Truth According to Hinduism

Truth or Sathyam

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the meaning, concept, importance and practice of truth and truthfulness (Satyam) in Hinduism with specific reference to the Vedas, the Upanishads and Dharmashastras.

Truth has a great significance in Hinduism, as an aspect of Brahman, a characteristic of existence, the support of creation, a quality of gods, moral virtue, philosophical concept, spiritual practice, instruction, and the personification of Dharma (Law) and Rta (Order).

Truth is divinity itself. Brahman is Truth personified. Devotees worship Lord Vishnu as Satyanarayana, the Lord of Truth. Shiva is pure (shivam), free from the impurities (malas) of egoism, attachments, and delusion. Hence, he is a Truth Being and eternally pure (Sada Shiva). Brahma's creative power arises from the purity of his consciousness, chastity and austerity. Hence, the Prasna Upanishad (1.15) declares that Truth is established in Brahma, besides austerity and chastity.

Existence is sat, the true. Nonexistence is asat, the untrue. For the mind what is visible is sat and what is invisible, asat. Supreme Brahman is neither sat nor asat. He is one, without qualities, dualities, and attributes. However, at the beginning of creation, he manifests as Isvara, the lord of the universe, in the purity of Nature. Isvara is sat, the truth being, who is made up of the purest (suddha) sattva.

Thus, in its essence truth is purity. In Nature the quality of sattva manifests as purity and truth. It is by practicing truth that we cultivate sattva, overcome impurities of rajas and tamas and become pure like Isvara. When we are pure with the predominance of sattva, we discern truth and reflect truth. When we are truthful and firmly established in truth, we become one with Brahman, the true Being. We become free (mukta) from the cycle of births and deaths and ascend to the world of Truth.

From the purity of sattva arises truthfulness, clarity in thinking, discernment (buddhi), mental brilliance (medhas), detachment (vairagya), knowledge of the Self (atma-jnana) and freedom from delusion and bondage (moksha). Beings are subject to delusion and ignorance when their purity (sattva) is mixed up with other two gunas, namely rajas and tamas. Hence, the scriptures emphasize the need to cultivate purity through austerities, restraints, observances, and other spiritual practices.

Thus, truth and truthfulness form the core values of Hindu religious and spiritual practice. The Vedas declare that Truth is the support of the mortal world. Rta (Order), Dharma (Law), and Satyam (Truth) are the triple guardians of creation who keep the worlds free from chaos. They also personify the triple deities (Trimurthis), Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. By establishing discipline (order) in the mind and body, practicing dharma (obligatory duties) in daily life, and abiding in truth in personal conduct, one overcomes death and achieves liberation.

The meaning of truth

In Hinduism, truth has a broader meaning. Literally speaking, the word satya means true, real, genuine, honest, sincere, the world of Brahman or the highest world (satyalok), an epoch (satya-yug), and water (life support). It also represents any divinity or being who personifies truth, character, and purity. Hence, in literature it is used to denote chaste and pious people, especially women like Sita, Draupadi, Satyavathi, Satyabhama, Durga, Sati, etc. In the body, the Self is the highest, eternal, immutable truth. The senses, breath, mind, intelligence, and speech are also aspects of Truth. However, they are partial truths only. Breath is their lord, who is impervious to evil, while the rest are vulnerable to falsehood due to the influence of evil. Hence, restraint is advised in their use.

In the whole existence, Truth is the protector and guardian of life. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (5.5.1), sage Yajnavalkya explains the meaning of the word Satyam. He states that in the beginning of creation when Prajapathi created the gods, they worshipped Brahman, the true Being, as Satyam. That true being, Satyam, has three syllables, “sa,” “ti” and “yam.” Sa and yam are true. The middle syllable, "ti," is untrue. The untrue is enclosed on both sides by Truth. Hence, Truth predominates in the mortal world and presides over it as its lord. The explanation is symbolic, rather than phonetic or etymological. “Sa” is sat, or Purusha, the manifested Brahman. “Yam” is Prakriti, or that which has movement or force, or that which goes forth (ya). Both are eternal truths and indestructible. What lies in between them is “ti,” their opposite, the untrue, which is a reference to death and mortality or beingness.

Etymologically, we do not know the true origins of the word, satyam. However, it seems that it was derived from the word "sat," which means being, existence, true, high, exalted, good, real, virtuous, right, excellent, etc. As stated before, sat is the name of Brahman in his manifested state. The word sattva, which has a close affinity with satyam, was also probably derived from sat. Sattva is a quality of Nature, which is commonly associated with gods, pure beings, virtuous people and immortal souls. It means existence, truth, purity, nature, and essence. In Nature, truth is reflected in sattva only. If sattva is suppressed, a person falls into sinful ways as he loses discretion and resorts to falsehood, deception and immorality.

The philosophical meaning of truth

Philosophically, in Hinduism truth has a much broader meaning. It not only means speaking truth, being true to oneself, and abiding by truth but also seeing truth, perceiving truth, and discerning truth. A truthful person must be a practitioner of truth (satyapanam) in word and deed. None can practice it unless, one is pure, free from impurities, and can mentally reflect the reality of the world without distortions.

A pure mind is like a placid lake, with pure water, in which things are reflected truthfully. By nature, human beings are subject to delusion, modifications and ignorance. Hence, they cannot discern truths about themselves or the world. They can do so only when they are mentally and physically pure and their minds are free from modifications and instability. Besides practicing truth in all aspects of life and in every possible manner, a truthful person should be a lover or seeker of truth (satyakam), who supports true causes, truthful people and truth itself. The scriptures suggest that for self-purification and inner transformation one should practice truth as an austerity (satyatapas), avoid falsehood and become a true follower of truth (satyavadi).

Truthfulness in spiritual practice

Satyakama Jabala, the great Vedic seer, attained fame because he was a lover and seeker of truth. It is stated that as a child when he approached his teacher, Gautama Haridrumata, for initiation and instruction in the Vedas, the teacher wanted to know his family name. In those days it was customary for a teacher to teach the Vedas only to the children of well-known and well established Brahmana and Kshatriya families who had traditionally specialized for generations in the knowledge and practice of the Vedas.

Satyakama went home to enquire from his mother his father’s name. Her name was Jabala. She replied that she did not know who it was because in her youthful days she worked in many households and had no idea who fathered him. She advised him to use her name, Jabala, instead. Satyakama went back to his teacher and told him exactly what he heard from his mother. His teacher was impressed by his truthfulness. He said, "None but a true Brahmana would speak like this. Arrange for the fuel, I shall initiate you. You have not deviated from truth."

The story of Satyakama illustrates the importance of truth in learning, in life and in spiritual practice. Students were supposed to practice not only celibacy but also truthfulness. Speaking falsehood before a revered teacher was a mortal sin with far reaching negative consequences for oneself and the family. Initiation meant initiation into the study and practice of truth, and the truth was the knowledge of the Vedas and related subjects. Initiation into truth was a precondition in those days to acquire knowledge, officiate rituals, or practice spirituality.

Even today, in almost all teacher traditions, as part of their initiation, spiritual aspirants have to undertake the vow of truthfulness, apart from other vows. The tradition seems to be very ancient as is evident from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.9.24), which states, “The one who takes initiation (diksha) into spiritual life has to take the vow of speaking truth. Hence, by truth only initiation is supported.”

For liberation, truth is the raft, the paddle, the guide and the support. The tradition gives so much importance to the practice of truth because only by truth that the Truth of existence can be reached. Both Brahman and Self are eternal truths, and none can attain them without being truthful and without practicing truthfulness. Only by truth that Truth can be reached. The path of liberation (muktimarg) is the path of truth (satyamarg). It can be travelled only by those who practice truthfulness and abide by truth.

The Upanishads affirm this truth repeatedly, as can be seen in the subsequent discussion. For example, Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.5) states that the Self is attained by truth, austerity, right knowledge, and continuous practice of celibacy. Chandogya Upanishad (3.17.4) considers it one of the highest virtues, apart from austerity, charity, straightforwardness and non-injury. As stated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.3.28), from asat (falsehood) to sat (truth), from darkness (tamas) to light (jyoti), and from death (mrityu) to immortality (amritatvam), this is the forward progression of living beings upon earth, and what humans should aspire to achieve in their lives.

Truthfulness is one of the restraints (yamas) in all religious and spiritual traditions of Indian origin. It is one of the five yamas mentioned in the Yoga tradition. The practice of truthfulness consists of speaking truth, discerning truth and not speaking falsehood. According to Vyasa one should ascertain truth through perception, inference, and verbal testimony, and having ascertained it one should speak truth only for the benefit of all creatures.

As stated before, the practice of truthfulness has to be complete in all respects, both in word and deed, at all levels, and in every possible way. However, it should not interfere with the practice of nonviolence. In other words, one should speak truth so long as it does not cause hurt, injury or grievous harm to others.

The law books suggest that kindness and truthfulness should go together. One may speak harmless and pleasant truths that are kind and agreeable to others, but one should not speak harsh and hurtful truths that are unkind and disagreeable. At the same time, one should never speak falsehood, even if it is the most pleasant and agreeable. It means, when you cannot speak to truth, you should better remain silent rather than hurting or harming someone by speaking it. It also means it is better to remain silent rather than speaking lies or boasting about oneself.

The practice of truthfulness leads to the predominance of sattva, whereby the mind becomes stable and pure and intelligence becomes sharp and pointed, leading to mental stability, insight into the nature of things, equanimity, discernment, and self-absorption. When the consciousness (chitta) becomes pure and transparent, it reflects the intelligence of the Self form within and the light of the objects from without. Freed from darkness and filled with the purity and radiance of truth, it becomes the true abode of gods, virtue and wisdom. When gods are active inside, truth prevails and light shines and spreads in all directions.

Part 2 - References to Truth in Hindu scriptures

Truthfulness is one of the highest and most important spiritual practice in Hinduism. It is one of the highest austerities, which is vital to the purification of the mind and body and cleansing of past karma. It is by the path of truth and purity that one ascends to the highest world of Brahman, which is essentially the world of truth (Satyalok). Those who abide in truth are protected by truth. Eventually, they are also protected from death.

The Vedas

The Vedic scriptures reflect the importance of truth in human life. The Vedas themselves embody truth. Hence, they are considered inviolable and indisputable and as instruments of verbal testimony reliable to ascertain metaphysical truths. The Rigveda contains many references to truth. In one of the hymns (2.14), it affirms that Truth proceeds from gods, and truth is the base that supports the earth (10.85).

Discerning truth from falsehood is important, because it keeps the world abide by truth. The practice of truth is essentially the practice of dharma because dharma in its essence is truth and vice versa. The Creation Hymn (10.190) reveals that Dharma and Truth were also the first eternal realities to manifest during creation. The Sun, as the symbol of Brahman, the golden germ (Hiranyagarbha) and the first born, embodies truth and radiates truth. Truth is the essence of the Sun. It is the Sun’s extended light (10.105).

The Vedas recognize truth as divine, sacred, protector and upholder of dharma, eternal, indestructible, pious, purifier of the mind and body, remover of sins, and liberator of bound souls. The identify Brahman as the upholder of truth, protector of truth, source of truth, and truth itself. One of the hymns in the Rigveda contains the earliest notions of truth as a moral and spiritual imperative for liberation. It states that the ships of truth carry pious people across the mortal world, which the wicked cannot cross.

The Vedas also extol gods as truth beings and personifications of truth. The gods of Rigvedic hymns are lords of truth. As the guardians (dikpalas) and upholders of truth, order, and dharma in all directions, they are pleased by truth and respond to those who speak truth, abide by the laws, and make their offerings truthfully. They not only protect the world and the worshippers of truth from the falsehood of demons but also destroy the enemies of truth and the worshippers of evil. If the gods become weak in the body of a person, evil tendencies manifests and he falls into evil ways.

According to the Rigveda Indra is changeless in truth (8.50), son of truth (8.58) and was born of truth (4.19). Agni burns the feet of those who corrupt truth with falsehood (10.87), which is an oblique reference to how Vedic people used fire to determine whether a person was speaking truth. Varuna the god of righteousness, discriminates the truth and falsehood of humans and rewards or punishes people accordingly. (7.49).

The Vedas also declare that the Vedic sages (rishis) practiced truth as an austerity. They were listeners of truth and seers of truth. By opening their minds to the eternal truths of the highest heaven, they brought the knowledge down to the earth for the benefit of the world. The source of Truth is Brahman, and the world of Brahman is located in the Sun. Hence in the mortal world, truth becomes an extension of the Sun, just as the light that radiates from him.

Therefore, students of the Vedas eat their food, with their faces turned towards the east, after making an offering to the Sun, while householders offer their daily oblations to the same deity as part of their daily sacrifices. Whether one utters the sacred syllable Aum, chants the Riks, sings the Samans, practices sacrifices or performs austerities, their ultimate object is Brahman, the silent recipient of all offerings, and the highest Truth.


The Upanishads are books of wisdom, which contain the secret knowledge of the Self and Brahman. Since they are eternal truths, you will find in them several references to truth and the practice of truthfulness. As the end part of the Vedas, the Upanishads contain the ritual, spiritual and philosophical truths about liberation, and how to practice it, sustain it and attain it. Since they contain the essence of Truth, which is synonymous with Brahman, the Vedic seers considered teaching the knowledge of Upanishads an instruction in truth.

In the Upanishads in many instances you will also find that before beginning their instruction, teachers customarily invoke gods through prayers, affirming that they will speak truth (satyam vadisyam) in a proper manner (rtam vadisyam) and that the truth which they have spoken shall protect them and the students. At times while stating a particular truth, they also affirm that what they have stated is truth (tad etat satyam), or the truth of truths (satyasya satyam iti).

The Upanishads contain the secret knowledge of Truth because they reveal the knowledge of Brahman (Supreme Self) and Atman (Individual Self), who are eternal truths and lords of their respective spheres. Immortality is achieved by knowing them and becoming one with them. For example, the Kaushitaki Upanishad (4.5) declares that whoever meditates upon Brahman or the Self becomes truth itself. By knowing the Self one gains truth (2.5). The same is affirmed in the Taittiriya Upanishad (2.1.1) also, which states that he who knows Brahman as truth becomes one with him.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.1.4) one is advised to worship the Self as truth only. The Upanishad (1.4.14) also equates truth to dharma by stating that there is no distinction between the two. “Dharma is but truth only. Therefore, when a person speaks truth, he speaks dharma.” In another verse (5.15.1) in the Upanishad, which is repeated in the Isa Upanishad (15) also, the seeker, who is about to depart from this world, invokes Pusan by saying as a lover of truth he should be allowed to see the face of truth, which is concealed by a golden vessel (the heart or the subtle body).

The Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.5) emphasizes the importance of truth in spiritual practice and liberation by stating that the Self is attained by truth, austerity, right knowledge, and continuous practice of celibacy. Truth is imperative for right knowledge, self-purification, and liberation. The next verse (3.1.6), which is stated below, emphatically declares that truth alone triumphs (satyameva jayate), and only by truth one can go by the path of gods to the world of immortality, the supreme treasure of truth.

satyam eva jayate nanrtam satyena pantha vitato devayanah;
yenakramanty rsayo hy aptakama yatra tat satyasya paramam nidhanam

“Truth alone wins (the Self), but not untruth. By truth is laid out the path of the immortal gods, by which the sages, who are without any desires, ascend to where that supreme treasure of Truth is.”

The Dharmashastras or the Law Books

The Dharmashastras are law books or books of rules regarding duty and virtuous conduct. In the Vedic world they regulated the conduct of people in society according to their status, caste and profession. They are no more followed in today's world, but have a historical value as important sources of information to study the past and draw conclusions about how people lived in the past and conducted their lives. In they past they helped kings, village elders, and local chiefs to dispense justice.

Even today, a few orthodox families and teachers may look to them for guidance and inspiration or to settle doctrinal or eclectic matters. The texts draw a direct correlation between truth and dharma as interrelated practices. They recognize speaking truth as one of the austerities and part of the practice of dharma. According to Manusmriti, in the first epoch (Krita Yuga) both dharma and truth walked on four legs, but in the succeeding three ages they both lost one leg each for each of them. Because of that the lifespan of human beings also became considerably reduced and so also their duties. With the progressive decline of dharma and truth, society also becomes increasingly disorderly.

Manu states that truth is a purifier. The body is cleansed by water, but the internal organ (antahkarana), or consciousness, is purified by truth only. He prescribes the practice of truthfulness as a penance for those who violate the code of conduct, or break the established order and the practice of dharma. His approach to truth is practical and considerate. Since truth can hurt others if spoken indiscriminately, he suggests that truth should be pleasant but not disagreeable or hurtful, nor should one engage in agreeable untruths, however pleasant they may be.

