Yuddhishtara and the Crane: Essence of Dharma in the Mahabharata

Article of the Month - Nov 2013

This article by Nitin Kumar

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In the great story of the Mahabharata war, the five Pandava brothers, during their exile in the forest, went through many adventures, some of which are highly symbolic and instructive. One such incident occurred towards the end of their stay in the forests. It so happened that the Pandavas, tired by their constant wanderings, sat down on the ground and one of them went in search of water.

Mahabharata (Three Volume Comic Book)

When he did not return even after a long interval, another of the brothers went after him. He too did not return. The others followed one by one till finally only Yuddhishtara, the eldest of the five remained. Worried, he also went their way till he came to a lake. There he saw his brothers lying lifeless on the ground. As he lamented his loss, he heard a voice from the sky: "O Yuddhishtara, I warned your brothers not to drink water from this lake which belongs to me, but they did not respect my words. Hence, I have sent them all to the other world. If you too try to take water without first answering the questions I ask, you will have the same fate."

Yuddhishtara looked up and saw a crane perched atop a tree; he then replied: "I do not want to touch what belongs to you. Grieved as I am by my brothers’ fate, I will try my best to satisfy you with my answers." The divine bird then started to ask its questions:

Question: Who makes the sun rise? Who travels on all sides of the sun? What makes the sun set? Where is the sun established?

Yuddhishtara’s Answer: It is the Vedas which make the sun rise. It is the gods who travel with the sun. The sun sets because of Dharma, and it is established in truth.

Nilakantha, the most ancient and authoritative commentator on the Mahabharata has clarified the meaning of this verse. According to him, it is through the Vedas that we realize that there is a soul beyond our physical body. This is the ‘arising’ of knowledge. The gods who travel with the sun are the various qualities like control of senses, mind etc. which we have to cultivate on the path of knowledge. The setting of the sun symbolizes the end of physical knowledge, achieved by the practice of our Dharma. Finally we are situated in the True knowledge of the One Supreme Reality.

Dharmaraj Yudhishthira

The bird asked the next Question: How does a man become the knower of the Word? How does he become great? How does he become another person? And how does he become wise?

Answer: A man becomes a knower of the Word by learning the Vedas from an accomplished teacher. He becomes great through austerity (tapas). A man becomes another when his mind firmly decides to remain fixed in God. He gains this wisdom only by serving his Guru and other elders.

Question: What is the true mark of godliness in a Brahmin? What is their positive quality? What constitutes a negative quality in a Brahmin?

Yuddhishtara’s Answer: The mark of godliness in a Brahmin is the study of Vedas. Their especial quality is austerity (tapas). The trait which is especially harmful for a Brahmin is gossip and criticism.

Q: What is godliness in a warrior (Kshatriya)? What constitutes virtue in them? Which is the negative trait especially harmful to them?

A: The art of warfare is the godliness of Kshatriyas. Their virtue is performance of Vedic sacrifices and the trait most harmful to them is to abandon those who have taken refuge under them.

Q: What is the best for those who are rich and reputable?

A: They should utilize a portion of their wealth for the service of cows (because they give us the necessary materials like milk, ghee etc. for the performance of Vedic sacrifices).

Q: Who is the person, who, though intelligent and respected by the world, is like a dead person even though he breathes?

A: The man who does not serve the gods, guests, family members dependent upon him, ancestors and his own self (atman), such a person, even though he breathes, is effectively lifeless only.

The Book of Yudhishthira (Krishnavatara Vol. VII)

Q: What is heavier than the earth? Who is higher than the sky? What travels even faster than the wind? What outnumbers even the number of twigs of grass in this world?

A: The mother’s glory excels the earth’s weight. The father surpasses the sky. The mind travels faster than even the wind and one’s worries are more in number than all the twigs of grass in this world.

Q: Who is the friend of a traveller away from home? Who is one’s friend at home? Who is the friend of an ill person? Who is the friend of a dying man?

A: A traveller’s companion is his co-traveller, travelling for the same purpose as him. At home, wife is the man’s best friend. An ill person’s best friend is the doctor. The best friend of a dying man is Dana (charity).

Q: Who is to be treated like a guest (Atithi) by everyone? Which is the eternal Dharma? What is Amrita? What is this whole world?

A: Agni (fire) is Atithi for everybody. Cow’s milk is amrita. The daily acts (Nitya Karma) as propounded by the Vedas constitute the eternal Dharma and this whole world is nothing but Vayu (wind).

Fire here is expounded as an Atithi for everyone since offerings have to be offered to Agni, much as we have to make offerings to a guest who comes to our house. A cow’s milk is like nectar not only because of its nutritional qualities, but also because it offers us the raw material from which we can make items necessary for performing Vedic sacrifices, like curd, ghee etc. The performance of these sacrifices, without desire for their fruits (Nishkama Karma) leads ultimately to Jnana, which makes one immortal (i.e. one is never born and never dies). Describing the whole world as Vayu has a slightly abstract explanation. It signifies that both our outside and inside is common – both have Vayu. This is just the first step, leading ultimately to the realization of the complete unity which Vedanta brings to our experience.

Nishkama karma (Malayalam)

Q: What is the main place where Dharma resides? Where does fame reside? How is heaven achieved? How can one achieve happiness?

A: The main place of Dharma is efficiency (Dakshta) of Karma. Fame resides in charity, heaven is achieved by speaking truth and happiness is gained by maintaining a high standard of moral behaviour (Shila).

Q: Who is a man’s Atman? Who is his friend given by the gods? What is his life support and what is his ultimate refuge?

