Dharma basics – yakṣa-praśna

Post By: Published on: December 8, 2017 Reading time: 25 minutes

Acknowledgement School of yoga is deeply grateful to the author of this article, Dr. H. S. Ram Mohan who is an Independent Academic and Indic Content Writer, for his permission to publish his work on this site. He was formerly a Professor of Meteorology and Dean and Director, School of Marine Sciences, Cochin University of Science and Technology.

Yakṣa-praśna (the questioning by the Yakṣa)


The Mahabharata is the largest poem in the world written on the canvas of the Indic civilization. It covers the great war of the descendants of King Bharata – the Kauravas and 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!

 Many times larger than the two 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 around 100,000 verses divided into 18 chapters with a matrix of stories illustrating power & weakness, love & hatred, greed & sacrifice, aggression & compliance, dishonour & honour, 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 Yudhishtira was endowed with. The Yaksha Prashna, also known as the Dharma Baka Upakhyana or the Akshardhama, is the story of a question-and-answer dialogue between Yudhishthira and a yaksha.

Vana Parva

 At the end of their 12 years of exile in the forests, the time had come for the Pandavas to live incognito in Agnata Vasa. As they were discussing their course of action, the princes met a Brahmin who complained that a deer has taken on its antlers his arani— a pair of wooden blocks used to start fire by friction— so he couldn’t light the fire for Vedic rituals. So, the Pandavas set out to retrieve the Brahmin’s arani and followed the hoofprints of the deer.

While following the mysterious deer, Yudhishthira became exhausted and thirsty. So, his brother Nakula set out to fetch water and found a beautiful lake. The lake was devoid of any living creature, except for a crane. When he attempted to take water from the lake, the crane spoke, “O Nakula! The water of this lake will turn into poison if you take it without satisfactorily answering my questions.” Nakula ignored the crane, hastily drank the poisonous water, and died. Nakula’s twin Sahadeva came in search of his brother and found the same lake, saw Nakula dead, and was warned by the crane. But Sahadeva too ignored the crane and died after drinking the water. One after the other, Arjuna and Bhima also met the same fate.

 When none of his brothers returned with water, Yudhishthira followed the trail to the lake and found them lying dead. Before searching for his brothers’ killer, he decided to drink some water from the lake. But when the crane warned him, he realised that the crane held the answer to the turn of events, and agreed to answer its questions. The crane then revealed itself as a Yaksha. The Yaksha asked Yudhishthira approximately 125 questions on gods, metaphysics, philosophy, and similar topics.

School of Yoga commentary.

Mahābhārata is an itihāsa. Itihāsa translates to “thus verily happened”. The Mahābhārata is written as a poem of 1,00,000 couplets and composed by Vyāsa and scribed by Lord Ganesa, who broke off one of his tusks to ensure that he would not have to keep changing pens to write. In fact, the Mahabharata is the biggest existing epic, much bigger that the Rāmāyana or the Illiad. Since it is so intricately designed with philosophies and stories, it is often called the fifth Veda.

Broadly, the Mahabharata describes events that occurred just before the start of Kali-yuga, around 3100 BCE, some 5000 years ago. It is about a conflict between cousins for property, all descended from the king Shāntanu. On one hand were the children of Dhrthrāshtra, called Kauravā and opposing them were the children of Pāndu, called Pāndava.

The actual prashnotthari (question-answer)

Let us now look at the Yaksha’s questions along with Yudhishthira’s brilliant answers from the great epic of Mahabharata with a translation in simple English. This prashnotthari is like a modern-day rapid-fire quiz.

Yaksha asked.

Who makes the Sun rise? Who travels with him?

Who leads him to set? Where is he firmly anchored?      (1)

Yudhisthira replied.

It is Brahman which makes the Sun rise. Devas (Gods) travel with him.

Dharma leads him to set and he is firmly anchored in Truth.   (2)

Yaksha asked.

How does one become a srotriya (one well-versed in vedic lore)?

How does one attain greatness? By what means one gets help? 

O King! By what means one becomes intelligent?     (3)

Yudhisthira replied.

One becomes a srotriya by the study of the Vedas.

He achieves greatness by practice of austerities (tapas).

