Hinduism and Free Speech

Isvara, the Supreme Self

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay examines the importance of speech in Hinduism, and whether it approves free speech or unrestrained speech.

Free speech is a western political concept which is now a part of many democracies all over the world. The spread of internet and the growing popularity of social media created many problems in countries where freedom of speech is a constitutional right. Social media companies themselves are under fire from the government from one side and from the public from the other for taking or not taking action against those who misuse their freedom or violate the norms set by those companies or engage in sociopathic behavior. In this scenario, let us examine whether the concept of free speech exists in Hinduism and whether it approves freedom of speech at all, if so under what circumstances.

We have to begin the discussion with the major premise that Hinduism does not approve the concept of freedom of speech. In Hinduism, speech is considered an organ of action (karmendriya). Just as it emphasizes the importance of restraining all the organs in the body for liberation, with regard to speech also its emphasis is upon self-restraint and righteous conduct. The restraint has to be practiced from within for personal, social and spiritual reasons as a responsible, Dharma (law) abiding member of society rather than in deference to an external entity such as the government or an institution.

In other words, Hinduism does not approve freedom of speech just for the sake of honoring individual freedom. It approves personal freedom within the boundaries set by the principles of Dharma and karma and the prescribed code of conduct, which may vary from person to person, depending upon their duties, circumstances and social status. Since it recognizes three main sources of karma namely speech, the mind, and the body, it is wary of the evils and the consequential suffering and violence which may arise from unrestrained and unethical speech.

In establishing the social norms and the code of conduct for right speech, Hindu scriptures follow this broader approach. They advise people to observe the same rules and restraints (yamas and niyamas) in case of speech which they are expected to follow in other areas. They suggest that speech must be truthful, nonviolent, virtuous, pure and conducive to one's spiritual and material wellbeing. For people to prosper and uphold Dharma, speech must be rooted in righteous conduct. Through righteous speech they achieve the broader ideals of Dharma and the chief aims of human life (Purusharthas) and contribute to order and regularity. Since everyone is responsible for their own conduct and karma, they emphasize self-control and restraint in speech.

The Hindu Dharmshastras follow these broader principles in establishing norms for righteous speech. For example, the Manusmriti, which regulated the lives of upper caste Hindus for centuries, identifies 11 organs in the body including speech which need to be restrained since they have the tendency to run wild as horses when they move among the alluring and sensual objects. It declares (2.160) that he whose speech is pure and perfectly guarded gains the same reward (liberation) as the knowledge of the Upanishads grants. Hence, it advises people not to use harsh words to cause pain to others even in pain, harm them through injurious thoughts or deeds or utter words to instill fear in them since it will prevent them from going to heaven. According to Manu, speech is reflective of a person’s character and essential nature (4.256). His purity, sincerity, virtue and conduct are determined by his adherence to truth. Hence, truth matters in case of speech also. If one wishes to lead a good life and reap the rewards of good deeds, his speech should never depart or deviate from truth or contain falsehood.

Manu also suggests that one can avoid speaking truth only when there is a pious reason (8.103) such as if it may hurt or harm others or lead to violence and injury. In line with the Vedic tradition which holds that pure speech which is righteous and in harmony with the will of God has the power to create preserve and destroy, Manu declares that all things in nature are controlled by speech only. Speech is their cause, and from speech they proceed. Therefore, speech must reflect divine virtues and lead to peace and happiness. According to him, speech is the measure of character and conduct. He who is dishonest in speech is dishonest in everything. Since the fruit of karma may arise from the triple sources of the mind, from speech and from the body (12.3), one should exercise restraint in all the three and avoid sinful consequences. He who gains control over them becomes a triple-master (tridandin) and excels in virtue. Manu prescribes rules for righteous speech for all classes of people, including students. He suggests that students should exercise restraint in speech in front of their teachers. They should not utter their names, whether in their presence or absence, without using their honorific titles. Further, under no circumstances they should justly or unjustly criticize them or defame them or ridicule them (2.199-201).

