Pravrajika Sevaprana gave this talk in the Hollywood Temple on November 18, 2018.
In Hinduism, Truth is defined as “unchangeable”, eternal, “that which is beyond distinctions of time, space, and person”, “that which pervades the universe in all its constancy”, infinite and unchanging. There are many references, properties and explanations of truth by Hindu sages that explain varied facets of truth. But anything that changes cannot be completely true. The human body, for example, therefore is not completely true as it changes with time, is subject to death and belongs to a changing reality.
Satya is the Sanskrit word for truth. The highest truth can mean God Himself, or it can mean an ethical virtue, being true and consistent with reality in one’s thought, speech and action.
In Yoga, satya is listed as one of the five yamas which are considered to be basic for all spiritual sadhana: These are ahimsa (non-injury), satya, (truthfulness), asteya (lack of greed), brahmacharya,(self-control) and aparigraha (non-grasping or accumulating things). Satya is sometimes translated as the virtuous restraint from falsehood and distortion of reality in one’s expressions and actions. Those two fundamental human tasks—telling the truth and knowing the truth—have a close, relationship to one another.
When you tell the truth, you practice the essentially spiritual skill of knowing it first. When you lie, either to others or to yourself, you blur the boundaries of the truth. Lying robs you of that internal ability for recognition of the truth we all naturally have, and diminishes your ability to recognize the truth when you see it.
One person says Satyam means the truth – not what you think about it, but what it is; not your idea about it, but its reality. To know this truth you have to be utterly absent. Your very presence will distort the vision, because your presence means the presence of your mind, your prejudices, your conditionings. You are nothing else but a bundle of all that has been forced upon you by your family, religion, by the society, by the so-called leaders of humanity.
Your absence means absence of all prejudices, all borrowed knowledge, just a pure sky, a pure being. This absence of you is your real presence. Only the prejudices are absent, the ego is absent, your knowingness is absent – but your being shows in its utter purity. You disappear as a personality and there remains only a pure presence. So it is absence on one side of all that is false in you, and it is presence on the other side of all that is real in you. In this state you simply see. This seeing of existence is the first experience of the mystic seer contained in the word satyam. Satyam means the truth – not any conception about it, but truth itself.
Satya is a central theme in the Vedas. It is equated with and considered necessary to the concept of Ṛta (Sanskrit ऋतं ṛtaṃ) – that which is properly joined, order, rule, nature, balance, harmony. Ṛta results from Satya in the Vedas, as it regulates and enables the operation of the universe and everything within it. Satya (truth) is considered essential, and without it, the universe and reality falls apart, cannot function.
The word sat, in Sanskrit, means “that which exists, that which is.” Satya, in turn, means “truthfulness”—seeing and reporting things as they really are rather than the way we would like them to be. People often think they alone know what the Truth is. Everyone has their own idea of what the truth is because it is shaded by their own ideas about themselves and how they view what is around them.
In Western thought commonly, truth is viewed as the correspondence of language or thought to an independent or objective reality. Western philosophers have many different ways of viewing Truth. Thomas Aquinas said : “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality”. Thus, for Aquinas, the truth of the human intellect (logical truth) is based on the truth in things (ontological truth). Veritas est adæquatio intellectus et rei. (Truth is the conformity of the intellect and things.)
Emmanuel Kant counters this however by saying:
“Truth, it is said, consists in the agreement of cognition with its object. In consequence of this mere nominal definition, my cognition, to count as true, is supposed to agree with its object. Now I can compare the object with my cognition, however, only by cognizing it. Hence my cognition is supposed to confirm itself, which is far short of being sufficient for truth. For since the object is outside me, the cognition in me, all I can ever pass judgement on is whether my cognition of the object agrees with my cognition of the object.”
This points out the basic flaw in making truth something intellectual at all. There are many other theories about the nature of truth put forth by Western philosophers, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. According to Martin Heidegger, the original meaning and essence of truth in Ancient Greece was “unconcealment, or the revealing or bringing of what was previously hidden into the open.” From a Vedantic point of view this could be thought of as revealing the Atman which is within us all. This is an interesting point no doubt, but in the talk today I really want to narrow our discussion of Truth down to the term Satya in Hindu thought.
Immediatelly the basic question arises: What is the view about reality in Hindu philosophy? In Hinduism there are several different levels of Reality recognized and all are “True”, to some extent. They are all called satya, each with a modifying adjective. The highest Reality or Satyasa satya (truth of truth) is considered to be the only unchanging, permanent reality, Sat, or God itself. This is Paramartika Satya or the highest reality.
Brihadaranaka Upanishad 2:1:20 tells us: “As a spider moves along the thread it produces, or as from a fire little sparks scatter in all directions, just so from this Self issue all organs, all worlds, all gods and all living beings. “
Tasyopanisat satyasya satya smiti/
prana vai satyam tesa mesa satyam/
Its secret name is Satyasasatya, Truth of truth. The vital force is truth,
and It is the Truth of that.”
Pratibasika satya is reflection of the emitted light. This stage is like dream when the experienced objective existence is non-different from the experiencing subject but the subject is unaware of the oneness of objects, the dream reality.
Vyavaharika satyais transactional reality. This is what most of us in the West consider to be real. To make our actions possible, the complete distinction between the objects and subject need to be drawn. Here the senses are active and we take their input to be true and act accordingly. This is the reality of science where things can be experienced and measured by the senses, and which is ruled by the laws of time space and causation. It is often hard for a scientist to make the leap from a reality which can be measured, to one which can cannot. Swami Ramakrishnananda once said: “Those scientists who are earnest seekers after Truth, are sure to realize soon. Those are far from Truth who are bound only by their sense nature. Ramakrishna tells us that it is I and Mine alone that cover the face of Truth. These make this transactional reality seem very real, because this is where the ego “hangs out” as it were.
Swami Shivananda tells us: “Unfortunately, in this world of phenomena there is nothing that remains unchanged for a second. Now with the idea of finding the ultimate truth, if we push our analysis further, we shall see that back of the changeable phenomena is the immutable Brahman. First, gross objects, then subtle and subtler objects –whatever we analyze in the outer world- we fail to find any permanence in them. Baffled we finally turn within ourselves. This self-withdrawal or abstraction is the only way to the knowledge of Brahman or the Supreme Reality.”
At the highest level, the seed consciousness “sat” is the root of everything else. That is the highest reality, paramarthika satya. Here “mind turns back along with speech” Taittirya II 9. “To the wise man, neither heaven, nor hell nor earth exists. He knows that there is but one Truth and that is here and now. He sees the glory of his own Supreme Self and nothing else.”
Satya or Truth is a widely discussed in various Upanishads, including the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad where satya is called the means to Brahman, as well as Brahman itself, Sat (Being, or true self) or in the Svetasvatara Upanishad where Brahman is called, Satya, Truth, Shivam, Auspiciousness, and Sundara, the Beautiful One. Again in the Taittiriya Upanishad Brahman is called Satya, Jnana, Ananta, Brahman.
Swami Ramakrishnananda said: “The Upanishads are the most wonderful books. They are a concise statement of all the great truths of the universe. Every line is the expression of a mind that has realized. Those who gave them out had realized God, and he who has realized God is the same as God Himself. Those great Seers were the embodiment of purity, so they were able to perceive all Truth.”
The Rig Veda, one of Vedanta’s most ancient texts, declared thousands of years ago. एकं सद्विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति
ekam sadvipra bahudha vadanti
“Truth is one; sages call it by various names,”
Taittiriya Upanishad‘s hymn 11 Anuvak states, Sayam vad/ Dharmacha/”Speak the Satya (truth), conduct yourself according to the Dharma (morality, ethics, law)”.
Truth is sought, praised in the hymns of Upanishads, held as one that ultimately, always prevails.
The Mundaka Upanishad, for example, states in Book 3, Chapter 1, vs 6
satyamevam jayate nanrtam
Truth alone triumphs, not falsehood.
— Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.6
The slogan of India “Satyam eva jayate”, Truth alone triumphs, comes from this verse.
In Chapter IV of the Chandogya Upanishad, Satyakama, whose name means one who desires Truth, a boy, and later a Vedic sage, first appears. As a boy, he enquires about his father from his mother. His mother Jabala, tells him that she went about many places in her youth, and did not know who his father was.
As a boy, eager for knowledge, Satyakama goes to the sage Haridrumata Gautama, requesting the sage’s permission to live in his school for Brahmacharya. The teacher asks, “my dear child, what family do you come from?” Satyakama replies in all innocence that he is of uncertain parentage because his mother does not know who the father is. Even though the sages were only supposed to accept Brahmanas as students, the sage declares that the boy’s honesty is the mark of a “Brāhmaṇa, true seeker of the knowledge of the Brahman“. Sage Gautama accepts him as a student in his school, and Satyakama goes on to become a knower of Brahman and a great sage. He is sent out as a student into the forest with a herd of cows and told to return when they are one thousand. Because of his great love for truth, and learns from nature itself about Brahman, the fire itself teaches him. Finally one of the cows returns and says we are now a thousand, so he returns. When he returns to his teacher and asks again to learn about Brahman, the teacher tells him his “face shines like a knower of Brahman” already, but he does teach him inorder to keep up the guru disciple tradition.
“The calmed say that what is well-spoken is best; second, that one should say what is right, not unrighteous; third, what’s pleasing, not displeasing; fourth, what is true, not false. – The Buddha, from the Sutta Nipata”
Sri Ramakrishna had a great reverence for and insistence on the practice of truthfulness. The verse translated as Truth is one sages call it by various names is the basis of his teachings about the harmony of religions.
He tells Turiyananda, who was studying the Upanishads, “the real Truth is that God alone is real and all else is falsehood.” He said this is all the Upanishads have to say. The world is a mixture of truth and make believe. Discard the make believe and hold on to the truth.” This is sat asat vastu viveka, or discrimation between the real and the unreal.
He once said: “God can be realized through Truth alone.” Here truth mean both the means and the goal.
During His sadhana He offered everything at the feet of the Divine Mother. He said, “Mother here is Thy Knowledge, here is thy ignorance. Take them both and give me pure love for Thee. Here is Thy holiness, and here is Thy unholiness. Take them both and give me only pure love for Thee. Here is thy good, here is Thy evil. Take them both Mother, and give me pure love for Thee. Here is Thy righteousness and here is Thy unrighteousness. Take them both Mother and give me love for Thee. I mentioned them all, he says, but I could not say, Here is Thy truth here is Thy falsehood. Take them both. I gave up everything at Her feet, but I could not bring myself to give up truth.”
He taught his disciples to always speak the Truth.
Once when Swami Brahmananda had spoken an untruth in jest, Ramakrishna said it appeared as though a dark cloud had covered his face, and He scolded him, saying one should always tell the truth and never lie even in jest.
The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata states, “The righteous hold that forgiveness, truth, sincerity and compassion are the foremost (of all virtues). Truth is the essence of the Vedas. Repeatedly the importance of truth is stated in this great epic.
The elder brother of the Pandavas, Yudhistira, was said to be devoted to truth. As a child when he was just learning to read one of the first statements in the primer was “Always speak the truth”. He sat studying this saying for a long time. His teacher became concerned because everyone else had moved on to the second, third and fourth statements, but Yudhistira remained on the first. When questioned about it he said, “I have not yet fully understood the meaning of this statement.” It is said that if one can hold on to the truth everything else will follow. That is all the other virtues will follow truth.
During the great Mahabharata war it is said Yudhistira’s chariot floated above the ground by a few inches because of his great adherence to truth. When he twisted the truth by implying to Drona that his “immortal” son, Aswatama, had been killed. Drona was a great warrior, and the Pandavas could not defeat him. Yudhisthira named one of the elephants Aswatama killed it and then shouted out : “Aswatama, (repeated very softly, the elephant) has been killed.” Drona believed Yudhisthira would never lie, so he sat on the ground and gave up his arms. He was beheaded. Yudhisthira’s chariot immediately sank to the earth and the gods cried out because he had twisted the truth.
Swami Vijnananda says:”Just follow the maxims which you have read in the copy books-namelly, ‘Always speak the Truth’ and so on. Only the realization of Atman, the ultimate Truth behind all things will give us everlasting peace.”
In the Gospel according to John we read the words “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Here the truth refers to Christ himself.
In “Hamlet”, we read:
“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
A Vedantist might interpret this as meaning since the truth of the self is that we are all one in the Atman, if we are true to our inner self we are true to all.
On a more mundane level it can also mean if we are in the habit of lying to ourselves, we are not able to be truthful in dealing with others. Let us be honest with ourselves first and acting on that honesty, making our heart and lips one.
Sri Ramakrishna says a householder must “have unflagging devotion to truth”. Even those engaged in business and office work should hold to the truth.”
Vijnanananda once said in answer to the question: “I am working under a business man, and it is impossible to work there without telling lies…Will these little falsehoods stand in the way of my realizing God?”Quote: “Deviations from truth will surely hamper realization of god. God is truth and to realize Him you have to be completely truthful.
But if at times owing to special reasons you have to utter a falsehood, it need not worry you too much, because while you are subordinate to another person, you cannot help obeying him. If you be completely truthful, you will only lose your job. Now go on working as you are doing; afterwards, when you are more free, you can follow your own inclinations and stick to truth at all times. But know it to be the last word that to realize God you have to be wholly truthful in thought, word, and deed.”
