Story of the great Chandravanshi king Yayati has been mentioned time and again in many of our holy books. He has been immortalized in Mahabharata’s Adi Parva Ch. 76-81, the Bhagavat Purana- Skandha 9 Ch. 18,19 Matsya Purana Ch. 30-35, Padma Purana- Bhumi Ch. 76-83 and Vayu Purana Ch. 93.
King Yayati’s story is a story of unlimited desires, lust and greed that ends with self realisation followed by renunciation and austerities. He loses everything in his prime only to get it back in the most selfish manner to ultimately renounce everything after attaining the true knowledge.
The theme of Yayati’s story is his strong attachments to the carnal and materialistic pleasures of life causing his downfall and ultimately his self realisation.
It can be explained easily through some important teachings mentioned in Bhagvat Gita.
Meaning: Those who are deeply attached to material pleasures and their minds, bewildered by such temporary things, do not possess the staunch determination for devotion in the path of God.
People engaged in debauchery are bound to get distracted from the path to God, which is the ultimate truth. Same was the case with King Yayati. The only relief was that towards the end, he underwent introspection and self realization and chose the correct path.
Many other verses from Bhagvat Gita also state the importance of timely detachment from the worldly pleasures like Ch. 3 verse 36 & 37 state:
Meaning: Why is a person impelled to commit sinful acts, even unwillingly, as if by force?
Meaning: This lust, the desire to enjoy sense objects that transform into wrath, is born of passion. It is insatiable, all-devouring, and extremely sinful. Know it to be the primary enemy of a man in this world.
Lust and desires are never ending and insatiable. They are the biggest enemies of human mind because they destroy the logic and cloud the vision. One should know to control the senses as excess of everything leads to self-destruction.
Yayati was a great Chandravanshi (lunar dynasty) king who was one of the ancestors of Yadavas and Pandavas. He was a very righteous ruler. He performed many yajnas, sacrifices, acts of great punyas which made him the favourite among his subjects. He brought great fame to his kingdom, and under his rule, the lunar empire rose to prominence. Here, his story is told, as mentioned in the Bhagavat Purana.
King Nahusha, father of Yayati, became a serpent because of the curse of sage Agatsya and Yayati was enthroned as the next king, as the eldest son Yati had already chosen the path of austerity. Yayati then appointed his four younger brothers to rule the four directions. He married the daughters of Shukracharya, the preceptor of Asuras, and of Vrishaparva, the king of Asuras. Now these liaisons have a very interesting background story.
On one occasion, Sharmishtha, the daughter of Asur king Vrishaparva and Devyani, the daughter of Asur Guru Shukracharya, accompanied by a thousand other ladies, were roaming in the pleasure garden of the capital. Arriving at the pool of water, they went into it for some water play. Perceiving that God Shiva and Maa Parvati were riding on their bull towards that direction, all the ladies rushed out of water and hastily started getting dressed but Sharmishtha mistakenly wore Devyani’s garments which made Devyani furious and she began hurling abuses at Sharmishtha calling her unchaste. This sudden attack made Sharmishtha lose her temper, and she reproached and snatched away all of Devyani’s clothes and pushed her into a well. By chance, Yayati, the king of a nearby state, came there hunting and rescued Devyani. Devyani now proposed her saviour for marriage and Yayati agreed to it, accepting it as his destiny. After Yayati’s departure, Devyani went to her father, crying. She narrated the entire incident to him and he was deeply hurt. Shukracharya then decides to leave the court of the king and the city with his daughter. Learning about the departure of the enraged sage, the Asur king propitiated him by agreeing to his condition of fulfilling his daughter Devyani’s wish. Devyani asked for Sharmishtha to come along with her thousand companions and to serve her for a lifetime and follow her wherever she goes. Realizing the seriousness of the situation and, for the sake of her father, Sharmishtha along with her thousand lady companions attended upon Devyani like her handmaiden. While marrying off Devyani, Shukracharya warned Yayati of not forming any kind of union with Sharmishtha.
After some time, Devyani was blessed with a son, seeing which Sharmishtha also desires to be a mother. She approaches Yayati and requests him to bear her a child. Yayati was a weak-willed man with very high sensory desires. After initial resistance, he gives up to Sharmishtha’s desire. Together they had three sons, Dhruyu, Ani and Puru and from Devyani he begot two sons, Yadu and Turvasu.
Yayati and Sharmishtha could not manage to hide their relationship for a very long time. When Devyani learned about the infidelity of her husband, she was raged and immediately left for her father’s house.
The enraged Shukracharya then cursed Yayati with premature old age and invalidity. Nothing could be more painful for Yayati than losing his youth before its natural time. Distressed, Yayati begged forgiveness and laments that he has been very busy throughout his life in his royal expeditions, yajnas and austerities for the worldly good. He says that he never had enough pleasure of all kinds, including the carnal with Devyani. His thirst is not quenched yet. Instead of choosing the path of renunciation, Yayati seeks a way out. Concerned about his daughter’s happiness, Shukracharya gives him relaxation in the curse saying that he can exchange his old age with the youth of anyone else who is willing to accept it then he could continue to enjoy the pleasures of all kind that come with youth. His unquenched thirst makes him shameless, and he seeks the youth of his children. Yayati, now an old man but still haunted by his sensual desires, returned to his kingdom and summoned all his sons, expecting to regain his youth by transferring his curse to any one of them. All except one refused the offer. Only Puru, the last son from Sharmishtha, gladly accepted the old age of his father. Yayati then enjoyed this again, found youth for a thousand years, still his thirst for desires was not quenched. He still was not satiated.
Finally he went through self actualization and on realising upon the transitory nature of material pleasure he returned his youth to Puru and made him the king in spite of him being the youngest. Then he went to the forest leading a life of renunciation. There, he became spiritually aware and was absorbed in the supreme Brahman and ultimately ascended to heaven.
This phenomenal tale of chasing the insatiable desires, then the realisation of its futility, teaches us that the desires that cloud the reason and knowledge lead us to path of self destruction.
Meaning: Those who are possessed and bewildered by many fantasies, enveloped in a net of delusion and addicted to sense gratification, they descend to the murkiest hell.
In Srimad Bhagavat Purana’s 9th Skandha Ch. 19, Yayati, after being aware of his spiritual fall, narrated his realization via a parable to his wife Devyani and said at the end:
Meaning: Just as pouring ghee into the fire ignites it more; similarly, by enjoying it, desire is not quenched; on the contrary, it gets ignited.
Meaning: For those who are too tied to carnal and materialistic desires, sense gratification is very difficult to give up. This thirst does not end even when one’s body is withered with age. Therefore, one who actually longs for happiness must give up such unquenchable thirsts, which are the cause of endless miseries.
The above two verses aptly sum up this story of unlimited desires. King Yayati’s story of indulgences till date serve as the benchmark of one’s moral downfall. We should learn from such examples and restraint from indulging in too much of a sense gratification.