Complexity and Intrigue: The Story of Devayani and Sharmishtha

The Sambhav Parva (the chapter on coming into existence – in this part of the epic, a king is told the stories of his predecessors) within the Adi (the beginning) Parva of Mahabharat has this story. It involves two friends whose doting fathers unwittingly or helplessly get embroiled in the rivalry, jealousy and passion that consumed the two. Out came the scripting of the course of their lives that seemed inseparable.

Background detail is that there are two forces perpetually at war: the Devas/Gods/Suras and the Danavas/Demons/Asuras/Rakshasas. While it is assumed that the Devas were on the righteous course and followed the fair means, the Asuras maintained no such sanctity. Hence since time immemorial, the gods had an upper hand over the demons. The Guru of the gods was Bruhaspati. Danavas also wanted a guru, and they persuaded the son of Bhrugu (who was one of the major seven sages – saptarshis), to become one. This son of Bhrugu who went by various names such as Bhargava, Shukra and Kavya, agreed to become the head priest (Acharya) of the demons and was popularly called Shukracharya.

Lesson-1: Even those close to Devas do not hesitate to join the arch enemies for better career prospects.

With this turn of the events, the Rakshasas gained something that the Devas did not have. That was the Mruta-Sanjeevani Vidya known to Shukracharya. Using this Mrutasanjeevani, Shukracharya could summon the dead and the dead one would come back revived from wherever he or she was. Shukracharya began to use this Know-how for reviving the demons who were killed in the battle fields. With their fear of death gone, the demons engaged more intensely in greater number of skirmishes. The gods were in trouble because their head priest did not now this Vidya. After a lot of worries and deliberations, they decided to send Kach, the son of Bruhaspati to go to Shukracharya and become his disciple.

Lesson-2: When it comes to gaining competitive advantage, people could send their offspring right into the enemy camp. (The best way to learn enemy’s secret is to join hands with him)

Well, before sending Kach off, the wise advised him to please Shukracharya and his daughter Devayani, but never to fancy Devayani. Devayani was Shukracharya’s only daughter, who had lost her mother. She was dearer than anything else to Shukracharya.

Lesson-3: Find the weak spots of the target of your influence. Work directly on the target of influence, work harder at the weak spot of the target of influence, never coming into fault in the books of the target.

Kach went to Shukracharya and requested him to accept him as his disciple. Shukracharya asked who he was, and Kach introduced himself. When Kach promised to be his devoted disciple and seek his instruction with singular focus, he was admitted to the hermitage of Shukracharya.

Lesson-4: Old connections die hard. Also, one can find trust and the spirit of open scholarship even in the demon camp.

The lessons of Kach began, but when the Danavas found out about him, they decided to kill him. They caught him in the jungle when he was grazing the herd of animals of the Shukracharya, killed him, chopped his body and fed the pieces to wolves. Devayani who was impressed by Kach’s devotion, attention, alacrity of service and a wide range of capabilities including singing and dancing, suspected foul play. Shukracharya summoned Kach and by the power of Mrutasanjeevani, Kach emerged re-vivified from the wolves. Danavas killed him again and this time ground his flesh before throwing it into the sea. This time also he was revived. Then the Danavas killed Kach, burned his body and mixed the ashes with wine meant for Shukracharya. This time, when Kach was called upon, he responded from his Guru’s stomach. Taking one more step would mean death of Shukracharya. With insistence of Devayani and request from Kach, Shukra first taught Mrutasanjeevani to Kach, then Kach came out ripping Shukra’s belly and revived Shukracharya.

Lesson-5: don’t hinder enemy all the time. They might end up working for you if you see where it’s all going.

The goal accomplished, Kach respectfully took the leave of his guru, and Devayani. At that point Devayani asked him to marry her. Kach said that guru’s daughter would be his sister – she was born of the same body in which Kach had resided, too. Annoyed, Devayani cursed him that Mrutasanjeevani would never work if he used it. Very politely, Kach accepted the curse but explained that she was motivated more by anger and passion rather than indignation that comes out of well-placed reason. Hence it would still work if Kach taught the know-how to others. In turn, Kach cursed Devayani that no Brahmin would marry her as her temperament was unfit for wise sages.


