Truth versus Falsehood
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       =======  Understanding Hinduism  =======

Truth versus Falsehood
Mahabharata, Santi Parva, Section CIX
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Yudhishthira said: How, O Bharata, should a person act who desires to adhere to virtue? O bull of Bharat’s race, possessed as thou art of learning, tell me this, questioned by me. Truth and falsehood exist, covering all the worlds. Which of these two O king, should a person adopt that is firm in virtue? What again is truth? What is falsehood? What again, is eternal virtue? On what occasions should a person tell the truth, and what occasions should he tell an untruth?

Bhishma said: To tell the truth is consistent with righteousness. There is nothing higher than truth. I shall now, O Bharata, say unto thee that which is not generally known to men. There where falsehood would assume the aspect of truth, truth should not be said. There, again, where truth would assume the aspect of falsehood, even falsehood should be said. That ignorant person incurs sin who says truth, which is dissociated from righteousness. That person is said to be conversant with duties who can distinguish truth from falsehood. [Note: i.e. who knows when truth becomes as harmful as untruth, and untruth becomes as righteous as truth.]

Even a person that is disrespectable, that is of uncleansed soul, and that is very cruel, may succeed in earning great merit as the hunter Valaka by slaying the blind beast (that threatened to destroy all creatures). [Note:This refers to an episode in Karna Parva.] How extraordinary it is that a person of foolish understanding, though desirous of acquiring merit (by austere penances) still committed a sinful act! [Alludes to Karna Parva. The Rishi, by pointing out the place where certain innocent persons had concealed themselves while flying from a company of robbers, incurred the sin of murder.]

The question thou hast asked me is a difficult one, since it is difficult to say what righteousness is. It is not easy to indicate it. No one in discoursing upon righteousness can indicate it accurately. Righteousness was declared (by Brahman) for the advancement and growth of all creatures. Therefore, that which leads to advancement and growth is righteousness. Righteousness was declared for restraining creatures from injuring one another. Therefore, that is righteousness which prevents injury to creatures. Righteous (Dharma) is so called because it upholds all creatures. In fact, all creatures are upheld by righteousness. Therefore, that is righteousness which is capable of upholding all creatures. Some say that righteousness consists in what has been inculcated in the Srutis (scriptures). Others do not agree to this. I would not censure them that say so. Everything again, has not been laid down in the Srutis.

[Note: This refers to the well-known definition of Dharma ascribed to sage Vasishtha, viz., "That which is laid down in the Srutis and Smritis is Dharma." The defect of this definition is that the Srutis and the Smritis do not include every duty. Hence Vasishtha was obliged to add that where these are silent, the examples and practices of the good ought to be the guides of men, etc.]

Sometimes men (robbers), desirous of obtaining the wealth of some one, make enquiries (for facilitating the act of plunder). One should never answer such enquiries. That is a settled duty. If by maintaining silence, one succeeds in escaping, one should remain silent. If, on the other hand, one’s silence at a time when one must speak rouses suspicion, it would be better on such an occasion to say what is untrue than what is true. This is a settled conclusion. If one can escape from sinful men by even a (false) oath, one may take it without incurring sin. One should not, even if one were able, give away his wealth to sinful men. Wealth given to sinful men afflicts even the giver. If a creditor desires to make his debtor pay off the loan by rendering bodily service, the witnesses would all be liars if summoned by the creditor for establishing the truth of the contract, they did not say what should be said. When life is at risk, or on occasion of marriage, one may say an untruth.

One that seeks for virtue does not commit a sin by saying an untruth, if that untruth were said to save the wealth and prosperity of others or for the religious purposes. Having promised to pay, one becomes bound to fulfil his promise. Upon failure, let the self-appropriator be forcibly enslaved. If a person without fulfilling a righteous engagement acts with impropriety, he should certainly be afflicted with the rod of chastisement for having adopted such behaviour. A deceitful person, falling away from all duties and abandoning those of his own order, always wishes to betake himself to the practices of Asuras (demons) for supporting life. Such a sinful wretch living by deceit should be slain by every means. Such sinful men think that there is nothing in this world higher than wealth. Such men should never be tolerated. No one should eat with them. They should be regarded as fallen down in consequence of their sins. Indeed, fallen away from the condition of humanity and shut out from the grace of the gods, they are even like evil genii.

Without sacrifices and without penances as they are, forbear from their companionship. If their wealth be lost, they commit even suicide which is exceedingly pitiable. Among those sinful there is no one to whom you can say, ‘This is your duty. Let your heart turn to it.’ Their settled convictions are that there is nothing in this world that is equal to wealth. The person that would slay such a creature would incur no sin. He who kills him kills one that has been already killed by his own acts. If slain, it is the dead that is slain. He who vows to destroy those persons of lost senses should keep his vows. Such sinners are, like the crow and the vulture, dependent on deceit for their living. After the dissolution of their (human) bodies, they take rebirth as crows and vultures. One should, in any matter, behave towards another as that other behaves in that matter. He who practises deceit should be resisted with deceit while one that is honest should be treated with honesty.

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Related articles
Truth
Righteousness
Dharma
Renunciation and abandonment
Good and pure
Forgiveness versus might-anger

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