Unbridled Indulgences of Affluent Indians: Yayatis and Kamsas

Unbridled Indulgences of Affluent Indians: Yayatis and Kamsas

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Unbridled Indulgences of Affluent Indians: Yayatis and Kamsas

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Bharat Gupt
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Unbridled Indulgences of Affluent Indians Yayatis and Kamsas


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Bharat Gupt


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© Bharat Gupt – all rights reserved


Yayati, stands out in the Mahabharata, as a king who never tires of talking obedience to dharma. He is scared of the authority of the aacharyas, but will not resist the smallest opportunity for sensual gratification. He rescues Devayani from the well but dares not accept her offer of marriage till approved by her father Shukracharya. When the acharya agrees, Yayati asks for a decree absolving him of the sin of cohabiting a woman of higher varna, that is forgiveness to him as a kshatryia for marrying a brahmin’s daughter. He is happy to accept along with Devayani, the princess Sharmishtha, who was made a life-slave of Devayani by her father, and the two thousand maids that served Sharmishtha. Even though forbidden to cohabit with Sharmishtha, he could not resist for very long, knowing well the inevitable wrath of Shukracharya. When cursed into old age, he asks leave of Shukracharya to ask for youth from his sons promising in return his kingdom in inheritance to the son who gives his youth. His son Puru agrees, and with that borrowed vigor, Yayati enjoys all pleasures with the apsara Vishvachi for a long time. He returns, though still unsatisfied, to hand back the youth to his son, Puru. His last and only likeable act is the enunciation that no amount of indulgence can ever satiate a man.

Kamsa, his story too well known, is the epitome of the power usurper turned into an uncontrolled tyrant. Enjoyment of power through violent aggression was his mode. Collateral damage is inevitable when such beings occupy thrones. Their rule leaves behind a memory of extensive violence. Yayati, on the other hand, is a man who overstrains to stay on the right side of dharma and yet fulfils his uncontrolled desires. He is lawful but a covert tyrant cunningly making others grant his wishes. He is selfish, unconcerned with others’ well being, a paradigm of a dharmically non-dharmic king. Such persons make willing slaves of others through moral pressure and get away without overt violence. India for half a century has been full of Yayatis.

Decline of the Higher Aims
It is no small wonder that is varna, with thousands of its jati ramifications has stayed in full force in independent India but ashram, the second half in the twin concept of “varna-aashrama” dharma, has virtually disappeared. Biologically speaking, the ashramas as the four stages of life are universal, but their categorisation and the ordering of the activities (ashrama-dharmas) to be performed during them is an Indian cultural choice.

Everywhere in the world, usually the first two-three decades of life are spent in perfecting skills, the next two in achieving money and status, the fifth-sixth in getting pushed to the back rows and the seventh onwards in virtual retirement. But in India, within the scope of this universal trend, a strong non-consumerist agenda was deliberately built into no less than three of these four stages or ashramas. Brahmacharya, the first was a period for study and utter austerity; Grihastha though for earning wealth was also supposed to be of active charity; Vaanaprastha, was again meant to be for fringe or forest dwelling, for detaching oneself from family and town and, Sanyaasa for total inward looking and renunciation. Nobody can claim that these ideals were fully lived in the Indian past. They were lived as much as ideals are lived anywhere else in the world. Nonetheless they created a society which functioned differently from present day ones.

Obligatory Support to Art
As belief in the other world, paraloka and rebirth was strong, some activity to earn merit for future life was obligatory. For this charity, religious rituals and the pursuit of the arts were prescribed as undisputed methods.

Art was often called a “sacrifice” (yajan) which needed a little or no money. Besides spiritual merit, practice of and patronage to the arts provided refinement, subtle pleasure and a fair name. In societies, called “shame cultures” by anthropologists, where a sense of shame (“aidos” as in Homer or “lokaranjana” as in Bhavabhuti) compels individuals to strictly live up to social obligations. If art is spiritually meritorious (shubham or mokshada), pleasurable (rasaanubhooti) and a bringer of fame (yashakari), then it also becomes a major economic force and devotion to it becomes a social instinct. It is no exaggeration to surmise that it has been so in most periods of Indian history. Enough proof of this is scattered all over the subcontinent in the great architectural and sculptural ruins of edifices that were raised not in one glorious period of a few hundred years, as was the case in Greece or Mesopotamia, but for two millennia. In an easy guess, one might say that India produced as much architecture and sculpture as rest of the world together. And it is also true that these extensive feats in stone were enlivened by a matching achievement in painting, poetry, song, dance and crafts which did not leave such unperishable traces. In other words, Indian society invested more heavily in the arts as a habit than most other cultures, and that too, not as an indulgence or escape but as a noble aim, as a worthy purushaartha.

