The Meaning of Truth

by Mohandas K. Gandhi

School of Andries Cornelis Lens, “Truth Protecting Us with Her Shield”, c. 1750; courtesy

Editor’s Preface: “Truth”, “lies”, “alternate facts”, “post-truth politics”, etc., are terms very much in the air these days. Gandhi had much to say about Truth; the selection below is only a small sample focused on the root concepts behind his use of the term, and by application the root of his theory of nonviolence. This is the first of a series of articles we will be posting over the next few months on truth and truth in politics. Other statements on Satyagraha and Truth can be found on our Quotes and Sources page, via the link at the top of the page. JG

(I) The word Satya (Truth) is derived from Sat, which means ‘being’. Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth. That is why Sat or Truth is perhaps the most important name of God. In fact it is more correct to say that Truth is God, than to say that God is Truth. But as we cannot do without a ruler or a general, such names of God as ‘King of Kings’ or ‘The Almighty’ are and will remain generally current. On deeper thinking, however, it will be realised, that Truth (Sat or Satya) is the only correct and fully significant name for God.

And where there is Truth, there also is true knowledge. Where there is no Truth, there can be no true knowledge. That is why the word Chit or knowledge is associated with the name of God. And where there is true knowledge, there is always bliss (Ananda). There sorrow has no place. And even as Truth is eternal, so is the bliss derived from it. Hence we know God as Sat-Chit-Ananda, one who combines in Himself Truth, knowledge and bliss. (1)

(II) You asked me why I consider that God is Truth . . . I would also say with those who say that God is Love, ‘God is Love.’ But deep down in me I used to say that though God may be Love, God is Truth above all. I have now come to the conclusion that for myself God is Truth, but two years ago I went a step further and said Truth is God. And I came to that conclusion after a continuous and relentless search after Truth, which began nearly fifty years ago. I then found that the nearest approach to Truth was through Love.  (2)

(III) Truth alone will endure; all the rest will be swept away before the tide of time. I must continue to bear testimony to Truth even if I am forsaken by all. Mine may today be a voice in the wilderness, but it will be heard when all other voices are silenced, if it is the voice of Truth. (3)

(IV) Devotion to this Truth is the sole justification for our existence. All our activities should be centred in Truth. Truth should be the very breath of our life . . . When once this stage in the pilgrim’s progress is reached, all other rules of correct living will come without effort, and obedience to them will be instinctive. But without Truth it is impossible to observe any principles or rules in life.

There should be truth in thought, truth in speech, and truth in action.

Generally speaking observation of the law of Truth is understood merely to mean that we must speak the Truth. But we should understand the word Satya or Truth in a much wider sense. There should be truth in thought, truth in speech, and truth in action. To the man who has realized this truth in its fullness, nothing else remains to be known, because all knowledge is necessarily included in it. What is not included in Truth is not-truth, and so not true knowledge; and there can be no inward peace without true knowledge. If we once learn how to apply this never failing test of Truth, we will at once be able to find out what is worth doing, what is worth seeing, and what is worth reading . . .

But how is one to realize this Truth, which may be likened to the philosopher’s stone or the cow of plenty? By single-minded devotion (abhyasa) and indifference to all other interests in life (vairagya) replies the Bhagavad Gita. In spite of such devotion, what may appear as Truth to one person will often appear as untruth to another person. But that need not worry the seeker. Where there is honest effort, it will be realised that what appears to be different truths are like the countless and apparently different leaves of the same tree. Does not God himself appear to different individuals in different aspects? Yet we know that He is one. But Truth is the right designation of God. Hence there is nothing wrong in every man following Truth according to his lights. Indeed it is his duty to do so. Then if there is a mistake on the part of anyone so following Truth it will be automatically set right. For the quest for Truth involves self-suffering (tapas), sometimes even unto death. There can be no place in it for even a trace of self-interest. In such a selfless search for Truth nobody can lose his bearings for long. Directly he takes to the wrong path he stumbles, and is thus redirected to the right path. Therefore the pursuit of Truth is true devotion (bhakti). It is the path that leads to God. There is no place in it for cowardice, no place for defeat. It is the talisman by which death itself becomes the portal to life eternal . . .

How beautiful it would be if all of us, young and old, men and women, devoted ourselves wholly to Truth in all that we might do in our waking hours, whether working, eating, drinking, or playing till dissolution of the body makes us one with Truth? God as Truth has been for me a treasure beyond price; may He be so to every one of us. (4)

(V) The struggle between the forces of good and evil is ceaseless and eternal. The former have Truth and Ahimsa [nonviolence] as weapons against the latter’s falsehood, violence and brute force. (5)

(VI) Truth never damages a cause that is just. (6)

Truth, the Sovereign Principle

(VII) For me, Truth is the sovereign principle, which includes numerous other principles. This Truth is not only truthfulness in word, but truthfulness in thought also, and not only the relative truth of our conception, but the Absolute Truth, the Eternal Principle, that is God. There are innumerable definitions of God, because His manifestations are innumerable. They overwhelm me with wonder and awe, and for a moment stun me. But I worship God as Truth only. I have not yet found Him, but I am seeking after Him. I am prepared to sacrifice the things dearest to me in pursuit of this quest. Even if the sacrifice demanded be my very life, I hope I may be prepared to give it . . .

