The Lake of Death: A story from Mahabharata.
Romapada Swami: Just after the 12 years of exile of the Pandavas was completed, they were considering where to spend the remaining 1 year incognito. While still in the forest, a brahmana came to them and reported that the sticks which he used for igniting his sacrificial fire had somehow gotten entangled in the antlers of a deer, and the sticks were now gone. The sage asked the Pandavas to see if they could possibly return the sticks. In a search for that deer, a very unusual event took place. They could not find the deer, but instead became overwhelmed with thirst (much like what happened to Maharaja Pariksit). A distant lake was spotted, and one-by-one the Pandavas went to quench their thirst and died instantly when they drank from the lake, not heeding the warning of a crane to first answer his questions before they drank. When Yudhisthira came to the lake, he was stunned seeing his dead brothers lying by the side of the lake.
As with his brothers, Yudhisthira heard the voice of the crane warning him to not drink from the lake without answering his questions. The crane then transformed his shape into a Yaksa, who then posed very deep questions of Maharaja Yudhisthira. Within the profound answers given by Maharaja Yudhisthira is the often- quoted phrase “Mahajano yena gatah sa panthah” [Caitanya caritamrta. Madhya 17.186], or “The path of spiritual perfection is enunciated by the perfected souls, the mahajanas”. Another often-quoted statement of Maharaja Yudhisthira is that “The most wonderful thing in this world is that, although everyone is dying, people think that they will somehow live forever.” A summary the questions and answers is found below.
Questions by the Yaksha to Yudhisthira Maharaj.
Q: The Yaksa asked, “What is heavier than Earth?”
A: “A mother’s love”, replied Yudhisthira.
Q: By what does one become wise?
A: By serving one’s elders.
Q: What are the tidings of this world?
A: The world is like a cooking pot with the sun as its fire, days and nights as its fuel and months and seasons as its wooden spoon. All of us are being cooked by time.
Q: What is the most wonderful thing?
A: The most wonderful thing is that although everyday innumerable humans and their animals go to the abode of death, still a man thinks he is immortal.
Q: What makes the soul rise out of matter?
A: It is knowledge of the Supreme Lord which makes the soul rise. .
Reading Assignment a) The Lake of Death, Mahabharata.
a) The Lake of Death, Mahabharata (Krishna Dharma, Torchlight Publishing) .
“I am a Yaksa, not a bird. Hail to you! It was I who killed your energetic brothers for their own faults. Although forbidden to drink, they disregarded me. If one loves life, he should not attempt to take this water by force. The lake is mine and one may take its water only after answering my questions.” “O Yaksa, I do not wish to take what is yours. I shall try to answer your questions to the best of my ability. Please ask me what you will.”
The Yaksa began to place questions before Yudhisthira: “What makes the soul rise out of his entanglement in matter? Who keeps him company, who is his guide on that spiritual journey, and on what is he established?” “It is knowledge of the Supreme Lord which makes the soul rise. Godly qualities are his companions, dharma is his guide, and he is established on truth.”
“What makes one learned? How does one attain to that which is most exalted? How does one acquire a second self, and by what, O King, does one become wise?” “One becomes learned by studying the Vedas. By asceticism one attains what is most exalted. Intelligence is like a second self, and serving one’s elders makes one wise.”
The Yaksa then asked about all kinds of subjects, ranging from worldly wisdom to knowledge of religion to spiritual matters. Yudhisthira answered them all without hesitation. Finally the Yaksa said, “I am satisfied. Answer my last four questions and I will restore one of your brothers to life. Who in this world is happy? What is the most wonderful thing? What are the tidings of this world, and how can one find the eternal path of religion?”
With folded palms Yudhisthira replied, “He who is neither in debt nor exiled and who lives simply, eating simple food in his own home, is happy. The most wonderful thing is that although every day innumerable creatures go to the abode of death, still a man thinks he is immortal. The tidings are that in this world–which is like a cauldron with the sun as its fire, days and nights as its fuel, and months and seasons as its wooden ladle–all creatures are being cooked by time. The eternal religious path is found only in the heart of great mystics.” The Yaksa smiled. “You have rightly answered every question. Tell me which of your brothers you wish to have restored to life?” “O Yaksa, let Nakula, as tall as a sal tree and endowed with a broad chest and long arms, be brought to life.”
The Yaksa was surprised. “Bhimasena is surely more important to you than Nakula, O King, and Arjuna is your chief support. Why do you ask for Nakula to be revived?” “He who sacrifices virtue is himself destroyed,” replied Yudhisthira, “and he who preserves virtue is in turn preserved by it. I am therefore careful to always observe virtue. For me, great virtue lies in refraining from cruelty; it is superior to all worldly gain. Thus I ask for Nakula. Both Kunti and Madri are the same to me. In myself Kunti still has one son, but Madri now has none. With a desire to behave equally toward my two mothers, I ask for the life of Nakula.”
“Since, O Pandava, you consider abstention from cruelty superior to both profit and desire, then let all your brothers be restored to life.” As the Yaksa spoke, the four brothers rose from the ground as if from a sleep. They felt refreshed and free from hunger and thirst. Yudhisthira then asked the Yaksa, “Who are you, O great being, who assumes the form of a crane? Tell me in truth your identity. Are you a god? Perhaps you are my father himself.” Yudhisthira had guessed correctly and the Yaksa replied, “I am indeed your father, O best of the Bharatas. Know me to be Dharma. I have come here with the intention of meeting you. Fame, truth, self-control, purity, simplicity, charity, modesty, steadiness, asceticism and celibacy are my limbs. I am reached by abstention from cruelty, impartiality, peacefulness, asceticism, purity and humility. You possess all these qualities, dear son. By good fortune you have conquered your mind and senses and practice virtue. I wanted to test you and I am fully satisfied. Ask me for boons and I will bestow them. Those who are ever devoted to me need never experience misfortune.” Yudhisthira bowed respectfully before his father and said, “My first desire is that the Agnihotra of the Brahmin whose fire-sticks were lost not be destroyed.” “O son of Kunti, it was I in the form of the deer who carried away those sticks. I shall return them to you. Ask for some other boon.”
[NOTE: from an earlier passage in this same chapter— “One day, as they sat discussing in the company of rsis, a Brahmin in obvious distress came before Yudhisthira. He explained that a deer had caught hold of the sticks he used to light his sacred fire and taken them into the forest. “The sticks, along with my ladle and other paraphernalia, were tied in a bundle. Somehow the deer caught them on his horns. O hero, I must have them back so that my sacrifice may not be stopped.”]
Yudhisthira thought carefully and said, “The twelve years of our forest life are now complete. For the thirteenth year we must live incognito. Please grant that no man will recognize us during that time.” “So be it. Even if you wander about in the world as your actual selves, you will not be recognized. Through my favor you will lead a secret, incognito life in the city of Virata. Now take these fire sticks and ask from me another boon. I am not satisfied with conferring only these two favors. O Yudhisthira, you should know that I begot you. Vidura, your friend and well-wisher, is also a part of myself.” Dharma handed the sticks to Yudhisthira, who replied, “O god of gods, it is enough for me that I have seen you. To please you, however, I will accept one further boon. O lord, grant that I may always overcome avarice, folly and anger, and that my mind be always inclined toward charity, asceticism and truth.” Dharma smiled and said, “By nature you are gifted with these qualities, O Pandava. You are already the embodiment of virtue. But I grant your desire.” The god then disappeared, leaving the five Pandavas standing together on the shore of the lake. In wonder they returned to their hermitage with the Brahmin’s fire-sticks.