One can find similar instructions in the Vedas also. They identify speech as a divine gift and an aspect of Brahman. Brahman is its source, and breath is its support. The Chandogya Upanishad (1.1.2) declares speech as the essence of a human being. Through the sacred chants such as the Gayatri it protects all that exists here (3.12.1). Speech is important because a sacrifice can be conducted in two ways only, by the mind and by speech (4.16.1). Speech brings to life the sacred sounds that are hidden in the Vedas and the sacred syllables such as Aum and Hrim. Through speech only the Vedic hymns travel through space and reach the heaven. Through speech we come to know and understand God's creation (7.2.1). Through speech only the Vedas are known and heard. Through speech only knowledge of all types is gained or disseminated including the knowledge of the right and the wrong, true and the untrue, good and the bad, and the pleasant and the unpleasant. The Upanishad contains several references to speech. One of them suggests that speech is better when it is controlled by its master, the mind; and better still if it is controlled by right intention, will or resolve, intelligence, meditation and knowledge (vijnanam), apart from the mind (7.5-7). Elsewhere it states that speech becomes excellent when one speaks truth. One speaks truth when one has knowledge (vijnanam). One has knowledge when one thinks and understands with discernment. One thinks and understands with discernment when one has faith in the knowledge which he learns from his teachers. Faith arises by serving them (7.16-20).

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the earliest and largest Upanishads, also recognizes the importance of speech and contains several references to it. It states that speech is Brahman for all names and words since they arise from speech only. All the Vedas become one in speech (4.5.12). In one of the chapters Yajnavalkya equates speech with intelligence and explains its importance to Janaka in the following words, “A friend or relation is discerned by speech only. By speech only, O emperor, are known the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvangirasa, (Vedic) history, Puranas, Brahma vidyas, the Upanishads, slokas, sutras, elaborations, commentaries, the knowledge of making offerings, oblations and the offering of food and drinks, knowledge of this world and the next world, and all beings. Speech, O emperor, is verily the supreme Brahman. Speech does not desert him, who, knowing thus, worships speech. All beings come to him. He even becomes a god and goes to the gods.”

According to the same Upanishad (1.3) the mind, speech and breath were created by Prajapati for himself. Since speech and mind have the power to manifest everything, mantras and samans derive their power of manifestation from the mind and speech only. Even Brahman used mind and speech in the beginning of creation to manifest everything that exists here (1.2.5). The Upanishad also suggests (1.3.2) that speech is vulnerable to selfish desires and evil thoughts. Since it can be used for both good and evil, it cannot be left to itself but needs to be controlled by a higher power, breath1, which is its support and inner controller (3.6.17) and which cannot be pierced by evil. When speech (brihati) is thus controlled, it becomes enlightened as the speech of Brihaspati, the teacher of gods (1.3.20). When it carries speech beyond death through liberation, speech becomes a purifier as fire (1.3.12). It means that the speech of a liberated person who transcends death or controls his breath has a purifying effect upon those who listen to him.

Thus, it can be seen that in Hinduism the emphasis is not upon freedom of speech but upon self-control, right speech, virtuous speech and restrained speech. People may exercise their freedom to speak, but they must be wary of the karma, and the suffering which may arise from it. Speech must be restrained by the mind and the mind by intelligence, knowledge, virtue and the laws of Dharma. However, the same rules do not necessarily apply to the enlightened souls who conquer their minds and bodies and achieve liberation. Since they are guided by discerning wisdom (buddhi) and abide in truth and since they attain oneness with Truth (Sat) itself, whatever they say or validate becomes truth (pramana) by itself. Hence, they may speak freely or establish new truths.

Speech distinguishes the wise ones from the ignorant and deluded ones. Through it the wise ones achieve name and fame, knowledge, peace and prosperity. It is also the means by which they can influence others and guide them on the righteous path. Great sages such as Narada or Sauti (who is mentioned in the Mahabharata) commanded attention and respect because they were intelligent and enlightened and accomplished in speech. A person is known to others through speech. Hence, with knowledge and discretion he must ensure that the words he speaks reflect the truth of him. The law books prescribe several rules to ensure that people abide in Dharma through righteous speech. They recommend restraint and caution.

Hinduism affirms that speech is divine since Brahman is its source. Speech is superior to senses because it travels through space (akasa) and can go beyond this world to reach other worlds. It is with the help of speech that people perform sacrifices and utter prayers to communicate with gods and earn a place in the ancestral heaven or the immortal heaven. It is through speech that they express their devotion, knowledge, faith, resolve, purity and sincerity and cultivate nearness to God. Since Brahman is its source, it is an important aspect of not only creation but also human personality. It also plays an important role in his life, helping him perform his obligatory duties and achieve the four chief aims namely Dharam, Artha, Kama and Moksha. It is the means for humans to gain peace, prosperity, happiness and liberation upon earth. Just as discretion and self-restraint are important in every aspect of human conduct, they are equally important in case of speech also. Just as any other action, speech has its own consequences.

Suggestions for Further Reading

1. In the earliest Upanishads breath may refer to the Self (Atman) since one the definitions of the Self is the breathing one. Prana is the essence of the body and so is the eternal Self which resides in it.

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