A Comparative Study of the Yayati Myth in Indian Drama


Myth forms an excellent area of comparative study in Indian literatures. The Yayati myth has been told and retold not only in the classical Indian literature and religion but also it occupied a central place in the contemporary Indian culture. The story of Yayati captured imagination of modern Indian culture from all the corners of the subcontinent. In recent time we are having three plays based on the Yayati myth, namely, Girish Karnad’s ‘Yayati’, published in Kannada in 1961 and in English in 2008; Nand Kishore Acharya’s Hindi play ‘Dehaantar’(1987) and Viru Purohit’s Gujarati play ‘Puru ane Paushti’ (2001). The present paper is a study on the use of Yayati myth by the three dramatists. The paper focuses on the comparison of purpose, introduction of new characters, modification of the original text and language and setting of the three dramatists.

The term 'Comparative Literature' is difficult to define. In it two or sometimes more than two literatures are compared. If multidimentional aspects of the comparative literature such as-linguistic, cultural, religious, economic, social and historical factors of different societies, are taken into account, it becomes more difficult task.

Bijay Kumar Das defines the comparative literature as,
“The simple way to define comparative literature is to say that it is a comparison between the two literatures. Comparative literature analyses the similarities and dissimilarities and parallels between two literatures. It further studies themes, modes, conventions and use of folk tales, myths in two different literatures or even more.” (Das, 2000, pp. 1)

Broadening the horizon of comparative literature Bijay Kumar Das comments:
“Comparative literature transcends the narrowness, provinciality and parochialism of national and general literatures. The complacence of regional writers are shaken when the comparatists study their writings along with the 8 writings of other writers in different other languages.” (Das, 2000, pp. 4)

It is the argument of the critics that Indian literature is one though written in many regional languages. The fact is that Indian culture has a certain kind of unity in diversity. This unity in cultural, social and religious background of Indian society, makes all literatures to be one i.e., Indian. Here the views of R.K. Gupta and Priyalakshmi are worth quoting:
“If languages were in fact the decisive factor in determining the unity of a literature, then literatures written in a single language but in different nations would be regarded as one not as many literatures. But we know that this is not to be the case, English is primary vehicle of several national literatures - British, American, Canadian and Australian to name just a few and also a secondary vehicle of literary expressions in many countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. If there can be several national literatures written in a single language, there can also be single national literature - including Indian literature - written in several languages.(Gupta, 1986, pp. 26)

It is not language that gives unity to a literature but the social, cultural, economic, philosophical and religious movements and political environments play their role in this concern. Uniformity of theme is one of the main factors among Indian regional literatures. Language is a cultural phenomenon conditioned by its locale and socio - historic forces that are in operation through ages.

Every literature has its own specific character of form, style, images, symbols, nuances and associations etc. Keeping this view in mind, we states that French literature is not similar to English literature, German literature and Russian literature. Similarly, if closely seen Bengali literature differs from Marathi, Tamil or Hindi literatures. They are not different just because the fact that they are written in different languages but because the fact that all these literatures developed under the influence of different socio- historic environment. And we can trace out many similarities and dissimilarities among them.

Myth is an important element in different regional and national literatures. Lévi-Strauss, Radin, Boas, Weigle, and others stress that mythic thought, as highly symbolic, offers rich resources for making sense of the world, affirming worldview, and confirming human nature. Myth forms an excellent area of comparative study in Indian literatures.

The Yayati myth has been told and retold not only in the classical Indian literature and religion but also it occupied a central place in the contemporary Indian culture. It is not possible to list all the instances where modern Indian literature has recreated the Yayati myth but a passage from Sisir Kumar Das’s History of Indian Literature 1911-1956 may suffice to demonstrate how much the myth has been an obsession for Indian modernity:
“The earliest work on the subject in this century is (1908) by the prolific Tamil playwright P. Sambandha Mudaliyar. He was followed by Srikanta Satpathy, the author of the Oriya narrative (1927) and Govinda Ballabh Pant (Hindi play Yayåti, 1951) and V S Khandekar whose novel Yayäti (1959) has been hailed as one of the greatest works in Marathi literature. Sudhindranath Datta's 'Yayäti' included in Sambarta (1953) is one of the memorable poems in modern Bengali literature. Similarly, Umashankar Joshi's Pracina (1944), a collection of seven dialogues (including Yayäti), created a new form of verse plays on themes borrowed from mythology.” (Das, 2000,pp. 141)

Even after that Yayati myth continued to influence. In recent time we are having three plays based on the Yayati myth, namely, Girish Karnad’s ‘Yayati’, published in Kannada in 1961 and in English in 2008; Nand Kishore Acharya’s Hindi play ‘Dehaantar’(1987) and Viru Purohit’s Gujarati play ‘Puru ane Paushti’ (2001).

