Sunday, 19 January 2014

Maharashtra - Yayati: A Universal Story?

In my quest to find the most popular book in the Marathi literary tradition, I came across Yayati: A Classic Tale of Lust by VS Khandekar who was born in Sangli district, in the very south of the state.  Like many great writers, Khandekar started out as a school teacher, before turning his hand to writing.  He wrote 16 novels in total, as well as numerous short stories and essays.  In 1974, he became the first Marathi writer to receive the Jnanpith award, one of India's most prestigious literary accolades, for his re-interpretation of Yayati, a story which appears in India's most ancient texts. 

King Yayati's story is told in the first part of the Mahabharata, the Adi Parva or 'Book of the beginning'.  It also appears in the Bhagavata Purana, one of Hinduism's important devotional texts. I must admit that it surprised me, at first, that the most famous novel in the Marathi language would be a re-telling of an ancient text, rather than a modern-story set in the 20th century, but I recognise that there is an art in re-telling ancient stories and some of the world's greatest writers, especially someone like William Shakespeare, made a career out of re-interpreting those key stories that explain all the complexities of human existence.

Marathi-language version of Yayati
Although I was reading the novel in translation, I could tell that Khandekar's Yayati was beautifully written - very clearly and aesthetically presenting the relationship between Yayati and Devayani, his wife, as well as his less official relationship with the fallen princess, Sharmishtha.  The bottom line is that Yayati and Sharmishtha should have been together but, due to Yayati's bad decision-making in his youth, he married the wrong woman. 

Both Yayati and Sharmishtha came from the same caste, the kshatriya or warrior caste, whereas Devayani was a brahmin and the daughter of a very powerful maharishi or yogi.

Devayani comes across as a spiteful and manipulating woman, whereas Sharmishtha is shown to be innocent and pure of heart.  Sharmishtha is the hero of Yayati's story, despite the fact that she sleeps with a married man and bears him a bastard son, who will one day have a claim to Yayati's throne.  I have to say that, although Sharmishtha comes out of the Hindu tradition as a very sympathetic character, I'm not sure she would have fared so well in a Western/Christian story!

Actually, despite being Yayati's legal wife, Devayani is depicted as the one who is in the wrong.  There are certain moral messages in the story, related to Devayani's behaviour.  I would summarise these in the following way:

Emperor Yayati from 19th century illustration
1. Cross-caste relationships can only ever end in unhappiness.  Recognition of one's dharma is a constant theme in Hinduism.

2. Women shouldn't arrange their own marriages - Devayani doesn't hang about and is very direct with Yayati, practically forcing him to marry her.

3. Women should keep their men sexually satisfied.  Although she's initially attracted to Yayati, Devayani finds his sexual needs repulsive and refuses to sleep with him, after they have conceived their son.  She also objects to his drinking and having a good time and they end up in a really unhappy relationship, hating each other. 

I don't blame Yayati for his behaviour - Devayani made his life a misery - but I find these morals difficult to believe in, as a modern reader and a non-Hindu. 

Whilst I enjoyed Khandekar's interpretation of the story, I would love to see a more radical rendering of Yayati's Classic Tale of Lust - setting it in a modern context.  Although the story is thousands of years old, the themes still resonate with a modern audience - unhappy marriage, lack of sexual fulfillment, making the wrong choices when you're too young to know otherwise.  I'd definitely recommend Khandekar's novel - it's very easy to read and the story contains some eternal truths that make it relevant to readers across different cultures and centuries of human experience.

I found an interesting re-telling of Yayati online and I'm posting the following YouTube video, so you can hear this story for yourself:


As I'm into my fifth year of blogging, I find that I'm slowly building up blocks of knowledge and (hopefully) accumulating an understanding of the world based on research that resonates across similar themes in different cultures. 

I first researched the sacred texts of Hinduism when I was blogging about Rajasthan back in June 2010.  I touched on William Shakespeare and the idea of 'universal stories' when I was blogging about Veneto in February 2011.  I also explored the universality of 'fairy tales' when I was blogging about Urals Federal District in December 2010.  If you're interested in reading more about these topics, feel free to click on the links connected to the place name to find out more.

Image credits:

The image of the book cover is from Marathi-language version of the book.

The illustration of Emperor Yayati is from P. Shungoonny Menon's A History of Travancore from the Earliest Times (1878).  This image is in the public domain and you can see more information at the image page on Wikipedia

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