Harishchandra, the king was sonless in spite of having 100 wives.  One day, Narada and Parvata approached him and gave him a sermon on the significance of having male progeny.  This made him long for a male child.  He prayed to Varuna and promised him the first male offspring as an offering.  Soon a son was born and Varuna demanded the fulfillment of the promise.  Harishchandra delayed the fulfillment of the promise under some or the other pretext.  This angered Varuna and Harishchandra started suffering from fluid accumulation in his abdomen (an ailment incurred on account of the wrath of Varuna).   

Rohita, the son of Harishchandra fled from the kingdom in search of some remedy to avoid his death.  Every year, he decided to give up and return to the kingdom to be offered as a sacrificial animal to Varuna, but was discouraged by Indra to do so.  He wandered for six years, until when he met Ajigarta, the father of three sons in dire poverty with no food to eat.  The three sons were Sunahpuccha, Shunahshepa, and Shunolangula.  Rohita gave him an offer that he should hand over one of his sons and in return will get 100 cows.  Ajigarta readily agreed and did not give the eldest son as he will be performing Ajigarta’s funeral rites.  He did not give away the youngest one as he was the source of a mother’s delight.  He parted with his middle son Shunahshepa. 

Shunahshepa was brought to the kingdom, where Harishchandra made the preparation of the yajna.  Four Brahmanas viz; Ayasya, Jamadagni, Vasistha, and Vishvamitra were the priests.  The priests were supposed to tied Shunahshepa, the sacrificial animal to the sacrificial post, circumambulate him with a fire wick, touch him as the animal and lastly behead him.  None of them agreed to do so.  However, Ajigarta agreed to perform each act for 100 cows per act.  Now, there was no hope of relief for Shunahshepa, who started invoking many gods.  However, the gods feared the wrath of Varuna refused to help him, until Ushas saved him after her invocation.  The fetters loosened up and Harischandra was cured of fluid accumulation. 

Seeing the divine intervention, Vishvamitra decided to accept Shunahshepa as his eldest son.  Shunahshepa agreed on the condition that he should be the heir of Vishvamitra’s material and spiritual property.  Vishvamitra agreed.  He had hundred sons.  Fifty elder than Shunahshepa and fifty younger than Shunahshepa.  The elder ones protested and Vishvamitra cursed them to be Andhra, Mutiba, Shabara, Pulinda, Pundra tribes. 

Thus Shunahshepa became famous as a sage-seer Shunahshepa Devarata (given by gods).  This sacred story is supposed to be recited during the Rajasuya yajna. 

Story contributed by: Dr. Madhavi Narsalay (Assistant Professor & former Head, Department of Sanskrit, University of Mumbai)

Source: Aitareya Brahmana (VII. 13-18)

Image Source:  www.wikipedia.org