Not half, not one: The 15-and-a-half lies of Yudhishthira in Mahabharata
Did Yudhishthira utter only one half-lie in the midst of the great war between the Pandavas and Kauravas, or did he utter many more in his life?
A small twitter discussion on Yudhishthira’s lie in January has pulled this column out of me. There’s a myth floating in the rarefied atmosphere of cultural literature that needs to be busted. We’ve all grown up with it, moralised around it, justified it. But probably because of the overwhelming morality binding it, we have not examined it in its entirety.
The myth, first: Pandava king Yudhishthira spoke just one half-lie in his life. When his guru and adversary asked him if Aswatthama was dead, Yudhishthira confirmed it. Drona meant Aswatthama, his son; in fact, it was an elephant named Aswatthama who had been killed by his brother Bhima, to which Yudhishthira alluded.
"Yudhishthira distinctly said that Aswatthama was dead, adding indistinctly the word elephant (after the name)," Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s magnificent translation of The Mahabharata, undertaken between 1883 and 1896, states. The moral fall was instantaneous. "Before this, Yudhishthira’s car had stayed at a height of four fingers’ breadth from the surface of the earth; after, however, he had said that untruth, his (vehicle and) animals touched the earth."
No doubt, Yudhishthira stated this half-lie with deep reservations, under the weight of potential victory, and with the "counsels of Krishna". But he spoke it consciously, knowing fully well that Drona believed that he never uttered an untruth. The poetic fall of his chariot could really be a reflection of the stepping down from the moral high he lived in.
Weakened by the thought of his son’s death, Drona lost the will to fight and laid down his terrible bow that had been wreaking havoc on the Pandavas. Goading Duryodhana and Karna to protect themselves, he said, “I lay aside my weapons.” He then sat in his chariot and got ready to leave his body.
At this, Draupadi’s brother and the Pandava general, Dhrishtadyumna, who was born to kill Drona, took a sword and slowly moved towards Drona. Even as those around Drona felt his soul had gone to the realms beyond, leaving his inert body behind, Dhrishtadyumna cut off the head of the 85-year-old guru and threw it before his soldiers. The great war had consumed yet another Kaurava general.
This half-lie of Yudhishthira’s in Drona Parva haunts him at the end of the Mahabharata. In Svargarohanika-parva, Yudhishthira pays for this ‘lie’, by having to go through hell for a short moment, to meet his four brothers and wife Draupadi. Disappointed and annoyed, when Yudhishthira told the King of Gods, Indra, that he would stay in hell with them and not go to heaven, out came the explanation. “Thou hadst, by a pretence, deceived Drona in the matter of his son,” Indra told Yudhishthira. “Thou hast, in consequence thereof, been shown Hell by an act of deception.”
But I digress - let’s return to Yudhishthira’s other lies.
About a year before the war, when the Pandavas were deciding where to spend their last year of exile without being discovered and homed in on Virata’s Matsya kingdom, their entry was laced with lies. Here, Yudhishthira took the lead. There was a reason too - if the Pandavas were recognised in this last year of exile, they would need to spend another 12 years in exile.
So, Yudhishthira, the prince, became Kanka, a former courtier of Yudhishthira’s. “Presenting myself as a Brahmana, Kanka by name, skilled in dice and fond of play, I shall become a courtier of that high-souled king (Virata),” he tells his brothers and Draupadi, while planning for a difficult year of servitude.
“And moving upon chess-boards beautiful pawns made of ivory, of blue and yellow and red and white hue, by throws of black and red dice, I shall entertain the king with his courtiers and friends. And while I shall continue to thus delight the king, nobody will succeed in discovering me. And should the monarch ask me, I shall say, ‘Formerly I was the bosom friend of Yudhishthira.’ I tell you that it is thus that I shall pass my days (in the city of Virata).”
In this year - arguably their most arduous as Aryavarta’s most powerful warriors and rulers had to behave like servants and their queen as a maid - Bhima became a cook called Vallabha; Arjuna became a eunuch called Brihannala; twins Nakula and Sahadeva took charge of Virata’s horses and cows, as Granthika and Tantripala; while Draupadi became Sairindhri, the Virata’s queen’s hair dresser.
- Six planned lies here.
As per the plan, Yudhishthira went to Virata and spoke his lie. “O great king,” he said, “know me for a Brahmana who, having lost his all hath come to thee for the means of subsistence. I desire, O sinless one, to live here beside thee acting under thy commands.”
- One lie here - being a Brahamana. Total: seven lies.
Virata asked him, his name, family and the place he came from. “My name is Kanka and I am a Brahmana belonging to the family known by the name of Vaiyaghra,” Yudhishthira told the king. “I am skilled in casting dice, and formerly I was a friend of Yudhishthira.”
- Three lies here - name Kanka; family of Vaiyaghra; friend of Yudhishthira. Total: 10 lies.
The generous king opened his heart to Yudhishthira. “Let the assembled subjects listen,” he said. “Kanka is as much lord of this realm as I myself. Thou (Kanka) shalt be my friend and shalt ride the same vehicles as I. And thou shalt look into my affairs, both internal and external. And for thee all my doors shall be open. No fear shall be thine as long as thou residest with me.” I suspect there’s more to Virata than being so naïve, but we’ll leave that for another time.
There is another minor layer of lies beneath this self-preservation. To ensure that the five brothers were not linked and, in the interest of non-discovery, Yudhishthira created an additional distancing from discovery by giving an extra name for this brothers and himself - Jaya (Yudhishthira), Jayanta (Bhima), Vijaya (Arjuna), Jayatsena (Nakula), and Jayatvala (Sahadeva).
- Five lies here. Total: 15 lies.
So, including the half-lie of Aswattama, Yudhishthira spoke 15-and-a-half lies in his lifetime.
While reimagining the Mahabharata, I can see a few more lies strewn around, but there is no evidence of their being spoken. In Jatugriha Parva, for instance, when Bhima asks Yudhishthira why he wanted to stay in the House of Lak despite knowing that Duryodhana’s man Purochana planned to kill them there, his reply has lacings of untruth in spirit, though none in words.
“If Purochana findeth from our countenances that we have fathomed designs, acting with haste he may suddenly burn us to death,” he tells Bhima. “Let us, therefore, by deceiving this wretch (Purochana) and that other wretch Duryodhana, pass our days, disguising ourselves at times.” Further in the story, there are no direct lies being spoken, though I suspect, on a day-to-day basis, if deceit was the driving force of their safety, the Pandavas - Yudhishthira included - could have uttered many.
Nobody, and certainly not me, is grudging Yudhishthira the lies. They were justified. In the Jatugriha Parva, truth was a passport to death. In the Virata Parva, it was a visa to wilderness. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that these lies were the road to dharma, towards establishing a kingdom of righteousness, following the war of Kurukshetra that the Pandavas under Krishna’s advice were hurtling towards.
But the lies also point out to a broader vision of life. They point out that there are no permanent dharmas - one man’s dharma could be another man’s adharma. Or even that one man’s dharma at one point in time could be diametrically opposite to his dharma at another point in time. Such flexibility shows the inclusive nature of men’s characters that the Aryan society lived in, the layers of morality that the Mahabharata expounded, and one that Ved Vyasa lifted to lofty heights.
One last point. Why does Yudhishthira’s half-lie - around Aswatthaman’s death in Drona Parva - show up in the Svargarohanika Parva while the 15 other lies in Virata Parva are ignored? It is difficult to walk 5,000 years back and ask the poet-seer, but here’s my view: it shows the multiplicity of authorship of the world’s greatest story, The Mahabharata, where an addition or modification at a later point did not undertake the rigour of mapping the entire text.
Clearly, the Mahabharata needed an editor.
The first book of the author’s trilogy on The Mahabharata will be released later this year
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