market he auctioned himself and a watchman at a nearby cemetery successfully bid for him and purchased him. He took the king home to the cemetery and told him to look after it by collecting cess from everyone who brought their dead for cremation. The queen and son were bought by another man who took them home to work for his family.
One day the king’s son was playing with other children in the garden when a snake bit him and he died. The children ran inside to tell the queen about the incident. A weeping and wailing queen picked her son up and rushed to the cemetery to cremate him. When the king saw the queen and his dead son, he was shocked into grief but he had to ask her for the cess as he had to pay to his employer. He knew duty was duty. Since she could not pay the cess, the king asked his wife to lower her head. As she did so, he raised his sword to kill her when his hand was caught in mid-air in a vice-like grip by Lord Vishnu. The king fell at Lord Vishnu’s feet, begging him to restore his son to life. Lord Vishnu granted his wish.
The king returned to Ayodhya to pay the dakshina to Sage Vishwamitra. The sage was so pleased to see the king’s honesty and devotion to duty that he returned the kingdom to the latter.