Every time I get stuck in Mumbai's traffic snarls, and realise the helplessness that policemen face, abandoned by politicians and bureaucrats, I remember a little known mythological character called Sunahshepa, abandoned by his king and his father.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

A king called Harishchandram who was sometimes identified as Ambarisha, had an attack of dropsy -- his body swelled up with fluid. He prayed to Varuna, the 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 turned 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, asking them to find a way out. "How can I make Varuna happy without losing my son?" he asked.

The wise men said, according to the scriptures a son is defined in many ways: there's the son you produce biologically. Another is the son who is adopted. Finally, there is the son 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 his 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 in exchange for a hundred cows. His name was Ajigarta. "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," he said.

Sunahshepa thus became the son of the king and was brought to the palace in a golden palanquin. He was excited until, after being fed and clothed and given gifts meant for princes, he was 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. Realising his hopeless situation, Sunahshepa began to weep.

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. This 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, 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 realised 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 his prayers. He saved the boy, cured the king and all ended well. But did it really?

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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