23.) Alikasundara’s Yakṣapraśnas

We are all familiar with the Yakapraśnas. These are how the questions, which the Yaka put to Yudhiṣṭhira, are referred in shorthand among the cognoscenti of the Mahābhārata. Many readers will recall the episode: “The thirsty Pāṇḍava brothers set out in search of water, one by one but fail to return. Then Yudhiṣṭhira goes out in search of his brothers, to discover them lying unconscious by a pond. As he is about to slake his own thirst he is warned by the Yaka – who claims to be the guardian of the pond – to desist from doing so under pain of death. In the course of the ensuing dialogue the Yaka offers to revive one of his brothers if Yudhiṣṭhira is up to his interrogative challenge. The questions and answers which follow constitute one of the celebrated sections of the Mahābhārata.”[1]

A comparable incident can be identified during the course of Alexander’s campaign in India, on the basis of its account provided by Plutarch (c. 46-120 A.D.). Plutarch writes:

He captured ten of the gymnosophists who had been principally concerned in persuading Sabbas to revolt, and had done much harm otherwise to the Macedonians. These men are thought to be great adepts in the art of returning brief and pithy answers, and Alexander proposed for their solution some hard questions, declaring that he would put to death first the one who did not answer correctly and then the others in order.[2]

It is clear that here, as in the case of the Yaka, lives are at stake. Alexander plays the role of the Yaka. (Alikasundara is the Sanskritzed form of Alexander, just as Milinda is the Sanksritized form of the Indo-Greek King Menander.) The rest of the account goes as follows:

He demanded of the first, ‘Which he took to be more numerous, the living or the dead?’ He answered, ‘The living, for the dead are not’.

The second was asked, ‘Which breeds the largest animals, the sea or the land?’ He answered, ‘The land, for the sea is only a part of it’.

The third was asked, ‘Which is the cleverest of beasts?’ He answered, ‘That with which man is not yet acquainted’.

The fourth was asked, ‘For what reason he induced Sabbas to revolt?’ He answered, ‘Because I wished him to live with honour or die with honour’.

The fifth was asked, ‘Which he thought existed first , the day or the night?’ He answered, ‘the day was first by one day’. As the king appeared surprised at this solution, he added, ‘Impossible questions required impossible answers’.

Alexander then turning to the sixth asked him, ‘How a man could best make himself beloved?’ He answered, ‘If a man could being possessed of great power did not make himself to be feared’.

Of the remaining three, one being asked ‘How a man could become a god?’ replied, ‘By doing that which is impossible for a man to do’.

The next being asked, ‘Which of the two was stronger, life or death?’ He replied, ‘Life, because it bears so many evils’.

The last being asked, ‘How long it was honourable for a man to live?’ answered, ‘As long as he does not think it better to die than to live’.

Upon this Alexander, turning to the judge, requested him to give his decision. He said that they had answered each one worse that the other. ‘Since such is your judgment’, Alexander then said, ‘you shall be yourself the first to be put to death’. ‘Not so’, said he, ‘O king, unless you are false to your word, for you said that he who gave the worst answer should be first to die’.[3]

Why am I surprised that no historian so far has proposed that the Yakapraśnas in the Mahābhārata may have been modeled on this account?

[1] Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (second edition) (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994) p. 87-89.

[2] R.C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India (Calcutta: Firm KLM Private Ltd., 1981) p. 200.

[3] Ibid., p. 201.


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