Rewording the Myth of Yayati: A Comparative Study of Yayati by V.S. Khandekar and Girish Karnad.


The aim of the paper is to compare the original myth of Yayati from the Mahabharata as reworded in Yayati, written in Marathi by V.S.Khandekar, translated into Gujarati by Gopalrav G.Vidwansh and in Yayati,a play by Girish Karnad. The Oxford dictionary defines myth as “a traditional story concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social fact.” (“Myth” Oxford)  Myths have played vital role in sustaining human values by rewording/recreating them in contemporary contexts. Myths are like mines of gold and they attracted literary scholars from Sophocles to Eugene O’Neil. Myth expresses some ancient society and they are full of mystical experiences and improbable incidents. Each myth celebrates the belief that the universe is boundlessly various that everything occurs simultaneously, that all possibilities may exist without excluding each other. It describes creatures that the lords created were harmful or benign, gentle or cruel, full of dharma or adharma, truthful or false. The origin of the Myth of Yayati is from Adi Parva of the epic Mahabharat by Maharshi Krishna Dwaipayan Ved Vyas. It describes the decline of a pious man Yayati for fulfilling sexual pleasure and then his upliftment when his youngest son offers his youth to him and later on his attainment of heaven.

Yayati in the Mahabharata:

According to the narrative mentioned in chapters 75 to 93 of Adi Parva of the Mahabharata, Yayati was a Puranic king and the son of king Nahusha. He was a great scholar of Vedas. He had five brothers, Yati, Samyati, Ayati, Viyati and Kriti. Yayati’s story begins with his wife, Devayani, the beautiful daughter of Shukracharya, the preceptor of the Asuras (demons). Before her marriage, Devayani was insulted, slapped, and thrown into a (waterless) well by Sharmishta, the daughter of Vrushaparva, the king of Asuras.Yayati who happened to pass by, had rescued Devayani by holding her right hand and pulling her out of the well. Devayani had then asked Yayati to marry him. However, the prevailing custom of the day forbade a Kshatriya to marry a Brahmin girl (this was called the Pratiloma marriage). Yayati refused, stating the Pratiloma rule as the obstacle for their marriage. It reflects caste system of the period.

Seething with rage, Devayani complained to her father about Sharmishta. Sukracharya, who loved his only daughter dearly, told the king that he’d leave the kingdom if his daughter was not appeased. Devayani set her condition for revenge. Sharmishta had to be her dasi (handmaid) and serve her in the house she’d occupy after her marriage. Sharmishta agreed in order to save her father’s honour. Yayati later married Devayani after Sukracharya agreed to make an exception to the Pratiloma rule. As dowry he gave away Sharmishtha. He however warned Yayati that he should never let Sharmishtha share his bed. Sharmishtha was given a place to live in a shaded glade called Ashok Vatika. One day Yayati happened to pass by Ashok Vatika where Sharmishtha lived. Seeing him, Sharmishtha confessed that she too was in love with the king and wanted him to marry her. She told him that she belonged to a royal family and Yayati could marry her. Yayati agreed and they wed in secret. They continued to meet and hide the fact from Devayani that they were married. Yayati had two sons from Devayani – Yadu and Turvasu. Yayati also had three sons from Sharmishtha – Druhyu ,Anu and Pooru.

When Devayani came to know about the relationship of Yayati and Sharmishtha and their three sons she felt shocked and betrayed. Devayani went away to her father’s house. Shukracharya was displeased with the king, and cursed that he would lose his youth and become an old man immediately. As soon as Shukracharya uttered his curse Yayati became an old man. Shukracharya also said that his curse once uttered could not be taken back and added that the only concession he could give was that if Yayati wanted he could give his old age to someone and take his youth from him. The king Yayati is cursed to old age in the prime of life for a moral transgression he has committed. Distraught at losing his youth, he approaches his five sons, pleading with them to lend him their youth in exchange for old age. After the older four refused their father, the youngest, Pooru yields to his entreaties. Pooru accepts the exchange and the curse, and thus becomes old, older than his father.

Later, Yayati realized the futility of his shallow actions, renounced the world and did immense penance to redeem him and gain enlightenment. As a result of his endeavour, he attained enlightened, and won great admiration and respect of the Gods.

Girish Karnad’s Yayati

Girish Karnad’s Yayati is written in the context of the persuasive philosophy of Existentialism. Keniston writes that “heroes” of all kinds and all ages have been alienated and their stories are the tales of alienation and of struggles to end it.” (Keniston 32-33) Karnad has borrowed the myth from great Indian epic Mahabharta and other Purans. It was written in Kannada when Karnad was 22 and translated into English when he was 69.In the preface he says that he incorporated the comments from the professionals as per the need of the new public.

