By Swami Harshananda
Sometimes transliterated as: Yaksaprasna, YaksapraZna, Yaksaprashna
Yakṣapraśna literally means ‘questions raised by the Yakṣa’.
This is one of the most important sections of the great epic Mahābhārata. It comprises of 90 verses from 45 up to 134 and is in the form of a long dialogue between Yama disguised as a Yakṣa and Yudhiṣṭhira, the eldest of the Pāṇḍavas. The Yakṣa asks 122 questions and Yudhiṣṭhira answers all of them satisfactorily.
Composition of Yakṣapraśna
After losing in the game of dice, the Pāṇḍavas had to live in a forest for twelve years. Once, during this period of banishment, a brāhmaṇa complained to them that a deer had accidentally carried away his araṇis. All the five Pāṇḍavas tried their best to pursue the animal and catch it or kill it but failed miserably. When they were resting under a tree, tired and thirsty, Yudhiṣṭhira sent Nakula to fetch some drinking water. As he did not return even after a long time, the other three brothers were also sent one by one. When none of them turned up, Yudhiṣṭhira himself went in search of them. To his great astonishment and shock, he found all of them lying dead by the side of a beautiful lake.
As he was reflecting in himself how it could happen, he saw a Yakṣa of gigantic proportions. The Yakṣa told him that his brothers had died since they did not answer his questions and the water of the lake belonged to him. Yudhiṣṭhira in all humility did obeisance to him and offered to answer his queries to the best of his ability. Then ensued a long series of enigmatic questions and scintillating answers.
Questions of Yakṣa
Many questions asked by Yakṣa are like riddles. The answers given by Yudhiṣṭhira in spite of the explanations offered by Nīlakaṇṭha Caturdhara in his commentary Bhāvārthadipikā are also enigmatic. Hence, only a brief summary of the dialogue which is more intelligible and appears convincing, can now be given:
Yakṣa : How does a person become a śrotriya or a Vedic scholar? By what means does he attain Mahat or the Great? What is it that helps a man in difficulties? How does a person become wise?
Yudhisthira : A person becomes a śrotriya or Vedic scholar by studying and understanding the spirit of the Vedas. It is by tapas or austerity that one can attain Mahat or God. It is dhṛti or inner strength that helps a man in difficulties. A person becomes wise by serving the elders and superiors.
Yakṣa : How can brāhmaṇas attain devatva or godliness? What is the dharma or the conduct that makes them good? What is the common nature of human beings? By what do they become bad?
Yudhisthira : Brāhmaṇas attain devatva or godliness by a deep study of the Vedas. The dharma that makes them good is tapas or austerity. It is death that is common to all human beings. They become bad by slander.
Yakṣa : By what do the kṣattriyas attain devatva? What is the virtue that makes them good? What constitutes their humanness? By what do they become bad?
Yudhisthira : It is military prowess that makes the kṣattriyas excellent. It is yajña or performance of sacrifices that is the virtue they have to cultivate. It is fear that constitutes their humanness. They become bad by abandoning those that seek refuge.
Yakṣa : What is it that is heavier or greater than the earth? What is it that is higher than the sky? What is it that is swifter than the wind? What is more numerous than grass?
Yudhisthira : It is one’s mother that is greater than the earth. It is one’s father who is higher than the sky. It is the mind that is swifter than the wind. It is worries that are more numerous than grass.
Yudhisthira : Dākṣya or integrity is the source of dharma. Dāna or charity is the source of yaśas. It is satya or truth alone that is the source of heaven. Śila or character is the source of happiness.
Yakṣa : What is the best means of dhana or wealth? Which is the best wealth? Which is the best lābha or gain? Which is the best sukha or happiness?
Yudhisthira : It is dākṣya or integrity that is the best means of wealth. It is śruta or learning that is the best wealth. Ārogya or good health is the best gain. Tuṣti or contentment is the best happiness.
Yakṣa : By renouncing which does one become lovable? By renouncing which does one become free from grief? By renouncing which does one become wealthy? By renouncing which does one become happy?
Yudhisthira : One becomes lovable by renouncing pride. One becomes free from grief by renouncing anger. One becomes wealthy by renouncing desire. One becomes happy by renouncing greed.
Yakṣa : What is the greatest wonder in this world?
Yudhisthira : Seeing that every day beings are dying, others who are still living think that they never die. What can be more wonderful than this?
Yakṣa : Then, what is the way?
Yudhisthira : Disputations take us no-where. Scriptures teach mutually contradictory things. No single sage has been accepted as the highest authority. Principles of dharma are deeply hidden. Hence that alone is the way which great men tread.
The Yakṣa who was actually Yama-dharma, the god of death, was immensely pleased by these answers. He not only revived all the dead brothers of Yudhiṣṭhira but also gave him the other boons asked.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore