Yayati’s love triangle; obsession with his youth; why Puru was made heir.
Daksha, Aditi, Vivasvata, Manu, Ila, Pururava, Ayu, Nahusha, Yayati. These are the names of the rulers belonging to the Lunar dynasty. Their descendants would go on to found the Puru and Yadu dynasties—key players in the story of the Mahabharata. Yayati had 5 sons; and his youngest son, Puru inherited the kingdom. From Puru came the Pourava dynasty, who are the ancestors of the Puru or Kuru linieage, which include the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
In the snake sacrifice conducted by King Janamejaya, charioteer-storyteller or Souti Vaishampayana narrates the story of the origin of the Kuru lineage. He lists the names of all the rulers of the lunar dynasty, starting from Daksha, who was considered Brahma’s son, all the way to the tenth in the line, Yayati, who was the son of Nahusha and Priyavasa.
Sauti tells the story of: Yayati’s marriage to Devyani; his relationship with Sharmishta—Devyani’s friend-turned-slave; his obsession with his youth and what he did to hold on to it; and why he decided to make his youngest son, Puru, his heir.
To better understand the relationship between Yayati and Devayani, it is helpful to look into Devayani’s relationship with her first love.
Devayani’s first love:
Devayani was the daughter of brahmana Shukracharya, who held a position of power and influence in the court of the demon king, Vrishaparva. Shukracharya was a man with great powers—he had the knowledge of Sanjivani, which could bring back people from the dead. The gods and demons were at war and even though the gods were killing the demons in large numbers, Shukracharya kept reviving the dead demons, making it difficult for the gods to win. No one on the gods’ side were in possession of this knowledge, which made them strategically weaker compared to their foes.
The gods decided that for them to effectively win the war against the demons, they too needed access to the knowledge of Sanjivani. With that in mind, they approached Kacha, the young son of the brahmana Brihaspati, to apprentice under Shukracharya. They asked him to charm both Shuracharya and Devayani and convince Shukracharya to impart the knowledge of Sanjivani to him. Kacha agreed and did as the gods told him. Kacha went to Shukracharya and explained that he wanted to practice brahmacharya for a thousand years and made a request to Shukracharya to be his teacher.
(When one takes up Brahmacharya, one makes a commitment to a lead a ‘pure’ or very simple lifestyle as that of a monk and focus on their inner self. Shukracharya was pleased with Kacha and so he accepted Kacha as his student.)
Shortly after, Kacha made a vow to take up brahmacharya, he began living with Shukracharya and Devayani. Kacha quickly adjusted to his routine in the new household. He particularly got along very well with Devayani. Kacha was a smart, charming, even-tempered, young man and Devayani enjoyed spending time with him. Kacha treated her with respect, he made sweet gestures like making gifts of flowers and fruits, he was fun to be with and they played musical instruments, danced and sang songs together. However, Kacha never forgot his vow and remained focused on his tasks. The first 500 years of the 1000-year vow he had promised was spent in this peaceful fashion.
When Kacha was killed…the first time:
News that Kacha was under Shukracharya’s tutelage and that he intended to learn the art of Sanjivani reached the Danavas. The Danavas were demigods, some of whom were aligned with the demons in the war against the gods. The danavas worried that they would lose the war if the gods have access to the precious knowledge of Sanjivani and so they decided to assassinate Kacha.
The danavas saw their chance one day when Kacha took the cattle out to graze alone in the forest. They killed Kacha and chopped him up him into teeny tiny sesame seeds-sized pieces and fed the pieces to jackals and wolves.
When Kacha didn’t return home along with the cows that evening, a worried Devayani went to her father with concerns about Kacha’s whereabouts. Shukracharya used his powers to bring Kacha back from the dead. When questioned about what happened, Kacha revealed to them that he was killed.
When Kacha was killed…the second time:
After some days, however, the danavas struck again! They attacked Kacha in the forest when he had gone there to collect flowers as per Devayani’s request. This time, they burned Kacha’s body, took the ashes of Kacha’s body and mixed it with wine and delivered the wine to Shukracharya. Tragically, the unsuspecting Shukra consumed the wine.