The above list shows how the story of Yayati captured imagination of modern Indian culture from all the corners of the subcontinent – north (Hindi), south (Tamil), east (Oriya and Bengali) and west (Marathi and Gujarati). The most influential among these has surely been Khandekar’s novel ‘Yayati’. The novel has won the author not only highest national literary awards of India – the Sahitya Akademy Award (1960) and the Jnanapith Award (1974) – but it also reinterprets the classical myth in an original way. The story of Yayati comes in the Mahabharata – Adi Parva and also in Bhagavata Purana. The Mahabharata story runs into ninghteen – chapter – long. In brief it is: Sharmishtha continued to stay as Devayani's handmaid. Yayati made a palace for Sharmishtha at the request of Devayani. One day Sharmishtha secretly met Yayati and told him what happened between her and Devayani. Yayati was sympathetic. Sharmishtha begged Yayati to take her as the second wife. Yayati agreed and married her but without the knowledge of Devayani. Sharmishtha had three sons. One day, Devayani met the three sons of Sharmishtha. She asked the boys the name of their father. They pointed to Yayati. Devayani was shocked. She felt deceived and ran to her father's hermitage. Sukracharya was enraged and cursed Yayati with pre- mature old age. Yayati begged for forgiveness. Sukracharya and Devayani felt sorry for him. Sukracharya then said, "I cannot take back my curse, but if any of your sons is ready to exchange his youth for your old age, you will be young again as long as you wish.

Yayati, now an old man, quickly returned to his kingdom and called for his eldest son. "My dutiful take my old age and give me your youth, at least for a while, until I am ready to embrace my old age". The eldest son turned down his father's request and also the next three older brothers. Then came the youngest, Puru. He agreed and immediately turned old. Yayati rushed out as a young man to enjoy his life. After years spent in vain effort to quench his desires by indulgence, Yayati finally carne to his senses. He returned to Puru and said, "Dear son, sensual desire is never quenched by indulgence any more than fire is extinguished by pouring oil on it. Take back your youth and rule the kingdom wisely and well".

Yayati then returned to the forest and spent the rest of his days in austerities, meditating upon Brahman, the ultimate reality. In due course. he attained heaven. (Anonymous) The above is the "original" version of the Yayäti myth as narrated in Mahabharata and extended with slight variations in Vishnu-Purana and Bhagavata-Purana. However Harivamsa gives an additional piece of information about Yayäti—that he received a celestial chariot from Indra, the king of the gods, with which he conquered the whole world and even defeated the gods. The Indra-chariot connection leads to a somewhat different version of the Yayäti myth in Padma-Purana:
“Yayäti was invited to heaven by Indra, who sent Mätali, his charioteer, to fetch his guest. On their way they held a philosophical discussion, which made such an impression on Yayäti that, when he returned to earth, he, by his virtuous administration, rendered all his subjects exempt from passion and decay. Yama complained that men no longer died, and so Indra sent god of love, and his daughter, Asruvindumati, to excite a passion in the breast of Yayäti. He became enamoured, and in order to become a fit husband for his youthful charmer, he made application to his sons for an exchange of their youth and his decrepitude. All refused but Puru, whose manly vigour his father assumed. After a while the youthful bride, at the instigation of Indra, persuaded her husband to return to heaven, and he then restored to Puru his youth.” (Dowson, 2000, p. 377)

Girish Karnad's Yayati has been written under the influence of the existentialists like Satre and Camus. In an interview Karnad expresses:
“I was excited by the story of Yayati. This exchange of ages between the father and son which seems to me terribly powerful terribly modern. At the same time I was reading a lot of Satre and the existentialists. This consistent harping on responsibility which the existentialist indulge in suddenly seemed to link up with the story of Yayati.” (Paul, 1971)

