Yudhishthir, known as the Just King, spoke one half-truth during the Kurukshetra war and it led to Dron’s slaying by Dhrushtadyumna. This act of his is fiercely debated by characters in the epic and by readers alike. It will be beneficial to examine the sequence of events surrounding Dron’s slaying.
After Bhishm’s death, who had commanded the Kaurav army for ten days, Dron was appointed supreme commander. He led the Kaurav forces for five days, but was not successful in capturing Yudhishthir – the task he had undertaken.
- On the fifteenth day of the war instigated by Duryodhan’s stinging remarks Dron prepared to deploy the Brahmasra to exterminate the entire Pandav army.
- When Krishna saw this he suggested that if Dron receives some sad news, he will give up the weapon.
- Bheem had a brainwave and killed an elephant named Ashwatthama and conveyed the news to Dron, implying that his son Ashwatthama had been slain. (This was not part of Krishna’s suggestion.)
- Dron did not trust Bheem’s words as he knew Ashwatthama could not be slain so easily.
- Dron approached Yudhishthir to know the truth.
- Yudhishthir misleads him to believe his son is dead by saying, “Ashwatthama is dead,” and adds in a low voice, “man or elephant.”
- Dron continues to attack the Pandav army, Bheem chastises him.
- Dron gives up his weapons and is slain by Dhrushtadyumna.
It is clear that the conception and execution of killing the elephant called Ashwatthama was entirely Bheem’s. Moreover, the intention of this exercise was merely to deter Dron from using the Brahmastra. Neither the Pandavs nor Krishna imagined that Dron would give up weapons and sit in lotus position and Dhrushtadymna would slay him mercilessly.
Yudhishthir was drawn in the incident because Dron approached him. At that juncture Yudhishthir was left with two options.
- Tell the truth and attain personal glory at the cost of destruction of an entire army.
- Tell a lie and save the army at the cost of personal reputation.
Yudhisthir chose the latter as befitted a king responsible for the welfare of his troops. But he received his punishment as his chariot, which always rode a hand’s span above the ground sank to ground level. For this sacrifice he faced the ire of Arjun, “Thou, O monarch, hath told thy preceptor a falsehood for the sake of kingdom! Although thou art acquainted with the dictates of righteousness, thou hast yet perpetrated a very sinful act. Thy ill fame, in consequence of the slaughter of Drona, will be eternal in the three worlds with their mobile and immobile creatures, like Rama's in consequence of the slaughter of Vali!”
After Arjun criticized Yudhishthir, Bheem chastised Arjun and Dhrustadyumna justified his action of beheading Dron. With Satyaki supporting Arjun a fierce debate raged among the Pandavs. Satyaki and Dhrushtadyumna were on the verge of coming to blows, but timely intervention by Bheem and Sahdev avoided a full-fledged showdown. [Dron Vadha Parva, Section CXCVIII]*
I cannot but marvel at Vyas’ ability in bringing forth the different aspects of Yudhishthir’s and Arjun’s personalities. Arjun was an accomplished warrior, the best of Dron’s disciples; he also has obtained celestial weapons from Shiva and Indra. Yet in the face of action he dithered. Whereas, Yudhishthir is no great warrior, and like Arjun he faced moral dilemma before the war. But once war became inevitable, unlike Arjun, Yudhishthir is firm and decisive. He knew the importance of defeating Dron and saving his army and takes a quick decision to utter the untruth, which at that juncture was the right thing to do.