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Satyam: Speak truth, speak useful

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By Nithin Sridhar

Gleanings from Hindu Scriptures- Part 4

Hindu scriptures are very vast and diverse. On the one hand, they speak about very high philosophy of Atman and Srishti that are beyond one’s imagination. On the other hand, they also give mundane instructions like how to think, how to speak, or how to live.

But, the beauty of Hinduism is that it blends harmoniously both the high and the low, both the philosophy and the practical, so that an individual can slowly travel towards the ultimate goal of Moksha.

Among its various practical instructions regarding how one must live, the last article had dealt with Ahimsa (non-injury). In this, I take up another important teaching: Satyam (truthfulness).

Truthfulness is considered one of the most important tenets of dharma. The Taittiriya Upanishad (1.11.1) says “Speak Truth, Practice Dharma.” The next question that arises is how to speak truth? How to practice truthfulness in everyday life? Manu Smriti (4.138) gives an answer to this:

satyam bruyat priyam bruyat na bruyat satyam apriyam |
priyam ca nanrutam bruyat esha dharmah sanatanah ||
Translation: Speak truth, speak pleasant. Do not speak unpleasant truth. Nor also pleasant falsehood. This is the eternal law.

This verse captures the gist of truthful speech. A person should speak only that which is true. But that does not mean one should indulge in gossip, complaining, or back-biting even if the content of such discussions are based on truth. A person should only speak that which is pleasant. But that does not mean one should lie just to make it pleasant for the hearer. Neither unpleasant truth, nor pleasant lie should be practiced.

Here, priyam, or pleasant, refers to that which is useful, that which causes some good including but not limited to causing happiness to the listener.

A few examples would illustrate the tenet clearly. Consider this, a man is sitting under a tree. Another man comes running and hides behind the bushes. A few people come chasing this second person.

Situation 1: The second man hiding is innocent. The men who came chasing him are robbers or lackeys to some mafia. Now, if the first man tells these lackeys the ‘truth’ that the innocent man is hiding behind the bush, then though literally it will be ‘truth’, yet it will be adharma as the action will result in unpleasant consequences for the innocent person. Hence, in this case, feigning ignorance or speaking ‘untruth’ constitutes the practice of Truthfulness (Satyam).

Situation 2: The second man is a criminal. The men pursuing him are police. In this case speaking a lie, though it is pleasant for the criminal, will be adharma, as a criminal is a menace to society and hence he needs to be restrained. Therefore, speaking truth that is pleasant (i.e. useful) to larger society is Satyam.

Another example could be about a patient who is suffering from some serious medical condition. It is not advisable to reveal to the patient about his serious medical condition immediately and abruptly as it may lead to shock and hence harm the patient. Therefore, speaking truth immediately without caring for patient’s condition does not constitute Satyam.

At the same time, lying to patient and completely hiding from him does not constitute Satyam either (unless it is an extreme case and a doctor advises to do this). A person must instead assess the situation and condition of the patient, and must reveal to him the truth in the most delicate manner, so as to cause minimal harm to him, and that will constitute Satyam.

Of course, these were simplistic situations, and real life situations would be more complicated.

Yet, these situations are suffice to point out how one must practice Satyam, not just in words, but also in its spirit.

Glossary:

Satyam: It literally means “Truth.” It refers to being truthful in mind, body, and speech i.e. a person’s thoughts, words, and actions must be according to reality. It also means one must practice what one preaches and preach what one practices.

Atman: The Innermost Self (Note: Atman is not soul or spirit. It is the innermost Self. It is Jiva-atman, in its limited aspect it can be understood as the Individual soul).

Srishti: Manifestation of the Universe. Many different world views are offered in Hindu philosophy regarding the origination of the Universe.

Moksha: Literally, Liberation. It is liberation from the Karmic bondage of cycle of birth and death. According to Advaita Vedanta, this liberation is possible only by the realization of true nature of Atman that it is free and without bondage.

Dharma: It means “that which upholds” i.e. the essence. In various contexts it may refer to different things. With respect to human actions, it means duties and righteousness, as they alone uphold human life. Adharma is opposite of dharma.

More in this segment:

Gleanings from Hindu Scriptures- Part 1

Gleanings from Hindu Scriptures- Part 2

Gleanings from Hindu Scriptures- Part 3

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