EMPEROR Yayati was one of the ancestors of the Pandavas. He had never known defeat. He followed the dictates of the sastras, adored the gods and venerated his ancestors with intense devotion. He became famous as a ruler devoted to the welfare of his subjects.
But as has already been told, he became prematurely old by the curse of Sukracharya for having wronged his wife Devayani. In the words of the poet of the Mahabharata:
"Yayati attained that old age which destroys beauty and brings on miseries." It is needless to describe the misery of youth suddenly blighted into age, where the horrors of loss are accentuated by pangs of recollection.
Yayati, who found himself suddenly an old man, was still haunted by the desire for sensual enjoyment. He had five beautiful sons, all virtuous and accomplished. Yayati called them and appealed piteously to their affection:
"The curse of your grandfather Sukracharya has made me unexpectedly and prematurely old. 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."
He first asked his eldest son. That son replied: "O great king, women and servants will mock at me if I were to take upon myself your old age. I cannot do go. Ask of my younger brothers who are dearer to you than myself."
When the second son was approached, he gently refused with the words: "Father, you ask me to take up old age that destroys not only strength and beauty but also as I see wisdom. I am not strong enough to do so."
The third son replied: "An old man cannot ride a horse or an elephant. His speech will falter. What can I do in such a helpless plight? I cannot agree."
The king was angry and disappointed that his three sons had declined to do as he wished, but he hoped for better from his fourth son, to whom he said: "You should take up my old age. If you exchange your youth with me, I shall give it back to you after some time and take back the old age with which I have been cursed."
The fourth son begged to be forgiven as this was a thing he could by no means consent to. An old man had to seek the help of others even to keep his body clean, a most pitiful plight. No, much as he loved his father he could not do it.
Yayati was struck with sorrow at the refusal of the four sons. Still, hoping against hope, he supplicated his last son who had never yet opposed his wishes: "You must save me. I am afflicted with this old age with its wrinkles, debility and grey hairs as a result of the curse of Sukracharya. 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."
Puru, the youngest son, moved by filial love, said: "Father, I gladly give you my youth and relieve you of the sorrows of old age and cares of state. Be happy."
Hearing these words Yayati embraced him. As soon as he touched his son, Yayati became a youth. Puru, who accepted the old age of his father, ruled the kingdom and acquired great renown. Yayati enjoyed life for long, and not satisfied, went later to the garden of Kubera and spent many years with an Apsara maiden.
After long years spent in vain efforts to quench desire by indulgence, the truth dawned on him.
Returning to Puru, he said: "Dear son, sensual desire is never quenched by indulgence any more than fire is by pouring ghee in it. I had heard and read this, but till now I had not realised 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. Take back your youth and rule the kingdom wisely and well."
With these words Yayati took his old age. Puru, who regained his youth, was made king by Yayati who retired to the forest. He spent his time there in austerities and, in due course, attained heaven.