True or Untrue? (Learning from the Mahabharata)


There are some who say we don’t have anything much to learn from our ancient literature, so why should they be a part of our curricula in schools and colleges? There are others who say that if there is anything at all of any value in those old books from thousands of years ago, don’t we have Amar Chitra Katha and TV serials to spread that message, why bring them in our classrooms?

Tough issues. Maybe not so tough, if we can let go of our ideological blinders and start our inquiry with an open mind.

Some ask – what can be learned from the Mahabharata? Wrong question. The question to ask is – What can not be learned from the Mahabharata?

“Only those thoughts are true the opposite of which is also true in its own time and application; indisputable dogmas are the most dangerous kind of falsehoods.”
“I know that the opposite of what I say is true, but for the present what I say is still truer.”
~ Sri Aurobindo (Thoughts and Aphorisms)

Let us take a look at a fascinating book, The Mahabharata: An Inquiry into the Human Condition (by Chaturvedi Badrinath, 2008).

During the time I was reading this book (for the first time, because since then I have read sections of it several times – yes, it is one of those books that must be revisited often, like the Mahabharata itself!), I was also teaching a research methods course online through an American university. In a particular week during the course, our discussion steered to the idea of truth, how do we know what is true and what should researchers do with the different truths they may encounter in their inquiry process.

With the Mahabharata heavy on my mind, I recalled some passages I had read in Badrinath’s book, which I thought spoke so well to some of the deeper issues about how to work around multiple and shifting truths. More thought-provoking discussion ensued after I shared that passage, and we found ourselves going from the Mahabharata to Sri Aurobindo and finally to wind it all down with a few lines from T S Eliot and Rilke via some more specific discussions on how to work with and around our subjective truths as we proceed with our research projects.

The passages from Badrinath’s book that I share below, in my view, aren’t only for academics. These thoughts have relevance for all of us, all those interested in a seeking for the truth, the truth of the experience, in the experience. That’s perhaps an important part of being human. Maybe that’s why Badrinath speaks of Mahabhrata as an inquiry into the human condition.


Excerpts from the chapter titled “The Question of Truth”:

“In answer to a question put to Yudhisththira, ‘What is the most astonishing thing in the world?’, he had said: ‘Seeing that everyday people are dying, that those who remain still think that death would not come to them. What can be more astonishing than this?’ There is. Even a more astonishing thing about us human beings is that we all are together and alike when we lie; the moment we begin talking about truth, we fly at each other’s throat. What can be more astonishing than this? There has hardly been anything in human history that has produced greater violence and killing than the conflicting perceptions of what truth is. Even before the question ‘What is truth?’ could be formulated, there is already present the question ‘Whose truth?’ There has been in human relationships no other question at once more intimate and more agonising than this, in one form or another. Not only between one person and another, but also between one religion and another even more.”

“All schools of Indian philosophy, excepting the Materialists taken as a general group, were united in regarding truth as a great deal more than correspondence with facts. That did not imply disregard to correspondence with facts as an essential aspect of truth. But to say that it is truth that sustains and enhances human worth is not to say that correspondence with facts is all that there is to truth. Jainism and Buddhism, like Yoga and the other philosophical schools, subjected ‘correspondence with facts’ to a much deeper view of truth, satya.”

“Motives and feelings that lead to acts pertain to ‘truth’ as much as the acts themselves do. To conceal them, or to withhold them, will be untruth. Acts are manifest and verifiable, although there is serious uncertainty even about that. Motives and feelings in being inner states of the mind, are not visible, nor verifiable, in the ordinary meanings of these words. They can only be inferred; and about the inferences drawn as to the motives, there can be legitimate differences of opinion. It is perfectly conceivable that I ‘truthfully’ state external facts which, on verification, will be found to be true; and yet, in concealing the inner states of my mind inseparably connected with my external acts, I turn them into a lie. What is factually true, if separated from the motives that led to it, may yet be a lie. Anything knowingly stated incompletely will be untruth.”

“Correspondence with facts that are external cannot be by itself a sufficient criterion of truth. For that reason, the Mahabharata is far more concerned with the states of the mind of feelings than with acts.”

“On the question of truth the Mahabharata engages us simultaneously at three different levels. They are, however, interrelated in a deep coherence suggested by life itself and are not artificial products of some theory of truth. One, it shows the manifest relativity of truth. Two, it shows that the undoubtedly disturbing implications of truth being relative are resolved in perceiving truth to be at the same time relational as well. That is to say, the attributes of truth are to be seen in the quality of one’s relationship with one’s self and with the other. And, three, it shows that truth is not knowing alone, but living quite as much. There have been in the history of philosophy, and of modern science too, quarrels about the ways of knowing, and even about what knowing is. And there have been even greater quarrels about ways of living, which in their substance have been quarrels about the sources of sanction for them. Above all, knowing and living came to be looked upon as two entirely separate domains, epistemology separated from ethics, cognition from character. In the Mahabharata, these three perspectives are brought into a unity.”

I have read and re-read these passages several times since I first read them years ago, and I still find them extremely thought-provoking. They open up so many questions to ponder upon. They give hints at possible answers to some of the deepest questions we come across in our individual and collective lives.

What does it take to be truthful? What does it mean to live truthfully? What does a search for the truth look like? Where does this search for the truth – of knowing and of living – lead to? For the individual and for the collective?

So what can be learned from the Mahabharata? Wrong question, again. Ask the right one, and see where your true search may lead you.

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