Now that Kach had come back with the much-needed Vidya, someone told the king of gods that they could tease the asuras a little bit. Indra, the king of gods commanded the wind to blow and mix the clothes that Devayani, and her friend Sharmishtha – the daughther of the king Vrushaparva of Danavas – had cast aside as they bathed in a pond. Upon emerging from water, Sharmishtha mistakenly wore some of Devayani’s clothes. Devayani, aware that she was the daughter of the Danav Guru, asked Sharmishtha (whose father was the disciple of her father) why she wore her clothes in spite of being of the lower status. In those times, even the king would join hands before his guru. Sharmishtha, born and raised as princess of the Danavas who were giving even gods a hard time in the battles, got incensed at hearing it and snapped back that actually it was Devayani’s father who took alms form her father, and her father never needed to take anything from anyone, let alone Shukracharya. This angered Devayani, who began to pull her clothes off Sharmishtha’s body. So  Sharmishtha pushed her into a dry well and went away.

Lesson-5: Let your parents’ status never come between you and your friends.

Devayani was in that shallow dry well and the rest of the girls had gone back to their abode. The king Yayati passed by on his way to hunting, and he stopped by for water. In the well, he found Devayani instead, and pulled her out by gripping her hand. Introductions followed and the king went on his way. Devayani asked her sole attendant to tell her father that she had decided not to enter the city again, where she was inferior to anyone – even the king’s daughter. Now shukracharya loved his daughter so much that he was not prepared to tolerate this pain of hers. So he went to his daughter, heard what had happened and summoned the king. The king must have been respectful to the guru, and he also knew that he was critically dependent on his Mrutasanjeevani. So he attempted to soothe his guru. Shukracharya, however, said that it was Devayani that the king needed to please, not him. So, now the king told Devayani, that he, not Shukracharya had a lower status. Devayani said that if that was so, she needed to hear that from Sharmishtha’s own mouth, after the king had pledged Sharmishtha as Devayani’s personal maid along with one thousand other maids. King agreed, and now Sharmishtha also agreed in the larger interests of her clan.

Lesson-6: Revisit lesson 2. More so if you flouted lesson 5.

Now, Devayani went back to the picnic spot, reclined at the foot of a tree, and Sharmishtha massaged her feet. Yayati returned from hunting and stopped by to talk. At that juncture, Devayani (perhaps remembering the curse of Kach) asked the king to marry her. Yayati was a Kshatriya, a step lower in the hierarchy of social system. He thought he could not marry someone in a higher class, and that too, someone as high as the guru of Danavas unless the guru expressly gave her away. Shukracharya,  loving his daughter, consented at a condition that Yayati should not take Sharmishtha – the princess-maid to his bed.

Yayati made separate living arrangements for Sharmishtha, but it must  have been pretty secluded out there. Sharmishtha, in the prime of her life, asked Yayati to make love to her. Yayati did not take her to his bed, but they continued to use the plantation of Ashok trees as their point of rendezvous. Eventually Sharmishtha also had three sons from Yayati (Devayani had two), but she had hidden the identity of her kids’ father from Devayani.

Lesson 7: Don’t keep the enemy constantly with you, even for getting even with them.

One day, Devayani happened to visit the Ashok plantation with Yayati, where the three boys of Sharmishtha were playing. When Devayani asked them whose sons they were, they named Sharmishtha as mother and pinted at Yayati as their father. Yayati, stunned at this sudden spillage of secrets, did not respond to his sons’ greetings. The sons, feeling neglected, went in to call their mother.

Devayani once again stamped her feet and stormed into the Ashram of her father for complaining. The doting father, of course, cursed Yayati that his youth, which had made the king flippant, would leave him immediately.

Lesson 8: Powerful parents’ intervention in your problems might rob you of your own pleasures in ways you can’t imagine.

Well, the story goes on to tell how Yayati asked his sons – two from Devayani and three from Sharmishtha – to loan their youth to him until Yayati was satisfied with the pleasures of youth. Sons, who disliked growing old for one reason or another, refused – except the youngest. Yayati soon realised the futility of pursuing sensual pleasures, returned the borrowed youth to the son along with his throne. The other sons left the kingdom to head the tribes known as inferior – Yadavs, Yavans, Bhojas and Mlechchas.

What lessons do you see here?

4 thoughts on “Complexity and Intrigue: The Story of Devayani and Sharmishtha

  1. I always found the whole Yayati story intriguing. You have drawn out Sarmishta and Vrishaparva just right. Most Indian writers just tend to follow the Asura-deva stereotype. Most Indians would be offended if told that the Pandavas descended from the Asuras.


  2. These stories are not meant for me….explored extreme levels of violence and lust. Yeah..but, it surely inundates the reader for the simple and lucid manner in which u have penned down these things from Maharatha


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