This is a four part-article:
Satya is the second of the five yamas. The word satya means ‘reality’ or ‘truth.’ The Sanskrit root is ‘sat,’ the verb, ‘to be.’ Satya has the implication of ‘what is,’ e.g., reality.
To practice satya is to commit to aligning oneself with ‘what is,’ the truth. Inversely, it is an injunction against deception. This injunction is implied, as according to Yogic teachings we should not only actively pursue the truth, but rather address what is preventing true perception.
Deception is complicated, however. A simple definition of deception, by inverting the definition of satya, is “what is not.” Ultimately, deception or untruth is anything which does not reflect ‘what is:’ unity, compassion, respect.
We can deceive others, but we can also deceive ourselves. This is not so simple as ‘not telling lies’ or ‘always being honest.’ We can deceive with our actions as well as our words. If we tell the truth as we see it, but our perception is incorrect, are we deceiving or being honest?
Truth extends beyond our perception. Satya is much more than a pledge to refrain from untrue speech; it is a commitment to discovering and acting from the source of truth.
As discussed previously (see: Yama), I do not find much value in defining the yamas by omission. Not doing something is not going to get you far. It may prevent you from going down the wrong road further, but you won’t make any progress.
Satya, then, must also be viewed in this light. It may include an injunction against lying, but to hack at the root of deception is to make a commitment to the truth. The truth needs no defender, but the untrue must be cleared away. This step is aimed at removing one of the blocks that obscures reality: deception. By dissolving deceptions and maintaining a firm commitment to the truth, the Yogi establishes himself in reality.
For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.
− Henry David Thoreau
The Yogi is the one of every thousand, striking at the core of false perception so as to reveal the truth. ‘Evil’ in this context can be read without moral implication, to be synonymous with ‘untruth.’ All so-called ‘evil’ in this world is resultant of belief or perception that is not based in reality — insanity. In this context, the concept of insanity is not reserved solely for the clinically or criminally insane, although they certainly may qualify. It is a spectrum, and incorrect perceptions and harmful cycles of desire and suffering place many humans somewhere along it. Yoga is a therapeutic process that works at every level, designed to return the mind to a state of health.
Latin in ‘not’+ sanus ‘healthy’
Belief in or propagation of deception is insane, literally an unhealthy state of mind, and serves only to reinforce warped perception and suffering. This belief may be socially acceptable and not labeled as ‘insane’ as used in everyday speech, yet it reflects a fundamental misperception deep in the mind. Satya addresses this deep belief in untruth, gently correcting our perceptions to accurately reflect the reality of our situation by aligning our values and actions in a way that allows us to express compassion, respect, and love.
To be ‘Established in Truth’
Actions and their consequences become subservient [to the Yogi who is] established in truth.
This sutra is often explained as a description of a siddhi, or a mystical power, gained by the yogi. I would like to offer another interpretation. There are stories of sages who are so firmly rooted in the truth that the course of events, reality itself, will bend to accommodate the words of the sage. This is typically expressed in the form of a boon or a curse: the yogi says something will happen, good or bad, and it does.
If you are truly established in the truth, you observe and extend the truth rather than attempting to change reality. You would have no motivation to change the course of events! Creating an alternate flow of events results in wrong perception, not a change in the truth. Truth is defined by its unchanging state.
In a circular way then, the Yogi who ‘curses’ someone for a wrongdoing is not actually exerting influence over this person’s fate: he is merely making a predictive observation about the course of the person’s life, which as a result of their actions, may be taking a turn for the worse. He is observing the workings of karma (the consequences of action) rather than taking action himself.
It looks to us from the outside that they may be exerting some influence, but there is no logical way that this could unfold. Here’s how it plays out: if the Yogi is established in the truth, he cannot act in contradiction to it. If he cannot act against truth, he can only extend a manifestation of truth. By using his power to alter events, the Yogi would be changing the unfolding of truth. By changing events, he would no longer be established in truth, and no longer have the power to change events.
If this is true, what does the subservience in the sutra mean if not a bending to the will of the Yogi? It means that actions and the consequences thereof serve the goals of the Yogi. It is equally accurate to say that the goals of the Yogi have been modified to be aligned with the truth.
Most human activity is motivated by desire: for food, money, warmth, happiness, comfort, love, self-worth, etc. When we act from this place, our actions do not serve us. Too often, we find the consequences to be unpleasant and unhelpful. This is the root of suffering and pain.
By practicing satya, the Yogi is motivated not from these ephemeral desires, but rather from wisdom, truth, reality. The actions he takes are supportive, eliminating suffering while fostering an uplifting environment (externally and internally) for the practice of yoga.
Satya + Ahimsa
Satya overlaps with ahimsa (nonviolence) in some interesting ways. By looking at this crossover, we can refine our understanding of this yama. Does satya mean that we should always be perfectly honest, no matter what? Even if it causes harm?
Allow me to repeat a poignant story about an Indian sage who was committed to perfect honesty (I encountered it in Bryant, 2009):
A sage is meditating deep in the forest when a frightened, bloody man dashes past and ducks into a nearby cave. Shortly afterwards, a band of robbers comes running up to the sage, asking where the man has gone. The sage, committed to honesty, tells the robbers that the man is hiding in the cave. The robbers go to the cave, find the man, and kill him. The sage’s pursuit of enlightenment (perception of truth) is set back by many years because he was instrumental in the death of the man, breaking his vow of ahimsa.
I hope that you do not have to make a choice with such consequences. But we face the same dilemma on a daily basis. Imagine you’re asked your opinion on something — how your partner looks, your reaction to someone’s religious views, or someone’s dietary choices — and your opinion turns out to be unfavorable. Telling the truth would damage your relationship with the other person, but what about satya? How can the conflict between harming and lying be balanced?
We need to step back here and consider the bigger picture. Reality and truth are much bigger than words. The essence of communication is this: in any interaction you have the opportunity to communicate love, respect, compassion, care, or the opposite: contempt, dislike, fear, aggression. The Yogi feels compassion towards all beings; his communication reflects this fact. Saying an unkind word to a person you love, even if it is an accurate expression of your aesthetic preferences, is a lie because it does not communicate your love. By focusing on the accuracy of each specific word, you risk missing the bigger picture: an opportunity to express your deepest values. If you communicate from a place of respect and compassion, you will never act from violence.
Allow your action and speech to reflect truth on an emotional level, allow your emotional state to reflect truth on the mental level, and allow your mental state to reflect the truths of your existence.
This is a four part-article: