The marketplace was busy. Perhaps that was why a large number of people had gathered around the dais, looking at the man selling himself.
The man's clothes hung delicately on his wasted frame. His feet were firmly planted on the dais, and only a very keen observer would have noticed his hands shaking.
"Do you need a manservant?" he called out in a low voice. "A hundred gold coins and I will be yours to command".
The man's family, a thin woman and a small boy child, stood behind him, heads bowed.
"You are too weak for anyone to consider buying", commented a voice. "But I will give you fifty gold for the woman".
All the people in the crowd stilled their breath. The speaker was a fat merchant, whose body was adorned in expensive clothes and jewels. "My wife needs a new maid. I will give ten gold coins for the child, if he can be my cowherd".
The man's eyes closed for a second. The woman standing behind him barely moved.
"I accept". The man's voice broke the tense silence. At once, a great uproar erupted. People stared at the man as if he were the devil incarnate. Some openly spat before his face and the womenfolk cursed him in a loud voice.
"A man selling his own family. How evil!" cried a portly woman, her lips shaking in ire. "May he rot and suffer in the netherworld! "
Others agreed whole-heartedly. More curses were hurled at the man standing forlorn on the dais.
None of their vitriolic comments affected the man. He only looked mildly worried, as he felt the money in his hand. The crowd, losing interest in the spectacle, began to disperse.
"Is my dhakshina ready, Hari?" boomed a voice.
The man stopped and looked at the sage who addressed him. He bowed to him. "As you wish, sir. The money is in this pouch".
The sage untied the pouch and counted the money. "What! I asked for a hundred silver coins. There are only 75 coins in this pouch", he said in displeasure.
The man whose name was Hari bowed again. "If you can give me one more day..."
"Today is the last due-day", cut in the sage. "If you can't keep your word, my dear man, just say it and I will give all your possessions back", said he in a saccharine-sweet voice.
Hari looked at him in great sorrow. When he opened his mouth, another voice interfered
"I heard you are up for sale, young fellow. I need a helper to assist me".
Hari looked at the speaker. His eyes widened. The man who had spoken was built like a giant. He was dark as the night and his neck was adorned with a garland made of skulls. He was a Chandalala, a graveyard keeper.
The sage stopped him. "How can you work for an untouchable? Have you forgotten who you are? Has poverty and hunger blinded you?"
Hari refused to back down. "Dear sage, I do not believe in discrimination. I shall certainly work for anybody who can offer me honest work", he said.
"Well, honest work it is. There's nothing surer and truer than sending dead souls to their destinations, my friend!" said the Chandala, chucking at his own joke.
"I will be your servant for 25 gold, sir", said Hari in a low voice.
"Twenty-five gold coins! That's steep", exclaimed the Chandala. He remained silent for a moment and slowly nodded his head. "But I guess I must hire you since no one else is willing to work for me".
Hari left the marketplace with the Chandala to the graveyard, a dreary place which smelled of corpses and tears. The Chandala explained to him his duties, which were simple. "You have to extract the cremation fee from the grieving relatives and burn the corpse they have carried to the cremation ground. Give me your word that you will never stray from your duty or covet what's my share", he demanded of Hari.
Hari promised as he wanted and settled into the life of a graveyard assistant. Death was a daily visitor in his world, and he grew gaunt. Sometimes, he saw more than just corpses. Sometimes, he dreamed of a life where he lived happily with his family, where the sun shone endlessly and smiles lit up everyone's face. He dreamed of horses and chariots and grain houses brimming with rice and corn.
But all dreams faded away with the cries of his customers. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months. Hari did his job thoroughly. He became a part of the graveyard; pain and sorrow ceased to move him anymore.
One day, at the end of twelve months, Hari saw a thin woman walking towards him. She carried the body of a small child in her arms.
"Sir, my son is dead of snake bite. He was bitten when he was tending to my master's cows. I'm a slave and have no money of my own. Please bury him in the graveyard, and I shall be grateful to you for your charity", said the woman in a grief-stricken voice.
Hari looked at the woman, who kept her head bowed. Suddenly his eyes sharpened. "It is not fair to lie on your son's dead body, madam", he said tiredly. "I can see the gold mangalsutra in your neck. Why not sell it and give me the fee?"
The woman screamed and collapsed on the ground. "Only my husband can see the mangulasutra. Who are you?"
At that moment, lightning flashed and both their faces were clearly illuminated.
"Arrrrgggghhhh!" Hari collapsed to the ground, hugging the dead body. The dead boy was none other than the son he had sold in the marketplace!
"Ah! So my husband is now the keeper of the graveyards, a Chandala's assistant!" broke the woman. "You were the great Harischandra, the king of Kausala, the beloved of your subjects. You ruled justly, did your duties well, and upheld true dharma everyday of your life. Yet, what good did it do you? Here you are, standing as an untouchable in this cremation ground, unable to even cremate your own son".
"Sage Vishwamitra demanded your entire kingdom for his yagna and you gave him what he asked. You became homeless because of your generosity. Yet, did the sage relent? No, he had to ask for dhakshina, in addition to the wealth he had got from you. To provide that dhakshina of a hundred gold coins, you had to sell your family and then yourself. Now, you demand me, your wife, money to get your own son buried. Is this not blasphemy? Is this not a sin?"
"Yes, I was a "king" once upon a time. I am now just a man who has a duty to do", replied Harischandra to his wife's angry queries. "Any sacrifice can be justified for the sake of fulfilling a promise. But if I go against my own word, no amount of excuses, however genuine they may be, can make me a man of dharma".
"Forget you were a queen once. Remember who you are now. You are now just a woman who has lost her child. I am a man working for the graveyard lord. My master's order is that I should get the fee in money or material. Either you give me your mangalsutra as payment, or find something else to offer me".
"The only thing of value I have on me is my garment. My life or my honour? You say I have to choose one of the two?" asked his wife bitterly. "I cannot remove my mangalsutra, for my husband is alive and well. I choose to sacrifice my honour to do my last rites for my dead child".
Saying so, the unfortunate queen lifted her hand to remove her garment. That moment, lightning flashed and the sweetest voice sounded "Mother!"
The couple who once were king and queen gaped at the miracle before them. There was Rohitsva, standing alive, in the arms of Sage Vishwamitra!
Harischandra was amazed, even more when the sage came near him, smiling. "Bravo, Harischandra! " he said. "You passed our test!"
Another person stepped forward, the Chandala. But now he wore an attire of gold and diamonds, and his arms held a long staff.
"Harischandra, I am none other than Yama, the Lord of Dharma. We had decided to test your faith in dharma and you have passed with flying colours. In a world where people looked down on Chandalas, you worked for one without any prejudice and embraced your duty faithfully. You are now invited to the abode of the gods, the Swargaloka"
"Why me alone?" Harischandra asked calmly. "What about my family and my subjects?"
"They have their own karma to fulfill; their dharma will lead them to heaven or hell", replied Dharmaraja.
"As a king I am responsible for my subjects" behaviour. If they err in some way, I am also to be blamed, for it means I have not ruled properly. Even if one of my subjects does not end up in heaven, I shall not enter it either!" declared Harischandra passionately.
"Ah, so you are willing to sacrifice even Moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth and all of the suffering and limitation of worldly existence) for the sake of dharma. You are truly a great soul. I promise you that not only your family but also your subjects will be the recipients of the divine heaven after their death!" said the god of Dharma with a pleased smile.
And that is why Raja Harischandra is hailed as the truest and most just ruler of Surya Vansh.