Karnad Caricatures Yayati in the Black Hole of Existentialism

Karnad Caricatures Yayati in the Black Hole of Existentialism

Yayati is Girish Karnad’s first play, written in Kannada when he was twenty-three years old. It is also his seminal work of cultural vandalism, his first attempt at massacring everything that the Indian tradition and culture holds sacred, sublime, elevating, and valuable. Published in 1961, the instant success of Yayati became in many ways, the blueprint for everything else that Girish Karnad did in his long career: denigrate, caricature, and shame the best elements of his roots and celebrate everything that was rudely, cruelly, imposed upon these roots. For every Yayati, Utsav, and Agni Mattu Male, there is a corresponding Tughlaq, Taledanda and Tipuvina Kanasugalu.   

The timeline of Yayati’s publication is significant. The 1960s was when the Communists-Marxists-Progressives were on a fast-track ascendancy in almost all spheres: especially in the so-called Humanities departments academia. Their influence and reach hadn’t yet attained the dictatorial proportions that it did under Indira Gandhi but they had enormously succeeded in luring the “educated” and bright youth to their fold. It is highly instructive to do an honest study of the collective careers of the stars of that era including Girish Karnad, U.R. Ananthamurthy, P. Lankesh, Chandrashekhara Kambar, Chandrashekhara Patil, Vijay Tendulkar, Satyadev Dubey, et al.

In this context, the interested reader can refer the Kannada scholar Ajakala Girish Bhat’s excellent work dissecting the rabid literary goon D.R. Nagaraj to get a flavor of the literary hooliganism of the period. Additionally, Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa in his autobiography, Bhitti, clinically skewers the vacuity of their content and the naked hypocrisy of their real-life personalities. The premise of most of their early works was built upon the post-World War II European soullessness sexed up as existentialism, which had no basis for the realities of India. When you read, for example, U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Samskara written in Kannada describing an orthodox Brahmin’s unreal travails in Karnataka force-fitting him as an existential character, it reads like a novel-length comedy, not a serious work of literature. Or in Dr. Bhyrappa’s words, these writers hawked goods borrowed from Europe on Indian soil, whose fragrance jarred their noses because they became aliens at home. And the only way they could succeed in hawking their sordid wares was through tyrannical control over all avenues of information dissemination.

Girish Karnad and his fawning fellow-travelers and his retinue of career-climbing flatterers (also known as reviewers) invariably, almost uniformly describe his Yayati as a play that explores the existential crisis of “modern man drawing from historical and mythological sources.”

Nothing could be more ignorant, distorted and ridiculous.

Girish Karnad’s Yayati is supposedly based on the renowned tale of Yayati that occurs in the Mahabharata. His play takes a definitive slice from the long and chequered life of Yayati and defaces it with the slime of existentialism.

The Story of Yayati

We can quickly examine an extremely condensed form of Yayati’s story as found in the original Mahabharata.

For the purposes of this essay, Yayati’s story begins with his wife, Devayani, the beautiful but haughty daughter of Sukracharya, the preceptor of the Asuras (demons). Before her marriage, Devayani was insulted, slapped, and thrown into a well by Sharmishta, the daughter of the king of Asuras. Yayati who happened to pass by, rescues Devayani by holding her right hand and pulling her out of the well. Devayani then asks Yayati to marry her.

Later, an enraged Devayani complains to her father about Sharmishta. Sukra, who dearly loves his only daughter tells Vrishaparva, the Asura king that he would leave the kingdom if Devayani was not appeased. Vrishaparva yields.

Then Devayani sets her condition for revenge. Sharmishta should become her dasi (maidservant) and serve her for life. Sharmishta agrees in order to save her father’s honour. Yayati eventually marries Devayani.

During the course of time, Sharmishta becomes attracted to Yayati and asks him to marry her. Yayati finds it hard to resist this bewitching woman serving his wife, Devayani. Moreover, Sharmishta is from royal descent. And so, he marries her without Devayani’s knowledge. Before long, Devayani discovers the secret and complains bitterly to her father.

A furious Sukracharya curses him with old age. This curse is the aforementioned definitive juncture in Yayati’s story.

Still in the prime of his youth, Yayati is shattered. He is unable to come to terms with the fact that he can no longer enjoy all sensual pleasures that a king can summon at his command. Yayati goes to great lengths and finally mollifies Sukra and asks him for a way out of the curse. Sukra tells him that if anyone was willing to exchange his old age, he would regain his youth. Then Yayati approaches each of his five sons and puts forth this proposal of barter. None of them except Puru agrees. Yayati uniquely curses each of the other four sons.

When the age transfer was complete, Puru instantly becomes a ripe old man while still in the prime of his youth while Yayati regains his youth.

Then Yayati pursues all manner of sensual pleasure with a renewed zest. The original Mahabharata tells us that the more he indulged, the thirstier he grew. At long last, he realizes the futility of this endless sensual quest. He then summons Puru and tells him, “My dear son, sensual desire is never quenched by indulgence any more than fire is by pouring ghee in it. I had so far heard, and read about this. Now, I’ve realized it: no object of desire–corn, gold, cattle, women–nothing can ever satisfy the desire of man. We can reach peace only by a mental poise that transcends likes and dislikes and pain and pleasure. Take back your youth and rule the kingdom wisely and well.”

Yayati then retires to the forest to perform penance. In due course, he attains Swarga, the abode of Indra.

Girish Karnad Slaughters Yayati

Girish Karnad’s Yayati is similarly cursed and stricken with an overwhelming desire for sensual indulgence. That’s the only common element.

Because Karnad decides that he must force-fit Yayati into the post-World War II European modern man, he mauls Yayati’s character. Not content with it, he also ravages Puru’s character similarly. Puru is shown as a conflict-torn, psychological loser, marked only by a weak and debilitating character.

In Karnad’s Yayati, the emphasis is skewed heavily in favour of Puru, not Yayati, which is a perversion of the original. In the original, Puru’s role begins with accepting his father’s old age with respectful dignity, and ends with returning it.

But Karnad’s Puru is incessantly despondent about the loss of his youth. He is in the throes of a dilemma, which desperately needs an outlet and he vents in a goofy fashion in long monologues and asides laced with a tasteless mix of Freudian and existential mumbo-jumbo. The words of that fine scholar and quiet giant, Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy[i] are eminently applicable to Girish Karnad in this context:

It is precisely due to the lack of the knowledge of cultural subtleties on the part of the mere textual scholars…that their analyses sound worthless and useless to us. A profound literature like the Mahābhārata must essentially be understood by being firmly grounded in the Sanātana-dharma of Bhārata.

However, Girish Karnad’s Puru poses a problem because in the original, there is limited emphasis on Puru’s role after he accepts Yayati’s old age. This alleged playwright therefore needs to strengthen, enhance, and add more meat to Puru so that his existentialism must…errr…exist. Or whatever. See how ridiculous it sounds already?

In other words, Karnad’s Puru needs crutches. And so, a fine lady, Chitralekha, materializes as Puru’s wife: a character absent in the original. One can argue for a case for poetic license here, say on the lines of the ghost in Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, etc or similar creations and devices.

However, the important distinction is that the story of Yayati can be termed as a Siddha-vastu (readymade subject or theme), whose story, popularity, innate character and message have a definitive and specific imprint and connotation for thousands of years in the cultural memory of an entire civilization. Thus, taking any creative liberties with such a story essentially involves a careful and honest adherence to the spirit of the Mahabharata in the grand, cosmic vision of Veda Vyasa. Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s classic, Parva has taken numerous creative liberties with the Mahabharata but it never sways from the spirit of the original.

To make this clearer, take away Chitralekha from Karnad’s Yayati, and the whole play implodes under the full weight of its inbuilt absurdity. More absurdly, Chitralekha commits suicide when she learns that Puru has traded his youth for old age. At which point, Puru’s existential insanity reaches epidemic proportions.

As is typical of him, Girish Karnad also conveniently hides Yayati’s confession that unmitigated sensual indulgence doesn’t lead to peace and inner solace. With good reason. Karnad’s hero is Puru, not Yayati. In the original, Yayati ultimately opts for a true spiritual quest. Karnad’s Yayati never rises above empty mental fulminations. Because Marxism-Existentialism equates spirituality with superstition and therefore arrogantly dismisses it.    

Girish Karnad’s Yayati comes across as a hedonistic pleasure-monger while in the original, his character is symbolic of a higher ideal. Yayati’s long span of sensual indulgence is a symbol that indicates the futility of chasing happiness in things that are innately endowed with stagnation and thus, an expiry date. Indulgence only increases thirst, it doesn’t quench it. Each climax of happiness ends with sorrow that it is over so soon, followed by a craving to renew, to repeat the transitory pleasure once more. Yayati’s realization lies in saturation leading to boredom and culminating in disgust. He has had his fill but remains unfulfilled. Which is what plods him to seek a non-cyclical happiness, something that needs no renewal.

In the original, neither Yayati nor his son suffer from any kind of confusion or existentialist ailment. They’re aware of their motivations, their choices, and have great conviction. They feel no guilt or remorse. Puru considers it his duty towards his father, adhering firmly to the dictum for example, of pitru devo bhava (father is akin to God). Yayati is completely honest when he expresses his desire to enjoy sensual pleasure for a longer time (after the curse). His strength of character is once again shines when he speaks with the selfsame conviction that he has realized his folly and willingly, gladly accepts old age.

Even a thousand suns cannot reveal a single trace of existentialism in Yayati’s story. It exists only in the Black Hole of Girish Karnad’s ill-informed imagination.

Intoxicated with Sartre and other life-negating perverts, Karnad has odiously caricatured what really is one sublime tale, an immortal classic that has stood the test of time. In my personal view, Yayati is a literary crime for a very fundamental reason: there was absolutely no need to take an elegant story rich in symbolism and philosophical insights and give it a reprobate interpretation. There would be absolutely no problem if he had written the play using some existentialist or equally nonsensical theme but without claiming that it was based on the Mahabharata. That would be taken as a product of his creative imagination and scrutinized for its worth. But then, he could get caught instantly: that he had stolen from the Mahabharata. This is precisely the dilemma…no, hypocrisy I mentioned earlier in this piece. So Karnad takes the dishonourable route of blighting the Mahabharata and ramming existentialist psychobabble down its throat.  

But the fact that it has proven immensely rewarding for Girish Karnad is a tragic and continuing commentary on the cultural trajectory of “independent” India.   


[i] The Distilled Essence of the Mahabharata: Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy: Kāntaśakti, the Commemorative Volume on Umakanth Bhat (pp. 91–104). Translated by Sandeep Balakrishna

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