Stories of India's Gods & Heroes/The Tale of Viswamitra
Stories of India's Gods & Heroes
THE TALE OF VISWAMITRA
OF old there lived a king named Gadhi, to whom was born a son named Viswamitra. Father and son naturally both belonged to the Kshatriya caste, the second of the four great Hindu castes, consisting of warriors and kings. But it so happened that the child Viswamitra was born with an instinctive longing to become a Brahman, that is, a member of the priestly caste, the highest of all.
Now it is a well-understood doctrine of the Hindu scriptures that a man born in a certain caste can in no wise pass from that caste to a higher one during his lifetime. Such a passage can, it is written, only come through a man's being born again, after death, into the higher caste, after having lived a full life in the lower scale. But Viswamitra's desire was that even in the one lifetime he should enjoy the triumph of overcoming the strict rule and fierce opposition of the priests, and rise to their level by the practice of great austerities.
This ambition did not consume his heart in earlier years. In truth, it was not till his life—a life of thousands of years—was far advanced that certain happenings kindled to a flame this spark of longing for a Brahman's powers. But when the flame was once roused, it burned in him with all-consuming fierceness. Long and dread were the austerities which he underwent, and vehement the ardour of those who sought to baffle his purpose; but in the end he won his way to the goal.
When Viswamitra succeeded to his father's kingdom, it chanced on a time that he assembled a great army and set forth to make a kingly progress through the land. In the course of this he came to the hermitage of Vasishtha, a sage of great renown and sanctity. Viswamitra, as a monarch of his fame deserved, was received with much honour and cordiality by the hermit and the Brahmans who shared his forest retreat. At first Vasishtha set before the king only the simple fare of which he and his fellow-ascetics daily partook; and Viswamitra, who felt himself as much honoured by the hospitality of the sages as they were by his visit, accepted the fruits and herbs with all contentment. Sage and monarch then held amiable converse for a while; but, as Viswamitra's visit drew to its end, Vasishtha declared his wish to entertain the king and his army in a manner befitting royalty. Viswamitra declared himself sufficiently honoured by being admitted to the hospitality of so famous a sage; but his host pressed the entertainment upon him, and in the end Viswamitra accepted the favour cheerfully, as well he might.
Besides wonderful powers gained by his austerities, the sage Vasishtha possessed a marvellous cow, Sabala by name. This was none other than the Cow of Plenty, who could bring forth, at her master's wish, endless supply of whatever he required, whether it were a simple meal or a mighty army.
Forthwith, then, at her lord's behest, Sabala provided for the delighted guests hills of rice, lakes of broth, and cakes, honey, and all manner of viands and drinks in lavish abundance. From Viswamitra himself to the least of his retainers, all alike were bounteously supplied with the choicest that they could desire.
The monarch meditated with amazement and delight upon the wondrous powers of the hermit's cow; and keen desire to own her filled his breast.
"Jewels," he cried to the saint, "are the portion of kings; this cow is a jewel, therefore let her be mine! For her I will give a hundred thousand kine!"
But Vasishtha replied, courteously yet firmly, "Not for ten million kine would I part with her, O monarch. She is my friend and guardian; from her comes all my supply of both mind and body—yea, my very life I owe to her. The feast that was spread before thy host was due to her bounty. For these and many other reasons, I never can part with Sabala."
Then Viswamitra, full of eagerness, renewed his petition with offers of vastly greater price. He spoke of thousands of elephants, dight with golden chains; thousands of well-bred, high-mettled steeds; hundreds of splendid chariots; and kine by the million. But Vasishtha would not be tempted. He replied that it was through the cow that he gained the power and the means to perform all his sacred rites and austerities, and that she was to him as his very life. And, in truth, what was wealth, that he should barter for it her who could supply him with all he desired?
His prayers availing nought, Viswamitra determined to bear away the cow by force. Rudely seized by his men, the cow lamented sorely, thinking that her master had cast her off. Breaking from those who sought to restrain her, she fled, moaning to her lord, and poured forth her sad complaint to him. At first Vasishtha was much downcast; for he knew the might of Viswamitra, and, beholding the vast host attending the king, he told Sabala that he feared resistance to such power would be all in vain. To this the cow replied that the Brahman's might was above all, and that before his divine powers the warrior must fail and bow his haughty head.
