The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 2, 2000
Your Option

Power of truth
By Taru Bahl

PINOCCHIO’S lies lengthen his nose; Pied Piper’ punishes the people of Hamlin by taking their children into the land of nowhere because they have backtracked on their promise; Aesop’s fable tells of a boy who cries wolf, and we have the Emperor in Hans Anderson’s tale who parades naked believing that he is fully dressed. No one comes forward to tell the truth to him. Instead each one lauds the (non existent) dress, till a child innocently points out his state of undress.

There is another story of a lad who steals a toy from his classmate. He is not checked by his mother and later in life becomes a thief. When he is caught and sent to the gallows, he calls his mother and as his last wish chops off her ears. He holds her responsible because inspite of hearing his tales of theft she did not punish him and put him on the right path.

  These are some of the enduring images culled from popular folklore impressing upon children the importance of being truthful, honest, straight forward and trustworthy.

"Truth fears no trial", truth is stranger than fiction", "the greatest homage one can pay to truth is to use it", "beauty is truth, truth beauty and that is all ye need on earth and all ye need to know," "truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is now---always" — these are some of the popular adages passed down from one generation to the next in the hope that there may be a clean and truthful society, one which abides by a strong code of honour.

Even at a time when scams, double standards, deceit, infidelity, corruption and instinctive lying is more the accepted norm than an exception, there still are wise men who feel that only truth will ultimately prevail and redeem us from the all-encompassing rot. For, all that is truthful is real, genuine, beautiful, innocent and bona fide. To be deceptive and untruthful is akin to being fake, fictitious, cunning,pretentious and shady. Truth denotes a basic self respect for oneself and others. Lying negates that. A truthful person lives a bright and sunny life which is characterised by spontaneity, exuberance, happiness, openness and faith, whereas an untrue existence seeks covers, shade and concealment, thriving usually in the dark. There is a constant reference in the Bhagavadgita that truth must not only inform but also inspire. If the inspiration dies out and the information is only allowed to accumulate, truth will lose its infinity, universality and timelessness.

Living by the truth is like using a map or monitor to find direction. If the reading is accurate one reaches one’s destination. In much the same way, if we are to lead meaningful and honourable lives, we cannot succumb to untrue beliefs, superstitions, half-truths and faulty lines of reasoning. We must be willing to replace falsehoods with truth. Also go a step further by practicing truth and spreading it as sincerely as possible, even in the face of adversity or threat to life and property.

This is what the astronomer Galileo did when he discovered that the world was round and not flat as was the belief at that time. Having made this scientific discovery, he held on to his conviction even in the face of extreme resistance, imprisonment and death. But his being reduced to ashes did not go to a naught. His fight to uphold what he believed to be true, paved the way for future scientists who explored this truth more deeply and enlightened the world

The author William Bennett in his Book of Virtues cites the example of Gulliver’s Travels where Jonathan Swift confronts his readers with the baffling question, "Why would anyone want to be untruthful and dishonest?" His protagonists, the Houynhnms, were projected as a very rational race who found human deceit, cheating and lying not so immoral as unintelligible and irrational. At some point they explain to Gulliver, "The use of speech is to make us communicate and understand each other. So the very act of uttering lies, conveying misleading information, concocting and distorting facts defeats this purpose."

But human beings are not as rational as Swift would have us believe. They succumb to the comfort of lies — small lies, white lies, big lies — to bail them out of tricky situations and/or to soften the impact of uncomfortable truths. The fear of exposure, humiliation, rejection and dismissal makes them take refuge in falsehood. They willingly suffer longer periods of stress, anxiety and sleeplessness as they battle with the daily fear of being caught. It is not easy to admit one is wrong, that one has erred or lied, cheated, deceived but there is tremendous calm when one finally bares one’s heart and ‘comes clean’.

Our Hindi potboilers bring that out quite convincingly. The treacherous villain wears such a calm and peaceful expression as he is overpowered by the hero (his wronged victim) or by the cops in the climax. There is relief on his face. The body too sheds its defiant posture as he realises that the game is over. He finally looks at peace with himself and the world at large, for he no longer has to fight the huge walls of lies which encircle him.

Truth undoubtedly is the cornerstone of all values. According to Mahatma Gandhi, if truth is one side of the coin, the other side has to be represented by love and ahimsa. He said, "My uniform experience has convinced me that there is no other God than truth and the only means for the realisation of truth is ahimsa. To see the universal and all-pervading spirit of truth face to face, one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. I must reduced myself to zero. It was only when I had learnt to reduce myself to zero that I was able to evolve the power of satyagraha." He said that without ahimsa it is not possible to seek and find truth.

There has to be a good reason for one to be truthful and none can be more lasting and convincing than the belief that what one is saying or doing is correct. Like most virtues, truth too can be developed and exercised in harmony with others. The more it is exercised the more it becomes a settled disposition provided one takes it seriously enough. One has to acknowledge the fact that being a truthful person is a fundamental condition for human exchange, friendship and community endeavours. By sharing simple spiritual truths, Buddha opened an entirely new way of life for his followers. By sharing spiritual truths in the Sermon on the Mount, Lord Jesus showed his followers a different way to life. By sharing the truths they had learned through all their hard experiences --- discrimination, apartheid, imprisonment and the ideal of a free state ---- people like Gandhi and Mandela gave to the world the concept that truth in our lives should be a necessity if we have to live meaningfully.