Truthfulness is the ninth of the ten attributes of dharma. Normally, this attribute is linked with the faculty of speech; i.e. to strictly speak what one has seen, heard or understood. This could do as a broad general definition. But it does not capture the essence of truthfulness which can only be defined as upholding the intrinsic core of righteousness. If the objective is noble then circumstances may warrant deliberate deviation from the literal definition. For, instance, if a patient is struggling against an apparently incurable ailment, words of encouragement and hope, strengthening his willpower and thereby increasing his chances of survival would better serve the spirit of truth than literally and heartlessly repeating the medical verdict. Such truthfulness is worse than an outright lie. Similarly, if there is estrangement between two closely related parties or persons, each feeling uncompromisingly righteous, the ends of truth will be better served by acting as a bridge through highlighting even in an exaggerated way the brighter sides of both sides and work towards reconciliation rather than widening the gulf through so-called plain speaking.
Time was when open confession of ones faults and demerits was not looked down upon; rather ones innocence and naivete invited indulgence and forgiveness. But now the situation has completely changed. Revelation of private secrets is now a matter of ridicule by the people who take sadistic pleasure in broadcasting a persons vulnerabilities and in soiling his good name and prestige.
Many instances can be cited when a newly married bride was led to confide in her spouse about her past mistakes and then, instead of promised love and forgiveness, a highly vindictive attitude was adopted thereby making her life a veritable hell. The right thing to do is to keep completely mum about incidents of the past whose revelation is likely to create problems and misery. Truthfulness is considered a sign of nobility. A match between word and deed is indeed a virtue, and such qualities should be routinely practiced in daily activities. However, it is not falsehood to keep quiet about matters of the past whose uncovering is likely to raise a storm. Very often silence amounts to truthfulness in such circumstances.
The story goes that a cow escaped from the clutches of a butcher and was grazing by the side of the river behind an ashram. The butcher, in her pursuit came in front of the ashram and inquired from the sage about the cows whereabouts. The sage replied philosophically, That which has seen speaks not, that which speaks has seen not. He was, of course, referring to the difference between the faculties of sight (eyes) and the speech (tongue). The butcher could not follow this symbolic language and returned disappointed. The cow was thus saved by this enigmatic truth thus prevented a big tragedy.
Personnel of the armed forces and intelligence agencies have strict instructions to gather information from others but not to divulge facts about themselves. This appears to be a clear encouragement to falsehood. But behind it is the exalted aim of national security and crime investigation. Hence, in such cases recourse to apparent lies can in no way be considered unbecoming or demeaning.
Dharmaraj Yudhishthira, while confirming the death of Ashwathama, simply added in a low tone, naro va kunjro vaeither a man of this name or an elephant. Many an elephant had died in the Mahabharat war. Yudhisthir instead of clarifying the position took recourse to a half truth. Even Lord Krishna, sensing that Arjun might have to die instead of Jayadratha, created the mirage of a sunset with the help of his Sudarshan Chakra. Thus, Arjunas life was saved and instead Arjun was able to kill Jayadrath to fulfill his vow. The seemingly deceptive trick played by Krishna served the cause of truth by serving the life of the greates warrior of the age fighting against the forces of evil.
All these epochal episodes are neither meant to encourage falsehood, nor to paint truth as impractical. Honesty and truthfulness are indeed the basic moral and ethical values to be practiced in our lives. We must not indulge in adulteration, or profiteering; must use correct weights and measures, and have transparent book keeping. But by the same token, it is not at all necessary to play Harishchandra before a thief or a thug, reveal to him details of ones money and valuables and thus facilitate and encourage theft and dacoity.
One ought to practice truthfulness and honesty in daily conduct. The less wheeling-dealing one resorts to, the clearer is the conscience, and less the chances of physical and mental disorders. Words of such a noble person carry spontaneous credibility.
Having said all this, it should be borne in mind that needless publicity of facts as that lead to harmful consequences for individuals and the society should be avoided. There are many occasions in life when silence is golden; it saves one from indulging in gossip, lies, twisting of facts, etc. which lead to mental pollution, turmoil and tension.
The modern age abounds in persons of perverted nature who first contrive to be privy to a persons secrets and use the information so gained to denigrate the poor fellow in public. The great number of such instances has led tothe adage that it is wise to speak less, speak sweet and speak for the good. This gives the essence of practical truthfulness. Needless divulging of facts to all and sundry invariably harms the interests of many who tend to become foes. It is noble to adhere to truth, but it should be compatible with upholding of societal harmony and order, and personal dignity and peace of mind.
Truth always triumphs. This dictum can also be applied in favour of the exploited. Injustice is said to be like a paper tiger. The inherent rights of man are founded upon truth, justice and natural order. Hence, however powerful the exploiters be, they are bound to bite the dust one day. Similarly, malpractices, superstitions and meaningless rituals are all manifestations of falsehood. These castles in the air draw sustenance from an appeal to blend traditions and would crumble with one push.
Inner and outer activities to cleanse the psyche and to uplift public consciousness are part of practice of truth. Vices, such as taking intoxicants, have taken firm roots in society and are sucking its life blood like leeches. The moment darkness of ignorance is removed, these vices and malpractices would also cease to exist.
The soul is synonymous with Truth. Efforts to preserve its purity and dignity are also facets of truth. Truth also implies that social justice and brotherhood of man be established. To fight against the stubborn resistance to Truth by forces of evil is an action inspired by Truth-consciousness: an attribute of Divinity.