"Thy power," she cried, "hath brought me here, such as I am; and at thy word I can bring forth those who will confound the proud monarch!"
Encouraged by these words, Vasishtha called on the cow to create a host of warriors, and thereon the cow brought forth thousands of armed men, of fierce barbaric tribes, all accoutred in the finest mail, with sword and battle-axe. But Viswamitra was possessed of many wondrous weapons, and, hurling these, he flung the host of Sabala's warriors into dismay and rout.Then Vasishtha called on the cow again to create with all her power. Forthwith there sprang into
existence legions of mountaineers and barbarians, of tribes dwelling on the borders of Hindustan and far beyond. They fell, in their myriads, with chariots, horses and elephants, on Viswamitra's army, which shrivelled and perished in a moment before that dread onslaught.
Beholding this dire overthrow with amazement and grief, the hundred sons of Viswamitra rushed fiercely on the sage. But against him their valour was of small avail; one cry he uttered, one glance he sped, and straightway they fell before him, burnt to ashes.
In woe unspeakable Viswamitra fled from the disastrous combat; and now began the long struggle in which he sought to attain to powers which would give him equality with his erstwhile host and now hated foe. He delivered his kingdom to his one surviving son, and then betook himself to the life of a hermit, hoping by dreadful austerities and mortification of the flesh to win the power of vengeance. With this intent, on the slopes of snow-crowned Himalaya, he sought by stern ascetic practice to honour the grim deity, Siva, also called Mahadeva—the Great God—who loves the Abode of Snow.
When many days had thus passed, Mahadeva, rider on the snow-white bull, appeared to him and asked what boon he would gain.
"Give me," cried Viswamitra, "the wondrous science of the bow, and command over every mystic weapon wielded by gods and demons, saints and sprites!"
His prayer was granted; and Viswamitra, triumphant in the pride of his new arms, was filled with fierce joy, as he pictured to himself the overthrow and ruin of the Brahman sage. Hastening to Vasishtha's hermitage, he launched his dreaded darts, till the saint's dwelling perished utterly in scorching flame. Men, birds, and beasts fled aghast, and brought the dismal tidings to their lord. But he, nothing daunted, cried wrathfully that Viswamitra's folly had sealed his doom, and that he should perish in his sin that very day. No whit affrighted, Viswamitra came forth to the fray, and, with scornful countenance, plied the sage with weapon after weapon so strange and dreadful that none of merely human power could stay their malice. Vasishtha, however, parrying all with his magic wand, stood unharmed and serene. Then Viswamitra, as a last resource, took that dart which bears the name of Brahma, the Creator. So awesome was this weapon, that, when the king essayed to use it, the inhabitants of heaven itself, and of the lower regions, quailed. But Vasishtha, strong in the power of mighty spells, absorbed the Brahma weapon into his person. Sparks and smoke brake forth from every pore of his skin, and his whole body glowed like the sceptre of Yama, lord of the dead.
Loud and jubilant were the praises of the sage's friends; and Viswamitra, abashed and disconsolate, confessed that before the Brahman's sanctity the warrior's might was poor and weak. But, instead of giving up the struggle, he prepared to undergo further purifying austerities, determined now that he would compass nothing less than the attainment of Brahman sainthood itself.
So he departed from his home again, he and his queen alone, and sojourned afar in the south country. There he practised penance strict for many a long day, even for a thousand years. At the end of this came Brahma, the Creator, and told him, with air benign, that these austerities had won for him the state of Rajarshi, or Kingly Sage. But Viswamitra was wroth, and answered with scorn, "All my toil has been for nought, it seems, if royal sainthood is mine only guerdon from the gods."
Pondering thus, he turned again to his task, and with sternest zeal pursued the path of austerity and penance.
About this time, it chanced that there reigned in a certain part of Hindustan a king named Trisanku. Virtuous and self-controlled, he nevertheless yielded to one overmastering passion—the desire that he might ascend to heaven in his human body. To this end he sought the aid of Vasishtha, but that sage bade him lay aside an aim so desperate. Trisanku then sought out the hundred sons of Vasishtha; for they, like their sire, were hermits of renown, and lived a life of retirement and penance in the south country. With due reverence and supplication the monarch approached them and made his petition; but they chid him sternly for cherishing the vain hope that what the illustrious father had denied the sons would or could ever grant.
