Satya – truthfulness

Practice of yoga is an opportunity to see clearly, like it or not, what patterns we habitually nurture in our lives. In the chaotic process of living, it is easy to cruise along on auto pilot, mindlessly filtering our thoughts, speech and action through well-established habits of behavior. This is where the practice of Satya, impeccable truthfulness – to know ourselves through careful observations of our thought and psycological patterns – begins. Next, we must acknowledge and accept these habituated patterns. Then, with this awareness, we can exercise the power to choose to feed the ‘habit’ or unhook ourselves from it through the practice of deep listening and mindfulness. (Charlotte Bell)

Satya, impeccable truthfulness, the second Yama, restraint, appears in the second chapter, Sādhana Pāda, of the Yoga Sūtras (2.36).

I thought it best to present commentaries of a few yogis who have shared their wisdom after years of practice. Their words have made these principles come alive, making it both a pleasure and bane to practice.

Yogasūtra

सत्यप्रतिष्ठायां क्रियाफलाश्रयत्वम्॥२.३६॥

//Satya-Prathishtayām Kriyā-phala-Āshrayatvam // Y.S. 2:36

A few translations of this sūtra.

  • When the sādhaka is firmly established in the presence of truth, his words become so potent that whatever he says comes to realization (BKS Iyengar)
  • When grounded in truthfulness, action (and its) fruition depend (on him) (Feurstein)
  • When a man becomes steadfast in his abstention from falsehood, he gets the power of obtaining for himself and others the fruits of good deeds, without having to perform the deeds themselves. (Svāmi Prabhavānanda)

In the sections that follow, the first paragraph under the heading of the author briefly introduces the writer, followed by their commentary on the topic at hand. Their books and others are listed below for further study.

Christensen

Alice Christensen began her studies under her guru, Rāma, (early 1960’s) who, before his death, advised her to complete her training under Lakshmanjoo in Kashmir, India. She founded the American Yoga Association in 1968.

Commentary

You are probably aware you are telling a lie, but can you recognize truth when you hear it? Most of us find it easy to make promises, but we are often lax about following through. Are you able to keep your word, no matter how trivial your promise?

If I were to ask you to describe yourself, you would most likely make many statements that are based on what has been told to you by others. Do you know how to tell what is true about yourself?

Everyone tries to interpret the truth in his or her own way and so the truth appears to change in different circumstances when actually it remains the same. For example, consider the claims made on televison for new producs, such as household cleaners. The promoter may tell you that this product will clean everything in your house, but you won’t know whether or not that is really true unless you try it yourself. This type of consistent observation is necessary to find truth in all things.

Many debilitating feelings such as fear, insecurity, and anxiety are based on lies – lies that you tell yourself and those that your accept from others as true, never having learned how to find out if they are actually true. This pattern begins early in childhood.

If people told you as a child, you were bad, stupid, ugly or incompetent, does that make it true? Children simply accept what others tell them; they begin to accept lies without a question. If you accept lies as true, negative attitudes will grow on your heart like a mold. You become caught identifying with these lies and judging yourself according to another person’s opinions. Many people continue accepting lies into adulthood, trying hard to fulfill the picture of themselves in external life that a lifetime of lies has created.

Venkateśānanda

Svāmi Venkateśānanda is a direct disciple of Svāmi Śivānanda of Riśīkèś. He has initiated many students on the path of Rāja Yoga.

Commentary

You must have the ability and the daring to tell a lie and yet be honest and truthful. Because you don’t see the sanity of being dishonest, dishonesty must have dropped without your knowledge. That is a virtue.

Scriptures describe how on occasions untruth becomes truth and truth becomes untruth. If we get hung up on speaking truth as a discipline in a restricted sense, then we not only lose sight of the totality of truth, but we fail even in the restricted “speaking-truth”, because the vision is narrowed and there is no insight.

How can you recognize the truth? You have a number of standards already stored in you, and you go looking for confirmation of those standards. Who put that standard? You or your grandfather, which then becomes an opinion which is totally unrelated to the truth. Therefore, the concept of truth may have to undergo drastic change within us, before we can attempt to decide what truth is.

