Yayati: a classic tale of lust (page 2)

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A Classic Tale of Lust


King of Hastinapur, married Devayani, the daughter of Maharishi Shukra, and her maid Sharmishtha.


King of Hastinapur, father of Yati and Yayati.


Elder brother of Yayati who became an ascetic.


Friend of Yayati, Devayani’s love and brother (by affection) of Sharmishtha.

Maharishi Angiras

Yati and Yayati were born by the blessings of the sage.


Daughter of Maharishi Shukra, wife of Yayati and mother of Yadu.

Maharishi Shukra

Preceptor of the Asuras[1]and father of Devayani.


Daughter of Vrishaparva, the King of the Asuras, mother of Puroo.


King of the Asuras and father of Sharmishtha.

[1]In Indian mythology ‘asuras’ were the ‘non-gods’ or ‘anti-gods’ and feared as enemies of the gods. Sometimes they are referred to as demons, as in this story.


Ido not really know why I want to recount the events of mylife. Is it perhaps because I am a king? Am I really a king? No, I was a king.

The stories of kings and queens have a wide appeal, in particular the fantasies woven around their loves.

Mylife is also a story of love but, one wonders about the content of the story. I realise that it is not great enough toattract a poet to it. At the back of this history there is no pride, no ego and no exhibitionism. These are the tatters of a rich brocade. What is there left in it to display?

As the son of King Nahusha of Hastinapur, I became a king after his death. That is neither to my credit nor to my discredit. People will stare with curiosity at even the crow sitting atop the palace dome!

How would life have moulded itself if instead of a prince, I had been born in the house of an ascetic? Would it have been as glorious as the starry night of autumn or like a dark cold night of late winter? Who knows?

Would I have been happier if I had been born in a hermitage? Much as I have tried, I cannot find the answer. It would nothave had the overtones of the brightly coloured magnificent brocade fit for a king. Even with its rich overtones, not all the shades in that fabric of life please me.

Maybe I am obsessed with the story. I keep thinking of it. A passing pleasant thought says, my story may serve to show up to some the pitfalls of life and warn them in time. Who does not know the legend of the moon which, for the sin of being enamoured of the wife of his tutor, was branded with spots for all time? Does not the world know that Indra — the King of the Gods — was punished with a thousand sores for his infatuation for Ahalya’s beauty? The world errs, even realises the errors, but seldom learns from them.

We are all a little wiser towards the end of our lives and the wisdom often comes from the pain suffered by oneself. A creeper has many flowers; some are offered to God in worship and so arouse devotion. Some adorn the lovely ringlets of maidens and are silent witnesses to the hours of love and pleasures indulged in. The same is true of humans born in this world. Some live to be old and some rise to honour and fame and some are crushed by poverty. But in the end, all these flowers fall to the ground and are lost in the earth. That is their common lot.

In my life’s sojourn, a few things happened which are worth recalling. Maybe I am mistaken in believing so but I honestly do think so. The infant Yayati, the adolescent Yayati, Yayati the youth and later Yayati the man were all of a piece. But the Yayati as I see him today is a little different. The physical identity is the same but he now perceives what the earlier Yayatis had failed to see. He cannot resist the temptation to dwell on his life, so that the world may come to see, however faintly, through his eyes what he himself had failed to see.

* * *

I have always been passionately fond of flowers, even from early childhood. I am told that for hours on end, I used to be window gazing on the blossoms in the palace garden. My mother was amused at my childish ways and fondly told my father that I had the makings of a great poet.

Father pooh-poohed the idea, saying, ‘What ... a poet! And what would young Yayu get from being a poet? Poets can only draw pretty word-pictures of the beauties of the world. On the other hand, it is only the born soldier who drinks deep of the beautiful things of the world. Yayu must make a great soldier. Of our ancestors, King Pururava won the heart of the most beautiful Apsara, Urvashi, by his valour. I have defeated in battle even the gods and have had the honour of mounting the throne of Indra, the King of the Gods. Yayu must uphold that tradition.’

This was much later in life. There is one unforgettable incident of that time which haunts me. It is like the scar from an old wound. I did not understand its significance till recently — but now, I am convinced that what in the earlier stages of life are meaningless, come to have real significance and deep meaning towards the end of life.

