The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 16, 2000
Your Option

Truthful living
By Taru Bahl

TRUTH is a virtue. We are constantly told to speak the truth because all that is truthful, honest and sincere triumphs. Our scriptures, folklore, epics and even commercial cinema thrive on themes which portray the eternal battle between right and wrong; good and evil; truth and untruth. Napoleon strongly believed that having one morally upright and committed soldier was worth more than having three corrupt and demotivated soldiers. Guru Nanak went a step further by saying: "Truth is virtue but truthful living is the greatest virtue of all".

Truthful living is nothing but living by convictions, standing up for what one believes to be correct, taking up the cause of the downtrodden, continuing to do the right things, even when one is not being watched, and not deliberately hurting any living thing. It may be fashionable to lead unconventional lives filled with deceit so long as one is successful and happy at the end of the day. There may also be a trend of popularising the cult of anti-heroes who are not as virtuous as the heroes of yore but the unchanging permanence of truth remains.

  Truth, as a value, has been greatly compromised. Modern lifestyles have put enormous pressure on this simple tried and tested virtue. If there is anything that has taken a beating and got twisted beyond recognition, it is truthful living. If telling the truth is going to land one in trouble, one is willing to unquestioningly put it on the back- burner. One’s best friend may cheat his way through a competitive exam but one chooses to keep mum. We neither reprimand him nor tell the examiners concerned. A mother may protect her child, hiding his untruths from the father thinking that " the poor thing has all the time to be good when he grows big." Now, does this mean that the concept of absolute and universal truth is redundant and that relative truth ---- one which changes to suit the needs of the moment—is what remains?

There is little doubt that truth is the core value from which the entire philosophy of life emerges. That is why Mahatma Gandhi titled his autobiography My Experiments with Truth. Today there is a leadership crisis the world over. Leaders no longer have the stature or the inspiring character which can, in turn, shape groups and individuals on values based on truth.

Defining truth in specific terms may not be an easy task. Each one of us has to allow pragmatism, consideration and tact to enable us to live by the parametres which govern our philosophy of truthful living. Each moment and situation has its own truth. All our religious leaders attained enlightenment by realising the truth in the context of their times and circumstances.

At times blurting out the whole truth may be detrimental to the happiness of others. It may be redundant, serving scant use. The individual then has to decide on the treatment of truth at that crucial moment and here his character, thinking and inner self dictate his course of action. This is why a cheat or an imposter would treat truth differently from one who is honourable and sincere. The former may be callous, indifferent and dismissive of truth for it means precious little to him, whereas for the latter it may imply a life and death situation.

There is a link between truth and tact or discretion. In the modern context, there may be no such thing as good or bad truth. The distinction may be only between what is harmful and useful truth. In the Mahabharata, the Pandava camp wanted to spread the rumour of Ashwatthama’s death because they knew that was the only way Dronacharya could be killed and he would believe it if it came from Yudhishthira. True to his character, Yudhishthira refused to lie. An elephant named Ashwatthama was killed and he said, " the elephant" in an inaudible tone and "Aswattahma is dead" loudly. Dronacharya was shattered and became an easy victim for the Pandavas. There are people who feel that Yudhister cheated and was treacherous but those who believe in Lord Krishna’s motto feel that it was war diplomacy at its best because here it was group loyalty which came to the fore, helping good to ultimately triumph over evil.

There could be times when the whole truth may be harsh and difficult which is why it is said that only a morally courageous person can be truthful. It is the weak who resort to manipulation and scheming plans as they devise complicated ways of concealing the truth. The bravehearted do not hesitate in living by the truth, not because they are fearless but because they know not how to be untruthful. Their entire mental make up and thought process is different.

Truth has to be combined with wisdom. The individual has to decide whether to tone it down, sugar coat it, camouflage it or reveal it bit-by-bit. Well-known painter Arpana Caur has a line under one of her paintings which says: "Truth is a bitch, it bites". This may be a harsh indictment on the honest, unadulterated truth but in certain situations people have to be strong enough to absorb it whether it is in the form of individual criticism or for a larger cause. If one has worked hard on a project and approaches an expert for an opinion one must be prepared for his honest reaction. That can come only if one has the confidence in oneself and if one is prepared to accept the fact that one is not perfect.

The final truth is that truth may be a bitter pill to swallow both for the giver and the recipient but it eventually works for the best. Untruth cannot be hidden for long. It has a way of surfacing, getting known in the most unpredictable circumstances, causing great damage. People who have made untruthful living their guiding motto often over rule this significant reality and are later left bitter and repentant. Human relationships can never thrive on deceit, dishonesty and untruth forever. One may get away with it for awhile, even enjoy the feeling of elation that comes with having successfully fooled everyone, but at the end of the day one is left exposed, isolated and bitter.

To be truthful is not just difficult but also an act of responsibility and restraint. When the media gave headline status to the news item: "Chandigarh tops in teenage pregnancies" it caused panic and anxiety in parents with young daughters. The media’s job is to inform and highlight trends corroborated with facts without exaggerating or sensationalising. There could be times when it is justifiable to tone down the truth and present it in a manner which minimises damage.

The biggest problem today is that truth is viewed with distrust. There was a time when children laid down their lives just to honour their parents’ word. It was natural for Lord Ram to go in exile so that his father would not have to cut a sorry figure. Today, a son would insist on a legal document or contract in writing from his father on property matters because the spoken word is so fickle and unreliable.

Eventually, enlightenment can come only when there is complete understanding of truth in every circumstance and context. If this happens, it will lead to spiritual awakening and a refined society.

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