Chitralekha seems to be in search of a man who would define her and provide her some recognition in a society ruled by males. Finding herself in a sad plight, she says to Yayati: 'You have youth, Puru has got the sense of sacrifice. What am I to do here…' She seems to be “New woman' not in the sense that she challenges the patriarchy but in the sense that she challenges the social obligation and moral laws. She says that morality is the fabrication of the human mind. In this statement she is very close to absurdists. Nand Kishore Acharya's 'Dehaantar' is a psychological analysis of Sharmishtha, Puru and Bindumati. Body, lust and youth are at the center of the play. As Sohan Vaishnav argues, Yayati wants to prepare the platform of logic for his love for Sharmishtha and in the course of the play his lust revealed. (वैष्णव) Philosophical arguments can be seen in the words of Bindumati, “हम व्यक्ति को नहीं पौरुष को भोगती हैं. पौरुष सनातन तत्त्व है… …… …………… व्यक्ति में उसकी आंशिक अभिव्यक्ति है केवल. प्रत्येक नारी सनातन कामना और पुरुष उसी सनातन पौरुष का माध्यम है.” (Acharya, pp. 38)

Viru Purohit's 'Puru ane Paushti' (Puru and Paushti) depicts the attraction of Devyani and Puru and thus invent the Oedipus Complex. Devyani is depicted as conspirator. In the opening of the play, dramatist has put Devyani's attraction towards Puru and to enjoy the youth of Puru she indirectly influences Shukaracharya to curse Yayati for pre-mature old age.

Thus all the three dramatists – Girish Karnad, Nand Kishore Acharya and Viru Purohit have reinterpreted the myth to discuss the altogether different issues of the contemporary society. Karnad looks at the myth from existentialist approach, Acharya deals with psychological analysis and Viru Purohit for Oedipus Complex. In all the three version of Yayati myth, one thing is common, i.e adding new characters. Chitralekha in 'Yayati', Bindumati in 'Dehaantar' and Paushti in 'Puru ane Paushti' are new characters or minor characters of original story depicted with length. Karnad creates Chitralekha as a desperate figure who suffers extreme aloofness and coldness from every human being around her. B. V. Karnath's words deserve mention:
“The character of Chitralekha is very much remarkable one. There are only two suicides in the Mahabharata. Both the suicides are to bring some point to light.” (Karnath, 2001)

Ultimately, she finds one way open to her and she commits suicide by taking a vial of poison to end her unbearable misery. As a genuine humanist, Karnad asks his readers/spectators, though indirectly, to think seriously over the predicament of Chitrlekha in the play. The portrayal of her character seems to be authentic from the modern point of view. By yoking an existential husband and a realistic wife together, Karnad tries to bring out the pathetic plight of Chitralekha.“Through her Karnad explores the Futility of being born a princess who finds reality too much to bear and kills herself” (Tripathi, 2004)

Swarnalata's character is invented and runs parallel to the disillusionment experienced by Chitralekha. She has also lost her husband and thinks that death brings peace, 'the deliverance from uncertainty' (Karnad, 2008: 60). However, she regrets her intention when she finds Chitralekha commits suicide after taking cue from her speech. Just as Swarnalata's husband punished her when he learned about her relationship with her teacher, Devayani too deserts Yayati after he makes love to Sharmishtha. Swarnalata's married life is Karnad's addition to the original tale.

Bindumati in ‘Dehaantar’is the creation of Acharya. She is Indra's daughter and in love with Puru. She marries to Yayati, now having body of Puru. Bindumati is rebellious character and helps the dramatist to add his voice. Bindumati's character relates us to the reality. Her following remarks in the play are worth quoting:
शुक्राचार्य का शाप लौटा लेना शाप देने से भी भारी पड़ा है, चक्रवर्ती ! सारा क्रम उलट गया । (Acharya, 1990, pp.40)

बिंदु: तो वह मृत्यु किस की होगी?
ययाती: मृत्यु?
बिंदु: ययाती की या पुरू की ? (Acharya, 1990, pp. 41)

ययाती किसी आत्मा का नहीं, देह का नाम है, और उस देह का सब कुछ अब पुरू का है । (Acharya, 1990, pp.41)

यही तो है पुरू जिसे मुझे पाना है । मेरा भ्रम था लेकिन । यह सब पुरू का था, पुरू नहीं था लेकिन । उसे नहीं पा सकी मै । (Acharya, 1990, pp. 42)

Thus character of Bindumati helps the dramatist to add modern reality. The intensity of the conflict is deepen by the character.

