by Jayaram V
"The non-existent has no existence;
the existent does not not-exist. (Thus) the seers who have seen
the essence of That reached the conclusion about the two."
- The Bhagavadgita 2:16.
"It is neither born nor dies. At no time
it did not non-exist in the past; will not non-exist in future;
or will not become existence again. Unborn, eternal, permanent,
and the most ancient, this is not killed when the body is killed."
- The Bhagavadgita 2:20.
Whatever thoughts and opinions we entertain in our minds, there
another opinion and another thought, or there are multiple
opinions and multiple thoughts, which may either contradict it or
compliment it. On a single subject, a thousand people may come out
with a thousand opinions. If you have any doubts, look at the message
boards, newspapers, books, articles, religious scriptures, discourses
by various masters and gurus, and the numerous conflicts that happen,
for one reason or the other, between people, groups, organizations
and nations in various parts of the world. Even in matters of religion,
we have no unanimity. The scriptures may agree on certain points,
but in many fundamental aspects, they are as divergent as human
nature itself. It is difficult to ascertain physically what the
scriptures say about the metaphysical truths. Yet millions of people
everyday hold on to their beliefs and opinions tenaciously, refusing
to step outside of their habitual thought patterns and constricted
opinions and give themselves a chance to see the reality around
them differently from different perspectives. This happens because
the human mind likes to follow the path of least resistance and
spend as little time as possible on analysis and assimilation so
that it can focus more on essential things and maximize the chances
of our survival, adaptability and continuity. Therefore, it resorts
to shortcuts and mental heuristics such as generalizations and stereotyping
to make sense of the world and respond quickly to the challenges
we face every day.
The types and facets of truth
According to science, truth is what is provable either with logic
or with facts or both. If you say something happened and if you
witnessed it, you must be in a position to prove it even to those
who did not see it. Even though it seems straightforward, in many
cases it is not. Hence, not all the courts and laws in the world
guarantee justice all the time. You are lucky if you are able to
prove your point of view. You are also lucky if you are able to
prove your scientific truths, because there are many truths that
cannot be proved scientifically not because they are not true but
because we do not have the wherewithal to prove them.
In our world, there are many aspects to truth. We consider truth
either relative that is true in relation to something else or absolute
that is true under all circumstances, independent of other things.
There are eternal truths and temporary truths. Some truths are eternal.
For example, from the scientific perspective, the space (as we know
it) will exist eternally, even if the material world that exists
in it is destroyed. May be, in reality, space is not what we consider
it to be. It may be a type of element (tattva) or even matter (matra),
which comes into existence at the time of the formation of the universe.
If it is so, then space may not qualify as eternal. In Hinduism,
space is considered an element (akasa), just like water, earth,
fire and air. Therefore, although space connects one world or planet
with another and the earthly beings with the rest of the universe
and although it facilitates the movement of prayers and sacred sounds
as their medium, at some point of time in creation, it may end like
Relative truths are conditional, contextual, provable, temporary
and relational. Because they depend upon certain conditions and
factors, they may be inconsistent and unreliable. We can mitigate
this problem to some extent by examining a truth from several perspectives.
Jainism advocates such an approach through its theory of standpoints
(syadavada), according to which truth may be valid only from particular
standpoints and it may appear differently from different standpoints.
The only way to ascertain its veracity, though may not always completely,
is by considering it from different standpoints. The standpoints
are like different perspectives or different angles or sides to
examine a truth. From our experience, we know that we gain insight
into things only when we dwell into them deeply and examine them
thoroughly from various aspects. So practically speaking, the theory
of standpoints makes sense. If you want to know more about syadavada,
please check the articles on Jainism available at Hinduwebsite.com.
While relative truths may be actually half-truths or untruths
masquerading as truths, absolute truths are different. They are
impervious to the fallacies and limitations of the human mind and
intellect. Absolute truths are transcendental truths, in knowing
which the mind and the senses play no role at all. They are independent
of the mind, independent of intelligence, independent of logic,
independent of perspective, independent of the senses, independent
of the objects, independent of the subject, independent of proof,
independent of conditions, and independent of memory. An absolute
truth is indestructible, indefinable, indescribable, eternal, immutable,
self-existent and permanent. If we go by this definition of truth,
the whole world and all the knowledge that we hold in our minds
do not qualify as truth. Nothing that falls within the domain of
the mind and its faculties also qualify as absolute truth. The world
exists in our minds as a concept and concepts are what they are,
mere concepts. A hundred people may live in the same space and time
and yet experience the world differently. Hindu scriptures therefore
consider the phenomenal world as illusory and false, and hold only
God and the Self as true. Satyam is that which contains Sat or Truth.
Sat is that which is true, constant, real, actual, not in a limited
way, but wholly and eternally. According to the Upanishads, God
or Brahman and the individual Self alone qualify to be That, which
is everlasting and absolutely true.
Standards of proof
Ancient Indians established some standards (pramana) to
ascertain truths of our existence. The most prominent among them
are, direct knowledge (pratyaksha), testimony (shabda) and inference
(anumana). Of them, we may consider the first one reliable by itself,
the second useful for corroboration or confirmation and the third
no so reliable, but helpful on certain occasions. Pratyaksha is
what we may perceive or experience directly and personally. It is
therefore somewhat reliable, although we cannot take our experiences
for granted fully. We may consider our direct experiences valid
in case of general and ordinary truths. However, we should also
be aware of defective perceptions and perceptual biases to which
our minds and senses are susceptible. We know that our senses and
our minds are not perfect instruments of knowledge. What we see
may not be true and what we do not see may not be false. It is as
if we live in a world of fog and mist, which is our own ignorance.
We may see what we want to see or see it differently from what it
actually is, or see it incorrectly, or not see it at all. We may
mistake one for another. We may also see or experience something
but not recognize it at all because we have never experienced it
before or know nothing about it. Therefore, while direct experience
is helpful, we have to be careful about what conclusions and observations
we may draw from it. This is where the testimony of the scriptures
and the accounts of experts prove helpful. If our direct experience
is validated by the testimony of scriptures or expert knowledge,
we can accept them as more reliable and accurate, although there
may still be issues that need to be resolved and gaps in our understanding
and awareness that need to be filled. However, by far, within the
limitations to which we are subject, direct experience is the best
way to arrive at truth. Inference is also useful; but we can never
be sure. Sometime we may combine inference with testimony to arrive
at truth. However, it is less reliable than the truths that we ascertain
with direct knowledge supported by testimony. Various schools of
Hindu philosophy identify other ways of knowing truth. However,
they are not as reliable as the three we have discussed.
Characteristics of truth
From a philosophical perspective, in Hinduism truth must have
some characteristics in order to be accepted as truth. Here are
some important ones.
1. Truth must be universal. That is, it must
be the same everywhere. For example, we may say only the present
moment is truth; but the present moment exists only in the context
of the present. What happens in my mind may be true, but only within
my mind. What happens in your life may be true; but it will be difficult
for you to corroborate your experiences or even prove them to others
that they ever happened. Time, space and memory obliterate many
empirical truths of our lives and fill our minds with dejection,
frustration and nostalgia. From this perspective, none of the things
that we possess or experience qualifies as truth. Hence, Hinduism
regards the objective world as untrue or an illusion.
2. Truth must be indestructible or incorruptible.
Truth must remain impervious to falsehood. If one can falsify truth
or destroy it, it does not qualify as truth because that which falsifies,
corrupts or destroys truth becomes superior to it, where as truth
has to be invincible, eternal, universal and supreme to be qualified
3. Truth must be constant. Truth cannot change.
If something keeps changing, it is difficult to prove its existence.
For example, we cannot prove the existence of earth five billion
years ago. We will not be able to prove its existence after another
five billion years later. Whatever that happened in our lives exists
in our consciousness as memory. It might have happened or might
not have happened exactly as we think or remember, because our thoughts
and memories might have been corrupted by our own illusions, falsification
and superimposition of other related memories. Billions of people
lived and died upon earth in the past. The earth itself underwent
great transformation over these millenniums. Our civilization passed
through numerous phases of transformation and advancement. The world
that existed a few thousand years ago was incredibly different from
the world in which we live today. It may sound strange, but we do
not live in the same world always and we do not relate with it only
physically. Different worlds exist in the same space at different
points of time and we live in different worlds in different planes
and at different points of times, although outwardly we may believe
that we live in the same world. It is same with our bodies. Our
bodies grow, age and decay. They exist only in the context of time
and space and certain conditions and circumstances. It is true with
almost everything we experience in our lives. People are not the
same. Your friends and relations are not the same. You do not know
which one of them, or which aspect of them, is true. Truth is different.
It is constant all the time. You do not have to worry that It will
change or treat you differently. It does not love you or detest
you because it is not subject to fluctuating moods, desires, self-interest
or states of love and hatred.
4. Truth must be independent. Truth has to be
self-existent and independent to qualify as truth. If it depends
upon another entity for its existence, it loses its autonomy, continuity,
purity, invincibility and universality. If it is supported by others,
you can destroy it, falsify it, or corrupt it easily by taking away
its support or modifying it. Truth should therefore exist by itself,
without the support of proof or validation, without the process
of knowing or without the help of the the knower and the known.
In this context, time is not truth, because it depends upon many
factors for its continuity. Our knowledge is not truth because it
depends upon duality and several other things for its validation
and knowing. The world is not truth, because it depends upon the
earth. The earth is not truth because it depends upon other planets
and the Sun. The solar system is not truth because it depends upon
the universe. The material universe is not truth, because it depends
upon time and space continuum to exist. The heaven is not truth
because it depends upon another for support. What we experience
in our lives is not truth because it depends upon the mind and the
senses, which are in turn dependent upon other things that are in
themselves dependent and bound to others.
5. Truth must be the cause or the source, but not the
effect. The effect depends upon the cause for its survival,
composition and existence. Each effect has a beginning and an end,
where as Truth is eternal. If you take away the cause, the effect
will disappear. The cause itself must be original and independent.
It must neither depend upon other causes nor arise from them consequently.
It must remain pure and constant, while producing or creating the
effect and should not depend upon external conditions to create
it. In this context, the entire material universe, the heaven and
other worlds do not qualify as truth because they are products of
creation and their source is elsewhere.
Truth does not exist in the experience of objectivity
As you can see from the above, our world, our lives and our very
existence do not qualify as truth. There is nothing here or on other
planets or the entire universe, which fits perfectly in the concept
of truth as envisaged in Hindu scriptures. No religion that exists
in the world or that ever existed in the past represents truth adequately
Our definitions of God do not qualify as truth because they are
rooted in our divisive and relative mentality and they arise from
our notions of right and wrong, name and form and time and space.
Our minds cannot grasp absolute truths because they are not conditioned
or created to grasp them. We may have a millions opinions and a
million standpoints; but they do not take us anywhere near the Truth
that exists universally, absolutely, independently, indestructibly
and eternally. To understand truth, we have to overcome our own
senses and minds. We have to transcend our limited awareness and
remove all the obstructions, obstacles and blockages that stand
between us and the truth. We have to transcend duality, the pairs
of opposites, our attachments and our very intellect that revolves
around our notions, opinions, concepts and rigid beliefs. Only a
few people therefore will come anywhere near the infinite Truth
and even they do not know. The Upanishads understand this predicament
and admit the difficulty in expressing the truths about the Truth.
The Kena Upanishad sums up the paradox of knowing the eternal Truth,
which it equates with Brahman, in the following (2.1-3) instruction
from an enlightened teacher (guru) who was trying to explain to
his students what they needed to know Brahman, referred here in
neutral terms as "It".
"If you think that you have understood It well, you
know It but slightly. Whether it is you or gods, it is the same
(no one knows It). Therefore, It needs to be investigated by you,
even though I think It is known. I do not think that I know It well;
nor do I think that I do not know It. Among us, he who knows It,
knows It, and he also, does not know that he does not know. To whomever,
It is not known, to him It is known; to whomever It is known, he
does not know. It is not understood by those who (think they) understand
It and It is understood by those who (think they) do not understand
This brings us to the final question or doubt. Whatever that
I have presented here about Truth, is it true? Have I understood
the Truth and explained it well? Perhaps I have; or maybe not. The
only reason it stands the test of truth is that it is based on and
supported by the testimony of scriptures, which are considered revelations
of Truth itself. It is important to know that what is presented
here is about the absolute truth, the real Truth, not the relative
and temporary truths about which we quarrel and argue so frequently.
1. Modern science does
speculate upon the possibility of folding the space or manipulating
it, wherein also is hidden the key to time travel and future space
2. Which is why Hinduism
is very tolerant of all paths that attempt to reach the Absolute
Truth in their own effective ways.
Suggested Further Reading