A 5,000 year old Q&A with the lord of death
The Indian spiritual traditions are replete with dialogues, Q&As and rhetoric on truth. Even in the great epic Mahabharata we find many accounts of reasoning and inquiry where application of dharma is discussed. The Yaksha Prashna in the Mahabharata is one such section where we find a famous Q&A (question and answer) session between Yama the Lord of death and the wise King Yudhistir. In this Q&A we find 123 pointed questions by Lord Yama in a rapid fire style to which the righteous Yudhistir answers in a crisp and insightful way covering many aspects of applied DHARMA.
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In the Yaksha Prashna, Yama asks Yudhishtir 120 odd questions and here is a selection of these Q&As. Some of the answers are not that straightforward and needs a Guru to explain the import of it all.
Who makes the sun to rise and ascend in the skies? Who moves around the Sun? Who makes the sun set in the horizons? What is the true nature of the Sun and where is the sun established?
Yudhishtir answers: Brahma makes the sun rise and ascend. The Gods perambulate about the Sun. The dharma sets the Sun. Truth is the actual Sun and the Sun is established in truth only.
What instils ‘divinity’ in Brahmanas? What is the quality of virtuosity in a Brahmana? What is the humanlike quality of a Brahmana? What is the conduct akin to a non-virtuous person in a Brahmana?
Yudhishtir replied: The self-study of the Vedas is divinity in a Brahmana. Penance is the quality like a virtuous person in a Brahmana. Death is human-like quality in a Brahmana. Criticising others is conduct in a Brahmana like a non-virtuous person.
What is heavier than earth, higher than heavens, faster than the wind and more numerous than straws?
Yudhishtir: One’s mother is heavier than the earth; one’s father is higher than the mountains. The mind is faster than wind and our worries are more numerous than straws.
Who is the friend of a traveller? Who is the friend of the householder? Who is the friend of one who is ill and one who is dying?
Yudhishtir: The friend of a traveller is his companion. The friend of the householder is the wife. The physician is the friend of one who is sick and a dying man’s friend is charity.
What is that which, when renounced, makes one lovable? What is that which is renounced makes happy and wealthy?
Yudhishtir: Pride, if renounced makes one lovable; by renouncing desire one becomes wealthy; and to renounce avarice is to obtain happiness.
What enemy is invincible? What constitutes an incurable disease? What sort of man is noble and what sort is ignoble?
Yudhishtir: Anger is the invincible enemy. Covetousness constitutes a disease that is incurable. He is noble who desires the well-being of all creatures, and he is ignoble who is without mercy.
Who is truly happy? What is the greatest wonder?
Yudhishtir: He who has no debts is truly happy. Day after day countless people die. Yet the livings wish to live forever. O Lord, what can be a greater wonder?
For a full narrative on the story, the Sanskrit to English verse translation, the full list of the Yaksha’s questions and Yudhishtir’s answer here is a link.