Viru Purohit, in the introduction of the play, mention that Paushti is his own creation. Paushti is in love with Puru. Puru accepts old age of Yayati. Shocked by the news, Paushti turns herself into wooden idol. Through out the play, she remains as wooden idol, except in the dialogues of the other characters. At the end of the play, when Yayati returns youth to Puru, Paushti comes back from the wooden idol and becomes the queen.

Thus, though all the three dramatists have introduced new characters in their plays, Karnad and Acharya succeeds to add complexity through the added character, but Purohit fails to give meaning to the character of Paushti. Karnad's Chitralekha relates the myth with present. Bindumati becomes the dramatists voice, while Paushti’s creation remains in vain.

In mythology, Sharmishtha is already married with Yayati and Pooru is the son of Sharmishtha. But Karnad has put the things in different manner. In Karnad’s Yayati, Pooru is not the son of Sharmishtha. But he is son of another rakshasi who has passed away when Pooru was a child. In mythology Sharmistha is already married with Yayati and in Karnad’s Yayati she is just a slave to Devayani. Karnad has introduced another sub-plot in the play. The episode of Swarnalata and her husband is an additional plot which comments on the suspicious behaviour of male community. Swarnalata is representative of an oppressed woman.

Overall Karnad has been faithful to the source text of Yayati. However, he has made few changes to intensify the theme of social obligations and 'ripeness is all'. As Karnad says:
…old age brings no knowledge, no self realization, only the senselessness of a punishment meted out for an act in which he (Pooru) had not even participated (Karnad, 73).

In 'Dehaantar' the source text of the 'Yayati' has been followed, except the character of Bindumati. Yayati is married to Sharmishtha and Puru is son of Yayati-Sharmishtha. Devyani is not present physically in the play, but she is referred to by Yayati and Sharmishtha. Yayati thinks that Devyani is unfaithful to him since she is still in love with Kutch.

In 'Puru ane Paushti' Devayani is physically present in the play. Sharmishtha and Yayati are in love with each other but, Devayani was not aware of their love. Sharmishtha is a maid of Devayani and live in the forest in a hut. In the opening scene of the play, Devayani comes to know about Yayati- Sharmishtha affair and that Puru is the son of Yayati-Sharmishtha. Paushti becomes wooden-idol and waits for Puru, is the dramatist's addition to the original myth.

Karnad’s Yayati is written in the Yakshagana form and Karnad uses glorified and celestial language for the Sutradhara. For Swarnalata and Sharmistha, Karnad uses colloquial language. Except Chitralekha all three women characters use abusive language. But Sharmishtha’s language is more sharpened than that of Devayani and Swarnalata. The beating of the drums in Yayati adds dramatic effect to the play just like Eugene O’ Neill’s Emperor Jones.

'Dehaantar' is written in celestial language. It is divided into three Acts, two scenes in each Act. Almost all the action takes place either in the Sharmishtha's bed-room, the Palace or in the room of Puru. Poetry or any folk tools has not been used. The play set in the places where little or no set up is required. Lights is used effectively to highlight the message of the play.

Purohit’s ‘Puru ane Paushti’ is also written in celestial language. Purohit is more known in Gujarati literature as poet, and hit poetic ability has been used extremely well throught the play. Through his own and classical poems, dramatist has developed the plot and characters. But at many places over language consciousness can be observed. As Rajendra Mehta correctly remarks,
“Over consciousness to use Sanskrit tatsam words leads into the aperture texure of the language.” (Mehta, 2002, pp 188)

Thus, three different interpretations of the Yayati myth are found. Karnad's Yayati is the quest for the identity, so is the case with Sharmishtha and Puru in 'Dehaantar; while 'Puru ane Paushti' dealy with the Oedipus Complex. To highlight the complexity, dramatist alters the original text or adds a character or incidents. Karnad uses the Yakshagana form and thus takes the spectator to the another world, on the other hand Acharya and Purohit's use of celestial language adds the flavour of mythology. Karnad and Purohit's use of poetry to intensify the complexity is noteworthy. In short, myth can be used effectively to communicate the modern complexity and sensibility.


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Hasmukh J. Patel
Assist. Professor (English)
Gujarat Arts and Commerce College (Evening)
Ellisbridge, Ahmedabad