Great was the wrath of Trisanku at this second rebuff. He turned from Vasishtha's sons, exclaiming fiercely, "I go to seek the aid of other sages."
Scarce had the words left his lips, when the sons of Vasishtha, in hot anger at this scornful reply, laid on him the curse that he should be turned into a Chandala, or outcast of the lowest sort. Then they turned, each one, to retirement and meditation again.
Sad indeed was the change that passed upon King Trisanku in fulfilment of the Brahmans' curse. His skin became swart in hue and rough, his hair dropped out, his ornaments turned to those of attendants at funerals, and courtiers and friends shrank and fled from him in fear and loathing. Yet, undaunted by this grievous plight, he cherished his high ambition unbroken, and now sought none other than Viswamitra for counsel.
The warrior-hermit gazed with compassion on his fellow monarch, now brought so low, and questioned him concerning his condition and hopes. Hereto Trisanku made reply: "I sought to win heaven in this my human body, and to that end I invoked the aid of my priest and his sons. But neither he nor they would grant their help; therefore, illustrious sage, I come to thee. With these pure lips, which have never known stain of falsehood, I swear by a warrior's faith that I shall abide steadfast in my purpose. Oh, aid me in my quest, for now have I no helper but thee!"
Now, Viswamitra might well be moved by this plea from one of his own order, who, like himself, was seeking high and holy privileges above the common lot of warriors. But, further, it had befallen King Trisanku to be thwarted and buffeted by those same enemies who had wrought Viswamitra so much ill. Therefore it was with much sympathy that the hermit listened to the king's tale; and mildly he replied, "Fear not, noble king! I myself will be thine aid, and all the holiest saints will I invite to the ceremony, whereby thou shalt be assured of an ascent to the skies, even in the unchanged body which thou now wearest."
Therewith Viswamitra sent forth his pupils far and wide to summon all the greatest and holiest to the rite. Among those to whom the message was sent were Vasishtha and his sons. The messengers returned in due time, announcing that all had promised to attend, save Viswamitra's hated rival and his sons, who had scornfully replied to the summons, "What heed will gods and saints pay to a sacrifice celebrated by one not born a priest? Can we—Brahmans—partake of such a sacrifice without defilement, and shall we look to such as Viswamitra for purification?"
Thus had run the answer of their angry scorn; but with equal wrath did the outraged Viswamitra retort on them a heavy curse, replying to those that brought back word, "Those base ones, who have thus scorned me, and have disallowed the claim to sacrifice which my years of penance have earned, shall sink in disgrace to a vile estate. Seven hundred times shall they be born in the condition of loathly outcasts, wearing the cast-off clothing of the dead, satisfying their hunger with the flesh of dogs. Great Vasishtha himself, proud fool, shall himself catch the stain he seeks to fix on me. As a fowler, rejoicing in the death of living creatures, shall he be born, and shall live a base existence for many a long day, unsoftened by any tender thought."
Then, turning to the other sages and pupils assembled round him, he solemnly declared the purpose of their coming together: to wit, that through this rite Trisanku might forthwith, in his natural body, rise to heaven.
Ere, however, we pass to consider how the ceremony went, there falls to be told another tale of the manner in which the wrath of Viswamitra overtook his rival's sons. It skills not to argue which tale deserves the greater credit—some, perchance, might venture to suppose that this was a second stroke that fell on them when the first was past. In either case, the story runs thus:
Vasishtha chanced one day to meet on the road a certain king, of whose household, among others, he was the priest. The king bade him give place, but the saint replied, with due courtesy, that it was the warrior's duty to give way to the Brahman. On this the king, enraged, smote the saint with his staff; whereupon Vasishtha cursed him to become a cannibal. Viswamitra heard this curse, though unseen himself, and willed that a man-eating fiend should possess the king. Things being thus, the king passed forth, and the first man he met was Vasishtha's eldest son, Saktri, whom he straightway devoured. In course of time, all Vasishtha's sons perished in like manner. Stricken with grief, the saint sought to slay himself in divers ways. He cast himself from the top of Mount Meru; but, soft as cotton, the rocks received him unscathed. He entered a burning forest, but the flames touched him not. He cast himself, heavily weighted, into the sea, but the waves cast him ashore; and into a river, bound, but the stream loosed his bonds and delivered him alive upon the bank. Failing by these and other methods to divorce himself from life, he betook himself once more to his forest dwelling, and on the way well-nigh met the death he had so long pursued in vain. For the man-eating king met him, and would have devoured him; but Vasishtha, to save the monarch from the unpardonable guilt of devouring a Brahman saint, cast the evil spirit out of him, and restored him to his right mind, after twelve years' bearing of the curse.
