The mellow sun cast a charm all over the palace. The royal garden was full of flowers and trees swayed with an abundance of fruit. Clusters ofamras and satphalas were swinging in the southern breeze. A squirrel curiously looked at the bunches of mangos and pomegranates glistening in sunlight. Deer pranced around and the parakeets and cuckoos from the top branches. His two beautiful wives were on either side of him on the swing. All was well with the world of King Yayati. He was the master of an empire extending from the majestic peaks of the Pariyatra Parvatha in the west to the turgid sea in the east, from the sublime Himalayas in the north to the ocean in the south. He smiled thinking of the vastness and diversity of the territory under his sceptre. The harsh Parvatha leading to Central Asia acted as a boundary preventing the nomads and tribes from entering his kingdom. The sharp bay in the east with its greenish, muddied water separated his huge land mass from the Arakanese and Malaya people deep in the east. And the sapphire waters of the quiet sea in the south were like a shield against the Mleccha’s world. The monarch had five lovely children just coming of age and supporting him in administering the vast empire of Ilavarta. The heady fragrance from the long tresses of Sharmishta soothed him. Lying on her downy lap he breathed deeply. Ah! The sweet smell from her hair was more overpowering than the seasoned wine he had just had. The indolent breeze in the royal garden and the twittering of parakeets were suddenly disturbed by the thundering voice of Sage Shukra,
“King Yayati, what is happening here? This is disgraceful behaviour indeed! How can you be consorting with her in front of my daughter?”
King Yayati jumped off the swing, in his haste nearly dropping Sharmishta on to the ground. He fell at the feet of the Sage and said, “My sincere apologies, oh great sage. If I had only known that you were coming .…”
The sage stepped back and kept fuming. “You would have carried on with your amorous activities with Devayani’s maid despite my express command not to do so. She was sent to serve my daughter, not you. You have forgotten your promise at the time of your marriage to Devayani.” His face was flushed with rage and the ears turned red. “It is not your fault. Your reckless youth is leading you astray. I am cursing you, your youth will turn into a heap of waste in no time.”
As Yayati stood trembling, his hands clasped, the Sage poured some holy water from his kamandalu and sprayed it on Yayati. Devayani looked at her husband with fear and shock in her eyes. “My Lord, your face,” she screamed and closed her eyes. A moment later she ran to Sage Shukra and said, “Father, what have you done? What will happen to me now?”
Yayati ran to the fountain and looked down to see an old man staring back at him. He had aged phenomenally within minutes. The face was wrinkled like an old bark peeling off at the edges, drooping eyelids with dull lacklustre eyes. He brought up his hands in shock to see rotting gnarled fingers swollen with arthritis. He suddenly found that he could barely move because of the acute pain in the joints.
Sage Shukra took his beloved daughter in his arms and could feel her little heart pounding against his chest. He could hear the cry surging out of her soul. He had brought up on his own after the death of his wife. The rage that had passed through his body like a sharp current seeing his son-in-law cavorting with the lowly maid began to recede. He calmed down and the red mist lifted from his eyes. He looked at his sobbing little girl and felt a stabbing pain in his heart. ‘What have I done to my only daughter? I have ruined her life in an instant.’ He turned to King Yayati and said, “A curse once uttered cannot be taken back. But, I’ll let you exchange your old age with one of your five children.”
“Thank you, Great Sage for showing me mercy.” Yayati bowed deeply and sat down, tired. Devayani sent the royal servants to bring the five children to the garden. The eldest son Yadu was the first one to come. He was a tall, strapping young man with stunning good looks. His taut, toned body vibrated with strength and masculinity. He came into the garden and touched the feet of the Great Sage, and then his parents’. The other four followed suit. Both of them blessed all of them with “Deerghayushman Bhava!”
Yadu was the first one to speak,
“You sent for me, Mother? What can we do for you? Where is our father? Who is this elderly gentleman wearing Father’s regalia?” He was staring at the old man intently as he spoke.
