Yudhisthira was persuaded to tell Drona “The man or the elephant Aswasthama was dead’ but utter “elephant” in a low voice (nara ki gunjara aswasthama marana / Kariba dhire gunjara sabda uchcharana). Krishna told the virtuous shishya that his guru, in the terribly disturbed state he would be in at that time, would suspect nothing and would act on what he would be allowed to hear.  Thus, when Drona asked Yudhisthira about his son, to cut a long question unfairly short (we will return to it in another note), he told him this: nara ki gunjara je aswasthama hata (man or elephant Aswasthama is dead). The expected happened: Drona collapsed and the sword fell from his hand. The rest is too well known for a recount here (see Part II of the article in this blog “The Killing of the Guru in Two Parts”, posted on December 1, 2019) and in any case, it is not relevant for the present purpose.  

Of late I have wondered what difference it would have made had Yudhisthira not uttered the “elephant” part in a low voice. I think it would have confounded the bewildered guru. He had come looking for a definite answer. Now, his shishya was giving a reply which was entirely unhelpful. Maybe, he would have thought that the virtuous man was suggesting that his son was alive and the elephant, named Aswasthama, was dead. But it seems unlikely. If his son was alive, why did Yudhisthira not say so, he would have wondered. Why did he bring in the elephant at all? One would use a hedge when one has to say something which is likely to trouble the addressee. So, Drona might have inferred that his son was indeed dead and Yudhisthira was informing him indirectly. But the chances were that father would have still looked for a definitive answer, given to him in a direct, straightforward language.

So he would ask the same question again to Yudhisthira, pleading with him to give him a clear, unambiguous answer. Yudhisthira would give him the same answer the same way, i.e., uttering “elephant” in a low voice. What option did he have? He obviously could not tell him that Aswathama was dead, without bringing in the elephant. Could he tell him just that the elephant, Aswasthama, was dead: gunjara je aswasthama hata? No mention of “nara”. That would have been risky; it was possible that even in that mental state, the guru would have figured out that his shishya had indirectly told him that his son, Aswasthama, was live. He couldn’t have chosen to speak in a roundabout way; in that case, suppressing part of that answer would have been difficult. Instead of just one word, he would have to utter more words inaudibly. That would most likely have made his guru request him to speak audibly. What could Yudhisthira have done then? He would have only repeated what he had told him and in the same way. The distraught father would have been even more confused, wondering why he wasn’t answering him properly and out of frustration, leading to anger, he might have cursed him. Who knows!

It occurs to me that Yudhisthira’s half-truth or lie had saved both his guru and himself. His guru’s fate had been decided; he was to die as his shishya, on whom he had such absolute trust, had already chosen victory in the war over staying steadfast to dharma. Now, his guru did not have to go through the agony of uncertainty any longer and as for him, he wouldn’t risk being doomed by a curse from his guru.


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