Subjective nature of truth

Speaking the truth is not always easy and may not always be the right course of action either. The ambiguous nature of the moral order of the universe is apparent in the famous story of Krishna’s role in the death of Drona.

You probably know the story well: Drona is plundering through the Pandava troops and he needs to be stopped. But he is a formidable warrior and his only weakness is his a% ection for his son, Ashwatthama. And so, Krishna instructs Yudhisthira to tell Drona that his son, Ashwatthama, is dead. But Yudhisthira, widely renowned for his truthfulness, is reluctant to do so.

Then Bhima kills an elephant named Ashwatthama and roars loudly, “Ashwatthama is dead!” Drona comes to Yudhisthira and asks him if this is true. “Is Ashwatthama dead?” He asks.

Yudhisthira replies, “Yes he is dead.” He pauses and adds, “But I don’t know if it’s Ashwatthama the man or the elephant (“Ashwatthama hathaha iti, narova kunjarova.”). The last part, he says under his breath and so Drona, who knows that Yudhisthira can never tell a lie, believes that his son is dead. He bows his head in grief and his head gets chopped off.

One detail that strikes me as strange, and therefore probably symbolic, is the elaborate nature of the lie. Yudhisthira did not lie in a direct manner; in order to protect his own self-image of being Mr Truthful, an elephant was killed and an elaborate ruse contrived, all so that he could justify the action to himself. A psychoanalyst might say that Yudhistra’s superego, his conscience, prevented him from acknowledging his own voluntary participation in a lie, and his mind accomplished this through various psychological defence mechanisms.

The same psychoanalyst would have to say that Krishna, at least, is emotionally more evolved. From his perspective, the war has to be won.

So, may be the moral of the story is that untruths and misdeeds are occasionally necessary, if the ends are justified. And Yudhisthira’s role is the addendum to the moral – lie if you have to, but don’t lie to yourself