Question about Varna

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Wed Mar 13 10:01:02 CST 2002

On Mon, 4 Mar 2002, ravi chandrasekhara wrote:

> Dear List Members:
> This is the best summary I could find regarding a
> dialogue between Yudhisthira and a Yaksha from the
> Mahabharata:( I discoverd this website of this
> gentleman involved with a Hindu Temple in Connecticut
> I welcome reponses to my question about varna,
> Pranam --  Ravi Chandrasekhara MD
> In fact that question was put to Yudhishtira by the
> Yaksha (See my book: Yaksha Prashna, A Hindu Primer,
> IND-US, 1984). Listen to the Yaksha and Yudhishtira.
> rajan kulena vrttena svadhyayena shrutena va
> brahmanyam kenabhavati prabruhyetatsu nishcitam
> King, how does one become a Brahmin: by birth?
> character? study of the Vedas? education? Tell me
> precisely.
> shrnu yaksha kulam tata nasvadhyayo nacashrutam
> karanam hi dvijatve ca vrttameva na samshayha
> Listen, Yaksha, it is neither birth nor education, nor
> even the study
> of the Vedas. Without doubt, it is character alone
> that marks a Brahmin.

I finally got around to looking at this based on an electronic copy of the
BORI critical edition of the Mahabharata I have.  I also found a copy of
this episode at which says at the end it is based on ch.
297 of Prof. Tokunagas' files (apparently based on the BORI edition) and
ch. 313 of Pandit Kinjawadekars' edition.  Both sources do not contain the
above quoted shlokas.  The nearest they have is the following shlokas:

yakSha uvAcha

The yaksha said:

kiM brAhmaNAnAM devatvaM kashcha dharmaH satAmiva |
kashchaiShAM mAnuSho bhAvaH kimeShAmasatAmiva ||

What is the divine nature of the Brahmanas? What is their dharma like
that of the True?  What is their human nature?  what is their [adharma] like
the False?

yudhiShThira uvaacha

Yudhisthira said:

svAdhyAya eShAM devatvaM tapa eShAM satAmiva
maraNaM mAnuSho bhAvaH parivAdoHsatAmiva

Svadhyaya is their divine nature, Tapa [is their conduct] like the True,
Death is their human nature, contempt [is their vice] like the False.

A few things to note here:

* the Mahabharata is not a "book" in a unitary sense.  rather it is
"history" (itihasa--literally what has been said) a collection of
traditions.  In the process of transmission variants can arise.  A
critical edition is a best attempt by scholars to piece together the most
likely origanal texts based on comparing and contrasting existing variants
and manuscripts.  Thus it is not infallible and the fact those shlokas are
not there doesn't necessarily mean they are not genuine but it does cast a
cloud of suspicion.  If this Shrinivasan fellow is using a variant, he
should state his sources and the reasons they are to be preferred.

* Of course it could also be true that I've read the wrong part of the
Mahabharata.  it is after all huge, and material is sometimes repeated.
however I doubt it.  Shrinivasan says it comes from Vanaparvan, mine says
Aranyakaparvan but that is a synonym.  Shrinivasan says it is a
conversation between Yudhisthira and a Yaksha who put the rest of the
Pandavas under a spell after they chased a deer.  My source says the same.

* There is no mention of birth anywhere in the above shlokas.  There is a
mention of character--a Brahmana can be in the camp of the True or the
False based on his conduct.  But a Brahmana of bad character is still a

> Yudhishthira's answer is crisp, clear and unambiguous

Given that it seems we don't know exactly what Yudhisthira said, this is
hardly true.  what is crisp, clear, and unambiguous is ones' caste is
based on birth as anyone who has spent even 5 minutes in India knows.  So
what I'm wondering is why do people like this Shrinivasan persist in
trying to dredge up support (on the flimsiest basis as we have seen)  for
this ridiculous fantasy?  Woe betide the people of Connecticut if such an
ignorant person is their priest.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>
It's a girl! See the pictures -

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