Returning now to Viswamitra's sacrifice: the sage and others versed in sacred lore began the solemn rite, and, at the end of due chanting of hymns and the like, Viswamitra called on the gods to honour the offering; but the Immortals would not hear.
Then, in exceeding great wrath, Viswamitra invoked the power of his own merits, gained by penance, to enable the king to rise to heaven, despite the neglect of the gods. So potent was his invocation that, before the wondering gaze of all, Trisanku winged his way aloft towards the abodes of the blest. But not so did he escape the watch of the Immortals, and Indra cried out upon him, "Hence, Trisanku! Here is no dwelling for thee! Fall headlong, fool, to earth again!"
Thus adjured, Trisanku fell swiftly downward, but, as he fell, screamed to Viswamitra for help. Hearing him, the kingly hermit, bending all his energies to the task, stayed the fall of the monarch. Then, by mighty power gained by penance and study, Viswamitra created seven stars in the southern sky, over against the seven stars of the Northern Bear, and in the midst of these Trisanku hung the while. Borne on the tempest of his rage, the sage was fain—so weird and vast was his power—to form new gods, who should less keenly combat his wayward purposes; but gods, Daityas and saints, alike dismayed, approached to turn him from this dread resolve. To them the haughty sage gave ear, indeed; but, changeless in his purpose, he withheld his new threats only on the agreement that Trisanku should ascend to heaven as he had desired and, by Viswamitra's help, had begun to do. To this the needed consent was given, and gods and sages had rest again; and Viswamitra, this object gained, set off to other regions in new quest of merit and might.
It will be seen that even the gods themselves were led sometimes to fear those who sought and gained superhuman powers by constant austerities and mortification of the flesh. Thus it was with them, as they noted the warrior-sage's stern continuance in the strictest forms of penance. They sought to turn him from his aim; and once, for a time, the great ascetic suffered himself to be beguiled and led into the enjoyment of pleasures which undid the merit of years of self-control. Then he came to himself with shame and self-reproach, and bent himself with ever greater sternness to the pursuit of Brahman sainthood. In vain did the celestials renew their former allurements; the saint was no longer to be tricked, and the guile recoiled on the agents themselves. Wrath burned in Viswamitra's heart as he contemplated these efforts to keep him from his goal; and this yielding to anger itself robbed him of much merit. But ever did he recover from these checks, and set himself unweariedly to the task of mastering every sense and passion.
Thus he would stand unmoved for days on one foot, with arm upstretched, feeding on nought but air. In the fiery heat of summer he would sit in the midst of four kindled fires, the sun, a fifth, blazing overhead. In the furious rain-storms of his land, both day and night, no canopy save the heavy clouds shadowed his head, while the wet grass was his only couch. Thus for another thousand years he persevered, and the gods trembled as they watched. But the sage abated his rigours not a jot. Leaving the Himalayan slopes, he journeyed eastward, and with unheard-of strictness spent a new thousand years in utter silence. With the fierceness of his penances his body became shrivelled and dry as a log of wood; but nought could bend the intention of his steadfast heart.
Then, when the thousand years were past, Viswamitra sate him down to a humble meal, when, lo, Indra in Brahman guise drew near to beg a dole. Faint and spent with hunger, Viswamitra yet uttered no word, but, silent and self-controlled, gave every crumb to him that asked. As he passed triumphant through this last bitter test, the fires of his gathered merit, as it were, blazed forth, and thick clouds of smoke rolled round his brow. Utter dismay seized the denizens of all three worlds; gods and saints, Daityas and Nagas, came in terror to the Lord of all, to beg him to stay the dire results of still withholding the boon for which Viswamitra practised such austerities.
"Against him, Lord," they cried, "nor lure nor threat prevails—his vow he keeps with unfaltering purpose. If his boon be not granted, then doubtless he will go on to practise such penance as will peril the very fabric of the Universe. Already the earth is racked with throes of anguish; gloom pervades the world below; what terrors may we not fear if Gadhi's son be driven to seek yet higher powers for the accomplishment of his purpose? Grant him, we pray thee, what he seeks, and give safety to creation!"
Thus entreated, Brahma at length, with the company of the Blest, drew near the sage and hailed him sweetly, saying:
"Hail, son of Gadhi, Brahmarshi now! For to this state of Brahman sainthood have thy ceaseless labours and penances entitled thee. Long life and peace and joy be thine; go whither thou wilt at thine own pleasure."
Then Viswamitra, full of triumph, addressed the All-father with reverence, saying, "If indeed my title to Brahmanhood be made sure, then let it be confirmed by Vedic formula, and let the sacrifice own me its master. Also, let the saint Vasishtha come and confirm the bestowal of the boon."
Then came Vasishtha, that famous hermit, and hailed his new-made peer, acknowledging his claim to Brahman saintship; and Viswamitra, in turn, pressed on his former foe the honours of hospitality with all kindness.
Thus ended the high quest of the warrior Viswamitra, for, despite the opposition of priest and god, he had won, at length, equal rights with the great hermit who of old overthrew him so utterly. But whether the friendship with which he and Vasishtha met, no the day when Brahma hailed him as Brahmarshi, endured as it began, might in any case be somewhat doubted; while, if the following tale be no less true than what has gone before, it is plain that concord between two such rivals may well be short-lived.
In the days after Viswamitra had gained his title to the rank of Brahman, there lived an exalted monarch named Harischandra, himself a Rajarshi, as Viswamitra also once had been. This Harischandra was a ruler of the highest parts, and in his realm men loved virtue more than evil, and sickness and calamity visited them but rarely.
It chanced on a day that King Harischandra hunted in the forest; and as he chased a deer, he heard the oft-repeated cry, "O save us!", as of women in distress. These voices proceeded though the king could not know this from the embodied forms of certain Sciences, which the mighty Viswamitra was bringing under his control; and they, never having been so enslaved before, cried out for deliverance.
Now, had King Harischandra acted in his own natural spirit of wisdom and self-control, he would doubtless so have proceeded in the matter that no evil came of it. But by ill chance it happened that there was present a malignant being, the Spirit of Opposition, who goes to and fro in the world, seeking to hinder all that makes for progress; and he, beholding Viswamitra obtaining the mastery over new and mighty sciences, was casting about in his mind how he might stay the sage in his endeavour, yet saw not any means to that end. "For," thought he, "this Viswamitra is glorious in power, and my might is less than his; the Sciences will forthwith be overcome unaided."
Then, hearing the king shout, "Fear not!", in answer to the cry for help, the Spirit of Opposition thought, "The difficulty is solved; I shall enter into the king, and he will do the work for me."
So the spirit entered into Harischandra; and he, burning with anger at the thought of such iniquity being wrought thus shamelessly in the by-ways of his kingdom, advanced towards the spot whence the cries came, exclaiming loudly that the wretch who thus transgressed should forthwith perish under the stroke of his royal arrows. Hearing this threatening language, the great sage was much enraged; and, coming upon him in this mood, King Harischandra was greatly confounded, and stood trembling like a leaf. Casting himself down, he cried, "Be not wroth, great lord! I sought only to do the warrior's duty, which is, according to the sacred law, to fly to the protection of those who cry for aid."
The saint deigned not to answer directly, but asked, "To whom, O king, must thou give gifts? Whom protect? And with whom wage war?"
"To Brahmans first," replied the king, "should I give gifts; the terrified I should protect; with foes should I make war."
Then said Viswamitra, "If, then, thou regardest thy duty, give me, a Brahman begging of thee, a fitting fee."
To this the king responded gladly, "Whate'er thou desirest, great sage, consider it already given, even to my kingdom, my wife, my life itself."
On this, Viswamitra demanded such a fee as might be given for the Rajasuya sacrifice; and, being asked to speak more exactly, he demanded the surrender of all Harischandra's possessions, leaving only his person and his personal merits, with his wife and his son. With willing heart and unmoved countenance the king gave assent to the gift. Then the sage commanded that, as Harischandra's kingdom and rule had now passed into his own hands, the king should forthwith, at his behest, go forth from that country, clad in coarse bark-cloth, on foot, with wife and child alone.
Having meekly assented, the king prepared to depart, but the sage again accosted him with a demand for further fees; and though the king pleaded that nought had been left to them save their three bodies, yet Viswamitra was urgent, and threatened to curse the king if a generous fee were not forthcoming. In great straits, Harischandra pleaded for time to find money, and promised to be ready with the fee in the space of one month. This prayer Viswamitra deigned to grant, and bade the king go in peace for the time.
So Harischandra fared forth in lowly plight, with his wife and son alone. Loud was the lament of the citizens when they saw their great and good sovereign brought so low. "Alas! good master," they cried, "why dost thou leave us? Let us attend thee and be with thee, on whom we depend for all our welfare. Alack, that thy queen, unused to walking, should go thus on foot, leading her son by the hand; and thou too, before whom were wont to go out-riders on horses and elephants! What will befall thee, soiled with dust and worn with fatigue? Without thee we are as empty shadows; thou art our father, our joy, our city, our heaven; leave us not, O best of kings!"
Then King Harischandra, much moved, wavered in his going, out of pity more for the forlorn mood of his subjects than for his own sad plight. Viswamitra saw him linger, and brake forth on him angrily, saying, "Shame on thy faithless dealing, thou, who, having promised to give me thy kingdom, now desirest to withhold the gift!"
The king, trembling, murmured, "I am going." But the sage, not content with roughness of speech, raised his staff and cruelly belaboured the poor young queen as Harischandra led her away. The king's heart swelled with grief; but, "I am going," was all that he said.
Thus Harischandra, with his wife Saivya and the boy, left his country and went on foot to Benares. But Viswamitra was there before them, and sternly demanded the fee; for the month, he said, was gone.
"Nay, great Rishi," said Harischandra, "there remaineth half a day; await my payment thus far, I pray thee."
Then the king cast about wildly for some means to find the money; but there appeared to him no source of gain, save to sell his hapless wife and the boy into slavery. This she herself was the first to propose rather than allow her husband to lose his good name for truthfulness and incur the Brahman's curse. But so distraught was the king at her words, that he swooned away with grief; and when his senses returned, he could only cry shame on himself for bringing his wife to such a pass. The queen, beholding him swoon again, lamented over his woeful downfall, and, herself overwhelmed with pity for his misfortunes, fell fainting to the ground. The poor child, seeing his parents prone and helpless, and feeling the pinch of hunger, cried sadly on them for food.
Then came Viswamitra again, and, finding the king reft of sense, roused him with cold water, and urged him to pay with speed. Then at length the king, when Viswamitra was gone, cried, "Ho, citizens all! Behold me, a monster of ruthlessness, a very Rakshasa in human form, who am brought to selling my wife. If any desire her as a slave, let him speak quickly, while I have life to answer."
Then spake an aged Brahman, "My wife is very young and has need of help in the house. I am wealthy, and can pay ready money proportionate to thy wife's youth and beauty. Take the money, therefore, and deliver her to me." So saying, he paid over the money to the king, and, seizing the queen, dragged her away. The boy clung to his mother, and the Brahman at first drove him back with kicks; but the queen begged him to buy the boy also, as, parted from him, she would serve less diligently. So the Brahman added further money to his price, and bore the queen and her son away, leaving Harischandra to lament the vileness of a lot which forced him basely to sell those dearest to him as slaves.
Then came Viswamitra again and received the money; but, regarding it with scorn, he chid the king for the smallness of the gift, and vowed that Harischandra would soon have proof of the might of Brahman sainthood, if he continued in the belief that such a sum was fit guerdon for a great sacrifice. Then, reminding the king that only a fourth part of the day remained, the sage took the money and departed.
