Musings on National Youth Day: Legend of YAYATI and NACHIKETA -Dr. Subhash Chandra Pandey

Today is the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekanand celebrated as National Youth Day.

This special day reminds me of the pressing need for the self-indulgent oldies to stop living at the expense of the youth, a throwback to the Puranic legend of King YAYATI. It also reminds me how many of us don’t appreciate the thoughts of the visionary and enlightened soul of Swamiji.

Let me explain why.

My reference to King YAYATI may need some introduction to his myth/parable to the uninitiated.

Indic cultural heritage is full of stories of great import, pivoted around quaint curses and the ways to overcome or mitigate them. The curses and boons bring interesting twists and turns in the story, highlight the virtues and follies of the characters and leave a lesson for the readers, now also viewers as epics like Ramayana and Mahabharat turned into TV serials and films.

King Yayati was one of the ancestors of Pandavas. He had two wives, Devayani and Sharmishtha. Enraged at his relationship with second wife Sharmishtha, Devayani’s father, sage Shukracharya had cursed Yayati to old age in the prime of life but later allowed him to exchange his age with any of his sons willing to do so. His son Puru agreed to exchange his youth with his father’s old age! Much later, Yayati sought to return the youth back to Puru who does not accept it. Both go for vaanprastha giving kingdom to grandson.

I had read the story in Srimad Bhagvat/Mahabharata in childhood and later read a very nuanced look at the whole story  in the English translation of the  Marathi novel YAYATI  by Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar that won him  the Sahitya Akademi Award and  Jnanpith Award. It is a fascinating read on myriad human emotions that come into play.

Elders are supposed to give, not take from younger generations. Parents live a self-abnegating lifestyle to see that the children eat well, study well, do well in life. We don’t seem to find any Yayati around.

However, a doubt often arises whether collectively the present generation is living at the expense of future generations.

The issue of intergenerational equity assumes importance in public finance where the present generation consumes and gradually exhausts non-replensihible natural resources, overspends with borrowed money and leaves piles of unpaid debt to future generations.

The allegory of YAYATI is immensely relevant in today’s India with 65% population under 35, 50% under 25. It is time all the YAYATIs who are figuratively living on borrowed youth and at the expense of youth, relinquish their self-indulgent ways and return the youth to the youth. It is also a terse reminder to the present generation living on borrowed funds and destroying environment which essentially means living on resources borrowed from future generations.

Leaving undischarged debt may not be a bad thing if the debt is used to create durable income generating assets and in developing healthy, educated, skilled future generation so that the future generation have the capacity to repay the inherited debt. By the time the debt incurred today comes for redemption, both the lenders and borrowers would have gone, leaving their successors to settle the debts.

We must stop doing all the nonsense that hurts the prospects of growth and development of youth. Their curse will be unbearable.

While in this self-flagellation mood, I may be excused for some lecturing.

Long before the Indian diaspora made us proud globally, especially in the US, UK and Canada, there was a man who did us proud on a world platform. Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the first Parliament of the World’s Religions Chicago hailed with standing ovation is considered among his most significant contributions to the world — so much so that a three-day world conference was organised to commemorate his 150th birthday in 2012.

It was an impressive breakdown of the ancient philosophy of Hinduism — delivered with crisp logic and scientific insight. – “To the Hindu, man is not travelling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth. To him, all the religions — from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism — mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realise the Infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of these marks a stage of progress.”

“If there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its Catholicity will embrace in infinite arms and find a place for every human being — from the lowest grovelling savage, not far removed from the brute, to the highest man towering by the virtues of his head and heart almost above humanity, making society stand in awe of him and doubt his human nature.”

“Whatever may be the position of philosophy, whatever may be the position of metaphysics, so long as there is such a thing as death in the world, so long as there is such a thing as weakness in the human heart, so long as there is a cry going out of the human heart, there shall be faith in God.”

He finished his speech with the appeal, “Upon the banner of every religion will soon be written — in spite of resistance — ‘Help and not Fight’, ‘Assimilation and not Destruction’, ‘Harmony and Peace, and not Dissension’.”

Swamiji was a great philosopher saint who articulated scope for enmeshing scientific advancement, shedding superstitions and a dynamic, evolving paradigm for matters of faith from blind faith to increasingly informed faith. He exhorted matters of faith being continually questioned and redefined with quest of knowledge. India has a rich tradition of SHASTRARTH where learned persons engage in debate with all sides having equal and fair opportunity to argue and counter. Our scriptures are also full of meaningful Question and Answer sessions.

For the Youth Day, I may mention in particular the story of NACHIKETA from KATHA UPANISHAD, the boy who engaged YAMA, the god of death in a profound debate on basic questions of truth and existence.

Today’s youth has many more facilities that were not available to ours. Choices have increased manifold and so has confusion and conflict. Lure of easy money and easy life and temptations to go for shortcuts are on the rise. Attention spans are low. Information and misinformation is being bombarded from all over. Blind faith and debates with closed ears are on the rise. Voices of sanity and reason are getting drowned.

It is not possible to devote time to examine everything, question everything. Some things have to be accepted as told by elders purely for convenience sake (lack of time) but the willingness to question everything, almost everything, must be nurtured. Question without bias and try to understand others’ viewpoint. Only a thinking society – constantly and critically examining, reasoning, revaluating past beliefs – can progress. This is the heritage of this great land: an undying spirit of inquiry and reform. The day we stop questioning and honest introspection, we would cease to make progress, both material and spiritual.

Today is the day to proclaim: YOUNGISTAN ZINDABAD.