Satya is not merely speaking the plain truth [but to say] that which is beneficial to all beings. – Yoga Yājñavalkya 1.53
Satya (सत्य), the second yama, focuses on truthfulness, abiding by the truth beneficial to all beings. One should practice being true (and consistent with reality) in one’s thought, speech and action.1 This, however, is only the simple definition. In all honesty, it’s actually much deeper. Truth can also be a controversial topic due to the inherent differences between subjective and objective truths. One man’s truth may not be another’s. Satya, however, as defined by classical texts2, points to that objective, universal truth. Not only our own human collective truth, but the truth of what we share with all living beings, even non-living objects. The true inner truth jives with the true, universal truth. We are but threads interwoven into a single piece of fabric.
No, I don’t know what she would do if she learned the truth. The truth! The truth! Look, Tita, the simple truth is that the truth does not exist; it all depends on a person’s point of view. For example, in your case, the truth could be that Rosaura married Pedro, showing no loyalty, not caring a damn that you really loved him, that’s the truth, isn’t it? – Like Water for Chocolate
In reality, seeing through the veil of the Maya, there is no object. The same subject that we experience is the same subject that resides in all things. So, then, to evade your own truth is to evade the Truth of the universal consciousness. I think awareness of this is key.
The real knower is the witnessing awareness from which the subject arises and in which it rests. The yogi is, however, always mindful of that witnessing awareness which alone is the subject of every thing, which is always a subject and never an object. – Vijñānabhairava 106, commentary by Jaideva Singh
The True Truth
Even beyond the ideas of objective and subjective truths, I believe there are two additional views of truth. The first lies in the laws of the manifestations of the realm in which we live; the second being what underlies this realm, what is hidden beneath/behind the veil. Satya, in the latter view, allows us to see past the illusions of this world in which we have been incarnated.
Truth as it lives in the material is what many (or most) of us are familiar with. If you imagine yourself as a tiny part of a larger system, like a intestinal cell that does its part to support the digestive system of a human being, you’re not only part of the intestinal collective, but the digestive system also works with other systems to make a human “work.” To be true to your role as a cell in the human body, you have a job to do. To not be truthful to your existence and your collective harms the progress of not only the digestive system, but also the human being. Using this example, Satya is much like being as “true” like a true (straight and perfectly functional) wheel or arrow. If you happen to be a cancerous cell, then yes… being true to your nature could harm the human. Is that the human’s karma, the karma of the collective, or your own? It’s all the same, right? So to save the collective does one stop the cancerous cell? What if the person hosting the cancer is harmful to the collective? Is it better to let the cell multiply? The truth also, I believe, dictates what happens. Like living currents, paths that have formed between all living things, paths can change according to the conditions of the environment – and they structure themselves according to the dynamics of the moment, the present, which is where the purest, most definitive form of the truth lies.
It is by the satya mantra, the true thought expressed in the rhythm of the truth, that the hidden light is found and the Dawn brought to birth: gudham jyotih pitaro anvavindan, satyamantra ajanayann usasam (VII.76.4). – Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda. p. 185
Just as we should be true to the “Norm,” we should also be true to ourselves. For example, not acknowledging our dharma goes against satya. When we don’t follow our dharmas we are, simply, being untrue to ourselves. Dharma signifies behaviors that are considered to be in accord with ṛta, the order that makes life and universe possible.
Swami Muktibodhananda, in his commentary of the Haṭhayōgapradīpikā, adds that, “honesty is something we rarely find in this modzzern world of corruption, and it is definitely something which needs to be cultivated and instilled again. If you make a habit of fooling or cheating others, you start to believe the lies yourself. You are only being dishonest with yourself and not aiming to cheat others for your own personal gain or to discredit them.”
Clearly, lies take shape as false, living truths in ourselves when we create them, and those false truths change us. They modify our realities.
Vijñānabhairava, verse 139, states that “knowing [the 112 dhāraṇās described by Bhairava], one can be a perfect gnostic person.” As Sally Kempton puts it, “every word you speak comes true; you’re not able to say anything that isn’t truth.” Verse 140 continues, “if one is established even in one of these practices, he will become Bhairava in himself.”
Satya mata – truth is my mother. My mother is not my biological mother, but truth. – Shiva Sūtras, commentary by Swami Sukhabodhananda
Ṛgveda offers the earliest discussion of Satya. It is equated with and considered necessary to the concept Ṛta (Sanskrit ऋतं ṛtaṃ), that which is properly joined: order, rule, nature, balance, harmony.3 Ṛta is a force which maintains (or attempts to maintain) cosmic order. In the Vedas it’s a result of Satya4 since it regulates and enables the operation of the universe and everything within it. Satya is considered essential, and without it, the universe and reality falls apart, cannot function. Alternatively, without the presence of chaos the universe likely would not have existed, or grown, at all.
In the Ṛgveda, anṛta and asatya (falsehood) are the opposite, opposing of ṛta and satya. Most philosophies and religions agree that falsehood a form of sin. Ṛgvedic satya is action and speech that is factual, real, true and reverent to ṛta.5 In addition, Vedic satya isn’t merely about one’s past (i.e., the idea of past deeds not going unpunished); it includes the idea of one’s current and future behavior.
Antonio De Nicolás states that, in Ṛgveda, “Satya is the modality of acting in the world of Sat, as the truth to be built, formed or established.”6.
Sri Aurobindo, however, applies his own concerns about the relationship between satya and ṛta:
We have either to divorce the two words satya and ṛta which are closely associated in the Veda or to give a forced sense to ṛta. And throughout we have avoided the natural suggestions pressed on us by the language of the Rishi. – Sri Aurobindo Ghose7
Although objectivity is important, it seems to be agreed upon by those who have studied this much deeply than I have that in no way should satya be translated as any kind of formal agreement between the mind and the objective world. After all, the mind exists in only this illusion. In the Ṛgvedic context, its meaning can only be deduced from the “Norm,” which the ṛta offers for an effective way of practical action.
- Ṛgveda 1.20.4 reflects that the Ṛbhus act according to the Norm in their mantras. They are called truyavah, moving according to the Norm (Rta).
- Ṛgveda 1.105.12: “the Oceans have impelled Rta, the Sun has extended satyam.” In other words, they acted as ruled by the Ṛta (the norm).
- Ṛgveda 6.49.6: “The poets are those with an ear for the Norm and by expressing it (satya) maintain the world and create new ones.”
- Ṛgveda 7.49.3: “King Varuna moves among the waters looking down on those who act according to the truth (satya) or falsehood.”
- Ṛgveda 9.113.4: “Shining with the light of Tra, and doing the exact action (satya) Soma flows for the sake of Indra.”
- Ṛgveda 4.51.7, the Dawn is said to have released its movement from the Ṛta
- Ṛgveda 1.145.5: Agni is called wise because he knows the path of Ṛta and is therefore satya.
- Ṛgveda 7.76.4: The Fathers (pitarah) know the path of Ṛta and speak words that sound true and are effective, because through these words they set the hidden light in movement and give birth to the Dawn.
- Ṛgveda 1.152.1-3: Said of Mitravaruna, those with their thunderous voices bring from the darkness the Dawn, for all beings and as a herald to the Sun.
This “action” that the rashis knew of is the action that flows from the Norm (Ṛta), which itself was born from the sacrifice (yajna) of structured worlds (Sat), which were made manifest through the power (maya) to make possibilities appear hidden…
These ideas directly tie truth to creation. And progress.
Agni is closely related to truth. As the great Sri Aurobindo Ghose translates Ṛgveda’s Hymn to Agni, “Agni is satya, true, because he brings about the true fruit of the sacrifice.”
Ṛgveda suggests that Satya is simply the exact way of action in the way in which Ṛta demands. In other words, acting according to the “norm.” The norm, the “straight and narrow” of the collective, seems to be the path in which the macrocosm and microcosm leads. Straying from that path creates resistance. Remaining on the path (the norm) and going with the flow facilitates progress, creativity, and positivity. That’s how Ṛgveda defines Satya. And it makes sense. This is something that I, personally, have always felt closely connected to. I feel it when I’m going against the grain. Going “with the flow” doesn’t mean giving in and being a cog in the wheel. We all have our roles in the fabric of the collective. We can be independent as Sarasvatī while still abiding by Satya and appeasing Ṛta. Sarasvatī embodies not only Satya, but also creativity, independence, and the pursuit of truth. To my surprise, Ṛgveda actually identifies Sarasvatī, the “Power of the Truth,” in the third hymn of Madhuchchhandas. Sri Aurobindo illuminates:
Inspiration from the Truth purifies by getting rid of all falsehood, for all sin according to the Indian idea is merely falsehood, wrongly inspired emotion, wrongly directed will and action. The central idea of life and ourselves from which we start is a falsehood and all else is falsified by it. Truth comes to us as a light, a voice, compelling a change of thought, imposing a new discernment of ourselves and all around us. Truth of thought creates truth of vision and truth of vision forms in us truth of being, and out of truth of being (satyam) flows naturally truth of emotion, will and action. This is indeed the central notion of the Veda. Saraswati, the inspiration, is full of her luminous plenitudes, rich in substance of thought. She upholds the Sacrifice, the offering of the mortal being’s activities to the divine by awakening his consciousness so that it assumes right states of emotion and right movements of thought in accordance with the Truth from which she pours her illuminations and by impelling in it the rise of those truths which, according to the Vedic Rishis, liberate the life and being from falsehood, weakness and limitation and open to it the doors of the supreme felicity. – Sri Aurobindo Ghose8
Ila is Budha’s wife, the truth-vision/revelation of the truth.
Satya is a widely discussed concept in various Upanishads, including the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad where satya is called the means to Brahman, as well as Brahman (Being, true self).910 In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Satya (truth) is equated to Dharma (morality, ethics, law of righteousness).
Nothing is higher than the Law of Righteousness (Dharma). The weak overcomes the stronger by the Law of Righteousness. Truly that Law is the Truth (Satya); Therefore, when a man speaks the Truth, they say, “He speaks Righteousness”; and if he speaks Righteousness, they say, “He speaks the Truth!” For both are one. – SarasvatīBrihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.14
Speak the Satya (truth), conduct yourself according to the Dharma (morality, ethics, law). – Taittiriya Upanishad 11.11
Truth is sought, praised in the hymns of Upanishads, held as one that ultimately, always prevails.11
सत्यमेव जयते नानृतं
- Translation 1: Truth alone triumphs, not falsehood.12
- Translation 2: Truth ultimately triumphs, not falsehood.13
- Translation 3: The true prevails, not the untrue.14
Sandilya Upanishad of Atharvanaveda, in Chapter 1, defines Satya as “the speaking of the truth that conduces to the well being of creatures, through the actions of one’s mind, speech or body.”15
Paul Deussen states that Satya is described in the major Upanishads with two layers of meanings – one as empirical truth about reality, another as abstract truth about universal principle, being and the unchanging. Both these ideas are explained in early Upanishads, composed before 500 BC, by variously breaking the word satya or satyam into two or three syllables. In later Upanishads, the ideas evolve and transcend into satya as truth (or truthfulness), and Brahman as the Being, Be-ness, real Self, the eternal.16
“The righteous hold that forgiveness, truth, sincerity and compassion are the foremost (of all virtues). Truth is the essence of the Vedas.” – Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata17
The Mahābhārata repeatedly emphasizes that Satya is a basic virtue, because everything and everyone depends on and relies on Satya.18
सत्यस्य वचनं साधु न सत्याद विद्यते परम
सत्येन विधृतं सर्वं सर्वं सत्ये परतिष्ठितम
अपि पापकृतॊ रौद्राः सत्यं कृत्वा पृथक पृथक
अद्रॊहम अविसंवादं परवर्तन्ते तदाश्रयाः
ते चेन मिथॊ ऽधृतिं कुर्युर विनश्येयुर असंशयम