This means to be able to distinguish between what is an opinion and what is the truth. An opinion springs from your own prejudices. Satya demands a constant search for the truth, recognizing the distinction between fact and fiction, truth and opinion – not only in your speech but in your thought and actions. One who pursues this quest comes face to face with some shocking truths concerning the unreliability of the mind. Satya means not merely to speak the truth, but not to be led away by vrittis, fluctuations of the mind.

My Practice

Firstly, Satya pertains to not lie to myself. An example quoted by Iyengar – if i say “i will not eat chocolates again’, as long as one cell in the body holds back in disagreement, success is not assured. And what a struggle this has been – chocolates and all. And, those who mean well, tempt you by saying – “you live only once’ or ‘ it’s the holidays’, or ‘your mother made this just for you’, – an emotional taunt – which further weakens your resolve.

Iyengar continues – ‘if the stated intention is totally whole-hearted, not one cell dissembling, then we create the reality we desire. It is not our mind, but the inner voice of our cells which has the power to implement our intentions.’ This requires lots of practice and utmost patience considering how challenging this practice is.

The following questions (and more) that were set during my intial Rāja Yoga training continue to be at the forefront in the practice of Satya.

  • To watch my inner conversation: What am I saying? Am I saying what I really feel? What lies have I been accepting as truth since childhood?
  • To observe my behavior: Am I keeping my word no matter how trivial the promise? Am I breaking a promise to one for the welfare of another?
  • To monitor my words: How often do I tell a white lie? Should I tell a white lie for the greater good and accept its consequences? How well am I listening before I speak?
  • To notice how I deal with consequences: Do I expect to be forgiven for a white lie? Do I easily forgive others for their lies?
  • To perceive that I am part of a whole: What is my relationship with the truth? Is somebody’s truth ‘mine’ to pass on to others with or without permission?

Svāmi Satchitānanda says a vow of absolute honesty means we can no longer tell white lies either. Yet, as my practice continues, I am stumped during these various scenarios where speaking the truth may become hurtful. 

  1. How do I decline an invitation because I am tired and want stay home this weekend?
  2. How do I respond to a person about hair style, etc., or clothing if it is not appropriate for an event?
  3. Are we lying to our kids when we say ‘you did a good job’ even though the performance was bad? Is it our duty as a parent to say ‘you put in a good effort’ so they learn to keep trying to be better?
  4. Why do I not say ‘I don’t feel like cooking, cleaning, etc.,’ instead of doing it in a bad mood?
  5. Am I afraid to ask ‘can we split the check’ instead of one person paying?
  6. Or when my friend insists on paying and then complains that the other party did not bother to fight harder to pay – what should my response be?
  7. Do we put on a show each day to the world instead of being our true selves?
  8. How often do I exaggerate on events, like running late, blaming traffic to make the delay sound valid when I know it is the snooze button that caused the tardiness?

This is only a short list and as you peruse, I am sure you are already adding to it. There are layers of subtlety in this practice that is impossible to penetrate. Finding the truth then becomes a quest.

Thomas Jefferson puts it well, “He who permits himself to tell a lie once finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the worlds believing him. This falshood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time, depraves all its good dispositions”. 

As you can see to do the right thing, Satya must be strictly practiced with Ahimsā and not to be followed with blind faith. In the beginning, it is true that confidence and trust are necessary, but as you continue to practice, every step will bring more hope and greater confidence. (Svāmi Satchitānanda) If you slip up, there is always tomorrow to bring opportunities to practice Satya in action, word and thought.

All yogis concur that if you are always truthful, if no lie ever comes out of your mouth, a time will come when all you say will come true. It will lead you to a state of fearlessness – and if a curse or a blessing is spoken, it will happen. 

Finally…..

A valid question: Does it mean that a truthful person never lies?

Below are two popular stories as narrated to spiritual seekers that may help you arrive at an answer.

