Home Literature Yayati by Girish Karnad Summary

Yayati by Girish Karnad Summary

by Litinbox

Girish Karnad is popular Indian playwright, film-maker and actor whose career as a playwright began with ‘Yayati’ in 1960. This play is an excerpt from Mahabharata, the great Indian epic. Yayati is a topsy-turvy tale of King Yayati that dwells on his obsession with lust and sex and how he is cursed to premature old age for his infidelity.

The women characters in the play are notable for their determination and courage, sometimes aggressive. This play is written in four-acts which centers around an overwhelming number of characters and anatomize the human psyche.

Yayati by Girish Karnad Summary

Devayani and Sharmishta are two friends. One day, they both are playing nude in a forest. Their clothes are kept apart. On seeing these two nacked, God Indra wants to make a fun on them. He takes the form of wind and mixes up their garments. When Sharmishta attempts to wear Devayani’s dress by mistake, Devayani becomes furious because she considers Sharmishta somewhat inferior to her as Sharmishta is the daughter of Asura King to whom Shukracharya, Devayani’s father, is a preceptor. This shows her inner psyche although they have enjoyed a continued friendship.

As a result of this event, an inconclusive fight is instigated between them and they insult each other in a verbal attack. As Devayani takes an upper hand in the combat, unable to tolerate her insults, Sharmishta pushes off Devayani right away into a nearby well.

King Yayati comes to the well to quench his thirsty horse. On seeing Devayani inside the well seeking help, Yayati pulls her out and rescues her. Furious, Devayani takes the issue to her father Shukracharya. This results in a confusion in the relationship between Shukracharya and Vrishaparva. Vrishaparva has to go on with Shukracharya, since his abandonment would mean a defeat for Asuras. Afraid that they would loss Shukracharya’s continued support, Vrishaparva agrees for the pact. The pact reads that Sharmishta become a slave for Devayani and should go along with her whenever she wants without question.

On a fine day, Yayati meets Devayani in the same forest. Devayani reminds him how he touched her when he rescued her from the well. In those days, according to Hinduism, if a man holds a woman by her right hand, he is subject to marry the woman. Yayati pulled off Devayani by her right hand when he rescued her. So he is confined to hold her hand in marriage.

Shocked by this advancement as he is not willing to marry a girl from other caste and unwilling to beget a child of mixed caste, he denies at first. Later, Yayati accepts to marry her as it becomes inevitable to a punctual king. Only in this respect, Yayati follows code of conduct while he justifies many of his immoral activities in his own way.

Yayati holds her hand in marriage. Devayani brings Sharmishta with her as a wedding gift. She uses every opportunity to torment Sharmishta and Sharmishta waits for the right time to exact revenge.

This long-running rivalry between these two women reaches a climax when Sharmishta takes poison to die, unable to bear torments from both Devayani and Yayati. But Yayati comes to her help and rescues her, again by holding her right hand. It becomes inevitable that he has to marry her. As a result, King Yayati makes her the second queen.

Enraged, Devayani again brings the case to her father, Shukracharya. Shukracharya curses the king to old age when he is still young. Once the curse is given, it can never be taken back. However, he gives the power to transfer his curse to any of the willing recipient.

Yayati still is obsessed with sensual pleasure. So, he seeks to transfer his curse onto any of his sons. He requests each of his five sons, but no one consents to this. The eldest son Yadu denies telling that he wants to enjoy his own life and he can’t give it up. Dryhu, the second rejects his request telling, the more he becomes old the more he becomes foolish. Turvasa and Anu, third and fourth sons respectively, also deny his proposal.

Puru, the youngest son of the King, arrives with his bride, Chitralekha. Disinterested with the state of affairs and he says it is the duty of a son towards his father who gave him life, he willingly comes forward to fulfill his father’s request. He also explains that he takes upon his father’s curse because his father has not reached the heights of his ancestors and he has a long way to go as a king. As a result, Puru becomes old while the King Yayati regains his youth.

Chitralekha, distraught by his husband’s activities and his shortcomings as an old man, she ends up her life. Realising his grave mistake, Yayati takes back his curse from his son and restores Puru to youth. Eventually, the king withdraws to a forest with Sharmishta along with him.

Yayati Characters


The protagonist of the play. Yayati is an ancestor of Pandavas and grandson of Shiva and Parvati according to Indian myth, Mahabharata. He marries two women, Devayani and Sharmishta.

Yayati’s obsession with sensual pleasures and hungry for power takes plot forward. When he becomes old as a result of the curse given by Shukracharya, he seeks to transfer his curse to any of his willing sons. At the end, he realises his grave mistake and it seems he mends his ways eventually.


Devayani is the daughter of Shukracharya, the preceptor of Asuras. Devayani marries the King Yayati because it becomes inevitable after he rescues from the well in the forest.

Devayani doesn’t lead a peaceful life with the King. She spends much time on tormenting Sharmishta, once her close friend, who becomes her rival as a result. This leads to Sharmishta becoming the king’s permanent in the forest.


The second wife of King Yayati and the daughter of Asura King, Vrishaparva. Yayati marries Sharmishta the same way he does Devayani. Once Devayani and Sharmishta were good friends. But, Devayani always considers Sharmishta inferior to her.

This sense of superiority of Devayani brings her downfall at the end. Sharmishta is able bear the torments of Devayani. This becomes fruitful as she is able to marry the king as a result of it.


Puru is the youngest son of King Yayati and Sharmishta. While all his elder brothers deny his father’s request, it is Puru who willingly comes forward to help his father. He takes up his father’s curse in his place.

Puru’s future becomes a question as he suddenly becomes old and his bride Chitralekha dies distraught. However, Puru regains his youth at the end as his father realises the mistake.


Chitralekha is the bride of Puru. After Puru’s compliance to his father’s request willingly, she dies distraught on seeing Puru becomes old suddenly.


Shukracharya is the father of Devayani and Preceptor of Asuras and Asura King, Vrishaparva. As the preceptor, Devayani considers him superior to them and this temperament of her leads to a dispute between her and Sharmishta.


King of Asuras and father of Sharmishta. He seeks the support of Shukracharya and considers him a means of his success.

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