Satya – The Four Keys to Mastering the Power of True Speech
Satyam bruyāt, priyam bruyāt
Asatyam priyam, na bruyāt
Speak the truth, speak pleasantly
Do not speak pleasant untruth,
In a previous blogpost I spoke about satya - truth - and used the analogy of a man walking at twilight and seeing a snake on the path in front of him. He is filled with fear but shining a light on the path reveals his fears were groundless as it was merely a carelessly discarded length of rope. I made the point that we all have such fake snakes in our lives. And we could all use a flashlight or two to reveal that snakes such these – anger, jealously, irritation – are groundless and that we are a lot better off without them.
Today I’d like to look at another aspect of satya - speaking the truth. Speech is very powerful, very creative, and can also be very destructive. It is therefore important to look at how to use the gift and power of speech to uplift and inspire.
The quotation above tells us to speak the truth pleasantly and avoid speaking pleasant untruth. The first part excludes blunt, honest but hurtful speech; the second tells us to avoid white lies and smarmy flattery. This simple dictum needs further analysis.
The basic rule here is to make sure our words are factually correct, to be sure. This, however, is not enough. There is a cautionary story in the Indian tradition of a sage who resolved never to speak an untrue word. One day he was sitting quietly outside his jungle ashram when a frightened man raced by. A few moments later a band of murderous thugs ran up to the sage and asked which path their intended victim had taken. The sage, resolved to tell the truth regardless of the consequences, told them. It is said that the sage was punished by the Gods.
The story’s clear message is that strict truth telling, which causes harm, is not considered truthful speech. We are unlikely to find ourselves in such a fraught situation as the sage in the forest, but most of us are in social or family situations where at the very least tact and care are needed. Sometimes it can be difficult to navigate between lying on the one hand, and causing offence on the other. How, in fact, can we ensure that we speak the truth, and that we also speak pleasantly?
The great news is that the wise, as is often their way, have left us with very practical advice. This time it comes from the Bhagavad Geeta, which is found in the great Indian epic poem, The Mahabharata. The Geeta is sometimes called the Gospel of the Lord Shri Krishna. Lord Krishna was an incarnation of the Great God Vishnu, who lived on earth as the prince of the land of Dwaraka. In the terrible civil war depicted in The Mahabharata, he aligned himself with the Pandavas, five brothers dedicated to virtue and truth. Before the battle Krishna offered to be the charioteer of Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers.
It was Arjuna’s task to begin the battle by riding out between the armies and blowing a loud blast on his conch shell. Krishna guided the chariot to the chosen spot. Arjuna, surveying both armies arrayed ready to do battle, saw friends and family on both sides. He was filled with despair and threw down his weapons. In this low state he turned to Lord Krishna and asked for guidance. What should he do? What was his duty? The result was an exquisite discourse covering a vast range of subjects including meditation, renunciation, the nature of consciousness, the power of reason, devotion and action. The Bhagavad Geeta is eighteen sublime chapters of instruction and wisdom.
In Chapter Seventeen Krishna explains that there are four characteristics of truthful speech. With these four aspects, speech rises to the level of a spiritual observance or discipline. The four are: “Speech that hurts no one, that is true, is pleasant to listen to, and beneficial.” (BhG 17:15).
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The first is speech that hurts no one. Truthful speech never injures or inflicts suffering. Clearly this excludes any form of cruel, spiteful or malicious speech. Anything that is calculated to wound. These are obvious, but there are other forms of hurtful speech which are more subtle. Petty gossip, put downs, or boastful self-promotion designed in some way to belittle or humiliate. Any form of speech like these is outside the circle of truthful speech.
This doesn’t mean that everything we say should be soothing and placatory, and perhaps a bit sugary sweet. A timely word of discipline; a hard conversation with a friend who is heading down a self-destructive path; clear and firm words of discipline at home or at school whose purpose is to keep children within the bounds of reasonable behaviour. These are examples of speech that is anything but hurtful. On the contrary, a timely word, honestly spoken and delivered with loving concern for the welfare of the hearer is healthful.
Clearly, we have to be awake and aware of the effect our words have on our listener. The best advice is to make sure we speak from an emotional ground of affection and concern for our listener’s well-being.
The second characteristic of true speech is that it is true. Our speech should be factually correct. Outright lying clearly has no place here. And again, there are greyish areas. Exaggeration, flattery, or even omitting salient facts that would undermine a favoured position.
The third characteristic of truthful speech is that it be pleasant. This seems to go against what we’ve said about our words not always being sweet and soothing. However, the Sankrit word used here is priya. This certainly carries the sense of ‘pleasant/pleasing’, but it also carries the sense of being ‘affectionate, beloved, the action or feeling of a friend’.
Priya is the characteristic attribute of a loving parent, a diligent teacher, a true friend. All of these will say what needs to be said if those words will protect a child, correct a student, or help a friend. This is real love and true affection, not weak words of agreement when someone is heading into danger or peril. So priya means ‘pleasant’ in the ordinary sense, and it also means ‘pleasant’ in the deeper sense as well.
The final characteristic is ‘beneficial’. This is the Sanskrit word hitam which means ‘benevolence’. An old-fashioned word for an old-fashioned concept. Benevolence means working for the benefit and advantage of others. For speech to be truthful, it should be beneficial to the listener. Simply put, the hearer should leave the conversation a little better than when it started, perhaps they are happier, more knowledgeable, better informed, comforted, in a more optimistic frame of mind.
All these four elements are necessary for speech to be truthful.
There is a lovely commentary on this verse by Adi Shankara, one of the greatest sages of India. He made the point that truthful speech that is spiritually uplifting needs all four parts. It must harm no one, it has to be factually accurate, it has to be pleasant and born of love and affection for the hearer, and finally, it must be beneficial and uplifting. If any one of these is missing, if for example, it is not hurtful, and it is factual and pleasant, but somehow does not actively work for the benefit of the listener, then the speech is not truthful.
This may seem like a tall order, and in some ways it is. But the best way to start on a long journey is to take the first step. In this case, that step is to acquaint yourself with the four characteristics of true speech. By reading this post you have already achieved that step!
The next step is to be awake and aware and vigilant when you speak. Guard against the obvious forms of hurtfulness, or petty untruths, or any of the other forms of negative speech.
I find that the best and easiest way to cut through all the detail, is to do a few of simple things. First, I try to be inwardly calm and still when I’m in conversation. Next, I try to give my full attention to the person I’m speaking to and remember that they are a universal being. This engenders a natural respect and feeling of love and affection for them. This takes care of everything. It becomes very natural then to allow speech to flow in a kind, truthful, benevolent manner.
Memory is important. For all this to happen, we have to remember to speak in this way. This takes practice. In a future blogpost I will look at memory and how to strengthen it.