Protestant Work Ethics
With the advent of modern technology in India also arrived very subtly an alien work ethic in which not to work for economic gain was considered as synonymous with parasitism. Every artistic preoccupation or deeper intellectual pursuit came to be regarded as a non-productive burden. Thanks to the Protestant Reformation in the West which denigrated art as panderer to baser insticts and the Christian iconology as a perversion of the true religion, puritanism travelled to India via Orientalism and became part of the so called Indian Renaissance. Leading figures like Dayanand Saraswati, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekanand and a host of others preached a puritanic lexicon based revival of tradition in which verbalisation was held in higher esteem than ritual practices and the dogmatic rhetoric hushed up artistic expression. That art can be emotionally elevating and hence contributive to the general health of society became questionable.

As a result even after half a century of Independence a poem or a song must demonstrate its social utility, a Bhairavi or a Desa must lead to the national anthem, and holding classical music concerts must appear to be promoting national unity. Not only is the doctrine of art for art’s sake or the theory of “rasa asvaadana” still an anathema, art for the sake of the sacred and spiritual is also suspect. It is viewed as a valorisation of priesthood and labled as “Brahminism” by our modern elite.

No wonder, we see that the US, richest nation and the trend-setter in the world, rushing at this moment to shed its welfare burden and art grants because the taxpayers (in ancient Indian vocabulary, the grihastha-ashramin) consider it non-obligatory to bear the burden of not only the artist, the thinker, and the non scientific researcher, but even of the sick, the old and the destitute.

By contrast, in pre-modern India, the grihasthas, or the house-holders, willingly and consciously bore the entire burden of not only the artist and the scholar, but also of the student, the recluse and the hermit, of all the people belonging to other three ashramas. Obviously, an entirely different cultural psyche was in operation.

Making Room for Others
Social support to the ashramas of Vaanaprastha and Sanyaasa, in which people attempted to pursue learning and spirituality, not only provided a social space for these pursuits, it also provided an exodus from centre stage of social action. Like the power of mercy it was twice blessed, it blessed him that renounced and those that were renounced. Although one need not take the literary references of ancient kingly renunciations as reflective of the norm, in a pre-technologised society when demands on physical strength and fitness were much greater, succession, in any case, had to be effected much earlier. There is a similarity of situation with the modern sports people who retire at the first signs of their flagging prowess to avoid humiliation. The ancient hallow around renunciation, nevertheless, made giving up not only less difficult, but also irreversable. Besides, nobody then had the option of spending old age in infotained relaxation.


Modern Change in the Aims of Sanyaasa
In the four-fold classification of life pursuits, as arthadharma-kaama-moksha, the aim of the fourth ashrama was total inwardness or self-realisation which may have been called by many names such as nirvana, kaivalya, mukti etc, but in no way any social action of a partisan nature was involved in it.

In the modern times, however, the Indian sanyaasa concept has undergone one major influence, i.e., the proselytizing Christian reformer. The Christian ideal of the monk as the healer, of the crusader in particular, was new to our subcontinent. Before that, Islamic proselytizing, whenever it did not operate under the sword, worked by offering proximity into an alternative cultural community, a different millat which was located at the lower rung of the ruling elite disbursing political power, economic benefits and some social mobility. The Christian convert in colonial times, however, could never be part of the ruling class even at the lowest rung, being colour barred, though he could benefit by moving into a somewhat healthier, better educated and urbanised Christian community. Hence the great Christian strategy of opening hospitals and educational institutions to widen their proselytizing impact.

