Myth Theory 21 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, Oct. 30, 2011


Every time I get stuck in the terrible traffic snarls of Mumbai, I remember a little known mythological character called Sunahshepa, abandoned by his king and his father. Every one stuck in the car is a Sunahshepa, abandoned by all those in power,the  policemen, the politicians and the bureaucrats, all of whom claim helplessness.

A king called Harishchandra and sometime identified as Ambarisha, had an attack of dropsy – his body swelled up with fluid. He prayed to Varuna, god of water, and said, “If I am cured, I will sacrifice my son.” As soon as he said this, he was cured. His limbs became normal. His fingers and face were no longer bloated. “My sacrifice?” asked Varuna. Now that he was cured, the king found it hard to part with his son. So he called the wise men of his kingdom, and told them to find a way out. “How can I make Varuna happy without losing my son?” he asked.

The wise men said a son is defined in many ways according to the scriptures: one is the son you produce biologically, another is the son who is adopted and finally there is another son that you can buy.  Hearing this, the king said, “Go buy me a son.” The wise men went around the kingdom, but no man was willing to sell their son. How can our king ask us to part with a son, they wondered. Who would do such a thing?

After a long search, the wise men found a poor priest willing to sell his son for 100 cows His name was Ajigarta. He said, “I have three sons. I will not sell my eldest son because he is very dear to me, and I cannot sell the youngest because he is dear to his mother.  I will sell my middle son, Sunahshepa, because I have no choice. I am very poor and I need to feed my family.”

Thus, Sunahshepa became the son of the king and was brought to the palace on a golden palanquin. He was quite excited until, after being fed and clothed and given gifts meant for princes, he was taken and tied to a sacrificial post. “You, Sunahshepa, are to be sacrificed to Varuna so that your father, the king, is free of debt,” said the wise men. Realizing his hopeless situation, Sunahshepa began to cry.

The executioner was called to sacrifice the boy. “I will not sacrifice the boy, he is no criminal,” said the executioner. The butcher was called to sacrifice the boy. “I will not sacrifice the boy, he is no animal,” said the butcher. The priests were told to sacrifice the boy. “We will not sacrifice the boy. That is not part of our responsibilities,” said the priests. Suddenly a voice rang across the sacrificial hall, “I will. I will. For 100 more cows.” It was Ajigarta, Sunahshepa’s father!

Everybody was aghast and looked at the father, and said, “When you sold your son, your reason was poverty. What is your reason now?” “Why should I feel ashamed,” said Ajigarta, “When the king is not ashamed to sacrifice one of his subjects to save his son.”

Watching his father move towards the chopping block, axe in hand, Sunahshepa realized he had no one he could turn to, neither father nor king. In despair, he raised his head and sang prayers, begging for divine intervention. The scriptures say, Varuna was moved by the prayers: he saved the boy, cured the king and all ended well. But did it really?

  • aarthi raghavan

    Hi Devduttji,
    I don’t think so because after surviving he would have been depreesed that his father had been so ready to kill his son and did not love him at all. It would have been better to die than live with such suffering. Well, that is my opinion!

  • Raumil

    Can anybody explain to me the relevance of the first para?

    • Devdutt

      See edited version now

  • Rajul Sisodia

    I didnt quite follow the link between mumbai trafiic and Sunahshepa. Can you please elaborate?

    • Devdutt

      have edited the para…see now

      • Rajul Sisodia


  • Couldn’t help but notice similarity with story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac/Ishmael from Judea-Christian-Islamic theology. The essence is quite different though.

    • vik

      I have often noticed contextual (the great deluge) and even linguistic similarities (Yehovah and Eashwar, say).
      I think the influence of international trade, and the tendency of hinduism and judaism to absorb their neighbors’ culture cannot be neglected.

      • Devdutt

        fundamental difference – one life and rebirth

        • Devdutt ji,
          I would like to present another perspective too. IMHO, both rebirth and heaven-hell refer to the same thing- redemption, reward-punishment.. If I am about to commit something wrong, the belief that I would be punished is more likely to deter me. what the punishment and rewards are depends on the individuals,for a desert dweller,threat of a flaming inferno for an evil act is more likely to deter him, rather than rebirth. Quran mostly mentions the word “Hereafter” that follows death.

          However, other laws including Indian law draw distinction between religious communities, based on fire. Semitic theologies equate fire with hell. You have written much on sanctity of fire in Hindu traditions :)

        • Pragyesh Shrivastava

          @ Danish: you have well mentioned here that there are different deterrents for a man doing something wrong. This is based on the perceptions, imaginations and the environment of the individual. But there is something that is more at the roots. The Concept of right and wrong which is different in different cultures and religions.

          I have been going through some philosophies and each has its own definition of good and bad and their degree.Its more about the philosophy or ‘the truth’ that you believe in is more important. Each is right in its own stand and the Hindu philosophy (which is too broad in itself) has embraced many of them.

      • Yes there are more similarities,I have personally found most people (especially the not-so-educated) easily making the connection between the names of the only survivor of the Deluge in Semitic theology Noah (Latin- Noah, Hebrew- Noé Arabic- Nu ) and that of Manu. Btw,besides Mayan and Greek mythologies the Great Flood has been mentioned in the Sumerian-Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, which are some of of the oldest known literature. Guess its a collective memory of mankind, I will try to blog this instead of spamming Devdutt’s blog :)

        Then there are very clear links between Indian mythology and Norse,Persian, Germanic mythologies since/partly their languages are part of Indo-European group of languages. (Greek: Zeus,Latin: Deus, Sanskrit: Deo,Deva )

        Besides, Buddhism has had a huge influence on development of Christian theology,after all Christian theology was formalized 300 years after Jesus, on 325.AD, in the Council of Nicaea convened by Constantine I who was a follower of Mithraism, which was hugely influenced by Buddhism (and probably Jainism and Vedanta too).

        I think it is very less known that early Muslim invaders adopted Buddha as one of the ancient prophets,calling him Burhan and treated Buddhists (and later Hindus) as People of the Book but never accorded them the status universally.

        I think I am going off-tangent,will blog some day! :)

    • DANISH,

      Abrahamic “religions” are fundamentally different than Dharmic traditions. Any effort to bridge that is essentially a failure as long as Niacene creed, original sin and such cannot be abandoned. You have to go all the way to the roots to understand this. Try reading BEING DIFFERENT.


  • vik

    I don’t get it. FIrst, why did Varuna cure the king in the end despite him clearly both conning Varuna (by using the work-arounds in scriptures instead of actually making a sacrifice)?

  • Sam

    As said by Lord Eddard Stark (Game of Thrones) to his son Bran that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword and take responsibility for his own decisions. That is what a great king does.
    If the king even if bought the son have tried executed the “bought son” himself would have realized the burden of taking someone’s life.

  • Vamshi

    Allmost all of your videos are very good.

    From the story, It seems gods are curious to see “how humans solve a complex issue when given/thrown into”. Varuna seems excited with the offer (thinking how come a man sacrifices his son ?) immediately cured the king.

    I am confused with what does the story trying to convey ?
    (bcos that guy is like with drugs(not able to evaluate what his offer is) & offerred his son.)

    So Can I take it as, stories happen ? or is there some hidden meaning ?
    (unlike Kurukshetra is holyland & duryodhana went to swarga bcos he died there )

  • Sorry Devdutt.

    Although all your work is fantastic & I love reading your blog but I could not connect this story well.

    Neither the connection between paras is strong, nor connection to mumbai traffic understood, nor conclusion made sense for me. May be something wrong with me !


  • Vish

    Well, didn’t this all happen because God Varuna himself was willing to accept a “bribe” (in this case Harishchandra’s son) to change the natural course of the King’s life? What kind of example does this set for a common man, even so the king? In that case, can we really blame the string of events that followed?

  • Amit

    I do not get it, what it the cause and effect here? If there is one. So, are we all stuck in traffic and are Sunahshepa, while govt servants the king? If that is the case then how is it that we are/can be rescued by Lord Varuna? Who is Lord Varuna in the case of traffic jam? What am I missing? Can some one please help me understand?

  • guest

    I think Devduttji want to let us understand that Sunahshepa that means us need to do something ourself about the condition of traffic, and that too when all responsible people are not doing there act to either solve or finish the problem.

  • Jyoti Iyer

    While I wouldn’t really call this a bribe, I wouldn’t call it a good practice either. What’s so good about sacrificingyour son for your health?