A: A man’s Atman is his son. His wife is the friend given to him by the gods. The clouds are his life’s support and Dana (charity) is his ultimate refuge.

Q: What is the ultimate wealth? What is the ultimate gain? Which is the highest Sukha (happiness)?

A: Knowledge of the scriptures is the ultimate wealth. The highest gain is that of health. Contentment is the highest happiness.

Q: Which is the highest Dharma? Which is the Dharma which definitely leads to fruits? By keeping what under control does man never face grief? With whom does one’s friendship last forever?

A: Compassion (Daya) is the highest Dharma. The Dharma prescribed in the Vedas is the one which definitely bears fruits. We never face grief by keeping our mind under control. The friendship with Sadhus (godly persons) is never destroyed.

Q: By giving up what does a man become dear to all? By giving up what does a man become wealthy? By giving up what does a man not have to feel sorry? By renouncing what does a man gain happiness?

A: A man becomes dear to all when he gives up pride. He becomes wealthy by giving up desire. He does not feel sorry if he gives up anger (Krodha). A man becomes happy by giving up greed.

Q: Why do we give to Brahmins? Why do we give to dancers and performers? Why do we give to servants and why do we give to the government (king)?

A: Brahmins are given because it is Dharma. Dancers etc. are given for (our) fame, servants to sustain them and to the king we give out of fear (in the form of taxes).

Q: Why does a man give up his friends? Why is he not able to go to Swarga (heaven)?

A: A man gives up his friends because of greed. He is unable to reach heaven because of his attachment (to this world).

Q: Which man, even though alive, is equivalent to being dead? How does a country die? What is the death of a Shraddha (ceremony for ancestors)? What is death of a Vedic sacrifice?

Tales of Yudhishthira

A: A poor man is as good as dead (meaning poverty is like death itself). A kingdom dies without a government. A Shraddha ceremony is as good as dead without a Brahmin who knows the Vedas; and a sacrifice is dead without Dakshina.

Q: Which is the direction? What is food? What is poison? What is the correct time for the Shraddha ceremony?

A: Direction is that which is shown by saints. Food is but Mother Earth. Asking others for something is poison. The correct time of Shraddha is that when a suitable Brahmin is available.

Q: What constitutes Tapas? What is shame?

A: Staying steadfast in one’s own Dharma (even in adverse circumstances) is Tapas. Shame is restraining from unworthy acts.

Q: What is knowledge? What is peace? What constitutes true compassion? What is simplicity?

A: True knowledge is that which makes us experience oneness with the divine. Peace is the silence of the flow of memory. Wishing happiness for everyone is true compassion. Simplicity is equanimity of the mind.

Q: Who is the enemy difficult to conquer? Which is an endless enemy? Who is a Sadhu? Who is not a Sadhu?

A: Anger is the enemy difficult to conquer. Greed is the endless foe. A Sadhu is one who wishes the well-being of all. The ruthless and merciless person is the opposite of Sadhu.

Q: What is steadfastness? What is courage? Which is the ultimate bath? What is the ultimate charity?

A: Staying resolute in one’s own Dharma is true steadfastness. Control of senses is the true act of courage. Washing the mind clean of all impurities is the ultimate bath. Protecting all beings is true charity.

Q: Dharma, Artha and Kama are opposed to each other. How can they co-exist?

A: When one’s wife and Dharma are in agreement then the three can co-exist effortlessly.

Q: Who goes to everlasting hell?

A: He who first calls a Brahmin to his house and then sends him back empty handed saying he has nothing to give; He who imputes falsehood to the Vedas, Dharmasastra, Brahmins, gods and the Shraddha ceremony; He who though has enough wealth doesn’t donate nor enjoy it himself saying he doesn’t have money – all these go to everlasting hell.

Yudhishthir (A Novel)

Q: Who is happy?

A: The person, who even though may be eating food only two or three times a week, but does not have debt on his head, or lives in his native land - he is the one who is happy.

Q: What is the greatest wonder in this world?

A: Countless beings die every day. Yet those who remain think of themselves as immortal. This is the biggest wonder in the world.

Q: Which is the way?

A: Human reasoning is limited and inconstant. The scriptures speak in different voices. The essence of Dharma is too difficult to understand. Hence, the true and only way is the one which has been tread by noble souls in the past.

Q: What is the news?

A: This is the constant news: The ignorant world is the pan in which Time the cook is constantly tossing all beings, using the months and seasons as ladle, the sun as fire and the day and night as fuel.

Needless to say, the divine bird was extremely satisfied by the answers of Yuddhishtara. He asked Yuddhishtara to select any one of his four brothers, whose life he wanted restored. Yuddhishtara then selected his half-brother Nakula to be revived.

The perplexed bird asked Yuddhishtara why he did not ask for any of his real brothers to be revived. To this Yuddhishtara, the very embodiment of Dharma, replied: "My father had two wives. My wish is that both of them should have a son remaining. For me there is no difference between my two mothers. I have same feelings for both of them. That is why I chose Nakula."

Hearing these words the bird cried out in joy: "O Yuddhishtara, you have the greatest compassion and equanimity. You have pleased me no end with your conduct. Hence I grant that may all your brothers be revived."

Conclusion: Thus did end this story on a happy note, but not before giving us an inspiring look into the inner nuances of the working of Dharma. Yuddhishtara is a fine example to bring through the message, since not only did he understand the essence of Dharma, but also practiced it.

Dialogues of Yaksha and Yudhisthira

The story of Yaksha and Yuddhishtara occurs in the Mahabharata (Vana Parva, Chapters 312-314).The details are based on the ancient commentary on the Mahabharata by Pandit Nilakantha.


References & Further Reading:

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