To face the Christian challenge the Indian sanyaasin took a new role different from that of the earlier meditative wanderer giving casual advise to the laity. Like the Christian missionary he began working for development, social reform, revival and proselytization. Vivekanada was the first major saint who included many aspects of social reform in his spiritual agenda. Gandhi was the second great figure to combine spiritual quest with political and social change. But in the absence of spiritual authenticity and discipline as practised by great figures, social reform was equated with political activism. The saffron robe soon fell at the mercy of blatantly commercial or partisan political activists. We have seen how NT Rama Rao, donned the ochre robes, ruled as the Chief Minister of a State and entered into a marraige in those very colours and how Uma Bharati serves as an MP working for the specific interest of a political party. The list of such political swamis is just too long. Who will believe that this kind of monkhood is dedicated to any sort of “dharma-chakra-pravartana”, for inspiring better moral conduct and spiritual upliftment under a fresh philosophy. Equanimity (samadrishti, samapravartana), partylessness, and going beyond likes and dislikes (veetaraaga) have been the mental prerequisites for the fourth ashrama. Indian monkhood, on the contrary, is now being increasingly associated with social power and political pressure.

Lack of Credibility
The decline of sanyaasa as an ashram has largely resulted in the vulgarisation of hermitages. From centres of austerities (tapobhumis) they have become hubs of publicity(prachaara-bhumis) relying on clientele often political. The connection that obtains between the ashramas and political circles is notorious. Instead of purificatory spaces ashramas have become conspitorial.

The fourth ashram, thus, now stands in jeopardy. On the one hand its urge for social service is threatened by narrow political ends, on the other, social support for the intellectual and meditative monk (muni) is not forthcoming. With a few exceptions, hermitages or sanyaasa-ashramas all over the country are now full of less than mediocre preachers who aim to promote their mendicant organisations through wealthy disciples. One does not find in them, many saadhakas of yoga or other arts and philosophies. Surely the great tradition of Indian men in ochre robes writing great treatises and commentaries on philosophy, music, medicine or mathematics has virtually disappeared.

As there is not much thinking going on in the spaces of renunciation, there is little connection between them and the mundane centres of learning. The gap obtains not merely because of the differences between the traditional and the modern systems of education. Modern education and the Western systems of knowledge have been in India long enough. Enough swamis know English to hold discourses in it and travel abroad. But not enough doctors, engineers, scientists and administrators have taken to sanyasa or have held serious dialogue with swamis. And of course, hardly any politician of fame, except Vinoba Bhave, has taken the vows of the fourth ashram and retired for good. The contrast from the days of Buddha, Mahavira or even Chanakya (who never stayed to enjoy the fruits of power but went to the forest no sooner was his task accomplished) is a major cultural shift.

Is India a Senile Culture?
When those who should have retired continue to wield power, the nation comes to live under the shadow of senility. We witness this in every sphere of our national life. Our artists, thinkers and scientists are repetitive, or at best Eurointimidated; by and large, universities and schools have not restructured courses and their contents for half a century; the bureaurcratic system has stayed perfectly colonial; religious, parochial and linguistic enclosures have tightened; caste barriers have been reaffirmed; caste endogamy is flourishing; every political party in India has arrived at an ideological dead-end as they have little more to offer than a tokenist jargon; the Congress still rants for fake secularism, the Left for caste struggle, the Lohia-Ambedkarites for job reservation, Muslims parties for Urdu and Personal Law and the BJP for objectification of Hindu culture. Freshness is not in the air.

Moksha through Social Service: A Failed Ideal
Since the nineteenth century, there have been many streams of thought in India that made money making a sin. In ancient India, acquiring wealth (artha) was one of the four Hindu purusharthas, the four celebrated aims of human life. The wealthy man was supposed to earn fame by making donations and providing social support in various ways. ‘Daana’ was a heroic act that the vaishya, lower in varna hierarchy than kshatryia, performed to excel the king to whom wealth came by the right of taxation and not by effort or shrama as in the case of the merchant. At the end of the Mughal sway, when India ceased to be a flourishing economy and the mercantile control gradually shifted into the British hands, European Orientalists and the Indian scholars alike created the image of India as a primarily spiritual culture that held the ideal of collecting wealth at a low priority. Enlightenment and liberation, jnana and moksha, were valorized as her primary civilizational ideals par excellence.

While medieval Hinduism had held the mokhsa-seeking ascetic to be the paragon of humanity, the 19th century Hindu revival began replacing the medieval ideal (partially to  combat the Christian doctrine of divine love for man’s redemption) through the moksha-seeking-ascetic who was not a recluse but a social servant. Vivekanand was the pioneer in this area, whose ideas were reiterated by Tilak, Gandhi and several others in their own ways for decades later. The upshot of all these theories was, money is meant not for personal enjoyment at all, but only for a social cause. It is not even meant for an aesthetic or celebrative ritual use, as these things, at this given juncture in Indian history are not important. The rich man, as Gandhi put it, was only a trustee and not the actual owner of wealth. This ideal put Indians under a tremendous pressure as it denied to them enjoyment of wealth and other worldly pleasures, which was an age-old legitimate purushaartha, called kaama.