But as long as I have not realized this Absolute Truth, so long must I hold by the relative truth as I have conceived it. That relative truth must, meanwhile, be my beacon, my shield and buckler. Though this path is straight and narrow and sharp as the razor’s edge, for me it has been the quickest and easiest . . . For the path has saved me from coming to grief, and I have gone forward according to my light. Often in my progress I have had faint glimpses of the Absolute Truth, God, and daily the conviction is growing upon me that He alone is real and all else is unreal. (7)

(VIII) [Truth] is that which alone is, which constitutes the stuff of which all things are made, which subsists by virtue of its own power, which is not supported by anything else but supports everything that exists. Truth alone is eternal; everything else is momentary. It need not assume shape or form. It is pure intelligence as well as pure bliss. We call it Ishwara [Supreme Being] because everything is regulated by its will. It and the law it promulgates are one. Therefore, it is not a blind law. It governs the entire universe. (8)

Truth is God

(IX) In my early youth I was taught to repeat what in Hindu scriptures are known as the one thousand names of God. But these one thousand names of God were by no means exhaustive. We believe—and I think it is the truth—that God has as many names as there are creatures and, therefore we also say that God is nameless and, since God has many forms we also consider Him formless, and since He speaks to us through many tongues, we consider Him to be speechless and so on. And so when I came to study Islam I found that Islam too had many names for God. I would say with those who say God is Love, God is indeed Love. But deep down in me I used to say that though God may be Love, God is Truth above all. If it is possible for the human tongue to give the fullest description of God, I have come to the conclusion that for myself, God is Truth . . .

But two years ago, I went a step further and said that Truth is God. You will see the fine distinction between the two statements, namely that God is Truth and Truth is God. And I came to that conclusion after a continuous and relentless search after Truth, which began nearly fifty years ago. I then found that the nearest approach to Truth was through Love. But I also found that love has many meanings, in the English language at least, and that human love in the sense of passion could become a degrading thing also. I found too that love in the sense of nonviolence (Ahimsa), had only a limited number of votaries in the world. But I never found a double meaning in connection with Truth and even atheists had not demurred to the necessity or power of Truth. But in their passion for discovering Truth the atheists have not hesitated to deny the very existence of God—from their own point of view rightly. And it was because of this reasoning that I saw that rather than say that God is Truth I should say that Truth is God. (9)

(X) The seers have described God as Neti-Neti (not this-not that). Truth will elude you. The sum total of all that is true is Truth. But you can’t sum up all that is true…. There are things that can’t be analysed. God who can be analysed by my poor intellect won’t satisfy me. Therefore I do not try to analyse Him. I go behind the relative to the absolute and I get my peace of mind. (10)

(XI) God is not a person . . . The truth is that God is the force. He is the essence of life. He is pure and undefiled consciousness. He is eternal. And yet, strangely enough, all are not able to derive either benefit from or shelter in the all-pervading living presence. (11)

(XII) God is not some person outside ourself, or away from the universe. He pervades everything, and is omniscient as well as omnipotent. He does not need any praise or petitions. Being immanent in all beings, He hears everything and reads our innermost thoughts. He abides in our hearts and is nearer to us than the nails are to the fingers. (12)

(XIII) God is that indefinable something which we all feel but which we do not know . . . To me God is Truth and Love; God is ethics and morality; God is fearlessness. God is the source of Light and Life and yet He is above and beyond all these. God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist. For in His boundless love God permits the atheist to live. He is the searcher of hearts. He transcends speech and reason. He knows us and our hearts, better than we do ourselves. He does not take us at our word for He knows that we often do not mean it, some knowingly and others unknowingly. He is a personal God to those who need His personal presence. He is embodied to those who need His touch. He is the purest essence. He simply is to those who have faith. He is all things to all men. He is in us and yet above and beyond us. One may banish the word ‘God’, but one has no power to banish the ‘Thing Itself’. (13)

Satyagraha, or Truth Force

(XIV) Satyagraha is literally holding on to Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force. Truth is soul or spirit. It is, therefore, known as soul-force. (14)

(XV) Truth implies love, and firmness engenders force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha; that is to say, the force that is born of truth and love or nonviolence . . . Satyagraha is soul-force, pure and simple. (15)

Endnotes: (JG)

(1) Gandhi, M. K. Yeravda Mandir (Ashram Observances), translated from the Gujarati by Valji Govindji Desai, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing, 1932; pp. 1-2.

(2) Young India, 31 December 1931; p. 427.

(3) Basic Education, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing, 1951; p. 89.

(4) Prabhu, R. K. and Rao, U. R. (eds.), The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing, 1967; p. 11.

(5) Statement made in a speech on prayer, 30 November 1944; quoted in Margaret Chatterjee, Gandhi’s Religious Thought. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983, p. 101.

(6) Merton, Thomas (ed.), Gandhi on Non-violence, New York: New Directions, 1965; p. iv.

(7) An Autobiography, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing, 1927; p. 11; also in All Men Are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections , edited by Krishna Kripalani, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing, 2005; p. 63.

(8) Yeravda Mandir; p. 37.

(9) Young India, 31 December 1931; pp. 427-28.

(10) Gora (G. Ramachandra Rao), An Atheist with Gandhi, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing, 1951; p. 30.

(11) Harijan, 22 June 1947; p. 200.

(12) Yeravda Mandir; p. 36.

(13) Young India, 5 March 1925; pp. 80-81.

(14) Young India, 23 March 1921; p. 78.

(15) Satyagraha in South Africa, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1950; pp. 102, 105.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi