White or black: What ‘lies’ behind a truth

The epic Mahabharata narrates an incident during the 14-day war between the Pandavas and Kauravas.

Published: 09th November 2021 04:50 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th November 2021 04:50 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration: soumyadip sinha

Express News Service

BENGALURU: As 21-year-olds, when my friends and I planned to legitimately enter a pub, basking under the ‘glory’ of stepping into ‘political adulthood’ (that was the eligible age to vote then), a friend’s mother asked: “Where are you all going?” And he replied: “For a pitcher!” The mother heard it as was intended – ‘picture’ instead of ‘pitcher’ – and fell to being convinced that we were headed to a cinema. We had a good laugh at her expense, little realising then that even a seemingly harmless white lie is still a lie meant to achieve an end.

The epic Mahabharata narrates an incident during the 14-day war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Pandavas plan to demoralise Drona, the master archer and guru of both the warring sets of cousins, and who is fighting on Kauravas’ side. During the battle, an elephant named Ashwathama is killed. But Drona’s son is also named Ashwathama. News reaches Drona that “Ashwathama is killed”, and wants to know whether it is the elephant or his son who is dead. He turns to the one and only who he trusts to deliver him the truth – the eldest of the Pandava brothers, Yudhisthir, known for his unshakeable honesty.

“Is Ashwathama dead, Yudhishtir?” Drona asks him. And Yudhisthir replies: “Yes, Ashwathama, the elephant, is dead!” But, when he replies, he lowers his voice to a whisper while uttering “the elephant”, and Drona is made to believe falsely that his son has died. Yudhisthir’s white lie achieved the objective of demoralising Drona and his subsequent end. Drona’s end was achieved by a man known for his honesty, through a white lie.

We are told right from childhood that lying is bad, but we find it extremely difficult to follow it. We are explained – and convinced, at least apparently – that it is a sin, a ticket to “Hell”. But the instinct to preserve one’s own image or character in the eyes of the others compels us to resort to lying, and blatantly at that. The skill lies in how convincing the lie is. The practice, once perfected, becomes an ally throughout life and its different phases, and a tool to achieve escape from a tight situation.

Why, even the Second World War was started by Hitler with an act of a lie that justified attacking Poland on September 1, 1939 – an act which was exposed during the Nuremberg Trials. The Nazis, on August 31, 1939, faked an attack by Poland by dressing up concentration camp inmates as Polish soldiers, injecting them with fatal injections, spreading their bodies at Germany’s Gleiwitz radio station on the border with Poland, and shooting the dead in a manner to convince the media that they were Polish soldiers killed while launching an attack on the German installation. Britain declared war on Germany two days later, and the Second World War (1939-45) commenced, to finally claim 60 lakh lives.

Ayn Rand, in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, says, “People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked…The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on…There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.”

But it all comes down to what German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says: “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”

Nirad Mudur 

Senior Assistant Editor



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