Time as a concept has long baffled thinkers. What does time really mean? Every waking second of our life is an encounter with time. For all people the day consists of just twenty-four hours, neither more nor less. According to their mindsets, people differ in their notions about time. Some feel that time is hanging heavily on their hands, while for others time flies, and they cannot get enough of it. Just as there are people who regret their past, so there are others who fear for their future. Time carries the stream of our life to the one certainty amid all uncertainties of life: death. However, we hardly accept this eventuality.
There is a wonderful incident in the Mahabharata, ("Vanaparva," Chapters 267-9). During their stay in the forest, Yudhishthira and his four brothers were once seized with thirst and were anxious to find water. Yudhishthira asked his brother Nakula to climb a tree and look for water. Nakula saw at a distance a beautiful pool of water surrounded by lush vegetation. When he went to the pool and was about to quench his thirst, he heard a voice without a form (a Yaksha, or demigod) saying, "This pool belongs to me. If you want water from this pool, you have to answer my questions first." Nakula did not heed those words, drank the water, and dropped down dead. Concerned about Nakula, Yudhishthira sent Sahadeva. He went to the pool and was shocked to see Nakula lying dead. He too did not heed the Yaksha's warning, and met with Nakula's fate. Arjuna and Bhima followed Sahadeva, one after the other. They each rebuked the voice, challenging the Yaksha to reveal himself and be taught a lesson. Both of them lost their life in trying to drink the water. Deeply anxious, Yudhishthira went in search of his brothers. He was beside himself with grief when he saw his four brothers lying dead on the bank of the pool, and wondered who could fell such great heroes. His throat fully parched, he approached the pool to quench his thirst. The Yaksha spoke again: "This pool belongs to me. If you want to drink its water, you must first answer my questions. Otherwise, your fate will not be different from that of your brothers."
Being a man of discrimination, Yudhishthira said to the Yaksha: "Well said. Since you own this pool, I don't have a right to drink water without your permission. Kindly ask your questions." Yudhishthira's brilliant answers to the Yaksha constitute the important portion of the Mahabharata called "Yaksha Prashna." The story goes that, pleased with Yudhishthira's answers, the Yaksha finally revived all his brothers.
Two important questions and their answers relate to our subject. The first:
"What is the news?" Yudhishthira's answer: "The news is this: Time is cooking all created beings in a huge cauldron of great delusion, with the sun as the fire, day and night as fuel, and months and seasons as the ladle to stir the brew."
The other question illustrates the inevitability of death and how people are oblivious of it. The Yaksha asked Yudhishthira: "What is wonderful?" He said: "Every day people die. Still the rest of the world desires to live forever. What could be more wonderful than that?"
Can we escape being cooked by time? Can we defy death? Vedanta says it is possible. Before we discuss Vedanta's answers, we have to study the three states of consciousness we pass through daily.