Raja Harishchandra was the son of Triksankhu, of Ishwaku lineage (Lord Rama was also of the Ishwaku lineage), and ruled Ayodhya in North India. He was a very just and caring king, loved by all his subjects. There was no want in his kingdom and people lived in comfort and happiness.
Always well in the life of the Raja and his wife Taramati, however they had no child. The desire for a progeny filled their lives with great agony. Both the Raja and his wife observed many rituals and traveled on extensive pilgrimages. Finally of the advice of several sages, they prayed to Lord Varuna and sought his benediction. Please with their penance, the God presented himself to them and said, “You will be blessed with a son. but you must agree to sacrifice him to me as soon as he is born.”
The Raja and his wife were flabbergasted, but were also helpless. They wanted a son badly. So with a heavy heart and with great reluctance they agreed to Lord Varuna`s condition.
When a son was born, Harishchandra and Taramati`s joy grew no bounds; but very soon, like dark rain clouds covering a clear sky, the words of Lord Varuna halted their pleasure. They grew anxious and sad. Shortly, Lord Varuna appeared before them. “It is time for you to keep your part of the bargain. Give me back the child” he demanded.
Raja Harishchandra could not tear his eyes away from the lovely child. “My lord!” he pleaded. “You are the most noble and benevolent of all. Our child is yet so young. Please wait until he grows his teeth.” Lord Varuna relented to this plea but promised to return. Soon the child`s teeth started to appear. And when the Lord came back, the father now begged “Sire, let us kindly keep our child until his initial tonsure ceremony.” Once again the God grant him another reprieve.
The child Rohitaksha grew up to be a fine lad loved by both his parents. Every time Lord Varuna returned, the Raja found some new excuse to delay keeping his promise. Soon Rohitaksha was old enough to understand that his father had promised his life to Lord Varuna. So one day he ran away from home and disappeared. When Lord Varuna learned of this, he it once became very serious and cursed the Raja. As a consequence of the curse, Harishchandra contracted a deadly form of dropsy, which led to a horrible swelling of his entire body. The Raja suffered great pain and discomfort.
Soon the God himself took pity of Harishchandra`s plight and released him from the promise. He was thus cured of the disease. But the Raja realized the folly of his own infatuation for his son. He had been punished for not keeping his promise to the God. Rather praying for a reprieve each time, he should have begged Lord Verona to yield and release him from the obligation. He thought, “had I not kept my word, what would happen to me? I shudder to think about the ruin it would have brought to my family`s reputation. The future of Taramati and Rohitaksha would have been completely destroyed.
The Raja then took a decision that he would thereafter never ever go back on his word under a circumstance. “A man should be as good as his word. He should always preserve its sanctity. One ought to realize the value of truth. From now on, I shall rigorously practice truth in my daily conduct.” From then on, Harishchandra live the life of truthfulness and soon became renowned as “Satyavrata” – an observer of truth.