Meanwhile, Devayani was getting increasingly worried because it was almost nighttime and Kacha had not returned. She shared her concerns with her father, who found out that Kacha was killed once again. Devayani was inconsolable. She begged her father to do something.
Shukracharya said, “What happened to Kacha is tragic and unfortunate. But he is now in the other world and we need to accept that. You know better than to grieve the death of a mortal man to this degree, while death is something everyone—even the gods—have to deal with.”
Shukracharya explained that since he had already revived him once before, it would be difficult for him to do that another time.
Devayani was not consoled. She confessed to her father that she admired Kacha, she knew him to be the very best man and was very much in love with him.
“I want to follow him to where he has gone,” she stated in her intense grief.
Kacha revived…the second time:
Already pained over the loss of his innocent disciple, Shukracharya was distressed even more when he saw how Kacha’s loss was affecting his daughter. He wanted to stop his daughter’s pain, so he sought to bring Kacha back from the dead once more. But when he called for Kacha, the response came from inside his stomach. Disbelief washed through Shukracharya when he realized that his dear disciple was inside his stomach.
“How did you come to be in my stomach? Please explain so that I understand what is happening,” he said to Kacha.
Kacha explained that he remembered the events before and after his death because Shukracharya was the one who called for him. He explained that he was killed by the danavas, after which they burned him, mixed his ashes in the wine and gave it to Shukracharya to drink—and that is how he ended up in Shukracharya’s stomach.
Shukracharya was shocked. The danavas’ actions were unimaginably cruel.
But that matter would have to wait, they had more pressing matters on their hands. Shukracharya discussed with Devayani how they could save Kacha.
“The only way to save Kacha is through my death,” he told Devayani.
Devayani refused the idea. “That is no solution. I cannot lose either of you,” she said.
They considered the problem some more and then came to a decision.
Shukracharya told Kacha, “Kacha, you are a lucky man indeed. My daughter loves you very much, so I cannot let you die. I will impart the knowledge of Sanjivani to you; after which, you will come out of my stomach and use the knowledge you received to revive me.”
Kacha agreed. Whilst inside his preceptor’s stomach, Kacha received the knowledge of sanjivani. After the knowledge transfer was complete, Kacha came out of Shukracharya’s stomach, completely revived for the second time. As soon as he could, he applied the knowledge he had just received and brought Shukracharya’s body back from the dead.
Shukracharya was still upset over what had transpired before his death. He was angry at himself for making a decision to drink the contaminated wine while already intoxicated. He realized that wine impaired his judgement, as a result of which something catastrophic would have happened. With this in mind, he stated that no Brahmana should partake in wine from this day forward and this should be the dharma that all Brahmanas should follow.
Devayani’s first love remains unrequited:
Kacha continued to live with Shukracharya and completed his studies. Once he completed the 1000 years of brahmacharya, as he had promised, he asked for Shukracharya’s permission to stop so that he could take up the job the gods had offered him and work there. Shukracharya agreed and Kacha got ready to go to Indra’s abode.
When Kacha went to Devayani to say his goodbye, Devayani asked him to take her with him. She confessed her love to him and asked him to marry her. To her surprise, Kacha turned her down. When she confronted him with her feelings, he told her that anything romantic between them would be impossible because he was like a son to Shukhracharya since he was recreated from inside Shukracharya’s body and so anything romantic between them would be inappropriate.
Devayani was blindsided. She never thought her love would not be reciprocated. She had always imagined that they would be eventually married. Brokenhearted and angry, she lashed out at Kacha and scolded him using harsh words and cursed him. Kacha didn’t take kindly to being cursed at and he told her that her words would not come true because he was motivated by Dharma while she was not, instead he cursed her saying that no rishi would marry her. Kacha left Shukracharya’s place and went to Indra’s court.
And that is how the former good friends parted with bitter and angry words.
A friend turned into a slave:
One day, Devayani, accompanied by a large group of female friends, went to the beautiful woods nearby. They saw a lake there and decided it would be refreshing to take a dip in it. They stripped and got into the water, they played and had a lot of fun together. It was a particularly windy day, and when the wind blew, it moved the women’s clothes which they had left by the water. When the girls came out of the water, they found that the clothes they had kept neatly piled by the lake was all in disarray. Quickly they picked up whatever piece of clothing they could get their hands on.