While Manu stated that a teacher should take delight in truthfulness and respect the sacred laws, another law giver, Gautama, stipulated that a student should never speak falsehood about his teacher. Such a person destroys himself and his family for seven generations. The law books do not condone anyone who violates truth. According to Manusmriti, a Brahmana should never lie after performing a sacrifice. He who speaks untruths to virtuous men is the most sinful person. A student of Veda should also abide by truth. He should utter only those words that are purified by truth. The practice of truthfulness applies to kings also. A king should be just in his punishment and abide by truth while dispensing justice. No one who enters his court should speak untruth before him. One must either speak truth or not come into the presence of a king at all.

In dispensing justice, says Manu, one should pay attention to truth. A witness who deposes truthfully in a proceeding attains the highest worlds, but he who deposes falsely in the assembly of honorable men incurs great sin. Upon his death, he falls headlong into hell. “By truthfulness a witness is purified, through truthfulness his merit grows, truth must, therefore, be spoken by all witnesses.”

However, as stated before speaking truth should not lead to physical harm or hurt. If the declaration of truth by a witness is going to result in the death of any person, he may better speak falsehood rather than truth, because in such cases, falsehood is preferable to truth. Manu declares that speaking falsehood is one of the four kinds of verbal sins, while Gautama excuses those untruths, which are spoken by very old people, infants, mad men, or by those who are angry, intoxicated, deluded or very fearful.

Great sayings about truth from the Upanishads

The Upanishads contain few important statements (mahavakyas) about truth and the practice of truth, which are useful as mental hooks for meditation and contemplation. Some of them are reproduced below.

  1. Brahman is truth, consciousness and bliss (sat chit anandam), Vajrasuchika (9).
  2. Brahman is truth, knowledge and bliss (satya jnana anandam), Paingala (1.2).
  3. Brahman is Truth or Sat, (Many Upanishads).
  4. That which is true is the sun up above (tat satyam asau sa adityah), Brihad (5.5.2).
  5. Truth alone triumphs (satyameva jayate), Mundaka (3.1.6)
  6. From untruth lead me towards truth (asato ma sad gamaya), Brihad (1.3.28).
  7. That is the True. That is the Self. That you are (tat satyam sa atma tat tvam asi), Chandogya (6.8.7).
  8. But, truly, he is an excellent speaker, who excels in speaking truth, Chandogya (7.16.1).
  9. Truly, when one understands, then one speaks the truth. (yada vai vijanatyatha satyam vadati), Chandogya (7.17.1).
  10. Speak Truth, practice Dharma (satyam vada, dharmam chara), Taittiriya (1.11.1).

Truth in the Age of Asuras

We live in the age of Kali Yuga. In this age of darkness when the Asuras rise and rule the world, any discussion about truth or truthfulness may not seem an appealing subject to many. The world is today ruled not by truth but untruth. Dharma has declined so much that we do not even know what it truly means. Not many people are interested in knowing truth or exploring it. Rather, they project as truth whatever they know, which is not necessarily true. In today's world, you hardly have any incentive to speak truth. Even if you want to, there is so much misinformation and falsehood that you may not even correctly discern truth. What can anyone see in darkness? The same is true with regard to the age of darkness. You cannot discern much.

Our civilization has reached such a critical point that many people have perfected the art of not only speaking lies and half-truths but also manufacturing truths that confuse and distract people or subliminally influence their behavior. For many it is a source of livelihood, name and fame. The Media excels in presenting partial truths as complete truths, and personal opinions as indisputable facts. Since human beings have a weakness to obey authority, many wear the mantle of authority as academicians, leaders, experts and scholars to press their points and influence public opinion.

The television serial, Chernobyl, succinctly sums up this situation with these introductory words.

"What is the cost of lies? It is not that we mistake them for truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize truth at all."

In a such a world it is therefore very difficult to discern truth from falsehood. However, as a starting point, at least one should try to be truthful to oneself and keep the mind clear about the happenings. One need not have to always speak truth but one should know what is not true or what is false. As the law books affirm, one may withhold truth if it is going to hurt others, but it is important not to withhold truth form oneself or worship falsehood. Knowing truth, in this age, is far more important. At least, you will not be deceived, misled, or victimized by unscrupulous people.

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