Chapter 22: Yayati and Puru
The dynasty of Pururava had a king named Nahusha. He had six sons of whom Yayati ascended the throne after his father. Nahusha was dethroned twice by Agastya and others for his misconduct towards Indra’s wife.She cursed him to become a serpent when Indra was away in manasarovar as atonement for the sin of brahmahati accrued by his act of killing a brahmana Vishvarupa. Nahusha was reigning in Indraloka in Indra's absence.
Yayati married Devayani, the daughter of the illustrious brahmana Shukracharya. Sharmishtha, daughter of a daitya king Vrishaparva, was also his wife. It might be intriguing how a brahmana girl could marry a kshatriya, as it is against the scriptural injunctions of marriage. The fact was Devayani’s unreasonable character caused Kacha to curse her. Kacha, a disciple of Shukracharya, was residing in his hermitage, to learn the science of reviving the dead. On completing the course, he was returning home, when he was intercepted by Devayani on the way. She expressed her love for him and her desire to become his wife. Kacha refused the offer as he considered her as his sister. Devayani was enraged and cursed Kacha that his learning would be futile, never to be of any use to him. Kacha’s curse, that she would not be a wife of a brahmana, was only in retaliation.
This story apart, the union of Yayati and Devayani was a chance happening. Time and again we have seen that curses are uttered at the slightest provocation, and its unfailing effect manifesting immediately. May be the incident of the curse of Kacha can be taken as a prelude to the predestined marriage of Yayati and Devayani. One
day, princess Sharmishtha went to a lotus pond for light water sport with other maidens. Devayani, the preceptor’s daughter accompanied her. Disrobing themselves, they entered the water. They were in a playful mood when they saw Shiva coming on his bull along with his consort Parvati. Abashed by their nudity, they hurriedly reached for their clothes. In that confusion, Sharmishtha wore Devayani’s clothes. Devayani proud of her brahmana lineage humiliated Sharmishtha with harsh words. She said, “How dare you wear my clothes! We brahmanas are the direct descendents of the Supreme Lord. Our power is our asceticism and we are an authority on the Vedas. You are no better than a servant maid, daughter of a daitya king who is only a disciple of my father.” Sharmishtha was touched to the quick by the uncultured words which sounded very derogatory to her. She gave it back to Devayani in equally piercing words. She said, “You brahmanas live on the morsels thrown to you by us, the kings.” Saying this she snatched her clothes from Devayani, pushed her into a well nearby and returned home.
Soon Yayati came that way, thirsty after a deer chase. He looked into the well for water. Seeing Devayani inside, he took pity and threw down his upper garment [uttariya] for her to cover herself, pulling her out with his hand. Devayani came out and said, “O king! You have rescued me by holding my hand. Though it was accidentally done, I do not want to extend my hand to anyone else in marriage. I would request you to accept me as your wife.” This clearly exposes Devayani’s immaturity to fall for every man who comes her way. She reckoned that her chance meeting with Yayati was a confirmation of Kacha’s curse. Yayati was not in favour of the marriage as it was against the code of ethics. But he could not resist himself as his heart was drawn towards her. He tried to convince himself by thinking it to be pre-ordained.
Devayani could not take her mind off the incident. Revenge against Sharmishtha was brewing in her mind. She was in a fix, unable to think of a means to execute her plan of vengeance effectively. Shukracharya realised that there was truth in the words of the princess. He concluded it was not wise to continue his priesthood any more under Vrishaparva and decided to leave. The king, knowing that Shukracharya had made up his mind to leave his kingdom due the thoughtless words of his daughter, fell at his feet for pardon. Vrishaparva realised the invaluable service of the priest to the danavas against the gods. So the king did not want to lose the preceptor to the gods which would become inevitable once he broke off with him. Shukracharya’s anger was known to be always momentary. He was easily appeased by the king’s pleading. In a soft tone, he said, “I do not wish to subject my daughter to grief. She is very much upset with your daughter’s insult. I request you to fulfill her wish which I cannot ignore.” The king agreed to it and waited for a response from Devayani. She made known her mind. Now was her chance to place Sharmishtha in a similar humiliating predicament. She said that Sharmishtha would have to go as her maid when she left for the new home after marriage. The condition put forth was agreed upon as the wise princess had the welfare of the danavas in her mind. She knew the priest could be retained by her favourable answer.
