Posts Tagged ‘Yayati’

The tale of the Mahabharata is one of the great gems of Indian mythology and is also the longest epic poem in the world. While its readers marvel at the depth and breadth of philosophy and wisdom contained in the pages, it is also a gripping story of human and divine characters in settings we can relate to. One of the side plots in the story is about a young king called Yayati. A very successful king and kind ruler, he had a great track record in ‘doing the right thing’ – be it rituals or worship or righteous functioning of his kingdom.

As events unfolded, he found himself in a situation whereby he was cursed to become old prematurely. True to the power of the curse, he lost his youth in a flash and became an old man. He was aghast at the turn of events. He begged for a reprieve and was told that he would regain his youth if he found someone ready to exchange his old age for their youth. He then returned to his kingdom and approached his sons with this request.

“I have not had my fill of the joys of life. For, not knowing what was in store for me I lived a life of restraint, denying myself even lawful pleasures. One of you ought to bear the burden of my old age and give his youth in return. He who agrees to this and bestows his youth on me will be the ruler of my kingdom. I desire to enjoy life in the full vigor of youth.”

Needless to say, four of his sons politely refused. As a last resort, he went to his fifth son and the youngest, almost in desperation, saying

“You must save me. I am afflicted with this old age with its wrinkles, debility and grey hairs as a result of the curse []. It is too hard a trial! If you will take upon yourself these infirmities, I shall enjoy life for just a while more and then give you back your youth and resume my old age and all its sorrows. Pray, do not refuse as your elder brothers have done.”

The youngest son, moved by love for his father, gladly accepted and exchanged his youth for his old age. Yayati then rode out on his horse, determined to fully satisfy his needs and wants. He spent many years, enjoying a life of merriment and sensual pleasure. Still not satisfied, he went to another realm and spent many years in the company of a beautiful heavenly nymph.

And then, one day, after 1000 years of trying to satisfy his desire by indulgence, he woke up to the truth!!

Returning to his kingdom, he spoke these words to his son

“Dear son, sensual desire is never quenched by indulgence any more than fire is by pouring ghee [clarified butter] in it. I had heard and read this, but till now I had not realized it. No object of desire, corn, gold, cattle or women, nothing can ever satisfy the desire of man, We can reach peace only by a mental poise beyond likes and dislikes. Such is the state of Brahman [the Ultimate reality]. Take back your youth and rule the kingdom wisely and well.”

Seen from the perspective of economics, Yayati’s 1000-year long experiment was an indulgence spree of his wants and needs, without any known limitation of scarce resources.

What is staggering for economics is the conclusion he reached.

– He didn’t ask for another 1000 years of indulgence to explore more possibilities.

– He didn’t say “enough is enough. I am done. All desire is now satisfied.”

– He didn’t ask to be spared from divine wrath for his indulgences.

– He didn’t say that he felt guilty of violating the scriptures or the code of righteous living

– He didn’t say “Let me try the monastic life now, for a change and see what that is like”

What he is saying is “I realize now that it doesn’t work this way!”

What happened to him later? After returning the ownership of his kingdom to his son, he retired to the forest, performed immense austerities, contemplated on the ultimate reality with intense dedication and then went to heaven. A later story mentions that after reaching heaven, he was asked to repeat his dialogue of insight for the benefit of the beings there.

Meanwhile, we on earth, living in this age, are left to ponder Yayati’s statement. If a 1000-year indulgence spree cannot hit the mark, then what hope do we have trying to satisfy our desires in the 70-80 odd years we live?

And for the intellectual in us, we are curious: just why doesn’t it work? Isn’t it supposed to?

The key to that is in understanding the nature of desire itself.


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