One of Devayani’s very close friends, Sharmishtha, was also present in the party. She too picked up the cloth nearest to her without realizing that it was Devayani’s.
Sharmishta was the daughter of Vrishaparva, who is the king of the asuras. She was the daughter of a person who held an important role in society. But Devayani was the daughter of a Brahmana, a powerful one at that; this placed him (and by extension her) in the top most rung of the social ladder. However, he worked for Vrishaparva. They were interdependent.
Devayani, it seemed, liked to think that she was superior to Sharmishta. Because when she realized that Sharmishta was wearing her clothes, she took great offence.
“How dare you—someone who is inferior to me—wear my clothes?” she raged, grabbing the garments Sharmishta was wearing. “Have you no shame or sense?”
Sharmishta was not going to take the insult laying down. “I am inferior? Your father is employed by my father and does what mine tells him to. He bows to my father with his hands stretched in front of him to be paid for the work he does as one asks for alms. You dare call me inferior? I do not see how you are superior. I don’t even see you as my equal,” she said.
Devayani was stunned by Sharmishta’s attack. She stiffened; her hands were still clutching at Sharmishta’s clothes. Sharmishta was angry too. There was a well right behind where Devayani was standing and Sharmishta viciously pushed her into the well and walked away without sparing her another glance.
Devayani wasn’t dead, as Sharmishta had assumed, but she was stuck in the empty well, with no help coming her way and no means of getting out of it on her own. She hoped and prayed for someone to find her. Her prayers were answered when Yayati, who was hunting in the same forest, found her. He was thirsty and looking for water to drink; but instead of water, he found a beautiful girl inside the well who was looking sad and distressed. From the jewels she was wearing Yayati deduced that she was not from an ordinary family. He was immediately curious about her.
“Who are you? And how did you fall into this well? What happened?” he asked her.
Devayani introduced herself to Yayati and asked him to help her out of the well. She held out her right hand, which Yayati grasped and pulled her out. Yayati then said goodbye and continued on his way.
On her way home, Devayani met her friend, Ghurnika. Devayani quickly related to Ghurnika all that had transpired and asked her to rush to her father and share with him the same.
Devayani added, “Tell my father that I will not step into Vrishaparva’s city.”
Ghrunika did as Devayani instructed. Shukracharya could not believe his ears when he heard what had happened to his cherished daughter—he was distraught. He went to Devayani and tried to console her.
“Your suffering must be the result of your wrong deeds of the past. It is done now,” he told her.
Devayani was not ready to be pacified. She said, “It does not matter if this was the result of some bad deed of mine. Sharmishta insulted both me and you. She likened you to a beggar and mocked your position in her father’s court. I cannot abide such treatment from someone who was supposedly my friend. Are you really someone who begs and asks for favors from Vrishaparva?”
“No,” her father denied vehemently. “I don’t beg or ask for favors from the king. My role in his court isn’t something to snicker at. It is a respectable and essential role,” he said.
Sharmishta’s words had rubbed Shukracahrya the wrong way too; however, he wanted Devayani to act in a more calm and logical manner. He asked her to calm down and not let her pride and anger rule her. He urged her to forgive her friend. He considered anger as a show of weakness.
“Father, I am aware of the wisdom of controlling one’s anger. I also know that forgiveness is a virtue. But this kind of blatantly disrespectful behavior from them is unacceptable. I don’t like to be associated with people who do not have a good regard for us, and who have no respect for our position. I cannot live in Vrishaparva’s city anymore. I refuse to live amongst them,” Devayani declared passionately.
When Shukracharya heard how much this episode had affected his daughter, he too became incensed with Vrishaparva and Sharmishta. He went to Vrishparva and confronted him.
Shukracharya told Vrishaparva, “Over and over again you perform deeds that are guaranteed to bring you or your decedents grief in the future. First, you and your allies kill my beloved disciple Kacha, who did no wrong and was entirely innocent. And now, your daughter insults and almost kills my precious daughter.”
