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October - December 2021

Learning from the Yaksha Prashna

THE great epic Mahabharata contains many gems. The most famous of these are the Bhagavad Gita and the Vishnu Sahasranama. Sanat-sujatiya is another of these, a work of wisdom for which Sri Adi Shankaracharya himself has written a commentary.

The Yaksha Prashna is yet another well-known part of the Mahabharata. It occurs in the Chapter 313 of Aranyaka Parva and it is a dialogue between Yama, who is the God of Dharma and his son Yudhishthira. The story is set in a very fascinating context. The Pandavas are spending their years of exile in the forest, in the exalted company of many Rishis and Vedic scholars, whom they are able to support with the Akshaya Patram gifted to them by the Sun God. One day, one of them complains to the Pandavas that his Arani (a pair of wood sticks used to spark a fire for Vedic rituals) has been taken away by a deer in its antlers.

The virtuous Pandavas rush out to track the deer and recover the Arani. Ever inseparable and eager to serve learned elders, it does not occur to them that all five of them need not exert themselves for this task. Their long and futile chase leaves them tired and thirsty. One by one they go looking for a lake but do not return. Finally Yudhishthira the eldest, goes in search of his brothers and sees them lying dead by a lakeside.

Yudhisthira’s outpouring of grief and shock is moving. He wonders how the predictions of Devas and Rishis about Arjuna could be false, how Bhima’s oaths are now in vain, and says his own heart must be indeed made of stone for it does not shatter seeing the twins lying dead. After this, Yudhishthira enters the lake to quench his thirst and is stopped by a voice, which claims to be a crane, and says it has struck dead the four brothers when they did not pay heed to its warning against drinking water from the lake. Yudhishthira is startled but acquiesces to the crane’s order that he must answer its questions before accessing the water himself. He also feels that this must be no ordinary crane.

The supernatural being first introduces itself as a crane, and later as a Yaksha. Only in the very end, it is revealed that the being is none other than the God of Dharma. At that juncture, he is extremely pleased with Yudhishthira, his son, and blesses him in many ways.

The Yaksha asks around 120 questions. The questions can be classified broadly to be under Dharma and Moksha. In other words, the questions are about the right way of living, and understanding the ultimate spiritual goal of human existence.

Yudhishthira stands out with his virtues that unlike his brothers, he is patient and respectful when asked to not drink the water. In fact, Yudhisthira’s deference to righteousness and his deep understanding of life and Dharma are brought out tellingly in the Yaksha Prashna. Even after the questioning session, Yudhishthira’s sense of fairness in asking for Nakula to be revived, so that each of the queens of Pandu would have one surviving son and his clarity of thought in asking for the restoration of the Arani which they came looking for in the first place, elicit our admiration for him.

Analysing the questions posed by the Yaksha and replied ably by Yudhishthira , the following categories emerge:

I Universal virtues

These are questions and answers that motivate us to cultivate virtues and are applicable to everyone on this earth, irrespective of religion, nationality and other divisions

II Questions about the Veda Marga

These are on the way of life enjoined by the Vedas, pertaining to the Varnashrama Dharma, Vedic rituals etc.

III Symbolic questions

These are outwardly about Natural phenomena, but yield deeper meanings when the symbolism is understood, and reflected upon.

IV Questions which reflect worldly wisdom

These are questions whose answers reflect Yudhishthira’s thorough understanding of the world and human nature.

Although we attempt to classify the Yaksha’s questions into four groups, one must remember that these are not water- tight compartments and often a question may fit under more than one heading. Let us now look at some questions and the answers in each category.

I Universal virtues

  1. के न द्ि तीयवान् भव त? (Verse 47)

With whom or what does one always have a companion?

ध ा ि तीयवान् भव त. (Verse 48)

It is with courage and fortitude that one always has a companion.

True words of wisdom these are. Even our most well-meaning and dear ones cannot accompany us everywhere. It is our firmness and courage, our inner strength that is always with us.

  1. क% धम ः परो लोके .. कै % स न जीय ते || (Verse 75)

What is the highest Dharma in this world ? Association with whom never wears away?

आनृशं ं परो धम ः ..स ः स ः न जीय ते || (Verse 76) Kindness is the highest Dharma. Association with good people never wears away.

Both these replies remind us of verses 571 and 782 in Thirukkural, which say that kindness is the mainstay of this world, and true friendship

is like the waxing moon, starting small but growing steadily.

3. िक ु िह ा 2 यो भव त िक ु िह ा न शोच त |

िक ु िह ाऽथव ान् भव त िक ु िह ा सुखी भवेत् || (Verse 77)

Giving up what one becomes dear to all? Giving up what does one have no regret? Giving up what makes one rich? Giving up what makes one joyful?

मानं िह ा 2 यो भव त ोधं िह ा न शोच त |

कामं  िह ाऽथव ान् भव त लोभं िह ा सुखी भवेत् || (Verse 78)

Giving up pride, one becomes dear to all. Giving up anger, one does not have any regret. Giving up desires makes one wealthy and giving up greed makes one joyful.

Everyone enjoys the company of children and other such ego-free persons. Anger often leads to reckless action and words, which we regret later. Desire and greed are detrimental to wealth and happiness. These truths are worth remembering, for these (wealth and happiness) are what everyone seeks in the first place.

4. कः श ुद जय ः पं ुसां क ा धरन कः

क9:श ; तः साधुः असाधुः क9:शः ; तः || (Verse 91)

Who is a foe difficult to conquer? Which is a disease with no end? Who is a noble-minded person and who is wicked?

Anger is the invincible foe, and avarice is the never-ending disease. One who desires the welfare of all creatures is noble, while a merciless man is thought to be wicked.The epithet “sarvabhuta hite ratah” is found in the Sankshepa Ramayanam, describing Lord Rama and also in Bhagavadgita. How much one cares for other living beings is the true test of goodness. “Be pure and unselfish for that is the whole of religion” said Swami Vivekananda.

  1. िकं ैय ऋ ष भः 2 ो ं िकं च धैय मुदा तं |

ानं च िकं परं 2 ो ं दानं च िक महो ते || (Verse 95)

What is steadfastness? What is courage? What is the best kind of bathing? What is charity?

स धमLM रता ैय धैय मPQ य- नRहः |

ानं मनोमल ागो दानं वै भूतर णम् || (Verse 96)

Dedication to one’s duty i s steadfastness. Conquering the senses is courage. Cleansing the mind of impurities is bathing. Charity is that which protects living beings. This definition of “danam” is something to introspect upon, since we often giveaway things which are unnecessary or not truly beneficial to the recipient.

  1. को मोदते ? (Verse 114)

“Who is a happy man?”

A long answer to this short question follows.

पD मेऽह न षFे वा शाकं पच त  े गृह

ोधः सुदजय ःश ुः लोभो  ा धरन कः

सव भूतिहतः साधुः असाधुः नद यः ; तः || (Verse 92)

अनृणी चा2 वासी च स वाKरचर मोदते         (Verse 115)

The man, even if he can cook greens or vegetables once in five or six days in his own home, has no debts, and does not have to travel away from home, is a happy man.

This response teaches us the importance of contentment and simple living, by which one can be master of one’s own time, and be independent. Yudhishthira is a scion of Kshatriyas, who are known for their restless ambition, and therefore his advice is even more valuable.

Works which are in the question- answer format, such as Prasnottara Ratnamalika and Yaksha Prashna, sharpen our thinking by making us think in ways otherwise not occurring to us. Our debt of gratitude to Bhagavan Veda Vyasa is vast indeed.

(To be continued)


Yudhistira and Yaksha