He earns strength by patience and he becomes intelligent by serving elderly men (of wisdom).     (4)

Yaksha asked.

What is the divinity in brahmanas?

What is the dharma of good people which they follow?

What is the humanly trait in them? 

What is the trait in them which is like that of the bad people?   (5)

Yudhisthira replied.

Svādhyāya (study of the Vedas) is the divinity in the Brahmins.

Austerity (tapasya) is the good trait in them.

Their human trait is that they are subject to die.

Their trait like that of the bad people is speaking ill of others.      (6)

Yaksha asked.

What is the divinity of the Kshatriyas?

What is the dharma of good people which they follow? 

What is the human-like trait in them? 

What trait in them is like that of the bad people?   (7)

Yudhisthira replied.

Skill in warfare is the divinity in Kshatriyas. 

Performance of sacrificial rites is their trait like that of the sages.

Their human trait is fear (timidity). 

Abandoning (those who seek protection) is their bad trait.    (8)

Yaksha asked.

What is Sama in a sacrifice?

What is Yajus in a sacrifice?

What does the sacrifice invoke?

What is it that it does not transgress?         (9)

Yudhisthira replied.

Prana is the sama in a sacrifice. 

Mind is the Yaju in it. 

It is Rik which the sacrifice invokes.

and it is also Rik which it (the sacrifice) does not transgress.    (10)

Yaksha asked.

What is the best thing for the tiller of the soil? 

What is the best thing for the one who sows?

What is the best thing for those who want a stable life?

What is the best thing for those who give birth?               (11)

Yudhisthira replied.

Rain is the best thing for the tiller. 

Seed is the best thing for the sower. 

Cows are the best for men seeking a stable life. 

A son is the best thing for the progenitors.           (12)

Yaksha asked.

What is that person who enjoys all sense objects, is intelligent, is honoured by people, is accepted by all and breaths like anormal human being but lives like a person that is dead?          (13)

Yudhisthira replied.

One who does not offer nourishment (bali, food) to these five – the gods, the guests, the servants, the ancestors and the self – is a dead person although alive (breathing).            (14)

Yaksha asked.

What is weightier than the Earth?

Which is taller than the sky?

What is speedier than air?

What is more abundant than grass?              (15) 

Yudhisthira replied.

Mother is weightier than Earth. 

Father is taller than the sky.

Mind is speedier than air

and worries are more abundant than grass.           (16)

Yaksha asked.

Which (creature) does not close the eyes while sleeping?

What does not move after being born? 

Which has no heart?  

What grows (swells) by its speed?          (17)

Yudhisthira replied.

Fish does not close the eyes while sleeping.

Egg does not move after being laid.

The stone has no heart. 

The river swells with speed.       (18)

Yaksha asked.

Who is the friend of one away from home (travelling)? 

Who is the friend at home?

Who is the friend when one is sick?

Who is the friend when one is dying?          (19)

Yudhisthira replied.

Companion(co-traveller) is the friend of a traveller. 

Wife is the friend of a person at home. 

Physician is the friend when one is sick.

Charity (Dana) is the friend of the dying.               (20)

Yaksha asked.

Who is the guest for all beings?

What is the ancient (or eternal) dharma? 

Which is nectar, O King? 

What pervades all the world?                     (21)

Yudhisthira replied.

Agni is the guest for all beings.

Cowmilk and somarasa are nectar.

Adherence to truthfulness is the ancient (eternal) dharma. 

The whole of this world is pervaded by air.          (22)

Yaksha asked.

Who moves about alone? 

Who is reborn again and again? 

What is the remedy for biting cold?

Which is the greatest of fields (where crops grow)?         (23)

Yudhisthira replied.

The sun moves on its path alone.

The moon is born again after waning out.

Fire is the remedy for biting cold. 

The earth is the biggest field.                              (24)

Yaksha asked.

What is the basis of dharma?

What is the basis of fame? 

What leads a person to heaven?

What is the ground of happiness?      (25)

Yudhisthira replied.

Generosity is the basis of dharma. 

Charity (dāna, gifting) is the cause of fame.

Truthfulness leads to heaven.

Good conduct (Virtue) is the foundation of happiness.      (26)

Yaksha asked.

What is the soul of man? 

Who is his God-gifted friend?

What is his means of livelihood?

What is his ultimate refuge?                  (27)

Yudhisthira replied.

Son is the soul (atma) of man.

Wife is the god-gifted friend. 

Clouds (Rain) are the means of livelihood.

Charity (dana, gifting) is his ultimate refuge.      (28)

Yaksha asked.

What is the best of all goodness?

What is the best of all wealth?

What is the best of all gains? 

What is the best of all happiness?               (29)

Yudhisthira replied.

Munificence is the best of all goodness.

Learning is the best of all wealth.

Health is the best of all gains.

Contentment is the best of all happiness.           (30)

Yaksha asked.

What is the highest virtue?

Which duty always yields fruit?

What makes a man immune to sorrows?              (31)

Yudhisthira replied.

Kindness is the best virtue.

Compliance with the Vedic prescriptions always yields fruit.

The controlled mind cannot be overwhelmed with sorrow.

Treaty with the good persons never wears out.            (32)

Yaksha asked.

What, if abandoned, makes a man popular?

What, if abandoned, makes a man invulnerable to grief?

What, if abandoned, makes a man wealthy?

What, if abandoned, makes a man happy?              (33)

Yudhisthira replied.

Absence of pride makes a man well-liked.

Absence of wrath makes a man shielded against grief.

Absence of craving makes a man wealthy.

Greed, if renounced, makes a man happy.’            (34)

Yaksha asked.

Why are gifts offered to Brahmins?

Why are gifts offered to actors and dancers?

Why are gifts offered to protégés?

Why are gifts offered to the kings?                             (35)

Yudhisthira replied.

Gifts are offered to Brahmins for the sake of dharma.

Gifts are offered to actors and dancers to earn fame.

Gifts are offered to the protégés to maintain them.

Gifts are offered to the kings to secure protection.          (36)

Yaksha asked.

What overshadows the sphere?

Why do men remain obscure?

Why do men shun friends?

Why do men fail to be in heaven?                     (37)

Yudhisthira replied.

Ignorance covers the sphere (the minds of men).

Tamas hinders a man’s blooming full.

Greed goads a man to shirk friends.

Evil company frustrates a man’s prospect to be in heaven.        (38)

Yaksha asked.

Why does a man live as if he is dead?

When is a kingdom called as being dead?

When are the last rites considered dead (incomplete)?

Why is a sacrificial rite considered dead (incomplete even after its formal completion)?   (39)

Yudhisthira replied.

A poor man lives like a dead person.

Anarchy spoils a kingdom i.e., a kingdom is called dead when anarchy prevails.

The last rites are considered dead (incomplete) in the absence of erudite priests.

A sacrificial rite is called dead (fruitless; incomplete) if gifts are not offered to the Brahmins who preside.                                      (40)

Yaksha asked.

What is the way?

What is source of water?

What is source of food?

What is the proper time of the last rites?           (41)

Yudhisthira replied.

The way directed by the sages is the right path.

The sky is the source of water.

The cow is the source of food.

The time of the last rites comes when Brahmins consenting to have meals are available.           (42)

Yaksha asked.

What is the sign of asceticism?

What is considered true restraint?

What constitutes forgiveness?

What is shameful?                                                  (43)

Yudhisthira replied.

Single-minded devotion to one’s own religion is the mark of asceticism.

Restraint of mind is considered true restraint.

Forgiveness consists in endurance of enmity.

Withdrawal from laudable acts is disgraceful.                      (44)

Yaksha asked.

O King! What is said to be Knowledge?

What is said to be control of the senses?

What is said to be mercy?

What is said to be forbearance?                                (45)

Yudhisthira replied.

Awareness of Brahman is Knowledge.

Tranquillity of mind is the sign of control of senses.

Mercy consists in wishing happiness to all.

Forbearance (patience) means equanimity of mind.            (46)

Yaksha asked.

Which enemy is invincible?

Which disease is incurable?

Which men are honest?

Which men are dishonest?                   (47)

Yudhisthira replied.

Anger is the most invincible enemy.

Covetousness is an incurable disease.