 The drama opens with the Sutradhara’s hint to spectators that though the characters and incidents of the play relate to earlier times, they could as well be applicable to contemporary times. In the prologue, Sutradhara says:

 Our play this evening deals with an ancient myth. But, let me rush to explain, it is not a ‘mythological’….A mythological aims to plunge us into the sentiment of devotion. It sets out to prove that the sole reason for our suffering in this world is that we have forsaken our gods…There are no deaths in mythological.

Our play has no gods. And it deals with death…We turn to ancient lore not because it  offers any blinding revelation or hope of consolation, but because it provides fleeting glimpses of the fears and desires sleepless within us.(Karnad 6)

 The play opens when Yayati is married to Devayani, the daughter of demons’ guru Shukracharya. Sharmistha, the daughter of the Demon King Vrishparva, is shown as her slave. Swarnlata, a maid of Devayani instigates her against Sharmishtha.“I know she was your friend once. But today she is your slave. You mustn’t let her forget that.” (Karnad 8)

 The first act reveals the characters of Sharmishtha and Devayani and their feminine sensibility. Devayani is easily trapped by the bitter words of Sharmistha as she fills her ears that Yayati married her only to learn the art of sanjivani (immortality) from her father as a marriage gift. Sharmishtha says:“Yayati.The scion of the Bharata dynasty. He is not short of women…But he chooses you.Why?…You,only you, could lead him to the ultimate goal:a sanctuary beyond the reach of death.”(Karnad 11)

 Throughout the play Devayani wanted to prove her superiority to the daughter of the Asura race. She considers Sharmistha as treacherous. She addresses her as Yayati’s concubine. But, ironically, like a common woman in a male dominated Indian society, she is not allowed inclusive freedom and a life of her own which finally leads to her self-alienation. Devayani asks Yayati: “They say even a prostitute is asked her name first when she is picked off the street. And you didn’t ask mine.” (Karnad 14)

The war of words between Devayani and Sharmistha, who were good friends once, is loaded with anxiety and bitterness. Devayani utters abuses to Sharmistha and finds the uselessness of her life, “Bitch! I’ll kill you. I’ll feed you to the…” (Karnad 13)Yayati favours Sharmishtha and says: “I am sick of hearing every living soul in the palace complain against her.” (Karnad 15)

Sharmistha says the harsh reality about the life of slave that it is as good as a domesticated animal.

Karnad takes a deep insight into Yayati’s character and shows Yayati’s passion for the enjoyment of life, which ultimately turns into detachment and aloofness. Yayati is a true ambassador of modern common man, who in spite of having much pleasures of life, still feels impatient and dissatisfied. Yayati takes the youth of Pooru, his youngest son, but soon realizes the impropriety of his shallow action and feels like an alienated common man. Yayati feels cataclysmic disillusionment and loss of faith in life. His torment and burden for Pooru’s youth is revealed in the following words. “Please help me, Pooru. Take back your youth. Let me turn my decrepitude into a beginning.” (Karnad 69)

Pooru proves himself as a great symbol of sacrifice. He accepts the imposed old age of his father and becomes a ripe old man in his formative years while Yayati regains his youth. However, in another sense, Pooru becomes the victim of his father’s hysterical desires for sensuality. Pooru seeks Chitralekha’s help, his wife, to the lead rest of his life in solace and calm with him. He asserts: “This is no ordinary old age, devi. This is decrepitude. The sum total of the Father’s transgressions. The burden of the whole dynasty, perhaps. I couldn’t take it on without your help.” (Karnad 57)

 Earlier, Chitralekha admired her husband’s decision and felt herself honoured and lucky for being his wife. She also performs an arati as a sign of admiration. Yet when she looks at the old and ragged face of her husband she realizes that a treachery has fallen over her. She screams to look at his face and utters: “Please don’t come near to me. Go out. Please, please. Don’t touch me…” (Karnad 58)

As a matter of fact, we must understand that Chitralekha, a creation of Karnad, in the highest sense, stands for the futility of life even though she was born as a princess. Chitralekha marries Yayati because of his youth and dynamism, but Yayati accepts decrepitude of his father without consulting her. Meanwhile, Yayati asks her to be patient and to rise above such inconsequential consideration. He also asks her to be a great woman. Karnad takes a memorable turn here, and his Chitralekha tries to cross the threshold of patriarchy. “I didn’t know Prince Pooru when I married him for his youth.For his potential to plant the seed of the Bharatas in my womb. He has lost that potency now. He does not possess any of the qualities for which I married him. But you do.” (Karnad 65-66)

