Yaksha Prashna – The Historic Dialogue between Father and Son

An insightful and inspiring story from the Vana Parva that extols the intelligence and sense of fairness the oldest brother Yudhistra was endowed with.
Keywords: Mahabharata, Dharma, Pandavas, Power, Yudhistra, Nakula, Knowledge, Scripture, Kingdom
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The Mahabharata is the largest poem in the world written on the canvas of the Indic civilization. “Bharata” refers to the great war of the descendants of King Bharata – The Kauravas & the Pandavas.

Every generation that the story delves into, reflects an evolving interpretation of Dharma aided by the exploration of the truth of human existence at incredible and unimaginable levels, as never done before!

Multiple times larger than the 2 oldest extant works of Western literature written around the 7th/8th century BCE- The Iliad along with Odyssey; this 5000 year old Mahabharata consists of 100,000 verses divided into 18 chapters with a matrix of stories illustrating power & weakness, love & hatred, greed & sacrifice, aggression & compliance, dishonor & honor, defeat & victory…..; highly influencing the social and political history that the royal family of Hastinapura was a part of.

Among the 18 Parvas (chapters) the Vana Parva presents the life of the Pandavas in the forest during the twelve years of exile, followed by a thirteenth year spent incognito.

Here is an insightful, inspiring story from the Vana Parva that extols the intelligence and sense of fairness the oldest brother Yudhistra was endowed with. 

One day in the forest, a brahmin came running to the Pandavas to plead help in finding his aranis, 2 fire-producing wooden sticks that he had kept on the branch of a tree, but that had fallen and gotten locked in the horns of a stag that had come to scratch itself against the tree. He needed the aranis as soon as possible to conduct his vedic ritual duties!

In chasing the stag, the brothers become tired and thirsty. Yudhistra asked Nakula to find water. Nakula spotted a lake and heard the voice of a crane that told him that it owned the lake and that it could drink water only after answering certain questions. Not paying heed to the crane, Nakula dropped dead as soon as he tasted the water!

One by one the brothers were sent in search of the other and four of them lost their lives in the same manner on the banks of the lake, by ignoring the voice of the crane. Eventually Yudhistira arrived at the lake and lamented over the loss of his brothers.

The crane revealed itself as Yaksha, a celestial being, and questioned Yudhistra who agreed to answer saying “I do not wish to take what belongs to me. Ask and I shall answer to the best of my knowledge’

Here are some select questions and answers out of the 125 questions asked by the Yaksha on the law of existence, ethics & conduct:-  

Yaksha’s Prashna (Questions)Yudhisthra’s Utar (Answers)
In what is the Sun established?Truth 
Who keeps the Sun company?Gods 
Who causes the Sun to rise? Brahman 
What makes the Sun set?Dharma
What do people seek in life? Happiness
What makes one learned?The study of Shastras  
How does one acquire greatness? Through austerities (tapas)
What is the highest value in the world?Compassion 
What is the greatest wonder in the creation?Despite seeing living beings enter the door of death, the thinking that one would not die
Who is heavier than Earth?Mother
Who is higher than Heaven?Father
What is faster than Wind?Mind
What is more numerous than Grass?Thoughts
What Mastery enables a Kshatriya to perform his duties?Mastery of the knowledge of weapons
What is pious practice in Kshatriyas? Celebration of Sacrifices 
What is the human attribute of Kshatriyas?Fear
What is impious practice for Kshatriyas?Incapacity/Refusal to protect Dharma
Which is the single sacrificial chant? Breath of life /Prana
What is the greatest gain?Health
What is the greatest happiness?Contentment
What constitutes the sacredness of Brahmins?Swadhyaaya (Study of Vedas: Scriptures)
What is pious practice for Brahmins?Austerities, asceticism (penance) 
What is the human attribute of Brahmins?Mortality
What is their impious practice?To slander is their impiety
What is Amrita/nectar?Milk of the Cow is Amrita 
Who is a friend of the traveller?Companion, Co- traveler 
Who is a gift of friendship bestowed on a man?Wife
Who is a friend of the sick?Physician
Who is a friend of the dying? Charity(dana)
What is the right path?The path of the sages, the path of the great whose heart shines with Dharma
What is steadiness?Adherence to one’s own religion
What is the highest duty? Not hurting others.
What is the basis of Dharma?Generosity
What if renounced, make one agreeable?Pride
What if renounced, leads to no regret?Anger
What if renounced, makes one wealthy? Desire
What if renounced, makes one happy?Greed
What is the real news of the world?This world full of ignorance, is like a cauldron.  The sun is fire, the days and nights are fuel. The months and the seasons constitute the wooden ladle. Time is the cook that is cooking all creatures in that cauldron.This is the truth of the transient world.
Who is condemned to Everlasting Hell?If one promises a poor Brahmin, a charity but upon his arrival refuses to give.Who speak falsehood of Vedas, Scriptures,Who despite possessing, does not give because of greediness. 
Who is truly happy?One who can cook with vegetables in his own home One who is free from debtOne who does not have to wander, strive/stress for livelihood

(Source: Yaksha Prashna – Wikipedia)

The Yaksha, pleased and satisfied with Yudhistra’s answers, granted him the life of one of the brothers only. Yudhistra chose Nakula, much to the surprise of the Yaksha!

Upon asking, why he forsook the mighty Bhima or the admirable Arjuna, who were his own brothers, and instead chose his step-brother Nakula, Yudhistra gave a heartwarming reply:-

“My father Pandu had two wives – Kunti and Madri

Both my mothers are equal to me. If I am alive as one of the sons of mother Kunti, then a son of mother Madri must also be alive!”

Yaksha: “Your sense of justice is glorious, my son. I am Yama – your father, the Lord of Dharma, I disguised myself as the stag and stole the brahmins’s aranis. I was desirous of beholding you and testing your merit. All your brothers will get back their lives and you would be unrecognizable during your incognito year as well!” 

Reunited and all fatigue dispelled, the heroic Pandavas returned to the hermitage and gave back the brahmin the fire sticks. Yudhistra who had staked the lives of his step-brothers during the infamous game of dice in the kingdom of Hastinapura, had chosen to revive one step-brother’s life first in the meeting with his father.

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Pavithra Srinivasan

Pavithra Srinivasan is a Visiting Fellow of India Foundation. She is an acclaimed Bharatnatyam dancer, and founder of Arsha Kala Bharathi.

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