Devayani and Yayati were married and Sharmishtha accompanied her as a maid. Shukracharya sternly warned Yayati to keep away from any love tangle with Sharmishtha. With the passage of time, Devayani had a son. Seeing this, Sharmishtha also cherished for a son. Solicited by her, Yayati, quite conscious of Shukracharya’s warning, accepted her as his wife. In due course, Devayani had two sons, Yadu and Turvasu and Sharmishtha had three, Dhruhyu, Anu and Puru. Knowing the sons of Sharmishtha as her husband’s offspring, Devayani decided to forsake Yayati, and left for her father’s house. Yayati’s entreaties could not bring her back home. Shukracharya was annoyed with
him for ignoring his warning. He abused the king and cursed him of premature old age. Yayati pleaded for the return of his youth. Ignorant of the transient nature of worldly happiness, the king believed that the curse had broken the back bone of all his valuable aspirations of life. Shukracharya, on second thoughts, saw that the impact of his action in reality would be on his daughter. He was repentant for tagging her to an old man all her life. Though it was late realisation, only slight amendment of the punishment was within his power now. Giving the king a chance to try his luck, he said, “If any young man willingly exchanges his youth for your old age, you may by all means go ahead.”
Having found a workable solution, Yayati returned home with great hopes. Devayani also came back with him. He made a request to his first four sons by turns, who frankly declared that sacrifice was not their cup of tea. The last son Puru was his only hope. He readily agreed to the proposal as he thought it to be his duty towards his father who had given him life. One might think him to be a lunatic but Puru had a very convincing explanation for his action. He classified sons under three categories and said, “There are three types who can be called sons. One, who rises to the expectations of the father without being prompted, occupies the topmost position and finds the ultimate goal of life. Second is the son who obediently helps on request. The third, grudgingly agrees to help. There is yet the lowest fourth group of humans, who do not deserve a place under the classification of sons. These selfish ones bluntly refuse to even consider the request from the father. They are no better than the discarded refuse that goes into the garbage.” The swapping was affected and the father felt gratified. With youth restored, Yayati enjoyed life for thousands of years. The hold of worldly attachments was so strong that he was finding it impossible to withdraw his mind from them.
With the passage of time, he suddenly experienced some degeneration of his self, despite his efforts to be a father to his subjects and religious performance of sacrifices. One day, it dawned on him that he had wasted his life running after insignificant things and had not ever thought of life’s most valuable aspiration of spiritual enlightenment. He made up his mind to detach himself from the transient enticing world and take to the path of Godliness. In order to prepare Devayani for his drastic decision to change his way of life, he narrated a story to her.
The story goes as follows: A male goat was roaming in the forest when he saw a she-goat fallen in a well because of her bad behaviour. The male goat dug into the earth with his horns, prepared a flight of steps for the she-goat to come out. The she-goat wanted to marry the goat and he agreed. They lived together happily. The other female goats, attracted by the majestic personality of the male goat, wanted to marry him. The male goat fulfilled the desire of the she-goats for he thought there was nothing wrong in doing so. The first she-goat was jealous of the beauty of the others and refused to share her husband with them. She left her husband in anger to the house of her protector who was a brahmana. Though the male goat tried to convince her about his sincere love, his cajoling had no effect on her. The she-goat soulfully narrated to the brahmana her misery in the company of her husband. Emotionally moved, the brahmana stripped the male goat of his vital energy but restored it, as compassion for the she-goat made him realise the injustice he had done to her. They lived enjoying life after that. Devayani initially took the story as a joke on her. But when she heard the conclusion Yayati had for her, she too understood the underlying truth of the story. Yayati completed the story by comparing it to his own life. Excessive attachment to Devayani had led him into a maze of worldly happiness that ruined his chances of God realisation. He was desperate to rectify his life which at that moment looked very bleak. However, Yayati succeeded in controlling his mind and senses like a charioteer deftly restrains the unruly horses by a strong hold on the reins. Reinstating the youth on Puru, he declared him as his successor. His unflinching devotion to Lord Hari made introspection possible and he ultimately attained emancipation. Devayani too became worldly wise and got to the root cause of misery. Human relationships now seemed to her like a dream that disappears on waking up. She gave up her body in the concentration of the Lord.
Kacha and Devayani: Kacha was Brihaspati's son. He was sent by the gods to learn the mrutasanjivani mantra from Shukracharya.They advised him to seek the help of Devayani unobtrusively to ensure success. Kacha cultivated friendship with her with no malicious intention. But Devayani fell in love with him.