A righteous man desires the well-being of all.

An unfair man is one who is not merciful.                   (48)

Yaksha asked.

O King! What is ignorance?

What is pride?

What is considered as idleness?

What is said to be grief?                        (49)

Yudhisthira replied.

Ignorance means lack of awareness of obligatory duties.

Pride means that one is the doer of actions.

Abstention from performance of one’s duties is idleness.

Lack of knowledge (of truth) leads to grief.                          (50)

Yaksha asked.

What has been called steadiness by the sages?

What has been called patience?

What is a real ablution?

What is charity?                                    (51)

Yudhisthira replied.

Steadiness is reflected in the adherence to one’s own religion.

Patience consists in control of the senses.

Ablution means cleaning the mind of all impurities.

Charity consists in safeguarding all creatures.                      (52)

Yaksha asked.

Who is a learned man?

Who is called an atheist?

Who is a stupid person?

What is called desire?

What is envy?                      (53)

Yudhisthira replied.

A man who is well-aware of his duties is called a learned man.

A stupid person (a man of no knowledge of Truth) is an atheist.

Attachment to material objects is desire.

Envy is the product of a burning heart.                    (54)

Yaksha asked.

What is conceit?

What is hypocrisy?

What is the grace of God?

What is wickedness?                                             (55)

Yudhisthira replied.

Lack of knowledge in enormity gives birth to pride.

Setting up a religious standard is hypocrisy.

Grace of God is the fruit of our offerings to him.

Wickedness consists in denigration of other persons.    (56)

Yaksha asked.

Righteousness, wealth and desire are opposed to one another. Then, how can these ever -incongruous elements exist together?              (57)

Yudhisthira replied.

As a virtuous man lives being associated with his wife affably, righteousness, wealth and desire exist together in full agreement.    (58)

Yaksha asked.

O Bharatarùabha!  Who is condemned to everlasting hell? Tell me promptly.               (59)

Yudhisthira replied.

A person who invites a Brahmin to offer gifts but thereafter tells him that he has nothing to offer is condemned to everlasting hell.  (60)

A person who vilifies the Vedas, the religious scriptures, the Brahmins, the gods and the ancestral rites is destined to be in perpetual hell.   (61)

A person despite being rich neither does not offer any gifts nor does he enjoy himself owing to acquisitive habit (saying that he has no riches) goes to endless hell.                      (62)

Yaksha asked.

O King! What makes a man Brahmin – birth, occupation, study or learning? Tell me with conviction.                     (63)

Yudhisthira replied.

O Yaksha! Not birth, nor study nor learning is the cause of Brahmanahood.  Doubtlessly, it is determined by his conduct.   (64)

A man’s conduct should always be well-guarded, especially by a Brahmin. He who maintains his conduct flawlessly is a man of stainless demeanour.  (65)

Teachers and pupils – in fact, all who study the scriptures, if addicted to wicked habits, are to be regarded as illiterate wretches. Learned is the man who performs his religious duties.   (66)

Even a person of unfair conduct who has studied the four Vedas is regarded as a wicked person. He is no better than a Shudra. 

A Brahmin is one who performs agnihotra sacrifice and has his senses under control.    (67)

Yaksha asked.

What does a person who speaks agreeably gain?

What does a prudent man gain?

What does a man who has many friends gain?

What does a virtuous man gain?             (68)

Yudhisthira replied.

A person who speaks agreeably is loved by all.

A prudent man gains much more by his action.

A man with many friends lives happily.

A virtuous man attains a happy state in the next world.    (69)

Yaksha asked.

What is truth?

What is the surprise?

What is the right path?

Who is truly happy?

Answer these questions and then drink.    (70)

Yudhisthira replied.

The world overshadowed with ignorance is like a cauldron. The sun is fire; the days and nights are fuel; the seasons constitute the wooden ladle; Time is the cook boiling all creatures in the cauldron (with these aids). This is the vàrtà (Truth).                      (71)

Day after day countless creatures are going to the abode of Yama, yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal. What can be more surprising than this?              (72)

Argument leads to no certain conclusion; the srutis are different from one another; there is not even one sage whose opinion is accepted by all; the truth about religion and duty is hid in caves; therefore, that alone is the path along which the great have walked.    (73)

Oh! amphibious creature! Happy is the man who lives on vegetables cooked in his own house in the fifth or the sixth part of the day, owes no debt to anybody and who does not live in a foreign land.                       (74)

Prashnotthari concludes.

Yudhisthira answers brilliantly all the questions posed by the Yaksha who brings back to life all the four Pandavas. This was not just an ordinary prashnotthari but an opportunity for us to learn valuable life lessons.

Yaksha asked.

O repressor of foes! You have answered all my questions satisfactorily. Now tell me who is an ideal man and who owns all kinds of wealth.        (75)

Yudhisthira replied.

The fame of a virtuous man spreads over heaven and earth. As long as the fame lasts, he is a worthy man.                                  (76)

A person who rates both the pleasant and the unpleasant, joy and sorrow, the past and the future as equal is immensely rich.        (77)

Yaksha asked.

O King! you have correctly explained who is an ideal man and who is really rich. Now, let one of your brothers, in accordance with your choice, get back life.  (78)

Yudhisthira replied.

O Yaksha! Let Nakula whose complexion is dark, whose eyes are red, who is tall like a Sala (shorea-robusta) tree, who is broad-chested and mighty-armed get up alive.  (79)

Yaksha asked.

Bhimasena is dear to you, and Arjuna also is one upon whom all of you depend. Why, then, O King, do you, wish a step-brother to get back his life!                       (80)

Why do you wish Nakula to be alive in preference to Bhima who is mightier than ten thousand elephants?           (81)

People said that Bhimasena was dear to you. What is the purpose, then, of getting your step-brother Nakula alive?                    (82)

Why do you wish Nakula to be alive renouncing Arjuna whose muscle is admired by all the Pandavas?                   (83)

Yudhisthira replied.

Virtue (Dharma) if defiled ruins a man while it is abided by it protects a man. I, therefore, am not willing to forsake dharma as I do not want to be destroyed by it being spoilt by me.   (84)

Kind-heartedness is the highest virtue. It is, in my opinion, higher than the highest attainment. As I adore that virtue, O Yaksha, let Nakula be alive.                       (85)

Let men know that the king is always virtuous. I will never abstain from my duty. Let Nakula, therefore, be revived!                    (86)

My father had two wives – Kunti and Madri. It is my view that they both should live their sons.

(So, I desire Nakula, son of Madri to be alive.)     (87)

I do not discriminate between Kunti and Madri. To me, they are equal. So, O Yaksha, revive Nakula.            (88)

Yaksha asked.

O King of Bharata! Since you value kindness above wealth and pleasure, let all of your brothers be alive.

Here ends Yaksha-prashna (Yaksha-Yudhisthira conversation) in Aranya Parva in Chapter 113 of the Mahabharata.


Yudhishthira answered all questions in a satisfactory manner, but the Yaksha only allowed him to choose one of his brothers to be restored to life. Yudhishthira chose his younger half-brother, Nakula, the son of his stepmother Madri, reasoning that his own mother, Kunti, had a living son regardless, but his stepmother Madri did not.

The Yaksha was impressed by the way Yudhishthira followed dharma in every little thing he did. Yaksha revealed himself to be Yama-Dharma, the god of death, who was also Yudhishthira’s father. He revealed to that it was he who had disguised himself as a deer and stolen the arani. He blessed Yudishthira, and said that since he had adhered to dharma (righteousness), it would protect the Pandavas and no-one would recognise them during the Agnata Vasa. All the Pandavas were restored to life.

Yudhisthira is also called Dharmaraja for two reasons, first because he is the son of Dharma and another because of his intuitive grasp over dharma.

What is dharma? It is the natural state of all beings. How does dharma work? For humans, dharma is a practice, much of it is explained by Yudhishthira here.

Read about the fundamentals of dharma here.


Based on an article “Yaksha-Yudhisthira Conversation in Mahabharata” by Sibaprasad Dutta, Jadavpur University from the book: Episodes in Mahabharata, Chapter: 1 (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307974324_Yaksha-Yudhisthira_Conversation_in_Mahabharata)

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