“I have had enough of you and your actions. I am leaving your court,” Shukracharya declared firmly.
Immediately, Vrishaparva panicked. His military success depended heavily on Shukracharya’s skills. He simply could not afford to lose Shukracharya. He scrambled to appease Shukracharya. He begged for forgiveness and a chance to make things right.
“That is not in my hands. The person who can grant you what you ask is my daughter. Talk to her and see if she will come to an agreement,” Shukracharya said.
A desperate Vrishaparva went to Devayani and begged her for her forgiveness. He asked her how he could make things right.
“Sharmishta, along with 1000 of her female companions, must be my slave and they must follow me even when I am married,” Devayani stated her demands.
Vrishaparva simply said, “As you please,” and sent a servant to bring Sharmishta. His people could not lose a man with Shukracharya’s skill and he was ready to sacrifice his daughter for his cause.
When Sharmishta learned of what happened, she readily agreed to Devayani’s wishes because she felt responsible for creating the whole situation. Sharmishta went to Devayani and humbly offered her services. Devayani accepted, but not before rubbing it in to Sharmishta, who was now in an impossible and vulnerable position. Sharmishta told Devayani that she accepted that she was inferior to her and she would prove it by being Debayani’s slave for the rest of her life. After much groveling by Sharmishta, Devayani finally accepted her apology and agreed to continue living in Vrishaparva’s city and Shukracharya continued to work in Vrishaparva’s court.
A second chance at love?
Months and seasons passed. One fine day Devayani returned to the forest where she had first met Yayati. She went there with Sharmishta and the 1000 other slaves she had inherited as a result of her compromise with Vrishaparva. Devayani was feeling great about the day—she and her big entourage played games; had good food and beverages; and were having a great time together.
Quite serendipitously her path crossed with that of King Yayati, who also happened to be in the area that day hunting for deer, as he usually tended to do. He saw the women and his attention was immediately caught by Devayani’s beauty. He seemed to not have any recollection of meeting her before because he went to Devayani and asked her for an introduction.
Devayani introduced herself. Then she introduced Sharmishta as a friend who was now also her slave; she proceeded to sort of boast of the fact regarding the royal background of her slave. This piqued Yayati’s interest, he noticed that Sharmishta too was beautiful and he inquired more about her, which in turn annoyed Devayani, who deflected the inquiries and distracted Yayati with questions of her own.
“Who are you? From your fine clothes and manners, I can tell that you are not an ordinary person. And what are you doing here?” Devayani asked.
Yayati introduced himself as King and explained that he was hunting in the forest and came upon them when he was looking for drinking water. With that, he said goodbye and turned to leave.
“Marry me,” Devayani told him, suddenly stopping him in his tracks.
Yayti shook his head. “You and I cannot marry. You are the daughter of a powerful brahmana. I am a kshatriya. Therefore, there can be no marriage between us.”
Devayani persisted even as Yayati insisted that he was not worthy of her. She argued that brahmana-kshatriya marriages were completely acceptable and such marriages happened all the time; additionally, she said since he had received a good education, he can also be considered a rishi. She told him that since he had held her right hand when he pulled her out of the well, it was only appropriate that he married her. (I think she is referring to the fact that in the vedic wedding ceremony the groom holds the bride by her right hand to walk around the sacrificial fire while taking their vows; so, she probably means it is symbolic)
Yayati told Devayani that he was worried about how her father might react if he asked to marry her. He was worried that he was a powerful brahmana and might curse him if he unwittingly earned his displeasure.
“If your father agrees to this, I will marry you,” Yayati told Devayani as he finally relented.
Devayani was ecstatic. She knew that her father would not refuse her. She took Yayati to her father and introduced them to each other. She told her father about how Yayati saved her life by rescuing her from the well. She declared to her father that he was only man she was interested in and she would marry no other.
Even though concerned about the fact that it would be a mixed-caste marriage, Shukhra prioritized his daughter’s happiness. He gave the couple his blessings.
Yayati, however, still had some misgivings about it being a mixed-caste marriage. So, he asked Shukracharya to grant him a boon as to not be negatively affected because of their marriage. Shukracharya blessed the couple and told Yayati to take care of his daughter. He also told him that through his marriage to Devayani, Yayati would inherit Sharmista and the other slaves.
“Don’t ever betray my daughter with Sharmishta. You must stay away from her and all will be well for you,” Shukracharya warned.
Yayati and Devayani were married and they lived in Yayati’s palace. Not only did Yayati make sure his new wife was comfortably situated, he also made sure that Sharmishta and the 1000 slaves who accompanied his new wife were also well taken care of. Eventually, the couple had children together.
Years passed and all was going well.
Another love story? The beginning of a bizzare love triangle
But Sharmishta was growing concerned. She was getting older and was beginning to feel lonely and wanted to have a family of her own. Because of the position she was in and the fact that she was living under the roof of the King and Queen and under their protection, she couldn’t marry just anyone. Not only that, she might be slave to Devayani, but she was still a princess and so that complicated her situation even more.
After contemplating her situation, she came to a conclusion that she would ask Yayati himself to be the father to her children because quite frankly, her options were severely limited.
When the opportunity arose in the form of a meeting alone in the garden, Sharmishta approached Yayati with her plans and laid out all her cards to him. It took some convincing, but Sharmishta finally got what she wanted—Yayati agreed to have children with her. They decided to keep their relationship secret because they were both scared about Devayani and Shukracharya’s reaction. Yayati was even more worried because Shukracharya had particularly told him to stay away from Sharmishta.
Sharmishta got her wish and she got pregnant with her first child. When Devayani came to know of the pregnancy, she questioned Sharmishta about the father of the child. Sharmishta told her that she met with a learned man and asked him for a boon, to which he agreed and that is how she was blessed with a child. Devayani was satisfied with the explanation and she never had a reason to doubt Sharmishta’s claims….
That is until the farce blew up in all their faces, as it tends to do.
Treacherous friend/slave or husband?
A few more years passed as Devayani lived in blissful ignorance; meanwhile, Sharmishta had two more sons with Yayati. One day, Devayani was walking in the forest, accompanied by her husband. Not long after they entered the forest, they encountered 3 beautiful and healthy-looking boys playing in the forest. Devayani was curious about them because of their striking resemblance to Yayati.
She asked the children, “Who are your parents?”
The boys answered that Sharmishta was their mother. They pointed to Yayati, who was with Devayani, and said that he was their father. Yayati did not dare acknowledge the children as his in Devayani’s presence. His refusal hurt the children and they started to cry. Seeing how Yayati’s behaviour effected the boys, Devayani figured out that they spoke the truth.
Devayani was spitting mad. She rushed to Sharmishta and confronted her over her treacherous conduct.
“You are my slave. And yet, you act so treacherously. You are finally showing your true colors of the asuri that you are, you have no concept of dharma,” Devayani scolded Sharmishta.
“I did not lie to you. Yayati is the learned man who granted me my boon. Like you, I too chose Yayati as my husband and I treated you both right. Where is the wrong in that? I have not acted against dharma,” Sharmishta defended herself.
Devayani was now beyond furious. “I cannot stand to live in your presence,” she declared and walked away. Yayati was anxious about what Devayani might do in her anger, he tried to calm her down but she wasn’t in the mood to listen.
The curse that took away Yayati’s precious youth:
Shukracharya learned of what happened from his distraught daughter and confronted Yayati about his actions. Yayati defended himself by claiming that he felt obliged to marry Sharmishta because she pleaded with him for children and he could not refuse her. Shukracharya wasn’t buying it.
“Then you should have come to me about it. I expressly warned you against getting involved with Sharmishta,” Shukracharya replied angrily. Shukracharya wasn’t about to let Yayati get away easily with the lies and betrayal. He cursed Yayati, as a result of which, Yayati immediately lost his youth and turned into an old man.
