How Yudhishthira, the just and righteous, used a half-truth to win the Mahabharata war

The Xennial
·4 min read
Bhishma advises Yudhishthira on the nature of the four varnas, or castes, 1598.
Bhishma advises Yudhishthira on the nature of the four varnas, or castes, 1598.

Yudhishthira, the Pandava prince is said to be the son of Dharma or Yama, the Hindu god of death and justice. He is believed to have been born due to a boon that was granted to Kunti due to which she was able to summon any god she desired and beget their child. Kunti’s husband, Pandu was said to have been cursed due to which he was unable to bear a child. To provide an heir to the throne, Pandu urges Kunti to use her boon. She calls upon Dharma and following which is granted Yudhishthira. As the son of the god of justice, Yudhishthira was likely the most self-righteous of all the characters in the Mahabharata.

As he grew up, Yudhishthira received training in matters of administration, the military arts, religion and science of his time. His weapon of choice was the spear, one in which he was most adept.

RELATED READ: The little-known story of how Arjuna saved Duryodhana’s life

However Yudhishthira wasn’t known as much for his skills in the battlefield as he was to his adherence to the truth and righteousness. He preferred diplomacy over war and always spoke the truth. His knowledge on Dharma was so vast that he was able to rescue his brothers from the clutches of death when Yama tried to quiz him.

Obviously, Yudhishthira’s piousness was well-known and everyone – no matter if they were on the side of the Pandavas or the Kauravas – trusted Yudhishthira to speak the truth. Due to his piety, he was said to have never walked the earth. His chariot and fee always floated a couple of feet above ground. As a result when his teacher Dronacharya approached him on the battleground of Kurukshetra, he expected his former disciple to speak the truth.

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Drona, despite favouring the Pandavas, was fighting against them in the Kurukshetra war. This was because he owed his allegiance to Hastinapur, the kingdom that paid his salary to train the many princes of the household. So when the war broke out, Drona had no choice but to pick Duryodhana over his favourite pupil, Arjuna.

The war took a heavy toll on both sides and Drona, like, most of the elders such as Kripacharya, Bhishma et al, was torn between the two sides. After being accused by Duryodhana of holding back his punches, Drona went all out, even breaking the rules of the war and egging on multiple warriors to kill Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s son.

While the Pandavas were mighty, Drona was their teacher and he kept tearing through their ranks. When it was evident to Krishna that Drona couldn’t be taken out in a fair fight, he found a workaround. He got Bhima to kill Ashwatthama, an elephant, and tell Drona that he’d in fact killed Ashwatthama, his son.

Related read: Why did Krishna’s army fight against their own king in the Mahabharata war?

Obviously, Drona refused to believe Bhima (also because Ashwatthama is said to be immortal) and rode up to Yudhishthira who he counted on to speak the truth. Among the many moments that would change the course of the war, this was perhaps one of the most important ones. When Drona asked Yudhishthira if Ashwatthama was indeed dead, the latter replied: Ashwatthama hatah iti, nar-o-vah kunjar-o-vah. This can be literally translated from Sanskrit as: Ashwatthama is dead certainly, human or beast (I cannot say). 

At Krishna’s instructions, Yudhishthira delivers this message in a manner that makes Drona miss out on the second part of the sentence and give up his weapons mid-battlefield and meditate.

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This is the moment that Dhrishtadyumna had been waiting for his entire life. Dhrishtadyumna was the brother to Draupadi and son to Drupad, a friend-turned-enemy of Dronacharya. He was born out of fire with the sole purpose of seeking revenge against Drona. Dhrishtadyumna jumps out of his chariot and slays Drona.

Krishna justifies the killing of an unarmed Drona by pointing out that the teacher had in fact broken the laws of the battlefield by unleashing on young Abhimanyu multiple Kaurava warriors simultaneously. 

While the half-truth helps change the tide in the favour of the Pandavas, it costs Yudhishthira his status. He could no longer float two feet above the ground and would for the rest of his life walk the earth like all other mortals.

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