Swami Premananda says: “We hear many say that it is impossible to be truthful in business, but I do not believe it. Where truth reigns, there the Lord himself abides. If the man of business carefully enshrines truth in his heart, he will be looked upon as the greatest of all virtuous men and his business destined to thrive. Nag Mahashaya (a householder devotee of the Master) was greatly devoted to truth. Once he went to buy something in the market, and the shopkeeper charged him four annas. As he was truthful, he took the shopkeeper at his word and did not haggle with him. A by stander, seeing him pay the four annas thought to himself, “what sort of man is this? He did not even bargain?” But when he learned that the man was Nag Mahashaya, the saint, who believed no one would dupe others, he took the shopkeeper to task for charging four annas for what was worth only two annas. The shopkeeper took this to heart. The next day, when Nag Mahashaya came to buy something, the shopkeeper charged him only two annas four an article worth five annas. With folded hands Nag Mahashay addressed the shopkeeper; ‘Why do you act like this with? This is worth more than two annas. Please charge me the right price.; Deeply moved the shopkeeper fell at the feet of the saint.
Adherence to Truth brings with it great strength. Mahatma Gandhi stressed the power of truth Satyagraha.
Sri Ramakrishna’s own father lost his position because he refused to lie during a lawsuit, he was such a devotee of truth.
“Telling the truth is one of the glories of longing for God”, Sri Ramakrishna tells us.
Satya also can refer to a virtue in Hinduism, referring to the quality of being truthful in one’s thought, speech and action. A related concept, sattva, also derived from the word “sat”, means true essence, nature, spiritual essence, character. Sattva is also one of the three guṇas, where it means goodness, purity, clean, positive, one that advances good true nature of self. This is not the same word as Satya and the meanings differ, but it does come from the same root.
How can we practice truth in our lives?
Several of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna say it means making your heart and lips one. Swami Premananda tells us: “Hold on to truth. To make your heart and lips the same is to become truthful. Hold on to truth and you will achieve everything.” This is because our inner most self is the Atman, and the Atman is Truth itself.
A Christian might quote the psalms saying, “Create in me a clean heart O Lord.” This means the mind and heart must be purified so the light of the Atman, our real true nature stands revealed.
Swami Turiyananda goes a step further and says: “There should be no disagreement between what one feels and what one says; and at the same time one should not be cruel or unkind when one adheres to truth…Make you heart and tongue one. But truthfulness and kindness must go together.” ‘Say what is kind, but not what is untrue; say what is true, but not what is unkind.’…Truth alone triumphs, not falsehood. The path by which the sages have reached perfection is the path of truth. There is no other way to freedom – no other way.” He goes even farther by saying, “To keep something secret, saying (‘I won’t tell it,) is also a kind of untruth. To be absolutely frank and open in one’s dealing is real truthfulness.”
Thus straight forwardness is considered to be a great virtue in Hinduism. To be simple, sahaja, as a child, is to be truthful. Jesus also says: “Suffer the little children to come onto Me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
This idea of keeping a secret as being untruthful in some sense, was a new idea to me. I had not thought of it in just this way, yet even in our legal system we have the words, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. To hide something back is not really being truthful. However it is subtle since sometimes revealing something you know may actually harm another unnecessarily.
For example if a sadhu is sitting in a forest and a robber comes by and hides behind a tree, and soon the police arrive and ask where is that man? The sadhu knows where he is hiding, but if he tells the man will be harmed. What should he do? Perhaps pretend to be practicing silence might be the best solution. Remember the story of Premananda when he heard a missionary belittling the Hindu Gods and Goddesses. He became angry and abused the missionary and chased him away. Then in a dream he saw Ramakrishna and was told he should never hurt another man’s faith. The next day Premananda found that same missionary and apologized to him.
The idea of not being unkind or telling a harsh truth is there. Swami Brahmananda says: “No one can find peace if he hurts another. Never utter one word that would hurt another. Tell the truth, but never tell a harsh truth.”
There is a story told by Holy Mother about her giving milk to Thakur toward the end of his life. “The man who milked the temple cows used to give me milk in large quantities. He would say to me: “If I give all this milk to the temple the priests will take it home after worship and give it to anyone and everyone. But if I leave the milk here, the Master will have it. He used to give me up to five or six seers of milk a day. He was a good man, full of devotion. I used to boil the milk down to a seer and a half.
The Master would ask me, “How much milk is there?”
I would say, “A seer or a seer and a quarter.”
He would remark: “Perhaps more, I see such a thick scum.”
