The legend of Raja Harish Chandra is up there with that of Devdas in terms of popular appeal. Schoolchildren are taught this parable and it has inspired umpteen stage and screen adaptations. The virtuous king, Harish Chandra, donated his kingdom at the behest of Maharishi Vishwamitra. Then, in order to pay dakshina, or additional gift tax, he sold his wife and son to a Brahmin family. After that, he indentured himself as a corpse handler, the worst job on the caste totem pole. When his son died, he demanded his wife pay a cremation fee. As she stripped to offer her only garment as payment, a contingent of assorted gods and rishis arrived. Praising the Raja for his steadfast virtue, they restored his son to life. Then they packed the royal couple and their erstwhile subjects off to heaven, magically repopulated the kingdom, and installed his son on the throne. Fifty generations have been told to emulate the virtuous monarch. In order to keep his word, Harish Chandra was prepared to endure the worst possible misery. The nobility of this is emphasised in every retelling. Gandhiji, for example, loved the story and, certainly, he lived by this principle of accepting extreme personal hardship in the pursuit of his moral principles. What is not emphasised is that Harish Chandra was also prepared to put other people through equally great misery, without consulting them, in order to keep his word. He ruined his family and humiliated his wife by forcing her to strip in public (that particular theme has always fascinated Indians). Apart from the patriarchal assumption that his wife and son were disposable goods, he thought his word outweighed his responsibilities as a family man. We are not told what happened to the kingdom's per capita income in the period between his abdication and the divine intervention. Perhaps the place prospered. Perhaps not.
Either way, Harish Chandra handed over executive responsibilities and the state's resources to someone with unknown competencies when it came to making executive decisions, or managing state finances. As an absolute monarch, he did not, of course, consult his subjects on the regime transfer. The story also contains a raft-load of caste stereotypes and biases. Brahmins are good; Kshatriyas are good; corpse disposers are dirty, unless they are gods or Kshatriyas in disguise. The biases and assumptions offer fascinating insights into the social structure of ancient India: absolute monarchy, absolute patriarchy, caste rigidities and a twisted code that placed personal honour above the well-being of the family, or of entire kingdoms. In itself, this would be only of historical interest. The scary thing is that Harish Chandra's behaviour is cited as being worth emulating in 21st-century school textbooks. The negative externalities of his behaviour are ignored even in the modern versions of the story. Caste and patriarchal prejudices are reinforced, and the concepts of democratic consultation and consensus are conspicuous by their absence. By contemporary moral standards, Raja Harish Chandra was a monster. He should have broken his word and taken whatever punishment the Maharishi handed out, sooner than cause this sort of harm to his family. Nor should he have disposed of state resources in this irresponsible fashion and placed the lives and fortunes of all his subjects in potential jeopardy. Moral standards change. When you read an old story, you have to cherry-pick the moral lessons you should imbibe from it. Unfortunately, as a nation, we seem to have internalised all the wrong lessons from Raja Harish Chandra. His laudable commitment to the truth and to keeping his word has fallen by the wayside. But the monumental self-absorption and absolute indifference to the well-being of others that he displayed characterise both our public and private behaviour. The parable also supposedly teaches us to rely upon divine intervention. Raja Harish Chandra beggared himself and abdicated responsibility for the state's resources. Only divine intervention put things right again. We emulate him as best we can, by playing ducks-and-drakes with our public finances. Unfortunately, divine intervention is not that reliable when it comes to fixing fiscal deficits.