Ashwathama is Dead

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 first became apparent to me when I first heard the famous story of Krishna’s role in the death of Drona.

If you want to refresh your memory, the wiki article is here , but the broad details are as follows:

Drona is plundering through the Pandava troops, wreaking havoc, and he needs to be stopped. But he is a formidable warrior and his only weakness seems to be his affection for his son, Ashwathama.

And so, Krishna tells Yudhisthira to lie, to tell Drona that his son, Ashwathama, is dead.

Yudhisthira, who is widely renowned to never tell a lie, of course refuses but Krishna tells him that this is a war that must be won and therefore lying about Ashwathama is the right thing to do in the larger context.

As Yudhisthira ponders this, Bhima kills an elephant, that happens to be named Ashwathama and roars loudly, “Ashwathama is dead!”

Drona comes to Yudhisthira and asks him if this is true, Is Ashwathama dead? he asks.

Yudhisthira replies, “Yes Aswhatama is dead,” he pauses and adds, “I don’t know if it is man or elephant. (“Ashwathama 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,full of grief, and then, his head gets chopped off.

As a child, when I first heard the story, I felt strangely betrayed by the good guys, Yudhisthira and Krishna. Like every child I wanted my heroes to be heroes, and the villains to be the villains.

And this was the first time that I sensed that life is not always like that, that what is right and what is wrong is not always obvious, and perhaps not even definable, and that the good and the bad sometimes blur.

But now when I think of the story as an adult, one detail of the story that strikes me as strange, and therefore possibly symbolic, is the elaborate nature of the lie.

Yudhisthira could not lie in a direct manner, and comes across – in this story at least – as an effete, self-righteous, and somewhat sly man; 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 can justify the action to himself.

In making the lie so contrived, this story is making another observation: that people will often use all kinds of ruses to preserve their own self-image.

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 defense mechanisms.

The same psychoanalyst would have to say that Krishna at least, is emotionally more evolved.

Krishna at least is direct. From his perspective, the war has to be won. Too many people are dying, and he feels like the moral justification is on his side, and so he sees nothing wrong with lying. The ends, from Krishna’s perspective, justify the means.

So maybe 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.

But then you consider this and the story turns around once again – The man who was beheaded, Drona, was a man of principle, a man to be admired. He should have died a noble death if at all.

But wait a minute. Drona is on the side of the bad guys, and so his manner of death is justified. Or is it?