Photograph of Anil Chawla

Author - Anil Chawla

A philosophical article that analyses the meaning of Truth.

Four lions looking in four directions and the motto of "Satyamev Jayate" inscribed below the lions - this is the emblem of Government of India. Indians see it everyday on the currency that they use. The motto of "Satyamev Jayate" keeps announcing that "Truth is the only one that wins".

The immediate question that comes to one's mind is "What is Truth?". On 20 November, 1921 Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Navjivan "Beyond these limited truths, however, there is one absolute Truth which is total and all embracing. But it is indescribable, because it is God. Or say, rather, God is Truth." A few years later writing a letter to Naraindas Gandhi (July 22, 1930) he wrote, "In fact it is more correct to say that Truth is God than to say that God is Truth." Gandhi's Truth was very flexible. He could change it as per his own sweet will. In Navjivan, November 1921, he wrote, "Truth includes non-violence, brahmacharya, non-stealing and other rules." Two decades later when British were forcibly recruiting millions of Indian young men for being fed as cannon fodder into the second world war, Gandhi refused to launch a satyagraha against this. Violence of second world war was not a deviation from Truth, but killing of a single white man during Quit India movement was an unpardonable falling from the path of Truth. That was Gandhi's Truth.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote at many places that all except Truth is unreal and false. If one follows this stream of reasoning to its logical end, everything that one speaks is essentially false, since every individual is unreal and false. Yet, Gandhi insisted on Truth in speech and would take very seriously someone speaking a lie even by mistake or even for a noble cause. The fact is that Gandhi's Truth was so mysterious, magical, mystical, out-of-this world substance that no one except possibly he himself understood it to any degree.

As long as Mahatma lived, he was the only authorized official source of Truth in India. After his departure from this world, Vinoba Bhave unsuccessfully tried to carry on with Gandhi's experiments with Truth. Today there is no vendor of Truth in India. Of course, there are no buyers either.

Has Truth really become unnecessary and irrelevant in today's times? Is the grand motto of "Truth Alone Wins" (Satyamev Jayate) just a dead body lying below the four lions who are just waiting to use it to satiate their hunger? Is this motto a false albeit smart one-liner coined to fool gullible common men? Surely, all these questions must be answered in the negative. The problem is neither with Truth nor with the national motto. Problem is with our understanding of the word "Truth".

It is true that for more than half a century, the meaning assigned to the word "Truth" by MK Gandhi has been the acceptable meaning of the word in India. However, now at least for the new generation, the Gandhian concept of Truth is slowly fading away. The contradictions of Gandhi's philosophy are also becoming too glaring. The time seems to be ripe for a new philosophical definition of Truth. In fact, it is not that Truth needs to be redefined. It is just that the word needs to be shorn of its Gandhian baggage of mysticism.

There is nothing mystical about Truth. It is a very simple concept. Whenever we interact with the world, we make an image of the world based on the signals that we receive through our senses. If the image corresponds with the world, the image is Truth or else it is false. For example, let us consider a wooden table lying in a room. One person called it a table. The other person called it a structure made of some organic material. Someone with speech problems drew a line diagram of the table. Fourth person was blind. He called it a big box with a flat top. Obviously the images formed in the minds of the first three were true while the blind man's image was not true.

Two points about the above example -

  1. The object or the world is neither true nor false; it is the mental image that is true or false and

  2. Different images of the same object may be true.

A decision can be taken about the truth or falsity of an image based on proof or evidence. There can be a debate about the admissibility of various types of proofs. Our senses give us different types of signals. Some of these may be more acceptable than some others. Hearing a roar is not as strong a proof as seeing a lion is. In some cases even eyes may mislead. For example, at night one may mistake a rope to be a snake. Yet, senses remain our primary source of proof.

The Truth which is obtained by sensory evidence combined with proper use of wisdom and intellect is science. One who believes in Truth cannot ever negate or deny science. On the other hand someone who believes in a holy book will sooner or later come to a point where there will be a conflict between the book and science. There has never been any opposition to science in India since the Indian tradition is primarily based on search of Truth rather than on any one or more books.

The next question in search for Truth arises about the admissibility of evidence which is of extra-sensory nature. This has been a point of debate for a long time in India. Some thinkers accepted the existence of God based on the experiences of the soul or the inner being. While some others rejected the existence of God because their epistemology (theory of knowledge) did not accept any such evidence. Both have been well accepted in Indian tradition.

Another important facet of Truth relates to the existence of man as a part of nature and society. Just as one has to put on different types of clothes based on the season, everyone has to align and coordinate one's life with the realities of the nature and the world. For achieving such a coordination, one has to first understand the reality or in other words arrive at the Truth. For centuries, thinkers, philosophers, moralists, social scientists and environmentalists have tried to understand the laws governing society and nature. Based on their understanding of Truth, they tried to guide human beings to live in harmony with Truth. It is just natural that this harmonious relation will mean diverse lifestyles based on different time-place-circumstance realities and also based on differing natures of different persons. For example, there are some who need to wear hardly any woolens even in extreme winter while some others will put on a coat at the slightest hint of a fall in temperature. For both categories the time-place-circumstance realities are the same but the nature of individuals is different.

Every individual must choose his path of harmony based on his perceptions of the realities of external world as well as of his own self. If his perceptions are true, his path will be the path of truth. A few examples will illustrate the point. A person sitting in front of an air-conditioner forgot that it was scorching hot outside; he felt cold and assumed it was winter; he put on some woolens and went out. The image in his mind was false, so he suffered. Similarly a person misjudged his own aptitude and chose to become a lawyer instead of pursuing a career in science, for which he had the aptitude. Again a case of following the path that is not based on Truth. A man marries his sister and gets children having serious genetic problems. This is a case of ignoring the laws of nature regarding reproduction based on the wrong perception that such laws do not matter. Each of the above paths is based on falsity and hence leads to an inharmonious relation causing sorrow and pain.

It must be admitted that it is not easy to understand this aspect of Truth. The search for truth in science as well as in matters concerning harmonious life has been going on for times immemorial and will probably continue for all times to come.

Truth, as science, as experience of the soul and as the basis for harmony with the world is an all encompassing reality that transcends the limited truth of Gandhi. A seeker and follower of such a Truth does not even hesitate to speak a lie if necessary for defending Truth, just as Krishna did and made others do all through his life. It is for this Truth that the sages of ancient India said "Satyamev Jayate".


29 December 2001

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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