Yudhishtra’s insight: How anyone can become a Brahmana

We saw in How anyone can become a Brahmana – Bhagwan Krishna’s insight article, how Guna and Karma determine the Brahmanahood and not birth. By cultivating the traits identified by Krishna, anyone expressing them becomes a Brahmana. Almost a decade prior to recording Krishna’s Bhagavad Gita, Yudhishtra is challenged to define who is a Brahmana in order to save Bhima. Also, in another instance, he is taken to task to answer the subtleties of dharma as a part of 124 question answer session with Yama as Yaksha Prashna. These two episodes give us a very clear picture from an evolved human’s perspective, rather than Bhagwan Krishna.

Episode 1 – Ajagara Parva

This incident is captured as an upaparva – Ajagara Parva which occurs as a part of the Vana Parva in the Mahabharata. When the Pandavas were banished to the forests for a 12 year period to be followed by a year of incognito following their loss in the game of dice, upon Krishna’s advice, Arjuna departs to do penance to obtain divyastras. The remaining four Pandavas with Draupadi spent a lackluster life in Arjuna’s absence. One day, Bhima, during a hunting expedition, gets caught by a huge python. The power of ten thousand elephants in Bhima was no match in front of the snake, who was his ancestor Nahusha, who assumed this accursed form due to his bad behavior against Sage Agastya. Nahusha was threatening to consume Bhima, while a concerned Yudhishtra found him in this miserable plight. Nahusha had a grave ignorance about who was a Brahmana and sought this information from Yudhishtra, in return to release Bhima.

Yudhishtra not only gave a deep insight to Nahusha, but also counters him with his own set of questions. In the end, Nahusha released Bhima and ascends to heaven in his human form. So let us focus on the question of Nahusha, Who is a Brahmana? Yudhishtra responds:

सत्यं दानं क्षमा शीलम आनृशंस्यं दमॊ घृणा
दृश्यन्ते यत्र नागेन्द्र स बराह्मण इति समृतः

 satyaṃ dānaṃ kṣamā śīlam ānṛśaṃsyaṃ damo ghṛṇā
 dṛśyante yatra nāgendra sa brāhmaṇa iti smṛtaḥ

Truthfulness, generosity, patience, good character, compassion, self-control, tenderness

One in whom these are seen, O King of Snakes, he is a Brahmana. Thus it is known.

The first thing to be noted again that Varna is not a genetic condition like the Abrahamic born sinner, but a mere reflection of one’s real character. It is very evident that Yudhishtra shares a large number of character traits defining a Brahmana with Krishna. It appears that Krishna’s pool of gunas are more from a spiritual / paramarthika plane, which Yudhishtra’s though perfectly in alignment seems to be more from a human stand point / vyavaharika plane. Unless one masters Yudhishtra’s set of characters, it will be impossible to perfect Krishna’s subtler, esoteric values.

सत्यं – Truth – The very first advice, in Taittreya Upanishad, a student leaving Gurukula is given is to Speak TRUTH. Vedas identify Paramathma/Brahman as Satyam. The reason why we bring this character to our lives is to mirror the eternal, all-pervading Only Reality. As one gets rooted in Satyam, one can perceive different layers of Truth, leading to the Absolute Truth. It may be ironical to note that some religions even promote deception in their holy texts to spread their idea, a complete anti thesis to Sanatana Dharma.

दानं – Generosity – Is borne out of Self-sacrifice. When one sees the single Truth reflected in everyone, including oneself as the same, a natural tendency not to discriminate or distinguish based on ego based limitations blossoms. There is no feeling of “I” giving or sharing “My” or “Mine”. It appears just like the hands rush to the defence of the eyes or other parts of the body naturally, giving and generosity happens naturally. Till that state occurs, it has to be cultivated.

क्षमा – Patience, forgiveness – (Read more in How anyone can become a Brahmana – Bhagwan Krishna’s insight as क्षान्तिः)

शीलम – Good Character – Is an ensemble of all good virtues. Since many such ideas are nonexistent outside Sanatana Dharma, it becomes very hard to find translatables. It also implies discipline as it is impossible to cultivate sheela without it.

आनृशंस्यं – Compassion – It is again a natural expression of sympathy as one seeks to find the unity behind all things and beings in the Universe. A secular or westernized idea of feeling sorry for others is a far cry from the natural feeling of karuna that wells to someone in distress. This is not expectation based.

दम – Self-Control – (Read more in How anyone can become a Brahmana – Bhagwan Krishna’s insight)

घृणा – Tenderness – They occur in the same family as compassion. Softness for the feelings of others, though one may be at an exalted state, is a trait of the spiritually evolved. A Bhakta feels this as a duty towards other beings in whom (S)he sees the Paramatma. A Jnani though may have transcended one’s feelings still exhibits this trait feeling the ignorance of the other being that has led to its misery.

