In certain exceptional cases, speaking the truth may be considered an irreligious act
Most of us speak lies at some point in our lives, either big or small, maybe to attack someone or to defend ourselves. When I was in school, I had once lied to my father to escape punishment, and another time while in college to win a game of cards. I cannot forget the day when my sister, upon noticing that I was lying, warned her friend by whispering into her ear, “He is lying through his teeth – he will go to any extent to prove he is right.”
The Srimad-Bhagavatam teaches us that religion stands on four legs: mercy, cleanliness, austerity, and truthfulness. The first three legs no longer exist in this current Age of Kali-yuga – they have been broken down. The one leg that is remaining, the leg of truthfulness, is struggling to hold religion because it is also about to collapse. All negative forces in the universe have united to make sure that religious principles are wiped out of the planet forever.
Even a child can understand how dishonesty is bad. All world religions emphasize the importance of truthfulness in understanding the Supreme Absolute Truth. Even in a society of thieves and robbers, being untruthful to each other is considered abominable. Truthfulness, therefore, is a symbol of spotless character.
The Eight Canto of Srimad- Bhagavatam describes the story of King Bali. Bali had conquered all the three worlds after defeating Indra, the king of heaven. Lord Visnu incarnated as Lord Vamanadev, and, taking the form of a dwarf brahmana, went to the sacrifice that Bali was performing and begged for three steps of land. Understanding that Lord Visnu was going to trick the king and snatch away his position and kingdom, Sukracarya, the spiritual master of Bali Maharaja, warned Bali not to fulfill Vamanadeva’s request for charity.
Bali Maharaja was now in a moral crisis – should he stick to truth or save his kingdom? After thoughtful deliberation, Bali made his decision. He said to Sukracarya, “There is nothing more sinful than untruthfulness. Because of this, mother earth once said, ‘I can bear any heavy thing except a person who is a liar.’” In his purport to this verse, Srila Prabhupada writes, “On the surface of the earth there are many great mountains and oceans that are very heavy, and mother earth has no difficulty carrying them. But she feels very much overburdened when she carries even one person who is a liar. It is said that in Kali-yuga lying is a common affair: mayaiva vyavaharike (Bhagavatam 12.2.3). Even in the most common dealings, people are accustomed to speaking so many lies. No one is free from the sinful reactions of speaking lies. Under the circumstances, one can just imagine how this has overburdened the earth, and indeed the entire universe.”
After hearing so much about the importance of truthfulness, we may conclude that one must never speak a lie. A story will clarify this point.
Once there was a sage who lived in a small cottage. He had taken a vow that he will only speak the truth. One day he saw a man running towards him in fear. He cried, “A gang of dacoits are chasing me to kill me. Please save me! When they come here and ask you about my whereabouts, please do not reveal to them where I have gone.”
Soon the dacoits arrived searching for the man, and they inquired about him from the sage. The sage was in a dilemma: should he maintain his vow of speaking the truth or save the life of a helpless human being? Thinking that maintaining his vow was more important, he pointed in the direction in which the man had escaped. Within minutes, the dacoits caught the man and stabbed him to death. Later, after the sage died, he was sent to the kingdom of Yamaraja where he was punished for speaking the truth.
Another episode comes in the Mahabharata when Dronacarya was leading the Kaurava army and creating havoc among Pandava soldiers. No one was able to check his onslaught. Lord Krishna then devised a plan. He reminded the Pandavas how Dronacarya had promised that he would desist from fighting if he hears something unpleasant. Krishna suggested that Yudhisthira utter a lie – that Asvatthama, Dronacarya’s son, is dead. Upon hearing this suggestion, Bhima immediately went and killed an elephant named Asvatthama. Then he roared, “Asvatthama is dead. Asvatthama is dead.” As the Kuru preceptor approached Yudhisthira to confirm if the news were true, Yudhisthira said, “Asvatthama is dead,” adding inaudibly at the end, “the elephant,” as he could not tell an utter untruth under any circumstances.
It is said that until that time, Yudhisthira’s horses seemed to move across the battlefield without touching the earth – a few inches above the ground. After he lied to Drona, his horses descended to earth. Some say that Yudhisthira’s lie had been the cause, while others argued that his reluctance to obey Krishna ’s order was the reason.