“I am your unfortunate father, son. I have been cursed because of my lapses. Sage Shukra has granted that I can regain my youth by swapping my old age with the youth of one of my sons.” Yayati looked at Yadu with pleading eyes.
“But Father, that is shocking news. I have just stepped into my youth and I have not had the taste of it yet. How can I give it away before I even know what it feels like?”
Disappointed, Yayati next looked at Turavsha who would not consider it either. He then turned to the sons of Sharmishta. Dhruhyu looked away turning down his request. Anu had contempt in his eyes when he said, “Was it not you, Father, who told me that a man has to pay for his follies? Why are you asking the others to pay for your actions now?” He had always felt that he was the neglected one among the children.
Puru, the youngest son, who was watching quietly all the while, spoke up. “Father, I haven’t tasted youth and hence I am not going to miss it. If it means that much to you, please have my youth. I will gladly take your place in the forest with Sage Shukra.”
He went to the sage and touched his feet. The sage blessed him with “Deerghayushman Bhava” and lifted him up holding his shoulders. In a matter of moments the young Puru was metamorphosed into an old man and Yayati regained his good looks. He took Puru in his arms and said, “You are the real son for me. From today onward you will be called Sudas because of your actions.” Sharmishta held her son in her arms and kissed his forehead. Tears were flowing down her cheeks as she bid goodbye to him. Puru struggled to bend down to touch the feet of his parents – Yayati, Devyani and Sharmishta – before leaving for the forest with Sage Shukra. The royal couple and the four sons stood there as the cart carrying Puru and Sage Shukra disappeared in the distance.
Yayati went back to what he had always been good at – ruling the empire and enjoying his youth with his two beautiful wives. The empire of Ilavarta was flourishing with the surplus of the sacred Soma plant, bountiful forests and happy subjects. He developed several cities along the river Sindhu to the same level as those along the Sarasvati. He built ports at the mouth of the Sarasvati for the large ocean going ships. He provided safe drinking water and food for all the subjects. The culture and cultivation of knowledge rose to a new level with the studies of medicine, science, engineering and astronomy in the kingdom. Men from far flung countries such as Sumeria, Elaam, China and Egypt were visiting Ilavarta to learn. He soon forgot his son Puru and the episode with Sage Shukra. His sons were growing up, strong and powerful partners in administering the empire. But, it was not the same. He always thought that there was something missing.
One day while in the forest for a hunt, he saw a group of young deer grazing in a clearing. He stopped his horse and took careful aim at a shiny stag. As he drew his bow and shot the arrow, an older deer ran across and was hit by the arrow. As the king came close to the dying deer, he realised what had happened. The father of the herd had put himself in line of the arrow to protect the young stag. Yayati was taken aback. An animal sacrificed himself to save his baby. He pulled the arrow out and ordered his servants to nurse the deer back to health and rode his horse hard towards Sage Shukra’s ashram.
It was getting dark by the time he reached the ashram. The sage was getting ready for the evening yajna. He waited outside the door till the rituals were over and approached the sage with folded hands as he stepped out.
“I have made a great error of judgement, oh great sage. Please forgive me. I am prepared to accept my punishment and responsibilities.”
“It is not me who should forgive you. You have to ask your son Puru to forgive you. You have wronged him deeply.”
Yayati turned to Puru who was standing silently by the side and held him in his arms. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he said, “Please forgive me, son. You have made the ultimate sacrifice for your father and showed me who is a greater man. I want to give back your youth. Please accept it.”
“I did what any dutiful son would do, Father. I will do it again willingly if asked to.”
Yayati turned back at the sage with pleading eyes and begged him to transform him into a young man again. The sage closed his eyes and uttered some hymns and sprayed both of them with the holy water from his kamandalu. Puru stood in front of him as a handsome man in the prime of his youth and Yayati turned into a wizened old man.
“I am eternally grateful to you, oh great sage. Now, it is time for me to retire deep into the forest to meditate. My children are old enough to look after the empire,” Yayati said. Young Puru took his father’s hand and led him to a seat covered with grass. “Please bring your brothers to me,” the king, afflicted by decrepitude, said.