Mother had among her maids a favourite, Kalika by name. I too was fond of her and sometimes dreamt of her. I never understood why. I was then barely six. Once in play, she caught me and took me in her arms. I struggled to escape, when she pressed my head to her bosom and said, ‘My little prince, you are getting naughtier everyday. I fed you as a baby. You were then a sweet docile kid, who returned my loving care, but now ...’

Clinging to her I said, ‘From now on, I am going to call you mother.’

She put her hand on my mouth and said, ‘My little prince, the queen is your mother. I am nobody. I am only a maid.’

I protested in petulance, ‘Why then did Mother not feed me?’

For the first time that day I was angry with my mother. I did not speak to her all that day. At night she came to my bed and gently called to me. She stroked my head with the tenderness of a flower. I relented a little but did not speak. I would not open my eyes. In my agitation I kept thinking that if I had the powers of a great ascetic to pronounce a curse, I would instantly turn my mother into a piece of stone.

The feel of a touch is more expressive than the spoken word, but it cannot stir the heart as tears alone can do. I felt hot tears on my cheek and broke down. I opened my eyes. I had never before seen Mother crying and I was touched. I crept up to her and with my arms round her, sobbed, ‘Mother, what is the matter?’

She did not speak. She drew me to herself and shed silent tears, stroking my head for a long time.

I pressed her to tell me what was hurting her. In my innocence, I asked her if her favourite bird had flown away to which she said, ‘No,’ and added, ‘I am worried about my other pet flying away.’

‘Which is the other pet, Mother?’

In reply, she drew me closer until it almost hurt and said, ‘Who else, my son?’

She was holding me so tight that it hurt but it was also thrilling. I wiped her tears with my little fingers and prattled, ‘No, Mother, I shall never, never leave you.’

She echoed, ‘Never, never leave me?’

Childhood is conscious only of the present and I repeated, ‘I am sure I shall never, never leave you.’ I did not know why the thought should even have come to her and pressed her to tell me.

In the end she said, ‘You have been cross with me all day. You have not spoken to me. Even now, though you were not asleep, there was no response to my calling. Why are you so cross with me? Yayu, my son, children cannot understand the grief of their parents. But I beg of you that you will not follow in his footsteps.’

‘Whose footsteps, Mother?’

Mother and I were alone together and Father was some distance away. Outside the door, a maid slept and even the low flame in the golden lampstand was dimming. And yet, Mother looked a little scared and shaken. She got up and closed the door. Then she took me in her lap and said in a tremulous voice, ‘Yayu, my son, I was not going to tell you till you were really grown up. But seeing you so cross today ... I fear you will leave me one of these days, like the other one.’

I still did not know who the other one was and asked her.

She said, ‘Your elder brother.’

‘And where is he?’

She did not know. The thought came to me that a brother for a playmate would have been great. With trepidation I asked Mother his name. It was Yati. I asked her when he had left. ‘Eighteen months before you were born,’ she said, ‘he went away all alone.’

I did not notice the utter distress in Mother’s voice as she spoke. All I thought of was that Yati must be very brave to have gone away all by himself.

I again asked Mother, ‘When did he go?’

‘At dead of night and into the forest,’ she said. ‘I was awake till quite late in the night, trying to dissuade him. I was tired and must have dozed off. When I awoke again towards the morning, Yati was not in his bed. The guards looked for him everywhere but he was not to be found.’

I said to myself, ‘What a worthy brother!’ Then the mystery of the occurrence struck me again and I said to Mother, ‘Where had you taken Yati?’

‘I had taken him to see a greatrishi. It was by his blessing that Yati was born to me and I used to take him to seek therishi’s blessings every anniversary of his birth. Once, when I was returning from the hermitage, Yati went away. He wanted to stay at the hermitage and I wasangryaboutit and spoke very harshly to him.

‘I brought him away by force. I did not heed him or pause to think of what he wanted ...’

In curiosity I said, ‘What did he want?’

Amid tears she said, ‘I still do not know what he wanted. He was deeply religious and was at home with rishis, hermits and yogis. He immediately made friends with them. We have looked for him everywhere but like the meteorite falling from the sky, my Yati is not to be found anywhere.’

My mother was calmly narrating her grievous loss but towards the end she broke down. In recalling the incident, she seemed to be experiencing over again that cruel morning in the dense frightening forest. Suddenly she stuttered, the words ceased and she was trembling. It was like the plaintive note of a violin suddenly ceasing on a string snapping. I was frightened by her blank look. Then she heaved a sigh, drew me to her and wept bitterly. I could find no words to console her.

‘I was frightened that like Yati, you might leave us one day. Yayu, my son, a child is the apple of his mother’s eye.’

I sobbed, ‘No, Mother, I shall not leave you as Yati did. I shall do nothing to hurt you.’

‘Sure, promise you will not,’ said Mother.

I clasped her hand and swore to her, ‘Mother, I shall never, never turn a hermit.’

I still remember that night. I cannot recall today the effect this conversation had on my mind nor the thoughts that came to me. But one thing is certain. In that one single night I had matured. It was an awakening from a world of fantasy to one of fact. I had my first acquaintance with grief. I saw the flood of tears in the eyes of my mother whose mere caress was heavenly to me. Subconsciously I grew to hate what had caused her pain.

I did not sleep well. I still remember a pleasant dream in which as king of the whole world, I stalked with a whip in hand through every town and village. Every rishi, hermit and beggar that I came across I lashed with the whip.

Yes, I did grow up that night. I saw clearly the form and content of life in those few hours of pitch darkness. I had been kept in ignorance of the fact that my elder brother had run away to turn a hermit — why this concealment?

Until this revelation came to me, I had lived in a fantasy world of blooming flowers, gentle rivulets and cool breezes. I used to wake up in the morning fresh like the new blooms in the garden. I had no fear of an occasional storm. It seemed to me that like the other elements, the wind sometimes turned fierce. The ripples on the gently flowing rivulet I imagined hummed a tune as I sometimes did. My world contained a neat array of dreams and butterflies, flowers and stars, peacocks dancing at the sight of clouds and the clouds in turn purring at that gorgeous sight, the bright smiling mornings with fresh blooms and the eventides like the fading flowers, the fresh greenery of the spring and the rainbows of the monsoon, the resounding of the hooves of horses and the tinkle of the temple bells, the soft sand of the riverbank and the soft cushions on the divan. Until that night, nature and man had been one in my eyes.

Such had been my world till that night. It was a beautiful dream. If I was upset at anything, all that was necessary was to go up a tree and think of God. Such was the faith that He would answer the call and instantly come down in person to punish the guilty.

No matter how sweet or mysterious it was, it was still the tiny world of a bud yet to blossom. That world had not yet awakened to the humming of the bees. The soft caress of the golden warm rays of the sun was foreign to it. The bud had not opened to look on the vast expanse of the sky. It had not yet known even in a dream the entrancing grace of the carved image of the Goddess or the lure of black tresses, the crowning glory of a beautiful maiden. A bud cannot forever remain a bud. Blossom it must into maturity.

Yes, I did grow up that night. I said to myself, someday I must find Yati and bring him to Mother and say to him, ‘As the elder brother, this throne is yours by right. Take it. At least now let us have the satisfaction of sharing what is ours, like children sharing sweets.’

* * *

I was now six and as a prince it was necessary for me to acquire the Letters and the Arts. Father arranged for my tuition. At first I did not take kindly to my tutors. My gymnastics tutor appeared to me an ungainly giant. His size and physique alone seemed sufficient to justify his selection. He would make me exercise hard from the crack of dawn. At first, the body ached all over. I appealed to my mother against all this. She consoled me with the words, ‘The future king must bear with all this.’ In the beginning, I invariably came off the worse in wrestling and I despaired of ever becoming proficient at it, but my tutor reassured me. He said, ‘When I was your age, I was soft like butter. But look at me now. I am hard as steel.’

At the age of fourteen, I was once standing before a mirror. I was deeply absorbed in admiring the grace and beauty of my form. Impulsively, I felt like shaking that strong well knit arm and even resting my head on it.

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