This new ideal of Gandhian austerity for public service was never internalized by Indians and never pursued with seriousness except by the confirmed Gandhians like Vinoba Bhave and some others. But it dominated the intellectual discourse and the political ideals and created a schizophrenic social behavior. While it demanded that its leaders and role models to be serving in abnegation, the inner desire for acquiring the good things of life was understandably too strong to be resisted especially when it had a sanction in the Hindu tradition and a facilitator in modern technology.

As the modern Indian political philosophers distorted the balance of the four aims of dharma, artha, kaama and moksha by keeping the medieval supremacy of attention on moksha, a culture of hypocrisy became the norm, which made Indians into Yayatis. Strangely enough, the religious ideal of moksha through social service facilitated the great fascination of Indian intellectuals for Marxism. For some traditional thinkers, social moksha was a greater ideal than individual moksha and the Marxist emphasis on social change seemed attractive. Some also looked for a precedent for the social concern in Buddhism, which they thought, placed a higher premium on the liberation of others than was the case in Vedic faith, as it was Buddha’s compassion that urged him to save others. Parallels were drawn between Buddhism and Christianity on this ground. Others argued that an equitable social order was a necessary precondition for spiritual uplift, while others rejected any kind of traditional Hindu approach and regarded dialectic materialism as panacea for Indian ills.

The eventual installation of Marxism in India came when Nehru took over the leadership of the nation at Gandhi’s death. In a way it was Nehru’s great fortune that Bose, Gandhi, Aurobindo (a great voice even though a recluse) and Patel, all left the scene so that he could use the sentiment of the moksha through social service for his Socialist State. This was an attitude which all of these men would have challenged for sure as they were not satisfied with mere elimination of social inequality but also valued the aims of spiritual quest. In their absence Nehru cashed on the momentum for self-abnegation and made it serve with obedience to the Socialist State. Ironically the new Socialism also provided a happier ground for Yayati-like satiation of worldly desires, as it did not require abnegation. This new materialism did not advocate asceticism; it wanted only an equitable distribution of goods. It was moksha not through social sacrifice but moksha through equal indulgence.

Moral Corruption, the Crown Gift of the Socialist Raj
Further, under the Socialist State, it was no longer the job of the individual to help elimination of poverty or render social service through personal efforts like charity but of the State to do so by changing the structure of wealth distribution. Personal charity or ‘dana’ in any case could not be practiced in the new state that looked upon personal wealth and property as a social evil remnant of the capitalist society. While the Gandhian man was permitted to keep wealth as a trustee of the poor and not enjoy it, the socialist citizen was not supposed to have any wealth at all. In any case, the country as a whole under state ownership of resources became poverty generative like other Socialist states of the world.

Nevertheless, the Socialist State in India brought plenty of wealth to those who directly or indirectly managed State governance. The Yayati who knew how to keep on the right side of socialist dharma, found a way to force others to satiate his desires. He had his legislative, bureaucratic, or boardroom position (Devayani) as well his bribe-income (Sharmishtha). It is true that minions of the state have always practiced a degree of corruption and even ancient political thinkers like Kautilya had advised monarchs to keep in check extortions (‘utkocha’) by officials. But in the command economy set up, bribe, commission, extortion and undeclared assets came to acquire the status of a parallel economy, illegal but socially admirable. It came under the socialist dharma just as Sharmishtha had come to Yayati under the ‘daasee’ dharma.

Today there is no sphere of Indian life, concerned with the affairs of the State or otherwise, which is not affected by underhand influence. Whether it is marriage, admissions in schools, license for business, income tax dues, payment of electricity or revenue bills, a seat on the train, funding of political parties for elections or the choice of their contestants, all transactions are governed by illegal exchanges. Indians are divided into two clear modern varnas, white and black, the man who earns an honest income and one who has an illegal one as well.

From Yayatis to Kamsas, from Indulgence to Violence
The illegal content of social transactions that first began as a minor influence has now increased to be a major one. Sections like underworld criminals, political musclemen, legislators under trial for heinous offences, kidnappers, extortionists, drug dealers, international arms dealers and terrorist groups have an increasing say in the daily governance of the Indian State and country’s business transactions. The parallel economy of black money is turning into black governance or governance by death. A whole corridor running through the Indian territory from Nepal to Sri Lanka is feared to have been formed and controlled by terrorists, political subversionists and criminal gangs. Yayatis are being replaced by Kamsas.

