Yakṣapraśna is a section of the Āraṇaya-parva of the Mahābhārata, specifically designed to explicate the subtle nuances of dharma. Once, while living in exile from the kingdom, the Pāṇḍavas were importuned by a particular brāhmaṇa to retrieve his fire-stoking sticks that were imperative for his daily fire sacrifice. The sticks had gotten entangled in the horns of a stag, and the frightened beast had galloped like the wind, the sticks glued to his horns!
The Pāṇḍavas saw it as their duty as Kṣatriyas to restore the brāhmaṇa’s sticks so that his sacrificial rites may continue unimpeded. They set out after the stag and gave chase, but as fate would have it, lost the stag. They dropped to the floor under the cool shade of a mighty tree, exhausted and thirsty beyond expression.
Yudhiṣṭhira bade Nakula, the youngest of the brothers, to find a water source in the vicinity. He proceeds forth and chances upon a pristine lake filled with crystal clear water. Overjoyed he descends into the cool waters but is interrupted by a voice, “Touch not the water before you answer my questions, O’ child.’ Disregarding the voice, Nakula drinks from the lake and falls dead. Alarmed by Nakula’s delay in returning, Yudhiṣṭhira orders Sahadeva in pursuit of Nakula.
Sahadeva reaches the lake in due course to find his brother lying lifeless. Dismayed, he hastens towards Nakula. Tormented by insufferable thirst, Sahadeva decides to take a sip of water before proceeding and is met with the same ominous voice. Sahadeva too disregards the voice and ends up a heap in the waters, lifeless. Arjuna and Bhima too meet with the same plight and Yudhiṣṭhira is drawn to the lake seeking his siblings.
Pained by the sight of the lifeless frames of his siblings, he contemplates who could have effected such an end to the mighty heroes. Yudhiṣṭhira recognizes a celestial hand behind the mystery. He proceeds towards the waters to perform the last rites of the siblings when he is accosted by the same voice. Upon cajoling, the voice reveals himself to be a Yakṣa and states peremptorily that he would afford access to the lake only upon being answered. Thus begins a dialogue between the two, comprised of thirty-three sets of thought-provoking questions that encapsulate the dharmic sensibilities of Bhāratīya culture. Here are three sets of questions and answers exchanged between the Yakṣa and Yudhiṣṭhira –
किंस्विद्गुरुतरं भूमेः किंस्विदुच्चतरं च खात्।
किंस्विच्छीघ्रतरं वायोः किंस्विद्बहुतरं तृणात्॥
kiṁsvidgurutaraṁ bhūmeḥ kiṁsviduccataraṁ ca khāt|
kiṁsvicchīghrataraṁ vāyoḥ kiṁsvidbahutaraṁ tṛṇāt||
What is greater than the earth, and what sits higher than the sky? What is swifter than the wind, and what outnumbers grass?
माता गुरुतरा भूमेः खात् पितोच्चतरस्तथा।
मनः शीघ्रतरं वाताच्चिन्ता बहुतरी तृणात्॥
mātā gurutarā bhūmeḥ khāt pitoccatarastathā|
manaḥ śīghrataraṁ vātāccintā bahutarī tṛṇāt||
Mother is greater than the earth; father, higher than the sky. The mind is swifter than the wind, and thoughts outnumber grass.
कश्च धर्मः परो लोके कश्च धर्मः सदाफलः।
किं नियम्य न शोचन्ति कैश्च सन्धिर्न जायते॥
kaśca dharmaḥ paro loke kaśca dharmaḥ sadāphalaḥ|
kiṃ niyamya na śocanti kaiśca sandhirna jāyate||
Which of the dharmas is paramount, and which dharma leads to fruition inevitably? Restraint of what leads to cessation of misery and where does animosity not raise its head?
आनृशंस्यं परो धर्मस्त्रयी धर्मः सदाफलः।
मनो यम्य ने शोचन्ति सन्धिः सद्भिर्न जायते॥
ānṛśaṃsyaṃ paro dharmastrayī dharmaḥ sadāphalaḥ|
mano yamya ne śocanti sandhiḥ sadbhirna jāyate||
Being unsullied by cruelty is dharma-paramount. Adherence to Vedic injunctions is supremely fruitful dharma. Restraint of the mind leads to cessation of misery, and animosity does not raise its head amongst the noble.
किं नु हित्वा प्रियो भवति किं नु हित्वा न शोचति।
किं नु हित्वार्थवान्भवति किं नु हित्वा सुखी भवेत्॥
kiṁ nu hitvā priyo bhavati kiṁ nu hitvā na śocati|
kiṁ nu hitvārthavānbhavati kiṁ nu hitvā sukhī bhavet||
Relinquishing what does man become endearing? Relinquishing what makes man free of regret? Relinquishing what does man become wealthy? Relinquishing what makes man happy?
मानं हित्वा प्रियो भवति क्रिधं हित्वा न शोचति।
कामं हित्वार्थवान्भवति लोभं हित्वा सुखी भवेत्॥
mānaṁ hitvā priyo bhavati kridhaṁ hitvā na śocati|
kāmaṁ hitvārthavānbhavati lobhaṁ hitvā sukhī bhavet||
Relinquishing pride makes man endearing, while relinquishing temper leaves him free of regret. Relinquishing desires makes man wealthy, and relinquishing greed leaves him happy.