I've been putting this off for a long time. This story is tough to capture in words because I don't fully understand the context in which the story is placed. I do not understand what necessitated his supreme sacrifice and how he could place the burden of this sacrifice on his family (even if they may have willingly accepted it). It illustrates some events that are a shadow of Jesus' sacrifice, I can see that. It is also strangely resonant of my difficulty in comprehending the crucifixion. In spite of many-sided truths that Christ's sacrifice offers, I find myself asking why. Why so much pain and suffering to make this possible. I can joyfully accept that I need a sacrifice to make it real to me- indeed I do not think I can see how my sin can be excused and not paid for, but I cannot comprehend it rationally that the Son of God willingly, wilfully offered himself to a gruesome death to give me life.
Harischandra's story, though is offered in Hindu traditions as an example. The denouement of his story is offered as the reward for true followers of Dharma. A side story about him that is not as popular as is the main one appears in the Rig Veda. In this story he prays for a son to Varuna, the god of oceans. The god appears to him and lets him know that he will grant him a son on condition that this son will be sacrificed to him. The king is greatly troubled but agrees to this strange demand. Varuna grants his wish but Harishchandra, though in the main story a man of his word, is hesitant. After suffering long both mentally and physically as a consequence of his hesitation, he arranges to make a substitutionary sacrifice with another man's son. This is not a very happy ending or creditworthy story. It is often the case with the Hindu scriptures that references to a king's name could mean different people with the same name or that the stories are crafted to favor patrons, usually royals who were predisposed to certain views on the subject. This story is so out of line with the main story that one cannot resolve the dissonance.
In the main story, appearing in two puranas, both presented as a dialogue between a sage and his disciples (different sage and disciples in each), this man was the 36th king of the Suryavanshi ('Of the Sun') royal family ruling over (presumably) Northern India from his headquarters in the city of Ayodhya. The king prided himself on being a man of his word. He hated deceit and lies.
Harishchandra loved to hunt (clearly vegetarianism was not the norm for this Kshatriya), and on one of his expeditions to the woods, he heard a strange cry for help. As he rushed in the direction of this call he inadvertantly ran into the sanctuary of the ill-tempered priest Viswamitra who was in prayer. The sage was incensed at the king's intrusion and as was his wont on such occasions was about to dispense with a terrible curse, but the king fell at his feet and begged for mercy. Viswamitra realized that an evil spirit may have tried to disturb his prayer and used Harischandra for its purposes. Harischandra promised to give the sage anything he asked for in return for forgiveness. (See where I lose context? I'm not sure of the reasons why a king would make such a tremendous promise in return for appeasing a sage. Of course, one hears of phrases like 'Even unto half my kingdom', but surely made in jest. In the Hindu tradition, these words have literal meaning. But clearly Viswamitra- a man with a troubled past and a fearsome reputation- was not someone to be trifled with. The temporal monarch bows before the sage, an acknowledgment of the illusory nature of wealth).
Harischandra, as he had in the previous occasion with Varuna, went back to his palace and soon forgot the incident. Viswamitra though, was a man who kept a record of such encounters. Indeed his history shows a bent of mind that seems predisposed to exacting a price from his rivals. One day the sage went into the king's court and demanded that he kept his promise. The king asked him what he wanted, to which the man said, 'Your entire kingdom- immediately.' The king had no choice but to keep his promise. He called his wife, Queen Chandramathi (known by several names) and son Rohitashwa together and left his kingdom, seeking refuge in the city of Varanasi, which was dedicated to Shiva, and therefore outside Viswamitra's sphere of influence.
This did not stop the sage from demanding even more from the king. He demanded that the king pay him a dakshina- a sum usually paid voluntarily to sages for the services they rendered. At this point Harishchandra had nothing to give except literally the clothes on his back. To pay this sum, he decided to sell himself in the open slave market. However as he had grown skinny in the months in exile (without much food and water) noone would buy him. Out of desperation he asked his wife if she could put herself up for sale. She was sold for 500 gold coins to a Brahmin. His son, Rohitashwa, was heartbroken to see his mother go, so he ran after her and begged to go with her. The Brahmin agreed to buy him for another 250 gold coins. The entire sum he gave the sage, who was not impressed. He demanded that the king pay him another 250 coins to fulfil his dakshina.
At this point he sold himself as an assistant to a grave digger (which was among the lowest of jobs performed by the lowest of castes) for 250 coins. A few days later, his son died of a snakebite. His mother sorrowfully brought the corpse to the crematorium for his last rites. Harishchandra too was heartbroken. At this point he asked her for a fee to cover the son's last rites but Chandramati had no money. The king then asked for her garment (her only one) to pay for this. (This cannot be squared with my understanding of Indian history or propriety- the whole context seems clouded with myth at this point). Shocked but equally compliant of duty and honor as her husband, Chandramati begins to disrobe, but is stopped by the sage Viswamitra who appears to the couple at the grave site and tells them that this was a test which they both passed. The sage let them know that he would now offer the Harishchandra's kingdom back. A pantheon of deities appear at the scene, bringing the dead Rohitashwa back to life. Due to their steadfastness, Harishchandra and his family were promised the reward of entering heaven at that instant but the king refused to go without his subjects. He asked the gods for his subjects to be placed in heaven alongside them, but the gods explained that his subjects were subject to individual Karma. At this point the king requested that his righteousness be imputed to his subjects (my words here), so that they could go to heaven even if he could not. At this the pleased gods opened up the gates of heaven to the royal family and to all their subjects.
All the similarities to Abraham, Job and Jesus not withstanding, the king's superhuman strength of character and the incomprehensible context cloud this story for me. Many Indians, like Gandhi, found this tale inspirational. To me it is not so much inspiring as it is dumbfounding. For a person who sees this story literally and rationally, it cannot be of much merit. To get at the heart of it it has to be narrated in terms of the fear that kings had for powerful sages, the reputation that kings needed to keep up, the ignominy of dishonouring one's word (for which a king was prepared to die), the reality of the caste system and slave trade in India, the place of the woman in ancient India (which as the story illustrates, was both elevated because her modesty could not be transgressed without both terrible temporal and eternal punishment, and secondary to the status of a man, as the instance of the king asking Chandramati to be sold tells us) and the incredible thinking around sin, guilt, penalties, payment and so on which the Hindu tradition grapples with- but cannot resolve using the resources at hand.