या दुस्त्यजा दुर्मतिभिर्जीर्यतो या न जीर्यते ⁠।
तां तृष्णां दुःखनिवहां शर्मकामो द्रुतं त्यजेत् ⁠।⁠।⁠

The desire to the senses is the source of all misery. It takes great effort for the feeble-minded ones to give up sensory pleasure. The body becomes decrepit but the desire remains youthful. So, the one who wants self welfare should renounce worldly desires as soon as possible.

Canto 9, Chapter 18-19 of Shrimad Bhagavatam illustrates the fascinating story of King Yayati. His story finds mention in the Adi Parva of Mahabharat and Matsya Purana also. The life of King Yayati takes us all to a journey of a man born in a glorious family who is the epitome of youth, beauty, and valor; who falls into the endless trap of sense gratification and material enjoyment and at the end comes out triumphant. King Yayati is the one who loses everything at his prime just to get it back and to ultimately renounce everything to attain a heavenly abode. 

Yayati is the second son of the famous king Nahush. He is enthroned as the king after his elder brother Yati took sanyas. Yayati marries Devyani, the daughter of demon-guru Shukracharya. Devyani had kept Sharmishtha, daughter of demon king Vrishparva as her maidservant. The story of how a king’s daughter Sharmishtha became the maidservant of a Brahmin’s daughter Devyani is also very interesting.

Sharmishtha and Devyani were close friends. Once both the ladies were sporting in the water along with thousands of their girlfriends. When the young ladies saw Lord Shiva and Parvati coming towards the lake, they immediately dressed, but Sharmishtha mistakenly put on Devyani’s clothes. Devyani is furious and rebuked Sharmishtha with many harsh words. Sharmishtha, being a princess, couldn’t take the scolding and counter-attacked Devyani by throwing her into a well. When Sharmishtha had left the venue, King Yayati by chance came and rescued Devyani. After returning home, Devyani narrates the whole incident to her father Shukracharya who becomes furious on hearing about his daughter’s insult and decides to leave the court of King Vrishparva. Though Vrishparva is a demon king, he is very much respectful towards his guru and is also scared of his wrath. So in order to calm Shukracharya, he and Sharmishtha accept the condition put forth by Devyani that Sharmishtha will serve Devyani as her maidservant for a lifetime and follow her wherever she goes.

After the whole fiasco, Devyani and King Yayati are married and Sharmishtha follows them to their court. Though Yayati is a great king he is not free of sensory desires. He is a very lustful man with a court full of consorts. While marrying off his daughter to Yayati, Shukracharya had taken a vow from the king that he will not summon Sharmishtha to his bed. However, Yayati couldn’t keep his vow. When Sharmishtha sees that her friend Devyani has borne a son to the king, she also desires to be a mother. So, she approaches Yayati one evening and requests him to bore her a son. King Yayati reminds her of his vow. 

On this, Sharmistha said, “O king, it is not sinful to lie on the occasion of a joke, in respect of women sought to be enjoyed, on occasions of marriage, in peril of immediate death and of the loss of one’s whole fortune. Lying is excusable on these five occasions.” After long back and forth between both, the king who is weak with his senses ultimately gives up to the demon princess’s desire. As a result, Sharmishtha gives birth to three sons from Yayati-Dhruyu, Anu, and Puru. From Devyani he begot two sons- Yadu and Turvasu. 

Yayati and Shamishtha succeed to keep their liaison secret for some time but eventually when it is revealed to Devyani, she becomes furious and immediately leaves for her father’s house. Shukracharya on learning Yayati’s transgression curse him to old age and invalidity. What could be more painful for a lustful man to lose his youth and vitality before its natural time? Yayati is in great distress and thus begs his father-in-law for forgiveness.  He says, “O son of Bhrigu, I have not yet been satiated with youth or with Devyani. Therefore, O merciful, be graceful unto me so that decrepitude might not touch me.” At last, Shukracharya shows mercy and gives him the benediction that he could exchange his old age and invalidity with one of his sons. Shukracharya also says that the son who exchanges Yayati’s old age with his youth will be the successor of the throne. He shall have a long life, wide fame, and numerous progeny. 

Yayati, overcome with decrepitude return to his kingdom and summons all his sons but none of them agree to give their youth to their father. In the end, his youngest son Puru agrees and Yayati gets his youth back. 

Having received Puru’s youth, Yayati becomes exceedingly gratified and with it, he again begins to indulge in his favorite pursuits to the full extent of his desires. He rules the entire world like Indra-the king of celestial gods. His senses are unimpaired, and he enjoys unparallel and unlimited material happiness to his heart’s content without transgressing the precepts of religion. He is very happy to be able to enjoy all the rarest of rare objects in the world. His only qualm is that all these will come to an end one day. 

In the back of his mind Yayati always has this truth lurking that after the passing of a thousand years, he will have to renounce everything. Even after indulging in all kinds of pleasure for a thousand years, he still is unsatisfied. On one hand, he found his desire to be burning high, and on the other hand, he is also aware of the evanescent nature of material pleasure. At last, when he saw that his thousand years of youth is coming to an end, he summons Puru and gives back his youth. Soon after installing Puru on the throne, the king retires into the woods followed by brahmanas and ascetics. Having lived for some time in the forest in the company of ascetics, observing many rigid vows, eating fruits and roots, he, at last, ascends to heaven where he lived in bliss for some time but is soon hurled down by Indra. Why he is thrown out of heaven and what happened to him is a story to be discussed in some other post in the future. 

Takeaway: Shrimad Bhagavat compares the sudden renunciation of Yayati to a bird leaving and flying away from the nest as soon as its wings fully grow. The moral of this story is explained by King Yayati himself to his beloved wife Devyani. He says:

न जातु कामः कामानामुपभोगेन शाम्यति ⁠।

हविषा कृष्णवर्त्मेव भूय एवाभिवर्धते ⁠।⁠।⁠

As supplying butter to a fire does not extinguish the fire but instead increases it more and more, the endeavor to stop lusty desires by continual enjoyment can never be successful.

One should always remember that worldly happiness, whether on this planet or on the heavenly planets is temporary and useless.  Keeping this true knowledge in the mind one should neither contemplate nor desire such pleasures. One should always have this firm resolve in the mind that even by contemplation, one will be subjected to the endless cycle of life and birth. One who understands this knowledge is the true aatm-gyani or the knower of the soul.

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