Story One

One day, a sage living in the forest, saw a fawn frantically running down the path, and a little later a hunter followed. The hunter approached the yogi-sage and asked if he had seen a fawn pass by and which way it had gone. The sage answered, “My eyes have seen, but my eyes cannot speak. My tongue can speak, but my tongue has not seen”. In this way, he avoided telling the truth the hunter demanded, which would have caused harm to the fawn – which would have been the truth that would result in violence. (I am assuming the hunter just walked away knowing that most sages jogged out of their meditation are known to speak in tongues.)

Story Two

A sage in meditation was disturbed as a man ran into his āshram. Trembling, the man told the sage that he was being attacked by armed robbers and asked for his protection. The sage allowed him to hide in the āshram. The attackers arrived a little later and questioned the sage. The sage, proudly recalling his vow to speak the truth, unhesitatingly pointed to the place where the man was hiding. He did not want to tarnish his record of truthfulness even though he knew his lie could have saved the poor man. The robbers found the man, killed him and stole his money. Being ruthless, they also looted the āshram, killing the sage on their way out. Arriving at the heaven’s door, the sage demanded why his life had be rudely taken though he had spoken the truth without breaking his vow. The Lord said that the sin that he inncured causing a death of an innocent man outweighed the truth he uttered in pride to selfishly protect his vow of truthfulness.

Were you able to figure out the answer to the above question?

If you decide it is your duty to tell the truth even if it causes pain, then truth becomes a weapon. They say ‘silence is a non-violent means of expressing the truth’. Yet, I have noticed that my silent disagreement, out of respect has been mistaken for agreement or acceptance – then, politely speaking up to avoid further erroneous assumptions becomes a part of the practice of truthfulness.

I was introduced to the following Sufi Wisdom by Śri Easwaran of Blue Mountain Meditation Center. Let your words pass the test of the Three Gates before you speak:

  1. Is it True?
  2. Is it Necessary?
  3. Is it Kind?

When the words pass through each of these gates, only then they must be spoken.

‘Satyam Eva Jayate, Truth is Victory,” says the Mundaka Upanishad. Discovery of the Highest Truth begins by practicing Satya, as a restraint. The results of practicing this ethic will help you become aware of the importance of keeping your word. As the quest continues there is an unspoken promise that you will recognize the Highest Truth. 

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Christensen, Alice. 1998. Yoga of the Heart: Ten Ethical Principles for Gaining Limitless Growth, Confidence, and Achievement. American Yoga Association, Rodale Books, NY, NY.

Taimni. I.K. 1961. The Science of Yoga: Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. The Theosophical Publishing House, Chennai, India and Wheaton IL.

Carrera, Jaganāth, Rev. 2006. Inside the Yoga Sūtras. Integral Yoga Publications, Satchitānanda Āśram-Yogāville, Buckingham VA.

Bell, Charlotte. 2007. Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice. Rodmell Press, Berkley, CA.

Venkateśānanda, Svāmi. 2011. First Edn 1988. The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. Motilal Banarasidas, New Delhi, India.

Iyengar, B.K.S. 2002. First Edtion 1993. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. Harper Collins, London, UK.

Aranya Hariharananda, Svāmi; Mukerji, P.N. 1963. Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. Reprint 1981 by State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Mishra, Rammurti. M.D. 1973. Yoga Sūtras – A Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Doubleday Anchor Press, Garden City, New York.

Prabhavananda, Svāmi; Isherwood, Christopher. Patañjali Yoga Sutras.Rāmakrishna Mission Press, Mylapore, India.

Feuerstein, Georg. 1979. The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali – A New translation and Commentary. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont.

Sarasvati Satyānanda, Svāmi. 1976. Four Chapters on Freedom – Commentary on Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India.

Iyengar, B.K.S. 2013. Core of Yoga Sūtras – The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. Harper-Collins, India.

Satchitananda, Svami. 1978. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham VA.

Yogānanda, Paramahamsa; Kriyananda, Svāmi. 2013. Demystifying Patañjali – The Yoga Sūtras. Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA

Govindan, Marshall. 2000. Kriya Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali and the Siddhas – Translation, Commentary and Practice. Kris Yoga Publications, Quebec, Canada