Thereon Harischandra, all other means of gain gone from him, sorrowfully offered himself as a slave to any one that would buy him. At this there came forward a Chandala, or vile outcast, of loathsome appearance, ungainly gait and vulgar speech, bearing a skull in his hand and surrounded by a pack of dogs; withal, a hideous and repulsive figure. This man approached the king and bade him name his price. The king gazed on him in horror, and asked him his name.
"Pravira, I am called," answered the Chandala, "and in this city I am a slayer of the condemned and a gatherer of blankets from bodies of the dead."
Hearing this, Harischandra felt that death were better than the service of one so loathly; when, on a sudden, Viswamitra again appeared and demanded his fee in full. The king's piteous prayer for mercy was unregarded; the Rishi bade the hapless monarch sell himself to the Chandala for an hundred million pieces, or endure the blight of his curse. Then the king, bewildered, gave assent; and the Chandala, joyfully handing the money to Viswamitra, bound the king and led him, not without blows, to his foul abode.
There he bade the fallen Rajarshi go forth daily to the burning-grounds and collect the funeral clothes of the dead. "Day and night shalt thou watch for these; of what thou takest, such a part is for me, and such a part will be thy reward."
Who shall tell the horrors of a great Hindu burning-ground? None, at any rate, can describe the frightful scene more frightfully than do the Hindu legends themselves. For in these, beside the natural horrors of the place—the sights and smells, the heart-rending cries of relatives of the dead, the debased attendants, and dogs, jackals and vultures on their shocking quest—we read of foul and blood-thirsty fiends and imps of every kind thronging the scene of death and holding hellish orgies after their manner.
To this dolorous place came the fallen king, and, with woeful remembrance of the height whence he had fallen, applied himself to the sickening task of collecting the funeral wrappings of the dead, running hither and thither to one and another, reckoning carefully the proper division of his gruesome spoil. So heavy lay the spell of the place and the work upon him, that there and then the poor monarch entered into another birth, and became in deed what he seemed to be. Thus spending a dismal existence he fell one day, foredone with toil, into a deep sleep and dreamed a strange and dreadful dream. He saw himself passing from one sad existence to another; falling from even his present low estate to periods of anguish in various terrific places of torment. He saw himself once more born in his own order, a king again, only to lose his kingdom through dicing, bringing frantic misery on his wife and child. Then again there rang in his ears warnings about the dreaded curse of Viswamitra; and therewith the king awoke, inquiring, in his terror, whether all this time and dire experience had really passed over him. Then, ejaculating a prayer to the gods for deliverance, the king once more took up his wretched work.
Then there came to that burning-ground none other than his queen herself, with the body of the boy, who had perished by snake-bite. Neither of them recognised the other, for the king had become, as we have seen, wholly in appearance as one of the vile attendants of the burning-ground; while the queen was worn with the sorrow of long separation from her husband, and sadly marred by want and wandering. She, then, lamenting sorely, drew near to the funeral pyre; and Harischandra, noticing the kingly marks of the boy, thought sadly of the churlish fate by which one so like his own child had been thus early enthralled by dreadful death.
Then the queen, lamenting her fate in general, railed on the gods, saying, "Reft of kingdom and friends, wife and child sold into slavery, what has King Harischandra not suffered by the gods' decree?"
On hearing these words, the king recognised his wife, and crying aloud, "This is indeed my wife and child!" fell swooning to the earth. She, too, recognising her husband, all changed as he was, herself was overpowered with faintness. Anon they both recovered, and bewailed together the strange and hard lot that lay on them. The queen, scarce able to comprehend—even beholding with her eyes—her husband's miserable transformation and shameful toil, asked of him, saying, "Tell me, O king, do we wake or sleep? Art thou indeed as thou seemest? If indeed it be so, then truth and righteousness are of no avail, and the worship of the gods profiteth not a whit."
Then the king, with sighs and faltering utterance, told his tale. The queen, too, related tearfully the story of the boy's death. Then these two together, dwelling on the hopelessness of their lot, determined to end their lives together; and the king, having laid his son on the heaped-up pyre, joined hands with his wife, and, meditating deeply on the Almighty, prepared to enter the blazing fire.