To speak the truth is meritorious. There is nothing higher than truth. Everything is upheld by truth, and everything rests upon truth. Even the sinful and ferocious, swear to keep the truth amongst themselves, dismiss all grounds of quarrel and uniting with one another set themselves to their (sinful) tasks, depending upon truth. If they behaved falsely towards one another, they would then be destroyed without doubt. —SarasvatīThe Mahabharata, Chapter CCLIX, Shanti Parva19
When one is firmly established in speaking truth, the fruits of action become subservient to him./When the yogin is firmly established in truthfulness, [she/he] attains the fruits of actions without acting. – Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.36
Patanjali considers satya as a restraint from falsehood in one’s action (body), words (speech, writing) or feelings/thoughts (mind).20 In Patanjali’s teachings, one may not always know the truth or the whole truth, but one knows if one is creating, sustaining or expressing falsehood, exaggeration, distortion, fabrication or deception.21 Satya is, in Patanjali’s Yoga, the virtue of restraint from such falsehood, either through silence or through stating the truth without any form of distortion.22
Dhanishtha people possess insight, listening, and perception of truth and can give great spiritual depth and occult knowledge. – Dennis Harness23
Satyam eva jayate (Truth alone wins)
Satyam muktaye (Truth liberates)
Satya ‘Parahit’artham’ va’unmanaso yatha’rthatvam’ satyam (Satya is the benevolent use of words and the mind for the welfare of others or in other words responsibilities is truth too)
When one is firmly established in speaking truth, the fruits of action become subservient to him. – Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.36
The face of truth is covered by a golden bowl. Unveil it, O Pusan (Sun), so that I who have truth as my duty (satyadharma) may see it! – Brhadaranyaka V 15 1-4 and the brief IIsa Upanisad 15-18
Yoga is search for Truth in its ultimate reaches and above its relative utility. Adequate preparations have to be made for this adventure. We have to become honest before Truth, and not merely in the eyes of our friends. The openness before the Absolute is the meaning behind the observance of what Yoga calls Yamas, as a course of self-discipline which one imposes upon oneself for attaining that moral nature consistent with the demands of Truth… Any conduct which cannot be in harmony with the universal cannot ultimately be moral, at least in the sense Yoga requires it. – Sri Swami Krishnananda
An ordinary man is said to be truthful when his words correspond to the facts of which he speaks. But when a man becomes perfected in truthfulness, he gains control, so to speak, of the truth. He no longer has to “obey” facts; facts obey him. He cannot think or even dream a lie; everything he says becomes true. If he blesses someone, that person is blessed – no matter whether the blessing was deserved or not. – Christopher Isherwood
- Yoga Yājñavalkya 1.53
- Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30, 2.36
- Śāṇḍilya Upanishad
- Haṭhayōgapradīpikā 1.16.2
Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30 ↩
Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30 ↩
Roderick Hindery. Comparative Ethics in Hindu and Buddhist Traditions, Motilal Banarsidass, pp. 51-55 ↩
Barbara Holdrege. “Dharma”, in: Mittal, S. & Thursby, G. (Eds.) The Hindu World, Routledge, p. 215 ↩
Antonio T. De Nicolás. Meditations Through the Ṛgveda, pp. 162-164/Books 1, 4, 6, 7, 9, and 10 of Ṛgveda ↩
Antonio T. De Nicolás. Meditations Through the Ṛgveda, pp. 162-164 ↩
Sri Aurobindo Ghose. The Secret of the Veda, pp. 62-63 ↩
Sri Aurobindo Ghose. The Secret of the Veda, The Image of the Oceans and the Rivers, pp. 100-101 ↩
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad ↩
Mukhya Upanishads ↩
Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.6 ↩
Ananthamurthy, et al (2008), Compassionate Space, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2, pages 18-23 ↩
Brij Lal, A Vision for Change: Speeches and Writings of AD Patel 1929-1969, Australian National University Press, ISBN 978-1921862328, page xxi ↩
Max Muller, The Upanishads, Part 2, Mundaka Upanishad, Oxford University Press, page 38-40 ↩
KN Aiyar (Translator), Thirty Minor Upanishads, Madras (1914), page 173-174, OCLC 23013613 ↩
Paul Deussen, The Philosophy of the Upanishads, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, Harvard University Archives, pages 128-133 ↩
Page 392 Mahābhārata: Shanti parva (Mokshadharma parva, ch. 174-365), By Om Nath Bimali, Ishvar Chandra, Manmatha Nath Dutt ↩
MN Dutt. Mokshadharma Parva The Mahabharata, pp. 344-345 ↩
MN Dutt. Mokshadharma Parva The Mahabharata, pp. 344-345 ↩
A Palkhivala, Teaching the Yamas in Asana Class Yoga Journal, August 28, 2007 ↩
Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.36, 2.30-2.45 ↩
Edwin Bryant, in Food for the Soul: Vegetarianism and Yoga Traditions (Editor: Steven Rosen), Praeger, pp. 33-48 ↩