Nahusha rightly counters Yudhishtra that qualities of Truthfulness, generosity, non-anger, compassion, nonviolence, and tenderness are found even in Shudras so how can it be an identifying trait of a Brahmana. Yudhishtra responds:

शूद्रे चैतद भवेल लक्ष्यं दविजे तच च न विद्यते
न वै शूद्रॊ भवेच छूद्रॊ बराह्मणॊ न च बराह्मणः

śūdre caitad bhavel lakṣyaṃ dvije tac ca na vidyate
na vai śūdro bhavec chūdro brāhmaṇo na ca brāhmaṇaḥ

A shudra in whom these virtues exist and a dvija in whom they do not exist, that shudra is not a shudra and that Brahmana is not a Brahmana.

यत्रैतल लक्ष्यते सर्पवृत्तं स बराह्मणः समृतः
यत्रैतन न भवेत सर्पतं शूद्रम इति निर्दिशेत

yatraital lakṣyate sarpavṛttaṃ sa brāhmaṇaḥ smṛtaḥ
yatraitan na bhavet sarpataṃ śūdram iti nirdiśet

O Snake, in whom these virtues exist, he is a Brahmana, it is said. O snake, in whom these virtues do not exist, he is a shudra. Thus it is taught.

Yudhishtra clarifies beyond a shadow of doubt that the presence of virtuous characters alone qualifies a person as a Brahmana and the lack of it brings down to a default state, Shudra.

Skanda Purana declares

 जन्मना जायते शूद्रः संस्कारात् द्विज उच्यते।
शापानुग्रहसामर्थ्यं तथा क्रोधः प्रसन्नता ।|31-34||

By birth we are all a shudra, irrespective of where we are born. It becomes the responsibility of the person’s Purushartha, an expression of his gunas through his karmas. Yudhishtra’s authoritative insights affirm the reasoning that Gunas and Karma determine our Varna and not birth as it is deemed to be in current context.

Episode 2 – Yaksha Prashna

The second conclusive insight into Yudhishtra’s mind comes in the form of a discussion between Yaksha and Yudhishtra as Dharma Baka Upakhyan or popularly known as Yaksha Prashna found in the Vana Parva portion of the Mahabharata.

Just prior to the time when the Pandavas have to go incognito, according to the rules of the game, one day a mysterious Brahmin appeared in front of the them, pleading to retrieve the Arani sticks (These are the sticks used to create friction and fire for the daily fire rituals) which got entangled in a deer’s antlers. Chasing this deer, an exhausted, thirsty Pandavas decided to quench before relaunching the mission. Nakula was first sent in the direction of a pond where an akashavani, bodiless voice, warned him to first respond to a series of questions, before quenching his thirst. Nakula ignored and sipped water to fall dead. Sahadeva who followed suit, shocked by a dead Nakula met the same result for his similar actions. Arjuna and Bhima came one after the other to exhibit the same behavior only to perish.


Yudhishtra arrives at the scene and is shocked to see his dead brothers. At a distance he spots a crane, which boasts that it is the reason for his brother’s death as they did not heed to its words. Yudhishtra challenges the crane to show its form and a Yaksha appeared. The Yaksha poses 124 questions in sets of four (in a theme) and Yudhishtra satisfactorily gives insightful response. A quick glance at the questions, especially for the ones who have no practical understanding of Sanatana Dharma, makes one feel as a silly riddles. While a comprehensive treatment of Yaksha Prashna is outside our topic, it is important to note that there are layers of meanings hidden behind the simple question and answers. Eventually the Yaksha reveals that he was Yama, his father, who came to test the depth of his dharma understanding.

The third set of four questions from Yaksha is the subject of our study.

किं बराह्मणानां देवत्वं कश धर्मः सताम इव
कश चैषां मानुषॊ भावः किम एषाम असताम इव

     kiṃ brāhmaṇānāṃ devatvaṃ kaś ca dharmaḥ satām iva
     kaś caiṣāṃ mānuṣo bhāvaḥ kim eṣām asatām iva

Yaksha places the next set of four questions – What constitutes divinity for Brahmanas? What is their eternal dharma? What defines the human level of action for Brahmanas? What is impious action for a Brahmana?


   स्वाध्याय एषां देवत्वं तप एषां सतामिव।
मरणं मानुषो भावः परिवादोऽसतामिव

     svādhyāya eṣāṃ devatvaṃ tapa eṣāṃ satām iva
     maraṇaṃ mānuṣo bhāvaḥ parivādo ‘satām iva

Yudhishtra responds – Svadhyaya (The study of Vedas) defines the divinity for a Brahmana. Tapas is the essence of a Brahmana’s dharma. Death defines the human level of a Brahmana. Talking ill about others, slander (Condemn, complain, criticize) is the most impious act forbidden for a Brahamana.


\Let us analyze the questions first. Yaksha wants to know if there is an elevated level of Brahmanatva, the divine aspect and if there is a human level of the floor for being defined as Brahmanatva. He also wants clarity on what amongst their practices is the most pious or the real essence of Brahmanatva. Lastly he wants Yudhishtra to identify the characteristic which is unbecoming of a Brahamana.