Thus, Karnad creates Chitralekha as a desperate figure who suffers extreme aloofness and coldness from every human being around her. Ultimately she finds only one way open to her and she commits suicide by taking a vial of poison to end her unbearable misery. During an interview with Tutun Mukherjee regarding existential element and introducing the character of Chitralekha in Yayati, Karnad says:

Pooru’s old age is a sudden transformation and not the eventuality of life.It brings no wisdom and no self-realisation. It is a senseless punishment for an act he has not committed. I was also intrigued by the idea that if Pooru had a wife, how would she react?So, I introduced Chitralekha. Every character in the play tries to evade the consequences of their actions, except Sharmishtha and Chitralekha.(Mukherjee 31)

Swarnalata is also a creation of Karnad who suffers from the hands of her husband and human sympathy as well, and, thus a symbol of modern lost man. Her character is also a symbol of conservative society that anticipates a woman to prove her innocence. She feels a close association with Chitralekha and churns out her own tale of laceration. Swarnalata’s father engages a Brahmin tutor to educate her who teaches her to read and write. With the passage of time Swarnalata finds a nicer husband of her own caste. One day her husband came to know that a Brahmin boy used to visit her house before their marriage. Her husband could not control his doubt about the chastity of his wife, which grew as suspicion and poisoned his mind completely. Life became a disease for Swarnalata and in spite of being innocent she suffered the hatred of people and faced the ordeal of her broken dreams. One day she told a lie to her husband to help him get out of his nagging doubt about her chastity that she had been seduced by her teacher. As a result, she found that, for the first time in many years, her husband turning his side and fell into deep sleep. But the very next day, her ray of hope is shattered and she finds herself alone in a world full of human beings but no one for her: “He disappeared next morning. I haven’t seen him since. I still deck myself up as a married woman. Our house awaits his return: every one of his possessions in its place, exactly as he left it. But if he doesn’t return, I hope he at least found peace in death.” (Karnad 60)

Thus, Karnad’s Yayati is a tale of protestors all around without a ray of sunlight. The universal law of suffering seems to be that it kills silently, and playwright’s characters are no exception of this law. Karnad’s Yayati is similarly stricken with an overwhelming desire for indulgence. However, because Karnad decides that he is an Existential king, he alters Yayati’s character. In Karnad’s Yayati, the importance is skewed heavily in favour of Pooru–not Yayati–which is a perversion of the original. In the original, Pooru’s role begins with accepting his father’s old age with respectful dignity, and ends with returning it. But Karnad’s Pooru is despondent that about his loss of youth. He does vent in a few monologues. However, this poses a problem because in the original, there is limited emphasis on Pooru’s role and character. The playwright therefore needs to strengthen and enhance to Pooru’s grief of loosing youth so that his presence can be “felt.” Karnad’s Pooru needs crutches to make himself felt and a fine lady, Chitralekha, materializes this as Pooru’s wife–a character absent in the original. Take away Chitralekha from Yayati, and it falls flat. Karnad also conveniently hides Yayati’s confession that indulgence doesn’t lead to peace and happiness. Karnad’s hero is Pooru, not Yayati.

Karnad’s Yayati comes across as merely a pleasure-monger while in the original, his character is symbolic of a higher ideal,that of striving for truth, and eternal happiness. Yayati’s long span of sensual indulgence is a symbol that indicates the futility of chasing happiness in things that have a definite end. Indulgence only increases thirst, it doesn’t quench it. Each climax of happiness ends with sorrow that it is over so soon, followed by a craving to renew, to repeat the pleasure once more. Yayati’s disillusionment is complete only with saturation. He has had his fill but remains unfulfilled this is what plods him to seek a non-cyclical happiness.

In the original, neither Yayati nor his son suffers from any kind of confusion or existentialist disease. They’re aware of their motivations, their choices, and have great conviction. They feel no guilt or remorse. Pooru considers it his duty towards his father, adhering firmly to the dictum of pitru devo bhava (father is god). Yayati comes across as pretty straightforward when he expresses his desire to enjoy sensual pleasure; his strength of character is equally on for display when he speaks with conviction that he’s had enough of that.

Influenced by existentialist drama, his first play Yayati (1961) explores the complexities of responsibility and expectations within the Indian family. Drawing on a myth from the Mahabharata, Karnad expressed in it a personal dilemma of Yayati, between his family’s demands and his own wish for freedom.

The audience in the West at which Karnad aimed this missile is largely ignorant of the humungous Indian mythology and its various subtleties. For a man like Karnad, well-versed in English literature and western philosophy, tailoring Yayati in an existential garb has proved rewarding. He gave them what they understood–and could understand.

 Yayati a Novel by V.S.Khandekar

V.S.Khandekar, in his Sahitya Academy Award and Jnan Pith Award winner (in 1974)novel Yayati, narrates the internal conflict in the mind of Yayati  for getting sexual pleasure and salvation. The novel was published in1954 in Marathi and Gujarati translation of the same by Gopalrao Vidhavans was published in 1963.It is divided into two sections, the first having two parts and the second having three parts. The novel is discussed in the first person narrative by Yayati, Devayani and Shramishta, but at the centre lies the story of Yayati. Khandekar’s Yayati is not a pure myth only, but taking the subject matter of the myth, he has created a conflict of modern man in search of material pleasures. It is a story of a man who runs blindly in search of happiness. The concept of happiness for the mythological Yayati in the Mahabharata is limited to his relationship and lust for women only, whereas the modern Yayati of Khandekar has so many factors which can arise his worldly passion and delude. So, Khandekar’s modern Yayati becomes a magic personality in the midst of desires. Khandekar has added modern sensibility to the myth of Yayati. The novel starts with the statement by Yayati that he is not certain why he is depicting the story and ends with the statement by characters that what ever we three characters have said is correct and without hiding any truth. The novel is a story woven, confounded, exposed, and disentangled around the life of four characters. All the characters are making efforts to get happiness but as they all are cursed could not gain happiness. The sanjivani vidya of Shukrachraya results into vain. Devayani marries against the curse of Kach that no son of pious man will marry her. Sharmistha marries to get consolation from a maid. So, the destiny has made all these mighty characters as puppet against their will.

Yayati of childhood is a poet, king and has thirst for beauty. The Yayati of adolescence is a dreamer. Horse in the novel is a symbol of psychic fantasy in the mind of Yayati. Yayati is a slave of senses. His brother Yati is an ascetic. So, Yayati vowed his mother never to renounce life. But his meeting with Yati, Kach and Angiras inspiers him to be an ascetic. So he struggles between desires for a worldly life and ascetic life. At the end of the novel the entry of Kach who knows Sanjivani Vidya makes Yayati alive. Davayani’s first love was Kach, so she never feels happy with Yayati. She is jealous, rude, dominating and egoist. Khandekar is sympathetic with Sharmistha-the second wife of Yayati and her son Pooru. Khandekar says that the modern Yayati of his novel has lust for women and other material pleasures too. When moral and social values are declining in modern world, the novel raises the basic questions for sustenance of these values.

Yayati of Khandekar is portrayed in different phases of life viz. Yayati of childhood , adolescence, young age, mature and of old age.The Yayti of old Age is exception to get moratl pleasures and he narrates the tale. The aim of Yayati is Madya, Mrugaya and Minaxi.i.e. wine, hunting and woman.

Khandekar adds the curse by allowing the youth back to Yayati’s family only after his death.

Shukracharya curses, “આ તારું યૌવન આ ક્ષણે જ ક્ષીણ થાઓ.!(Khandekar  )

When Devayani requests her father for mercy, Shukracharya says, “તારી વૃધ્ધાવસ્થાનો પોતે જ સ્વીકાર કરનારો તારા કુળનો અને તારા જ રક્તબીજનો તરુણ જો નીકળશે તો તું ધારીશ એ જ ક્ષણે તારી વૃધ્ધાવસ્થા એને મળશે અને એનું યૌવન તું પ્રાપ્ત કરી શકીશ.માત્ર એક વાત તું બરાબર યાદ રાખજે કે તેં ઉછીનું લીધેલું યૌવન તારા મૃત્યુ પછી જ એને પાછું મળી શકશે. (Khandekar  )

Here, Khandekar added the curse to the king Nahush that his sons will never be happy in life. The novel of Khandekar is the story of Yayati’s sensual happiness, Devayani’s household life, Sharmishtha’s love story, and Kach’s devotion. Khandekar says that wealth (Arth) and passion(Kam) are the supporting factors for life, but unrestrained use of these without the control of Dharma  lead to unhappiness. Khandekar says that we cannot follow all old values and even cannot frame new ones.