One day Golap was there. He asked he, “How much milk is there?” And she told the truth. “Ah! So much milk,” he exclaimed, “that is why I get indigestion. Call her, call her. “I came in, and he told what Golap had said about the milk. I pacified him, saying: “Oh! Golap does not know the measurement. How can she know how much the pot contains?”
Another day he asked Golap about the milk and she said in reply, “One full bowl from here and another from the Kali temple.” At this the Master got nervous again. He sent for me, and began to ask about the exact measurement of the bowl as to how much it contained. I replied: “I do not know about these measurement. You will drink milk. Why all these enquires about measurements? Who knows about all these calculations.?”
He was not satisfied. He said: “Can I digest all this milk? I shall get indigestion.” Really, that day he did get indigestion and did not take anything at night but a little sago water.
Golap said to me afterwards, “Well mother, you should have told me about it before. How could I know? His whole evening meal is spoiled.” In reply I said to her, “There is no harm in telling a lie about food. Thus I coax him to eat.” In this way his health got better.” Is it beneficial to others?
You may see something in another, which may actually be true, but is it necessary to reveal it? Often we must think before speaking. We can ask ourselves: Is what I am going to say truthful? Is it necessary? And will it be beneficial?
There is also the point that for some there is confidentiality. A doctor, or minister for example may be told something in private that should not be revealed to others. Even a criminal has the right to remain silent when questioned by the police.
Sometimes the cultures differ greatly in this regard. Sometimes in India I found Indians nodding and saying, “yes you may do that….” When actually they meant, “over my dead body” don’t ever do that.” We would think why don’t they just say, “No! Don’t do it!” It would be so much easier for everyone. This can be especially difficult if one is wearing the gerrua cloth, as one may not want to say contradict or say no to a sadhu. That however is just not how the culture works. It is much more subtle than that. Perhaps it can be difficult for a westerner to understand the Indian concept of Truth.
Again from a higher standpoint Turiyananda says: “The Lord’s name alone is the only truth; everything else is unreal.” In Varanasi as bodies are carried to the cremation grounds for burning the people chant “Ram Nam Satya Hai”. Rama’s name is the only reality. These words ring throughout the city. How sweet they are. Life becomes so sweet if we know this truth. The great ones tell us he who is in his last birth, becomes conscious of the Truth, knows God, and succumbs no more to egoistic delusions. They know God alone is real. The world is unreal.
Practicing truthfulness has a certain power as well. It is said: “By practicing truthfulness for twelve years the body and mind become controlled and pure. One is unable to say anything that is untrue. In fact it is said that whatever such a person says will become true. Thus if a holy person says anything to another person, it has a certain power. Ramakrishna said at one point he wanted to test His own experiences and he said, “If what I experienced is true, let this stone jump three times.” He tells us the stone jumped three times. You can believe this or not, but even Ramakrishna once had to bear the effect of his brother’s angry words uttered during an argument. His brother said, “May blood come from your mouth”. Immediately the brother felt terrible and tried to take it back, but in the end this happened to Sri Ramakrishna, even though his brother did not really intend it to be so. One should be very careful what one says as it gains power. Swami Vijnanananda tells us: “Truth must be adhered to very strictly: There should be complete harmony between preaching and practice. What comes out of your lips has to be acted upon.”We read in the Gospel of SRK that often he would say he would do something and then, even if he no longer needed to do it, he would do it anyway just to adhere to the truth. Here again we are back to the idea that the heart and tongue must become one.
A person who is established in truth has a tangible power. Tantine once said about Swami Vivekananda: “The first word I heard him utter was the truth. And the second word he uttered was the truth. And every word I ever heard him utter afterwards was also the truth.” You can say it was perhaps her faith, but it was also because Swamiji was a knower of God and was established in Truth. The face of such a one actually shines with that Truth. It can be seen on the very countenance of such a one, as it did on the face of Satyakama after he returned to his teacher after sadhana. His teacher greeted him saying, “My son, your face shines like a knower of Brahman.”
It’s secret name is Satyasa Satya! Truth of truths!
Isa Upanishad tells us:
tat tvam pusannapavrnu satyadharmaya drstaye
samuha tejo yat te rupam kalyanatamam tat te pasyami
yo ‘sav asau purusah soham asmi
Like a lid, Thy shining golden orb covers the entrance to the Truth in Thee. Remove it, O sun, so that I who am devoted to the True may, behold That.
O Sun, the offspring of Prajapati, Thou lonely courser of the heaven. Thou controller and supporter of all, contract Thy rays, withdraw Thy light. Through Thy grace, I behold the most blessed form of Thine. I am indeed He, that Being who dwells there.