Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar and India’s greatest philosopher Adi Shankara give us guidelines about lying. Both of them allow us to tell lies if they can bring immense good. We have some anecdotes in Mahabharata where in there was a dilemma to tell the Truth or not.
We are taught by the Vedas ‘satyam vatha’=speak the truth. That is the first command. The emblem of Government of India and the Government of Tamil Nadu has the Upanishad dictate ‘Satyameve Jayate’= truth alone triumphs. There is no contradiction in it when we say we are allowed to tell lies for the good of the humanity. Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures lists Honesty and Truth as very important qualities.
Upanishads has a beautiful story about a boy named ‘Truth Seeker’ =Satyakaman. When he came to Gautama for learning the Vedas he asked his caste and clan. He said that his mother’s name was Jabala. He asked him to go back to his mum to find the name of his father. She plainly told him that she did not know it. He went straight to Gautama and told what his mum said to him. Immediately he accepted him as a student saying this was the quality of a Brahmana. The meaning is whoever speaks truth, he is a Brahmana.
In spite of these high moral standards, Shankara and Valluvar allow us to tell a lie if it can do some good. In Tamil, there is a proverb that ‘one can do a marriage by telling one thousand lies’. We can easily read between the lines. Uniting two people in marriage is a good thing. So ignore minor things. Very often they ask ‘Is the boy handsome? The answer we get is ‘Yes he is very handsome’ Is the girl beautiful? Yes the girl is very beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty in body is different form beauty in behaviour. So what they say is true.
Story of Kausika
Sometimes truth may be worse than a lie. There is a beautiful story in the greatest and the longest epic in the world Mahabaharata. Kaushika was a Brahmana who made a vow of always speaking the truth. One day robbers were chasing a group of travellers in the forest. When they passed by Kaushika, he also noticed them. The robbers came to Kaushika and asked him whether he had seen the travellers. He told them where the travellers were hiding. The robbers went there, tortured and robbed the travellers. Kaushika had to go to hell for speaking the truth.
That is why Valluvar puts a sub clause when he said ‘yes, lying is allowed’:
Even untruth might attain the value of truth, if it is productive of UNMIXED GOOD, without the least blemish (Tirukkural 392)
Valluvar probably knew the story of Kaushika in Mahabharata. So he makes it clear in one of the verses:
“If one’s speech does not wrong any living creature, while being factually correct, that is truthfulness (291)”
Adi Shankarar’s View
Adi Shankarar in the Prasna Uttara Ratna Malika (Gem Garland of Questions and Answers) hymn says
There are 67 verses in question and answer format. In the 46th verse he puts one question ‘Who is not to be trusted?’ The answer is ‘one who as a rule utters lies’.
In the next verse (47), one of the questions is ‘on what occasions even a lie is sinless?’ ‘That which is uttered for the sake of protecting righteousness (Dharma)’.
One should not harm anyone while telling a truth and one can tell a lie if it can bring some good to someone.
SM Diaz in his commentary on Tirukkural adds:
“The eminent Greek philosopher Plato, of a date prior to Thiruvalluvar , has discussed in his Republic, the concept of the Noble Lie, which statesmen may use under certain circumstances as an instrument of state-craft or education. G.C.Field who discusses this matter in his book entitled The Philosophy of Plato quotes as example, Mr Churchill’s ‘ terminological inexactitudes’, used during World War II, as a means of deceiving the enemy, in the national interest.”
“ In the Mahabharata, Dharmaputra’s true statement, drowned in noise and made to appear false, in order to produce a certain good result, was also considered to come under this category. In Tamil Nadu the proverb that Even a thousand lies would be worthwhile to bring about a marriage, is based on the same principle of Plato’s Noble Lie.”
“Shakespeare projected an allied thought when he wrote,
If I do lie and do
No harm by it, though the Gods hear, I hope they will pardon it.
But this does not satisfy Valluvar’s acid test. Only truth should be accompanied by harmlessness; untruth should be productive of positive good to qualify for being classed with truth. Untruth which is just harmless may be fun but not truth.”
Aswaththama Hatha: Narova Kunjarova: (Aswaththama dead; whether man or elephant)
Krishna had arranged to have an elephant named Aswatthma sacrificed in the battle. Yudhistra confirmed that Aswatthma had been killed adding in a lower tone Aswaththama ‘the elephant’ or man which had been killed. This news shattered Aswatthma ‘s father Drona who threw down his arms in despair. Un armed Drona was killed by Dhristadymna . Like story of Kausika, this is also from the Mahabharata.