On comparison of one character i.e. Yayati having three images in three different texts, viz. in epic, novel and drama and the relevance of myth in the present context with alteration it seems that three creative writers have created three Yayatis.

Yayati of the Mahabharata is pious,and sober. He preaches Stayam Vad and Dharmam Char.He yarns youth but after convincing his sons. The philosophy of life that he understands after getting youth leads him to the heaven. He is the ambassador of four ashramas and four varnas. He preaches like a sage. The original Mahabharata tells us that the more he indulged, the thirstier he grew. In his words, (crudely translated) told to Pooru, Dear son, sensual desire is never quenched by indulgence any more than fire is by pouring ghee in it. I had so far heard, and read about this. Now, I’ve realized it: no object of desire–corn, gold, cattle, women–nothing can ever satisfy the desire of man. We can reach peace only by a mental poise that goes beyond likes and dislikes. This is the state of Brahman. Take back your youth and rule the kingdom wisely and well. Yayati then retired to the forest to perform penance. In due course, he attained the perfect state of Brahman.

Yayati of Karnad is inferior. He is ever complaining about Devayani to Sharmistha.He clarifies his relations with Sharmishta to Devayani.He remains an ordinary man and Chitralekha argues Yayati for her husband’s acceptance of old age and she commits suicide to end her misery. Karnad takes a deep insight into Yayati’s character and shows Yayati’s passion for the enjoyment of life, which ultimately turns into detachment and aloofness. Yayati is a true ambassador of modern alienated common man, who in spite of having much pleasures of life, still feels impatient and dissatisfied. Yayati takes the youth of Pooru, his youngest son, but soon realizes the impropriety of his shallow action and feels like an alienated common man. Yayati’s disillusionment is complete only with saturation. Influenced by existentialist drama, Yayati explores the complexities of responsibility and expectations within the Indian family.In the Mahabharata, Yayati understands the nature of desire itself and realizes that fulfillment neither diminishes nor eliminates desire. In the drama, Karnad makes Yayati confront the horrifying consequences of not being able to relinquish desire; and through the other characters he highlights the issues of class/caste and gender coiled within a web of desire. Karnad weighs selfishness and sacrifice in two pans and in his case sacrifice sustains which resembles the myth of the Mahabharata.

Yayati of Khandekar grows from childhood to old age. In the flashback through his monologues and stream of consciousness he seems broken at heart. He is a symbol of conflict and struggle, both internal and external. On the voyage of searching happiness and pleasures of life, he continuously sinks into sad moments of life. Yayati of Khandekar, instead of preaching, tells tale of his pathetic and miserable life. He wants purgation of his emotions. Khandekar’s modern Yayati is symbolic of common man who strives blindly in search of material and physical pleasure without bothering about its consequences. He is the representative of modern man who runs blindly without distinguishing between good and evil in search of fulfillment of unfulfilled desires.

Yayati of novel comes out as a modern man in search of happiness where as Karnad’s alienated Yayati seems complaining. While rewording the myth by adding symbols and imagery to the original myth, through different genres viz. drama and novel both Khandekar and Karnad attempted to make Yayati a tale of a modern man running towards temporal materialistic pleasures. But the novel Yayati emerges as a creative work based on myth with modern sensibility.So, Yayati of the novel is more relishing in  contemporary Age.Ved Vyas, through Yayati preaches Pooru whereas Karnad and Khandekar do not preach.

Works Cited

  1. Hindu Myths , A Source book Translated from the Sanskrit. New Delhi:Penguin Books, 1994. Print.
  2. Karnad, Girish. Yayati. TransNew Delhi:OUP, 2008. Print.
  3. Karnad, Girish.Yayati. TransNew Delhi: Saraswati Vihar, 1979. Print.
  4. Khandekar,V.S.Yayati.Trans.Gopalrav G.Vidwansh.Ahmedabad:Gurjar Grantharatna Karyalaya,2005.
  5. K.Kenstion, “Varieties of Alienation: An attempt at Definition,” Alienation and Social  System.Finifter A.W.ed. Inc: John Wiley and Sons,1973.p.32-33.Print.
  6. Mukherjee,Tutun.ed.Girish Karnad’s Plays Performance and Critical Perspectives.New Delhi: Pencraft International,2006.Print.
  7. Oxford Dictionary & Thesaurus.2nd ed.2006.Web.

Bhatt Mahesh Bharatkumar,  Assistant Professor in English, Gujarat Arts & Science College, Ahmedabad. Email Id:

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