One should note that Krishna did not have any personal motive behind asking Yudhisthira to lie. As God, He is above all material considerations of profit and loss. But sometimes He breaks moral principles in order to establish higher religious principles. Ultimately, all parties benefit by such transgressions.
When Lie Becomes Truth
In order to successfully chase a fleeing robber, policemen may have to break some traffic rules. This is not considered crime. Similarly, lies spoken as a service to the Absolute Truth or to establish absolute principles are not considered lies. Apparent transgression of religious principles in order to ultimately establish the highest religion is not considered irreligious.
Srila Prabhupada, in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.13.37), explains how such transgressions can be performed only by great souls, who understand the desires of the Lord and want to please him in all conditions. He writes, “That great souls cheat others may be astonishing to know, but it is a fact that great souls cheat others for a great cause. . . . Satisfaction of the Lord is the criterion of one who is bona fide, and the highest perfection of life is to satisfy the Lord by one’s occupational duty. That is the verdict of Gita and Bhagavatam. Dhrtarastra and Vidura, followed by Gandhari, did not disclose their determination to Sanjaya, although he was constantly with Dhrtarastra as his personal assistant. Sanjaya never thought that Dhrtarastra could perform any act without consulting him. But Dhrtarastra’s going away from home was so confidential that it could not be disclosed even to Sanjaya. Sanatana Gosvami also cheated the keeper of the prison house while going away to see Sri Caitanya
Mahaprabhu, and similarly Raghunatha dasa Gosvami also cheated his priest and left home for good to satisfy the Lord. To satisfy the Lord, anything is good, for it is in relation with the Absolute Truth. We also had the same opportunity to cheat the family members and leave home to engage in the service of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Such cheating was necessary for a great cause, and there is no loss for any party in such transcendental fraud.”
Assessing our Motives
In this world, truth and untruth are relative facts. For example, do we accuse a policeman of speaking lies if it helps him in nabbing a terrorist? Actually, no action in itself is true or false, right or wrong. The motive behind the action decides whether the action is worthy or unworthy. Truths spoken selfishly, at the cost of others, are despicable and lead to our degradation, whereas lies spoken selflessly, for a higher beneficial purpose, lead to our elevation and enlightenment. This, of course, does not imply that we speak blatant lies in the name of benefitting others. Srila Prabhupada clarifies this point in one lecture (Bhagavad-gita 2.13- 17, November 29, 1968, Los Angeles) in connection with the above Mahabharata story:
That is not by your discretion. You have to consult your spiritual master. . . . Yudhisthira was commissioned to speak this lie . . . and he says that “I never spoke lie. I cannot do that.” Now here the order is coming from Krishna , therefore he should have executed the order immediately. Although speaking lie for a common man is sin, but because it is in relationship with Krishna , it is not sin . . . . Telling lie should not be taken according to one’s own discretion. It must be ordered by Krishna or by His representative. Telling lies is always sinful. . . . But if Krishna says, “Tell this lie,” it is not sinful. That is the secret. You can violate the laws only on the direct order of Krishna or His representative. . . . Just like a political person is engaged to kill somebody under superior order. And if he can kill, he is rewarded or given a high post. But if the same man kills someone by his own discretion, he’ll be hanged. So while serving a greater purpose, supreme purpose, absolute purpose, there is no question of such piety or sin. But in the ordinary field, there must be this consideration: “This is pious, this is sinful.” So that discretion should not be taken by oneself, but it should be consulted.
Thus on the one hand we see how Mother Earth considers a liar an unbearable burden upon her, and on the other hand a sage is punished for speaking the truth. And the Mahabharata story illustrates how the Supreme Absolute Truth, Sri Krishna , is giving an order to speak a lie. Behind the external visible action lies the hidden unseen motive. Our words are like sharp weapons – they may be used to attack others and spread adharma, or they may be used to protect others and spread dharma. But remember that there is only a thin line of difference between the two – a slight misapplication can lead to disastrous consequences. Therefore only after great deliberation, under the guidance of guru, sadhu and sastra, should we dare to speak a lie.
The words of my sister that were spoken years ago continue to ring in my ears. That was probably the first time someone had revealed my true dark identity to me; it hurt my ego. I don’t claim to have given up speaking lies altogether, but now whenever I have to speak a lie, I “know” that I am lying.
Vamsi-Vihari Dasa is the editor of Bhagavad-darshan, the Hindi edition of Back to Godhead.