Satya is a Sanskrit noun that means truth. It is the second yama (essential ethical principle) on the yogic spiritual path as propounded by Patanjali. Coming second after ahimsa (nonviolence) among the yamas, satya is implicitly affirmed as integrally connected to that first principle of peacefulness.

Over thousands of years of philosophical exploration in India, satya has been subtly developed, with variance, in the metaphysics, cosmologies, ontologies, epistemologies, ethics, and psychologies of the six orthodox philosophical schools that recognize the authority of the Vedas, as well as in the heterodox schools, such as Jainism and Buddhism. In the philosophical traditions of other cultures, analogous developments have also been pursuing truth from antiquity to now.

Satya is central to the spiritual philosophy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who entitled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. He named his nonviolent activism for social justice, as in the liberation of India from the structural violence of British colonial domination, satyagraha (holding to truth). He also linked satyagraha and ahimsa as inseparable when he wrote,“my anekantavada is a result of the twin doctrine of satyagraha and ahimsa.”1 For this statement to be understandable, anekantavada needs to be translated. It is a key epistemological concept from Jain philosophy, which influenced Gandhi 2 and, according to Vivekananda,3 Indian culture as a whole. In Jainism, ahimsa is the cardinal virtue. Anekantavada, a corollary of ahimsa, refers to the relativity of viewpoints and how no single perspective is the one and only truth. Each idea or belief depends on the life experience and vantage point of the believer. Thus, anekantavada is an epistemological requirement for a nonviolent attitude toward others with divergent points of view about truth. Anekantavada is ahimsa on the intellectual plane with regard to claims to satya.

A classic tale found in the Sufi, Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist spiritual literature,4 whimsically illustrates anekantavada and the limitations to any claim to satya. It relates how seven blind men were arguing about the true nature of an elephant. Finally they went to an elephant to find out firsthand. Each felt the elephant at a different bodily part and inferred that the part was the whole. Thus, they argued whether an elephant was like a spear, a rope, a wall, a tree, a leaf, etc. until a sighted person explained that each was both correct and in error since an elephant included but was not subsumed by any part. Each had grasped only a part. The tale is a humorous yet humbling reminder of the limitations of the human intellectto grasp truth as a whole and a graphic expression of anekantavada. Such an attitude toward satya could be an antidote to fundamentalism and a preventive to conflicts, including bloody ones, that have occurred over divergent claims to truth.

In a passage in which M. K. Gandhi gave an exegesis of the tale of the blind men and the elephant, he wrote about himself,

It has been my experience that I am always true from my point of view, and am often wrong from the point of view of my honest critics. I know that we are both right from our respective points of view. And this knowledge saves me from attributing motives to my opponents or critics...Formerly I used to resent the ignorance of my opponents. Today I can love them because I am gifted with the eye to see myself as others see me and vice versa. I want to take the whole world in the embrace of my love.

Gandhi concluded this acknowledgement of his growth in the ability to perceive truth pluralistically with the statement already quoted above: “My Anekāntavāda is the result of the twin doctrine of satyagraha and ahimsa.”5

The modern and postmodern sciences with their empirical methodologies and integrating theories each seek to contribute to knowledge, or truth, in their respective domains. Psychology has opened fields of inquiry into the complexities of truth in the subjective, interpersonal, and social realms. Thus, it has been found that intentional lying is only one among many obstacles to truth in human relations.

The unconscious psychological defense mechanisms also interfere with recognition of truth. They may develop early in life or later as adaptions to powerful forces within significant relationships and situations. They may become maladaptive or pathological, depending on the degree of impairment to coping with reality, wholeness, and truthfulness. Among the defense mechanisms, are denial, repression, projection, dissociation, reaction formation, regression, intellectualization, rationalization, and transference, to name only a few among many. There are, in fact, different theories and models of defense mechanisms.6 The point here is not to catalogue and define them, but rather to indicate that we humans have many unconscious ways of coping with strong emotions and challenging situations.

To varying degrees, defense mechanisms distort our conscious access to truth. Here are brief commentaries on only two of the defense mechanisms, denial and dissociation. In denial, one is unable to face a truth that arouses anxiety and would, if faced, call for behavioral changes that the person fears. For example, one is in an abusive relationship and needs to leave it for one’s own health, safety, and potential self-actualization. The denial keeps at bay anxiety about, perhaps, being lonely, having failed, or facing social disapproval. In dissociation, one has been traumatized, faced with a threat to the physical survival of self or cherished others or with a challenge to one’s psychological identity. The trauma is so overwhelming that one becomes unaware of the feelings it arouses, its implications for one’s view of reality, one’s vulnerability and mortality, and even of the events themselves.

The human brain, recognized in our culture as the organ for comprehending truth, is complex. Its vertical levels of structural organization, in which ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, involve, from most primitive to most evolved, brain stem, diencephalon, limbic brain, and neocortex. Each level normally comes on-line at different ages of the human life cycle and makes possible differentiated functions.7 Horizontally, at the levels of the limbic brain and cortex, there is also specialization of functions within left and right hemispheres, adding to complexity. A well integrated brain, without trauma-induced developmental delays and impairments at any level, becomes most capable of higher order cognition and moral reasoning. Children raised by stable, consistent, nurturing, attuned adults who validate their feelings and accept them as they are in each developmental stage are able to be truthful because they have been raised in a context of truthfulness.

Children who suffer developmental trauma, who are not allowed to express themselves genuinely, whose adult caregivers do not help them find words for their feelings, who prohibit, for example, sadness and crying as signs of weakness, who shame and humiliate them, who tell them they are bad and failures, and who punish them basically for being kids who do not know any better, tend to develop a false self based on creating impressions of who they are supposed to be in order to avoid punishment and further shaming. Out of touch with their core feelings, they lack