Yayati wasn’t ready to accept the curse. He pleaded with Shukracharya to show him mercy because he wasn’t ready to let go of his youth yet. There was so much more to do and so many pleasures to be had in life when one was young, Yayati was not ready to give-up that kind of lifestyle yet. He told Shukracharya that he wanted to spend more time with Devayani. Eventually, Shukracharya relented a little bit. He said he couldn’t change the curse; however, if another person is willing to receive it instead, Yayati can transfer his old age to that person.
Yayati realized that this is the best he could do, so he made one more deal with his father-in-law. He asked to be granted a boon that whichever son of his agrees to receive his old age from him will be awarded with the kingdom and with success as a ruler. Shukracharya agreed.
Determined to hold on to his youth, Yayati approached his sons from Devayani and Sharmishta to give him their youth in exchange for his old age. His two sons from Devayani—Yadu and Turvasu, and first two sons from Sharmishta—Druhyu and Anu, refused to what their father asked them to do. They complained about the difficulties of aging and the dullening of senses due to old age.
Yayati did not take kindly to being turned down. He believed that the burden of fulfilling a father’s wishes and desires fell on the sons. He cursed all his sons saying they, their lineages, and the people they rule would experience suffering.
A son takes up the burden of his father’s sins:
Actually, he cursed all of his sons but one. His youngest son, Puru, from Sharmishta, agreed to exchange his youth for his father’s old age. In turn, Yayati told Puru that he would give him his youth back after 1000 years. Yayati also promised Puru that he would make him his heir.
With his youth back, Yayati lived his life to the fullest for the next 1000 years. He was a good king and ruled wisely and fairly. He enjoyed the finer things in life unapologetically and made the most of the 1000 years of youth he had borrowed from his youngest son.
Even as he was living life the way he liked and wanted, he was still acutely aware of the passing time. His time of living as a young man would come to an end soon and Yayati struggled with the fact that he would have to embrace old age. Nevertheless, when the 1000 years had passed and the time came for him to give back Puru’s youth, he did so with grace. He thanked Puru for the wonderful gift he had bestowed upon him and praised him for his unselfish act.
The last son is made king; the first of the Pouravas:
As promised, Yayati named Puru as his heir. This caused uproar all over the kingdom.
“How can the king ignore his other older sons and instate the youngest as his heir?” they questioned in disbelief.
Yayati defended his decision. “My older sons—Yadu, Turvasu, Druhyu and Anu—ignored my wishes and did not care for my desires. Sons are supposed to support their father in all their wishes. They disobeyed me and chose to put their comforts above mine. Only Puru was filial to me, he sacrificed his youth to please me.”
“There is nothing wrong with my youngest son, Puru, succeeding me,” Yayati continued, “since Shukracharya himself granted me the boon that the son who would exchange his youth with me would be given the throne.”
When the people of the court learned that the king’s decision was backed by Shukracharya himself, they were appeased and they accepted Puru as their king.
As for Yayati’s other sons—they inherited smaller tribes.
Blessed by the boon granted by the great Shukracharya, Puru ruled the kingdom beautifully; his people lived a peaceful and prosperous life and he became a much beloved king. Puru’s descendants successfully ruled the kingdom after him and they are known as the Pouravas.
Similarly, Yadu’s descendants are the Yadavas; Turvasu’s descendants are the Yavanas; Druhyu’s descendants are the Bhojas; and Anu’s descendants are known as mlecchas.
After instating his beloved son on the throne, the old King Yayati went to the forest to live a life of an ascetic, where he lived a simple and rigid life spent in contemplation, living only on fruits and roots he could collect in the area. He lived like this till he reached the end of his life and finally entered heaven. His entry into heaven was said to be because of the various good deeds he performed while he was alive: he ruled as a good king, he was fair to his subjects and he protected them. Most of all, he was blessed due to his part in the establishment of the Puru lineage.
Visit The Stories Of India Retold Podcast to listen to the story and to learn more about Yayati, Devayani and Sharmishta. Available on all major podcast apps.
The Mahabharata 1: Complete and Unabridged; translated by Bibek Debroy. (2015). Penguin Random House India. (Original work published 2010)
The Mahabharata 1: Complete and Unabridged; translated by Bibek Debroy. (2015). Penguin Random House India. (Original work published 2010)