The five brothers and the king’s two wives assembled in the courtyard of the sage’s ashram. Yayati was led in by the sage himself.
“Sons, our land is exuberant with bounty from Pariyatra Parvatha to the mouth of the Jahnavi River in the east and from the snow-crested Himalayan peaks to the ocean in the south. One day this river will be revered as the holiest of holy water flows. I have consulted Sage Shukra and come to a decision.” Yayati turned to his five sons. “Son, Yadu. You are the eldest, and I think, the most mature. I want you to look after the lands where our two great rivers, the Sindhu and the Saraswati join the ocean. I want you to look further across the seas in the future.”
Yadu smiled and thanked his father.
“I will make you proud, Father. I will take the flag of our land, Ilavarta, to the world.”
“I am sure you will, son. I am certain of that. Your descendants will make the land proud. Among them will be a brilliant man, a dark complexioned prince, who would give counsel to the protagonist of the great eighteen-day war.” Turning to Turvasa he said, “Son, I want you to take care of the sacred banks of the Rasa and the hoary Arbuda mountains. Thousands of years from now when water will be scarce and demand for it much more, they will fight for the share of the Rasa water and take their battles to court calling the river Narmada. And the Arbuda mountains? Oh yes, their cool climes will beckon the people sick of city life. The sages of Arbuda need protection from the demons and dasyus.”
“Father, you can rest assured that I will not let any harm befall our sages and elders of Arbuda,” Turvasa replied.
Yayati could see Sharmishta looking anxiously at him to see what he had in hold for her sons. Yayati smiled when he spoke to Druhyu. “Son, you are the strongest of all my sons. Our land needs someone to protect its mountains and the source of our waters and sacred Soma. I want you to look after the valleys and mountains of Pariyatra Parvatha.”
“You can rely on me to protect our treasures, Father,” Druhyu said with a serious look on his face. His descendants eventually went down to become the celebrated Gandharis. The king called Puru to come forward and held his hands. “My dear Puru, you are the only son who fulfilled a father’s desire without thinking. You are the true Sudas, the good disciple. You will carry the name of the family and your sons will bring glory to the land of Ilavarta. You will take care of the rest of the empire from the most sacred land of all on the river Saraswati. The land will be known by the name of your descendants. One of them, a lion-hearted able ruler, to be called Bharata by his sorrowful mother, will lend his name to this vast land which for the experts down the ages would only be a little less than a continent.”
The gasps of breath were quite audible as the sons not yet called looked sullen and stunned. A frosty silence followed. Finally, Devayani broke the silence. “My Lord, what about our son Anu? What about his share of the land?”
Yayati burst out laughing and looked at both Devayani and Sharmishta.
“True to motherhood, both of you must treat all the sons equally. Our sons don’t show the same affection. You have forgotten that Anu didn’t even bother to help me when I was struck down by Sage Shukra so many years ago. Nothing is due to him. He has no right to any part of my empire. But I will do my fatherly duty.” Turning to Anu, he said, “You can look after the end of the land where the two great rivers Jahnavi and Bramhaputra rage into the sea, where marsh lands are covered by dense forests.”
“Thank you, Father. I will look after the land and make it as it should be – a fertile fruitful land you can be proud of. I will work hard and it will be my penance for neglecting my duty as your son.” Anu looked to the ground, his head bowed.
“Sons, the lust for power and craving for the land will prompt hungry leaders to go to war again and again for thousands of years to come. They will shed blood for a little valley here and a bowl of water there, soldiers for years are going to keep vigil over a chunk of snow. Power, palaces and politics will be the undoing of my beautiful land.” King Yayati looked sad.
An old, wizened and now wise man, Yayati left Shukra’s ashram for the dark deep forests to spend his remaining days in meditation and seek salvation, his two wives in tow. Turning back from the wicker gate, he took one last look at his children. “Sons, from tomorrow onward you are the rulers of huge kingdoms. Keep it in mind in a war there are no winners, both sides lose. So find ways to delay a war and sit with your foes and seek answers to all the problems. Remember together we lose a war.”