The hatred of the asuras for Brihaspati extended to Kacha and they could not accept the idea of his being the disciple of their guru. Once when he went to the forest to collect flowers, the asuras killed Kacha and mixed his ashes in water as a drink for Shukracharya who unsuspectingly drank it. Meanwhile, Devayani was expecting Kacha with all eagerness. With no sign of his return, Devayani suspected mischief from the asuras like the previous occasion when Shukra had revived Kacha by his special mantra. So, she requested her father to look into the matter. By his yogic powers he realised that Kacha was in his belly. He told his daughter that she will now have to choose between the father and her lover, explaining to her the difficult situation. She refused to make a choice as both of them were dear to her. Thinking of an alternative solution, he decided to teach his secret mantra to Kacha in his stomach. When he came out of Shukra's belly by the mantra, he, in turn, used it to revive his preceptor.
Devayani expressed her love for Kacha. He refused the offer as his respect for both of them was equal. Besides, having come out of her father's stomach, he was like a son to him. In consequence she was his sister, an explanation not acceptable to Devayani. The rest of the story is already well known.
Sharmishtha: Kalidasa, the famous play wright of Sanskrit classical drama has referred to the story of Yayati and Sharmishtha in his well known play on Shakuntala. He has taken the story from Mahabharatha and modified it to suit his imaginative thinking. In the story, Shakuntala is leaving her foster father Kanva’s hermitage for king Dushyanta’s palace. She had married the king by the gandharva mode that sanctions marriage by mutual consent. Kanva as a parting advice tells Shakuntala that she should be a devoted wife under all circumstances and give birth to worthy sons who would stand by their father through thick and thin. At that moment, he refers to Sharmishtha as the ideal devoted wife whom Shakuntala should have in her mind as a role model. It’s a well known fact that not only was she sincere in her relationship with Yayati, her husband, but her son Puru was also a magnanimous son who gave his youth to his father as a dutiful son, unlike the others who refused.
Bharata: It is interesting to know the various connections of the name Bharata with India, the Bharatavarsha. King Rantideva anointed the eldest of his hundred sons Bharata and severed his connection from worldly affairs to pursue a spiritual life. Impressed by Bharata’s concern for the welfare of his subjects, the people were as if enthralled by his kindness. The popularity of the righteous king spread far and wide. The original name of Ajanabha was changed to Bharatavarsha, which is the present India.
It is also believed that India gets its name from the son of Shakuntala and Dushyanta. According to the
Mahabharatha, Shakuntala was born to Vishvamitra and Menaka. Abandoned by the mother in the forest, the infant was adopted by the kind hearted rishi Kanva and was brought up as his own daughter. Dushyanta of the Puru dynasty met her in the hermitage during hunting. Fascinated by her beauty, he ascertained her high family connection and married her by the gandharva system. He then returned to his kingdom but not before Shakuntala had his child in her womb. A son was born to her and Kanva decided to send her to Dushyanta after performing the necessary rites for the child. Dushyanta pretended not to recognise her as he had married her in the forest hermitage in private. He did not want people to make derogatory remarks about him that he had allowed a beautiful woman into his palace just because she claimed to be his wife. He refused to own her or the child. At that moment, a celestial voice assured him in public hearing about the legitimacy of the child and that Shakuntala should not be humiliated as an impostor. There was reconciliation and he named his son Bharata. Bharata established himself as a righteous and a powerful king after whom Bharatavarsha acquired its name. Bharata had the auspicious mark of the discus on his right palm and the insignia of a lotus in his feet. These were clear indications that he was the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The character of Shakuntala here is in direct contrast to the soft spoken timid hermit girl of the Bhagavatam. She is an aggressive, bold woman who fights for her rightful place in the life of Dushyanta.
Shakuntala of the Epic
Kalidasa gives a very refined presentation. He introduces a signet ring to protect Dushyanta from infamy. To keep the tempo of the story, the curse of the ill tempered Durvasa adds spice by giving it an interesting twist.
Durvasa cursed Shakuntala that the person, in whose loving thoughts she had ignored him, would forget her. After the pleadings of her friends, he mellowed down and assured that an authentic identification would help in circumventing the curse. Shakuntala, unfortunately, could not prove her identity in the king’s court, as the signet ring given to her by Dushyanta as a memento, was lost in the river on the way. Shakuntala of Kalidasa was innocent and of a mild character. She could not assert her right like the Shakuntala of the epic. The ring was later recovered from the belly of a fish through a fisherman, which reminded Dushyanta about his happy days with Shakuntala. But on being rejected by the king, she was carried away by her mother Menaka to her abode where the son of Dushyanta was born. He was named Bharata. Finally, there was a happy reunion when the king went to the celestial region to fight the demons. It is believed that Bharata’s exemplary governance gave his kingdom the name Bharatavarsha that is India.
Bharata in Menaka's abode