ONE warm afternoon, pleasantly tired with sporting in the woods Devayani and the daughters of Vrishaparva, king of the asuras, went to bathe in the cool waters of a sylvan pool, depositing their garlands on the bank before they entered its waters.
A strong breeze blew their clothes together into a huddled heap and when they came to take them up again, some mistakes naturally occurred. It so happened that princess Sarmishtha, the daughter of the king, clad herself in Devayani's clothes. The latter was vexed and exclaimed half in jest at the impropriety of the daughter of a disciple wearing the clothes of the master's daughter.
These words were spoken half in jest, but the princess Sarmishtha became very angry and said arrogantly: "Do you not know that your father humbly bows in reverence to my royal father every day? Are you not the daughter of a beggar who lives on my father's bounty? You forget I am of the royal race which proudly gives, while you come of a race which begs and receives, and you dare to speak thus to me."
Sarmishtha went on, getting angrier and angrier as she spoke till, working herself up into a fit of anger, she finally slapped Devayani on the cheek and pushed her into a dry well. The asura maidens thought that Devayani had lost her life and returned to the palace.
Devayani had not been killed by the fall into the well but was in a sad plight because she could not climb up the steep sides. Emperor Yayati of the Bharata race who was hunting in the forest by a happy chance came to this spot in search of water to slake his thirst. When he glanced into the well, he saw something bright, and looking closer, he was surprised to find a beautiful maiden lying in the well.
He asked: "Who are you, O beautiful maiden with bright earrings and ruddy nails? Who is your father? What is your ancestry? How did you fall into the well?"
She replied: "I am the daughter of Sukracharya. He does not know that I have fallen into the well. Lift me up" and she held forth her hands. Yayati seized her hand and helped her out of the well.
Devayani did not wish to return to the capital of the king of the asuras. She did not feel it safe to go there, as she pondered again and again on Sarmishtha's conduct. She told Yayati: "You have held a maiden by her right hand, and you must marry her. I feel that you are in every way worthy to be my husband."
Yayati replied: "Loving soul, I am a kshatriya and you are a brahmana maiden.
How can I marry you? How can the daughter of Sukracharya, who is worthy to be the preceptor of the whole world, submit to be the wife of a kshatriya like myself? Revered lady, return home."
Having said these words Yayati went back to his capital.
A kshatriya maiden could marry a brahmana, according to the ancient tradition, but it was considered wrong for a brahmana maiden to marry a kshatriya.
The important thing was to keep the racial status of women unlowered. Hence anuloma or the practice of marrying men of higher castes was legitimate and the reverse practice, known as pratiloma, i.e. marrying men of a lower caste, was prohibited by the sastras.
Devayani had no mind to return home.
She remained sunk in sorrow in the shade of a tree in forest. Sukracharya loved Devayani more than his life. After waiting long in vain for the return of his daughter who had gone to play with her companions, he sent a woman in search of her.
The messenger after a weary search came on her at last near the tree where she was sitting in dejection, her eyes red with anger and grief. And she asked her what had happened.
Devayani said: "Friend, go at once and tell my father that I will not set my foot in the capital of Vrishaparva" and she sent her back to Sukracharya.
Extremely grieved at the sad plight of his daughter Sukracharya hurried to her.
Caressing her, he said: "It is by their own actions, good or bad, that men are happy or miserable. The virtues or vices of others will not affect us in the least." With these words of wisdom, he tried to console her.
She replied in sorrow and anger: "Father, leave alone my merits and faults, which are after all my own concern. But tell me this, was Sarmishtha, the daughter of Vrishaparva, right when she told me you were but a minstrel singing the praises of kings? She called me the daughter of a mendicant living on the doles won by flattery. Not content with this arrogant contumely, she slapped me and threw me into a pit which was nearby. I cannot stay in any place within her father's territory."
And Devayani began to weep.
Sukracharya drew himself up proudly:
"Devayani," he said with dignity, "you are not the daughter of a court minstrel. Your father does not live on the wages of flattery. You are the daughter of one who is reverenced by all the world. Indra, the king of the gods, knows this, and Vrishaparva is not ignorant of his debt to me. But no worthy man extols his own merits, and I shall say no more about myself. Arise, you are a peerless gem among women, bringing prosperity to your family. Be patient. Let us go home."
In this context Bhagavan Vyasa advises humanity in general in the following words of counsel addressed by Sukracharya to his daughter:
"He conquers the world, who patiently puts up with the abuse of his neighbors.
He who, controls his anger, as a horseman breaks an unruly horse, is indeed a charioteer and not he who merely holds the reins, but lets the horse go whither it would. He who sheds his anger just as a snake its slough, is a real hero. He who is not moved despite the greatest torments inflicted by others, will realise his aim. He who never gets angry is superior to the ritualist who faith fully performs for a hundred years the sacrifices ordained by scripture. Servants, friends, brothers, wife, children, virtue and truth abandon the man who gives way to anger. The wise will not take to heart the words of boys and girls."
Devayani humbly told her father: "I am indeed a little girl, but, I hope, not too young to benefit by the great truth taught by you. Yet, it is not proper to live with persons who have no sense of decency or decorum. The wise will not keep company with those who speak ill of their family.
However rich they may be, the illmannered are really the veritable chandalas outside the pale of caste. The virtuous should not mix with them. My mind is ablaze with the anger roused by the taunts of Vrishaparva's daughter. The wounds inflicted by weapons may close in time; scalds may heal gradually; but wounds inflicted by words remain painful as long as one lives."
Sukracharya went to Vrishaparva and fixing his eyes on him gravely said:
"O king, though one's sins may not bring immediate punishment they are sure, sooner or later, to destroy the very germ of prosperity. Kacha, the son of Brihaspati, was a brahmacharin who had conquered his senses and never committed any sin. He served me with fidelity and never strayed from the path of virtue.
Your attendants tried to kill him. I bore it.
My daughter, who holds her honor high, had to hear dishonoring words uttered by your daughter. Besides, she was pushed into a well by your daughter. She cannot any more stay in your kingdom. Without her I cannot live here either. So, I am going out of your kingdom."
At these words the king of the asuras was sorely troubled and said: "I am ignorant of the charges laid at my door. If you abandon me, I shall enter fire and die."
Sukracharya replied: "I care more for the happiness of my daughter than for the fate of you and your asuras, for she is the one thing I have and dearer to me than life itself. If you can appease her, it is well and good. Otherwise I go."
Vrishaparva and his retinue went to the tree under which Devayani stood and they threw themselves at her feet in supplication.
Devayani was stubborn and said:
"Sarmishtha who told me that I was the daughter of a beggar, should become my handmaiden and attend on me in the house into which my father gives me in marriage."
Vrishaparva consented and asked his attendants to fetch his daughter Sarmishtha.
Sarmishtha admitted her fault and bowed in submission. She said: "Let it be as my companion Devayani desires. My father shall not lose his preceptor for a fault committed by me. I will be her attendant,"
Devayani was pacified and returned to her house with her father.
On another occasion also Devayani came across Yayati. She repeated her request that he should take her as his wife since he had clasped her right hand. Yayati again repeated his objection that he, a kshatriya, could not lawfully marry a brahmana.
Finally they both went to Sukracharya and got his assent to their marriage. This is an instance of the pratiloma marriage which was resorted to on exceptional occasions.
The sastras, no doubt, prescribe what is right and forbid what is wrong but a marriage once effected cannot be made invalid.
Yayati and Devayani spent many days in happiness. Sarmishtha remained with her as an attendant. One day Sarmishtha met Yayati in secret and earnestly prayed to betaken also as his wife. He yielded to her prayer and married her without the knowledge of Devayani.
But Devayani came to know of it and was naturally very angry, She complained to her father and Sukracharya in his rage cursed Yayati with premature old age.
Yayati, thus suddenly stricken with age in the very prime of his manhood, begged so humbly for forgiveness that Sukracharya, who had not forgotten Devayani's rescue from the well, at last relented.
He said: "O king, you have lost the glory which is youth. The curse cannot be recalled, but if you can persuade anyone to exchange his youth for your age the exchange will take effect." Thus he blessed Yayati and bade him farewell.