For a decade, with some de-controlling of economy, contributions by rich non- resident Indians and the sale of cheap labour through information technology, there has been a brighter life for the urban middle class. But at the same time huge areas of rural territory are sinking into deplorable governance and daily violence against women, the poor and the weak. The moral duplicity that developed under a system of state controlled economy has now become a degradation that will not go away with the coming of any other kind of liberalized post-Socialist economy. Privatization of public assets and greater control of economy by the non-State sectors will make no difference unless a new ethics that abjures both undue profiteering and extortion is consciously promoted and achieved. Along with the new ethics must come the capacity to govern with discipline and justice without which no State can fulfill its duty to its people.

From the Oppressive to the Progressive State
The ideal monarch in traditional India was projected not as a strong administrator with a divine right to govern the people but as the head of a huge family, a father figure (bhartaa) nourishing his children (prajaa). The just, kind, gracious and endearing ruler was the supposed to be the best. He was imagined to be the exact opposite of Kamsa, a Janaka, which literally means the father. The use of violence either for exploitation or for subjugation of the inhabitants was the sign of a failed state in which both the people and the king were not following any rules of conduct. It may be pointed out that it is not always poverty that causes a state to be weak and disorganized but more often it can be an irresponsible and indulgent behaviour of the well to do classes that can bring about such a ruin. The situation in India, today, is of double danger with a mass of poverty struck emaciating the State from below while the rich and indulgent elite are making it a soft target for all sorts of disaster from above.

Secularism Lapses into Immoral-ism
It is also time to acknowledge that in the great anxiety to keep the education system free of all religious instruction lest the Indian State be accused of taking sides for a religion, Hinduism in particular, and thus forgoing its secular credentials, society by and large has been devoid of any moral instruction at the school and college level. The resultant lack of basic ethics in public life has created a deep crisis. We may now better admit that in India, its religions have been the repository of moral values and their banishment from educational discourse has been a disaster. The vision of a bright and upright Indian society in the minds of several fine Indians like Gandhi, Tagore, Aurobindo, Malviya, Subramanyam Bharti etc., was not allergic to the inclusion of religious values. It was Nehru’s socialist order, and more so the syllabi developed in the period of Indira Gandhi when she succumbed to the dictates of the Soviet Union and handed over the whole syllabus making of the educational institutions to the Marxist or crypto Marxists, that the secularism came to be equated with a virtual disregard of religious values and consequently of all moral values. The nation has now to reconstruct a frame of mind that without showing favor to any one religious denomination, draws upon the power of all religions to create society with high ethical practices in private as well as public lives.


BHARAT GUPT - Associate Professor, CVS, Delhi University. Founder member and Trustee International Forum for India's Heritage. Born in 1946 in Moradabad, a small town in the Uttar Pradesh province of India of mixed Hindu-Muslim population, best known for its engraved art on brassware and a little less for Hindustani music and Urdu poetry. Parents moved in early fifties to Delhi, the new capital of modernity and political intrigue, where I went to school and college and studied English, Hindi, Sanskrit and philosophy, but spent every summer in the district town. Spent a year in the US at the end of Counter-Cultural days and took a Master's degree from Toronto. I learnt to play the sitar and surbahar under the eminent musician Uma Shankar Mishra and studied musicology, yoga sutras and classics under Acarya Brihaspati and Swami Kripalvananda. Trained both in modern European and traditional Indian educational systems, I have worked in classical studies, theatre, music, culture and media studies and researched as Senior Onassis Fellow in Greece on revival of ancient Greek theatre. As a classicist I came to realise that ancient Greek drama and culture as a whole, was given an unduly empirical color by the modern West. Looking at things from my own location I saw that Greek theatre was closer to ancient Indian theatre as an ethical and religious act or hieropraxis. Instead of being seen as Western and Eastern, Greek and Indian theatres should be seen rooted in the Indo-European cultural beliefs, myths and idolatory and the aesthetics of emotional arousal. I have lectured on theatre and music at various Universities in India, North America and Greece. I am on visiting faculty at the National School of Drama, Delhi and the Bhartendu Academy for Dramatic Arts , Lucknow.



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