While he thus thought, Indra and all the gods, led by Dharma, drew near, and called to Harischandra, "Ho, lord king! behold us, gods and demigods, saints and sages, Nagas and Gandharvas! Here, too, is Viswamitra, whose enmity all three worlds have felt; but know that now he wishes thee well."
Thereon the king went up to meet this reverend company, and held converse with Indra, Dharma, and Viswamitra. "Noble Harischandra," said Indra, "ascend with wife and child to high heaven, hard indeed of access, but well earned by these thy virtues."
Then showers of nectar and heavenly flowers descended from on high, and celestial music sounded; the king's son, also, rose to life in fullness of health, and his father embraced him, while the queen, too, regained all her well-being. Then Indra bade them ascend forthwith; but King Harischandra, faithful even to the meanest duty, was fain to pause.
"King of gods," said he, "I may not go without rendering his due to my master, the head Chandala."
Then said Dharma, "Know that the Chandala was myself, who, foreseeing thy affliction, took on me the disguise of a low outcast, to try thee."
Thereon Indra again called on them to ascend to heaven. But Harischandra, not forgetting, even in the joy of his escape from unmeasured sorrow, those towards whom his duty formerly lay, and who had loved him well, replied, "Suffer me, king of gods, with all humility to plead the cause of my loyal subjects, whom I may not lightly leave. For it is writ that to abandon one's dependants ranks with the most grievous sins. If they may come with me to Swarga, I go happily; if not, let me go rather to hell, so I be with them!"
"Bethink thee of their sins," said Indra, "for these are many."
"Even so," replied Harischandra, "'tis through the virtue of families, as much as by his own skill, that a king rules happily. Therefore, whatever merit is mine in respect of my ruling, be it reckoned as common to my citizens and me; and if it avail to carry me to heaven, let them be borne thither likewise."
"So be it," said Indra, Dharma, and Viswamitra. And therewith these heaven-dwellers sent word to the subjects of the king that they, too, should ascend with him; and this they did forthwith, moving in triumph from one heavenly chariot to another, amid the jubilations of the celestials. Great was the praise of Harischandra, who not only by his patience endured the sore trial laid on him by the sage's wrath, but also through loyal remembrance of his friends made them partakers of his own reward.
There was one, however, whom this happy ending of the king's trials did not leave content. This was the great sage Vasishtha, who having been connected as priest with the house of Harischandra, was moved to exceeding hot anger when he heard how the virtuous king had been thrust from his kingdom and plagued by the overbearing pride of Gadhi's son.
"Even when Viswamitra slew my hundred sons," cried Vasishtha, "I was less wroth than I am this day, hearing how that pious, dutiful, and charitable monarch has been hurled from his throne and utterly brought low by that upstart. Now shall Viswamitra, blasted by my curse, be changed into a heron for his hardness of heart."
The sage's curse might not be gainsaid; but Viswamitra had not climbed, by centuries of toilsome penance, to the height of equality with the Brahmarshi, to bear his foeman's curse without full requital. He, therefore, retorted the curse with fury, and Vasishtha also was changed into a bird.
Then these two birds, of size monstrous beyond all belief, rose in the air and joined in bitter conflict. Before the wind caused by the blows of their huge wings, the mountains rocked and were overturned; the sea was lashed up from its very bottom, and overflowed into the nether regions; the world and all its inhabitants were exceedingly disquieted, and many creatures perished in the turmoil.
Then Brahma, father of gods and men, bade them take heed to the woe of the world and cease their strife, but at first they regarded not his words, and fought on. Again he drew near and, bidding them quit their assumed forms, he addressed them in their human shape, saying, "Stay, beloved Vasishtha, and thou, virtuous Viswamitra! By the strife which, in the darkness of your minds, ye wage, the world perishes; and this yielding to violent passion hath wrought grievous harm to the merits of both."
With that they stayed their strife, ashamed; and after embracing each other with love and forgiveness, they repaired each to his hermitage, and Brahma likewise departed to his place.
From these tales of Viswamitra and Harischandra, it may be seen what can be achieved by steadfast perseverance in the face of every obstacle; also, how, by patient endurance of adversity, a man may rise superior to the most cruel trials inflicted by a ruthless persecutor, and win in the end the favour of heaven and even the admiration and good-will of the oppressor.