            Yudhistra’s responses are terse and precise.

Svadhyaaya, study of Vedas is the highest or the divine aspect of a Brahmana. This is in line with the much misinterpreted maligned Manusmriti

अध्यापनम् अध्ययनं यजनं याजनं तथा | दानं प्रतिग्रहं च-एव ब्राह्मणानां अकल्पयत्  ||  1.88

To Brahmanas he assigned teaching and studying (the Veda), sacrificing for their own benefit and for others, giving and accepting (of alms). Note: This does not forbade others from reading it. It only makes it mandatory for Brahmana, again that is Guna and karma based, not birth.      

In today’s context, we will be forced to expand Svadhyaya to include Itihasas, puranas, Upanishads, Gita and Vedanta texts. But caution must be exercised not to include commentaries or twisted versions of narratives given by self styled non practicing mythologists or indologists.

Tapas constitutes the real essence of a Brahamana’s dharma. We have dealt it in detail How anyone can become a Brahmana – Bhagwan Krishna’s insight and understood that austerity is of three types – words, mind and action. Tapascharya is the bedrock of being a Brahmana, a far cry in today’s world.

Death is the human level of being a Brahmana. Western minded and ignoramuses are amused at such an utterance. Does that make a real Brahmana an immortal? Death in normal parlance is understood as that of the body. When a person misunderstands that anantman the body as the real atman, this Dehatmabhiman is verily death to a real Brahmana understanding of real atman as eternal, as Unless one rises above this limited thinking, such a Brahmana is at the floor of being a real Brahmana.

Brahmavichar leads to identification with the Atman which transcends all the Anantman( viz., body, mind and its constructs). When one operates at the Atman level, they realize the descriptions of Krishna in Bhagavad Gita.

What defines the anti-thesis of a Brahmana – slander, talking ill about others behind their back. Complain, condemn and criticize are the traits defined as parivada. In today’s context we must hasten to add watching soaps and serials that are not mere time wasters but also poison of the mind, hours on internet, social media in the name of tracking what others do, which is nothing more than glorified gossip will be under the ambit of parivada. In other words absence of shama and dama (How anyone can become a Brahmana – Bhagwan Krishna’s insight).

Brahmana Today

In today’s context, where is the Brahmana? We have reduced it to a birth based system, thanks to the politician’s frenzied idea of votebank. They have been subject to constant attack by hoisting falsely cooked ideas by historians, politicians and society at large. But that is not the worst. The ones who are born in Brahmin families either follow the rituals without any understanding or not connecting with the real values outlined. Such a divorcing of values has left hardly any Brahmanas in the society.

The late sage of Kanchi, Chandrasekhara Saraswati (MahaPeriyava) through his Deivathin Kural (also available in English as Voice of God) warned that a majority of the social issues in India is due to the fact that Brahmins are not acting like real Brahmanas. The insight is so precise that even after half a century; it has only become more evident.

Instilling the real values of a Brahmana is of prime importance. The traditionally Brahmin by birth communities must take a lead amongst other saattvic individuals of any background. The only reason being they have the mental ecosystem, but the spiritual challenge is available to all. Reviving these traits outlined by Krishna, Yudhishtra and countless sages of this great Bharatvarsha, we can re-establish pockets of real Brahmanatva. Even if we have a handful of people with such real traits, they can revive and revitalize the society. We know how a single Narendra chose to become a Brahmana by his spiritual quest, shook the world as Swami Vivekananda.

We already saw in the two parts of this article series what traits one must acquire. Yet we must focus on some simple daily steps to climb this staircase to Brahmanatva.

• Svadhdhyaya – unless we get a periodic dose of spiritual insight by engaging with scriptures, it is impossible to work on our mind. This is akin to daily recharging our smartphones. If we want our minds to be charged we need this input.
• Sadhana – This is the internal application of what we have imbibed. What good is a charged smartphone if not put to use.
• Satsang – Association with the real wise and liberated is a real key to making progress. This is the association with the power source.
• Sewa – Unless we go back to society and contribute intellectually, spiritually, we cannot expect a change. We may be just one step ahead, but must learn to share not as an advanced person, but as a co-passenger in this cosmic spiritual journey. This helps rebuild the spiritual ecosystem we have lost. The smartphone ecosystem is the reason why we continue to get newer models. If there is only one phone in the entire world, will we be able to create any value?

The most important aspect is to fix the false narrative broadcast on powerful megaphones that Brahmana is a caste which oppressed others for generations. It is important that every reader strives to become a Brahmana and their lives will correct this false narrative. Identify the traits we need to work on. There is so much to burnish our minds before these saatvic qualities radiate from within, to make a difference all around, but also to lead us on the path of being a Brahamana, enroute to a complete identification of ourselves as Atman.

May we pray to the inner Narayana to guide us in this uphill task.

तत् सत्