The Yaksha Prasna:
The episode of Yaksha Prashna in the Mahabharat is well known. Here is a link to the Wikipedia article on the topic : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaksha_Prashna
My own initiation to the Yaksha Prashna was when I first heard of “ क़िम आश्चर्य? “ ( What is the surprise?) ” in my early childhood. Then later through the ‘ महाजनो येन गतह सपंथा“ Mahajana yen gataha sapantha” and as a grown up when someone introduced me to “ किममोदित”…..
It turns out that all these were sub-questions to the last question asked by the Yaksha. It was this exhortation to follow the path trodden by the great (“ महाजनो येन गत: सपंथा “) that fostered my interest in reading biographies and auto-biographies. Even obituaries. It seemed to be the foundation for the famous words of Isaac Newton “ If I have seen further ( than others) it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”. I also drew inspiration from the lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “ Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time”
Here is a link to Sanskrit and English translation of the Yaksha Prashna : https://ia801308.us.archive.org/29/items/Sanskrit_EBooks_Assorted_Titles/Yakshaprasna%20Sanskrit%20English.pdf
Of late, I have become more interested in the questions themselves than in the answers. Knowledge seeking is about the questions that we ask. In Quantum Mechanics, at one level, the answer one gets depends upon the experiment ( question) that has been set up. Father GP Thomson in the year 1897 experimentally demonstrated that the electron is a particle, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this in the year 1906. His son JJ Thompson in the year 1927 experimentally demonstrated that the electron is a wave, and for this was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1937.
A true illustration of “ जाकी रही भावना जैसी ,प्रभु मूरत देखि तिन जैसी “.
I am placing below the extract of the 33rd question, from the PDF whose link is given here: A 10 page PDF : https://www.themathesontrust.org/papers/hinduism/yakshaprashna.pdf
The Yaksha asked,—“Who is truly happy? What is most wonderful? What is the
path? And what is the news? Answer these four questions of mine and let thy dead brothers revive.”
Yudhishthira answered,—“O amphibious creature, a man who cooketh in his own house, on the fifth or the sixth part of the day, with scanty vegetables, but who is not in debt and who stirreth not from home, is truly happy. 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 wonderful than this? Argument leads to no certain conclusion, the Srutis are different from one another; there is not even one Rishi whose opinion can be accepted by all; the truth about religion and duty is hid in caves: therefore, that alone is the path along which the great have trod. This world full of ignorance is like a pan. The sun is fire, the days and nights are fuel. The months and the seasons constitute the wooden ladle. Time is the cook that is cooking all creatures in that pan with such aids; this is the news.”
A video about the Yaksha Prashna (20/minutes) : https://youtu.be/VCY2Dtv8Oqc
And this (~ 10 minutes clip ) from BR Chopra’s Mahabharata : https://youtu.be/vJF-CalS7LQ
But the one question that has stayed with me is the following: Yaksha:
किमाश्चर्यम् (kim Ashcharyam) – What is that which is most wonderful (most surprising)?
अहन्यहनि भूतानि गच्छन्ति यमालयम् | शेषा: स्थावरमिच्छन्ति किमाश्चर्यमत: परम् ||
Day after day countless creatures go the abode of Yama (die), yet those that remain behind desire immortality. What can be more wonderful/surprising than this?
What I find interesting here is that Yudhishthir has not elaborated on this. Is he extolling the power of the human spirit that refuses to accept the limiting status quo, or is he pointing towards ‘wishful thinking’ as a fatal flaw of humanity. “ The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. Take for example the observation about the force of gravity from times immemorial that “ what goes up must come down”. That statement was true until October 4th 1957 when the Soviet Union launched a Sputnik which kept orbiting the earth, instead of falling back immediately. Even after the telegram was well established as a means of communication over wires using the Morse code, when Marconi demonstrated that he could do this wirelessly, the Italian minister for Telecommunication remarked that Marconi be sent to the lunatic asylum at Rome. Marconi wrote to the Ministry of Post and Telegraphs, then under Pietro Lacava, explaining his wireless telegraph machine and asking for funding. He never received a response to his letter, which was eventually dismissed by the Minister, who wrote “to the Longara” on the document, referring to the insane asylum on Via della Lungara in Rome. Later Marconi shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics in recognition of the contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.
Like the launch of the Sputnik overcoming the force of the earth’s gravitational pull in October 1957, it seems that humans are close to understanding the forces and processes that cause ageing and death. Death will be optional and ageing curable by the year 2045 say some genetic engineers : https://www.thinkspain.com/news-spain/30425/death-will-be-optional-and-ageing-curable-by-2045-say-genetic-engineers
In the Mahabharata epic, Bhishma Pitamah had the boon of choosing the time of his own death. Advances in medicine and technologies could make this facility available to larger numbers. At that time only Sanjay could see what was happening in a far off place and describe it to Dhritarashtra. Now we can all do it with a television, and even with a mobile phone.
If this ‘ death being optional’ seems unbelievable, do reflect upon it for a while. First, just because something has been the norm in the past, does not mean we should accept it and applaud it. The average life expectancy sometime in the past was around 30 years of life. Huge numbers of children died before the age of five. Some may say that is natural. But humans can do and did do better! Second, in the past, the world had slavery and caste discrimination. Some may say that is natural. But humans can do and did do better.
Third, in the past, smallpox was present all over the world, killing huge numbers of people. Some may say that is natural. But humans can do and did do better.
Most religions assume the inevitability of death, and then proceed to suggest how we should lead our lives, and what we may expect after death. But when death itself becomes optional, we will perhaps need a new religion that will tell us how to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life, and when to exercise the option of death. I think in the spirit of Industry 4.0 or Education 4.0, we may call it Religion 4.0.