Dharma is the very core of Hindu code of behavior and view of life which according to Dr. Radhakrishnan is "an attempt to discover the ideal possibilities of human life".
The Yakhsa Prashna (also known as the Dharma Baka Upakhyan: Story of the Righteous Crane) appears in the Vana Parva (or Aranyaka-parva or Aranya-parva) of the great epic, the Mahabharata. The twelve years of exile of the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi in the forest were coming to a close. The thirteenth and final year which they were required to spend in cognito was about to commence.
One day a Brahmin, an agnihotri, came to the Pandavas for help. He told them that the sticks meant for kindling the fire for performing his daily Yajna got entangled in the horns of stag which fled from the scene and wanted the Pandavas to pursue the fleeing animal and recover the sticks so that he could perform his rituals. As the Pandavas felt that it is their duty to protect those who practice their daily obligatory dharmic karma they proceeded in pursuit of the stag. Their attempts to stop the animal failed. They felt very much exhausted, hungry, and thirsty on account of the long chase. The five brothers sat down finally to rest under the cool shade of a tree.
Yudhishthira instructed Nakula to find out if any stream of water was flowing nearby. Nakula followed the instructions and informed Yudhishthira that he could hear the cries of water cranes in the vicinity indicating the availability of water. Yudhishthira suggested to Nakula to go to the spot and fetch some water for all of them.
Nakula located a crystal clear lake, surrounded by trees, flowers and birds. He was overjoyed and felt like enjoying a cool drink himself first. So he descended near the refreshing water. As he was about to take some water he heard a voice of warning:” Do not dare to touch that water, my dear child. You must first answer my questions". Nakula ignored the warning, drank the water and immediately fell dead.
When Nakula did not return Yudhishthira suggested that Sahadeva should go and find out what was the cause for Nakula’s delay. Sahadeva arrived on the scene and was shocked to see Nakula lying dead. He thought of quenching his thirst first and when he attempted he also heard the same warning. He ignored it and upon pursuing his attempt to drink he fell dead.
Now it was Arjuna's turn to look into what had happened. Apprehending some danger, he proceeded with his Gandiva bow. When he arrived at the lake he was shocked to see his two brothers lying as though dead. Arjuna also tried to quench his thirst and heard the same warning. But Arjuna did not ignore the warning but challenged it. Asking the voice to come before him physically, he shot several arrows in the direction from which it was coming. In reply he received more threats. Arjuna challenged the voice again and proceeded to drink the water when he fell down dead. Later, Bhima arrived and met with the same fate.
Yudhishthira was then very much upset. Getting himself prepared for the possible harm that might have befallen on his dear and powerful brothers, he decided to go in search of them. When he arrived at the lake, he was stunned to see all his four brothers lying dead on the ground. His hopes of recovering his lost kingdom with the assistance of his brothers were shattered. He grieved for a while and then began to look around to make out the cause of his brothers’ death. He wondered “there are no signs of violence on their bodies, no foot-prints anywhere; the killer must be a supernatural being”.
Ruling out the possibility of Duryodhana’s hand in the incidents, he convinced himself that this must have been the handiwork of a supernatural being. He went to fetch some water to begin the last rites for his brothers. He heard a sudden voice declaring: “I am the cause of your brothers' death; you shall be the fifth victim if you do not answer my questions before using the water".
Yudhishthira questioned "Who are you? Are you a rudra, vasu, or marut? You must be strong to be able to put to death these powerful brothers of mine. Your feat is remarkable because neither gods nor asuras could stand up to my brothers. But why? What do you want? Noble one! Why are you here? Who are you?"
The voice replied: "I am a Yaksha, Yudhishthira. May you prosper?"
As he heard these words, Yudhishthira saw before his eyes a grotesque form. A voice thundered: “I warned your brothers. But they would not listen to me. So now they are dead. This pool belongs to me and unless you answer my questions you shall not even touch this water." Yudhishthira replied: “I have no desire to take what is yours. Ask me and I will reply as best as I can”.
Thus begins Dharmaraja's attempt to answer the Yaksha's questions. These questions and answers are beautiful, subtle and embedded with sophisticated deep wisdom and philosophy. Through Yudhishthira, Veda Vyasa has crystallized the entire philosophy of Hinduism into an investigation comprising more than one hundred questions. These gems of wisdom later reflected in the Bhagavad Gita are relevant and significant today as they were in Yudhishthira’s times. The focus of the entire discussion is on Dharma. Before we take up the study of these questions and answers let us know what exactly is meant by the word dharma.
The core concept of Hindu philosophy is Dharma. All other principles and values flow from this beautiful fountain of Dharma. The word Dharma is formed from the root dhr and literally means to hold, sustain and maintain a thing in its being. There is no accurate translation of the word into English but we may have a glimpse of its vast scope by translating Dharma as right action, right conduct, virtue, moral law, etc. Every form of life, every group of people has its Dharma, which is the law of its being. Dharma or virtue is conformity with the truth of things; adharma or vice is the opposite of it.
The popular Hindu dictum Dharmo rakshati rakshitaha (Dharma protects those who protect it) has two implications. The first one is: Dharmo rakshati, meaning that dharma offers protection. If we choose to live a life guided by the principles of Dharma, then we are assured that Dharma will protect us. This understanding is ingrained in Hindu ethos. The other part of the phrase is: rakshitaha. This part brings individuals and society into a convergence. It (rakshithaha) implies that the concept itself needs protection meaning that there is need to protect the very concept whose protection we are seeking. It therefore follows that Dharma will protect us if we protect it.
Thus it was recognized long ago that we cannot simply take it for granted that Dharma will prevail always and that there would be no danger of its subversion. Therefore a duty was imposed on those who seek such protection from Dharma and that duty was to take care that this wonderful governing concept of life is not put to any jeopardy. That is why Bhagavan Sri Krishna had to say in the Bhagavad Gita:
yadaa yadaa hi dharmasya glaanir bhavati bhaarata
abhyutthaanam adharmasya tadaa'tmaanam srijaamyaham //4. 7//
Whenever there is a decline of righteousness (Dharma), O Bharata, and rise of unrighteousness (Adharma), then I manifest myself.
The epic poets are in fact never tired of reminding the reader that Dharma is subtle (sukshmam) because its essence is concealed in a dark cavern (dharmasya tattvam nihitath guhaayaam). The most complete and detailed information on these and allied matters is necessary if one is to act so as not to infringe the provisions of Dharma in order to lead a blameless life which is necessary if he desires victory - lasting victory, final victory, and that too not only on the field of ordinary battle but in the battle of life.
Are the concepts of happiness and good life in conflict with Dharma? The question put to Yudhishtira was “Dharma, artha and kama are always in conflict with each other; How can these contraries be reconciled”? He replied that “as long as Dharma and one's wife are in harmony, Dharma, artha and kama are reconciled”. We will come to this point later in this essay.