Yayati, the son of Nahusha, was an ancestor of the Pandavas. He was married to Devayani, the daughter of Sukracharya, the preceptor of the asuras. However, Sarmishtha, the daughter of the asura king Vrishaparva, and a rival of Devayani, also fell in love with him, and they secretly got married. Yayati had two sons from Devayani – Yadu and Turvasu; and three sons from Sarmishtha – Druhyu, Anu and Puru.
One day, Devayani suddenly discovered her husband’s secret marriage with her arch rival, and was furious. She rushed to her father, complaining about her husband’s infidelity. Sukracharya was a powerful sage who loved his daughter very much. Saddened by her predicament and angry with his son-in-law, Sukracharya cursed Yayati that he would lose the youth and strength he was so proud of. Immediately, Yayati grew prematurely old.
Stricken with old age in the prime of youth, Yayati begged for forgiveness, reminding the sage that he had once rescued Devayani. The sage relented, and told him that while the curse could not be revoked, he could exchange his old age with anyone who would agree to give him his youth in return.
While Yayati had grown prematurely old, his desires had not abated, and he found himself with the cravings of his natural age in the body of an old man. Eager to revert to his normal appearance, he returned to his kingdom, trying to find someone to exchange his age with. However, he was unable to find anyone who would agree to such a deal, and he turned homewards, hoping that one of his five young sons would help him out.
He first went to his oldest son, Yadu, and asked him to exchange his youth with his old age, but Yadu flatly refused! “People will laugh if they see me so old! You have four more sons whom you love more dearly than me. Why don’t you go and ask them?” he said.
Next, Yayati went to Turvasu, who said, “Father, I do not want to grow old so soon. Please excuse me. Ask one of your other sons.”
Yayati then went to Sarmishtha’s sons, since it was his marriage to Sarmishtha which had resulted in his premature aging. But here again, he was repulsed by Druhyu, who said, “Father, if I take up your age, I cannot do any of the activities I enjoy. I cannot agree.” Anu, the fifth son was no more helpful. “The old are helpless and cannot do anything by themselves. I am too young to accept this, father, so please excuse me”, he said.
Yayati was devastated by the refusal of his four sons. His last resort was his youngest son, Puru. If Puru refused, he would have to stay an old man for the rest of his life. He went to Puru and asked him, “Puru, you are my youngest and dearest son. I have been afflicted by this old age due to the curse of Sukracharya. If you take over this old age for a few years, and give me your youth, I can enjoy life for just a little longer, and give you back your youth when I satisfy my desires. All your four brothers have refused. You are my only hope. If you too do not agree, I shall be stuck like this for the rest of my life, however long it might be.”
Seeing the piteous state of his father, Puru was moved, and he said, “Father, you have given me life. The least I can do for you in this state is to give you my youth.” Saying this, he embraced his father. As soon as father and son touched each other, Puru assumed the old age of his father while Yayati became as young as his youngest son.
Leaving the aged Puru to rule the kingdom in his stead, Yayati roamed the three worlds, enjoying his youth, giving in to his desires and experiencing sensual pleasures. Puru proved himself to be a just and able king and gained great renown, while Yayati occupied himself trying to quench his desires and wandered around in search of fulfillment.
After years of such aimless wanderings and indulgences, Yayati realized that giving in to his desires would not bring the ultimate fulfillment. Returning to his kingdom, he confessed the error of his ways to Puru and begged him to take back his youth and return the old age he had so kindly taken away.
“Freedom from desires is the only way to gain true happiness, my son”, he advised Puru, and, giving up his kingdom to Puru, decided to go to the forest to perform penance.
Yayati’s decision of giving the kingdom to Puru was questioned by many, since he had four older sons, and according to tradition, it is the oldest son who inherits the kingdom. When he was asked the reason for this path-breaking decision, he said, “When a father asks for something from a son, it is not to be taken as a request, but a command. When I asked my older sons for their youth, they flatly refused, thus disrespecting as well as disobeying me. A son who disobeys his father can no longer be considered a son. It was only my youngest son, Puru, who truly loved and respected me, for it was only he who obeyed me. Thus, he alone is my true son, and it is only he who deserves to rule my kingdom.”
Truly, the true son is the one who loves and respects his parents, and obeys them at all times. . By doing so, they become dear to God, and receive His blessings.