Elusive Truth

Modern Mythmaking 27 Comments

Published in Devlok,  Sunday Midday, June 06, 2010


The editor of a magazine wanted me to be photographed wearing orange robes, a bell in one hand and a lamp in another, surrounded by images of gods and goddesses. This is what they believed a mythologist should look like. I refused and insisted they photograph me as I am! When the article was finally published, it stated: “Devdutt is very particular about the image he wishes to project. His smile is unsettlingly constant.” It suggested I was some sinister media manipulator, I felt. If I had submitted to wearing the orange robe, and allowed them to create an ‘image’ for me, would such a comment have been made, I wonder.

The event caused me to wonder: who constructs the images we see in the media. Is it what happened? Is it what journalists or media houses want to tell us? Or is it what we want to hear? What is the truth?

Ancient Indian wisdom, the Veda, is called Shruti, that which needs to be heard. What is heard is often colored by prejudices, hence we never quite hear the truth as told. That is why ancient Rishis spent their lifetimes purifying their minds and bodies so that they could hear the truth as it was. But still no one was sure if everyone saw the truth as it was.

Upanishads refer to a great conference organized by Raja Janak of Mithila. He invited all Rishis to discuss the nature of reality. Everybody came with a different view, though each one had heard the same thing. Upanishads means ‘come sit close to me’. In other words, it refers to close intimate conversations between two people, a seeker and a guru, a student and a teacher, a person who hears the story and a person who tells the story. Truth is that which is churned between what is said and what is heard.

Since ancient times, Indians have been advised to tell stories. Stories are called Ka-tha, which means ‘what happened?’ Stories were also called iti-hasa, which is now taken to mean history. In other words, stories were seen as the truth. The ancient Rishis accepted the fact that he who tells the story has his bias and so does he who hears the story. So why bother trying to separate fact from fiction.

Everyone wants to tell a sensational ‘breaking news’ story. Each one wants to bring a new angle. Naturally nothing is fair or balanced. Everything has a prejudice. What we hear is not the truth but a story – the Left wing story, the Right wing story, the story as NDTV sees it, or the story as Tehelka sees it.

Stories play a key role in shaping our lives. Stories told by Hitler led to the Holocaust. Stories told by the British led to the Partition. Stories told by George Bush led to the attack on Afghanistan and Iraq. Stories are shaping our attitudes towards Pakistan and Pakistan’s attitude towards India. Chinese people are told only those stories that their government wants them to hear. Where is the truth, I wonder?

  • sandesh
    • Pravin

      Best !

  • Hi Devdutt,

    First, I believe you pose the question incorrectly: there is no such thing as “THE Truth”. Hence, you can’t ask “what is the truth?” At best, it is a meaningless question.

    The fact that there is no one, single “TRUTH” implies that there are truths that are bound by limited and specific domains or contexts.

    For instance, the rules governing a story, plot, or novel determine the truth-value of the statements contained therein.

    Likewise, there are true statements in the Euclidean world that would not hold up in the non-Euclidean world.

    Does that mean that truths are subjective? No.
    Does that mean that truths are relative to culture, time, place? No.
    Does that mean that truths are impossible to arrive at? Absolutely Not!

    Anwering yes to any of the questions about is self-defeating because it gets you stuck a question-begging circle.

    Thus, the nature of truth is that it is objectively valid and established within a speciifically defined context and it corresponds to the relationship between a conceptual mind and its grasp of factual matter–external data or objects.

    Since “truth” is an epistemological concept, it requires the existence of a conceptual mind capable of establishing a relationship of comprehension with the external world. Any facts grasped by such a mind would be true ideas so long as the context is specifically–albeit implicitly–identified and retained.

    In fact, without the notion of truths that can be apprehended by conceptual minds and transmitted across to other conceptual minds, you wouldn’t even be able to write this post.

    Is it true that you got photographed for a magazine?

    Is it true that you wrote this post?

    • Rohit

      Is there any point here after such a long mumbo jumbo?

    • Srinivas

      Very true. No truth is universal. Every truth by its very nature will be limited to a field or ‘construct’. That, sadly, is truth about truth!!!

    • How can one deny something without having experienced something, your denial for truth does not deny the existence of Truth, Truth is something that Mahavir experienced, Budh experienced, truth as said by scriptures is something that cannt be expressed in words, word are bound ,word arise out of thought , but Truth is a state where thoughts dont exist, so people who realise truth or param anand state cannt express in word for no thought is present when you experience truth, It’ll be childish of us all to deny something withouth even knowing a tiny percentage of it…. your post is very immature and shows your Rigidity, just like scientists 5-6 years ago…..

  • Sriharsha

    Truth is best left unsaid as no one will believe it. The winner of a battle survives to make history. No one will know the other side of the story. The truth may be against the establishment and you just cannot go against it.

  • Ips

    I loved these particular lines in the article:
    “Everything has a prejudice. What we hear is not the truth but a story – the Left wing story, the Right wing story, the story as NDTV sees it, or story as Tehelka sees it.” :)
    True; everyone wants to fit people or issues in a particular (acceptable) template otherwise it is difficult for them to digest it. And propaganda plays a huge role in media today. Truth is a myth.

  • There is only one truth in this universe and that is God Himself. When you seek that One Truth, automatically you get to discern what is right and what is wrong. Till then each one of us is living as per our own understanding.

  • Gauri

    The creator wanted to have fun and so he created the world and intellectual people in it.

    Fun was all the people will play hide and seek. Where creator is hidden and we all have the goal to finding him.

    This is the only truth and unfortunately is a forgotten one.

    • Ramdas

      What about Death ?

      • Gauri

        Death, is nothing but changing your form/role in the game, unless you have successfully found the GOD.

        • Pravin

          Belief “Searching/Finding GOD” belongs to Mythology, which part of World belongs to this Mythology ?

  • Sreevalsan

    Well said !

    we have heard that History is HIS STORY. But then in whose story we should believe?

    Our Rishivaryas had longtime back understood this and put it like this : ‘HiraNmayEna PatrENa Satyasyapi hitam mukham’ ( The face of the truth is eternally covered by the golden urn !)

  • What is reality but a perception. What you perceive is your reality.. what I perceive is mine.

    Liked “why bother trying to separate fact from fiction”… :-)

  • Indranath

    A ring will not have “same fit” in five fingers since the fingers are not alike…

    To have a fit of the same ring in all the five fingers in same way either the modifications / alterations of the ring is required to be done or 5 copies of the same ring with each one made to fit for each finger is required to be done.

    In any case the ring (in itself) won’t change

    In that case is there really a “one” or “unique” or “only” way to accept a fact (seen/heard/read of)? …and that we can call “TRUTH”?….

    OR the “TRUTH” is always available in multiple copies just in different forms.

    In either case it does not make any difference to the “TRUTH”…

    and may be thats how a “TRUTH” lives

  • Guruprasad

    To pass a judgement you have to qualify to be a Judge, you cannot pass a judgement just by arguing like a lawyer. Similarly you need to qualify to understand the truth not just by thinking at the mental level

    whatever the arguments it does not make any difference to the “TRUTH”

  • Kanan Divecha

    Truth at the human level, in our day-to-day life, is relative. The person telling a story may be, as you said, biased towards or against a certain point, the listener is, as he is listening or when he is ruminating over the story, develops his own overviews & this in turn creates new ideas which become part of the story and so forth. This is perhaps how folklore came about. But there is what is called absolute truth as well. This truth is unchangeable. It remains intact, pure, divine essential & free-flowing down the ages, through the eons of time. This absolute truth was communicated from time to time intuitively by the Source & it was heard in the deep recesses of silence by the great Rishis, who, in turn passed it down verbally to their disciples. This absolute truth in simple terms is LOVE that will remain the eternal ‘breaking news’ for all times to come until such time that we has a human race begin to live in love.

  • Raj

    Truth is what benefits the majority.
    Think of whole human body as this world. Now if one part develops life threatening cancer (cancer is simply the unwanted cell growth) then the truth is that that part of the growth should be stopped if needed amputated. This might be wrong/false to the cancer cells who are growing but it serves the greater good by saving the humans life (other cells organs)

  • Oommen Abraham

    At the outset let me congratulate the author and Desikamani for bringing the thought provoking article. Yes, everyone lives in their own world. Everyone draws their own boundary and sees things from their own perspectives; everyone has their own frame of reference. The author beautifully brought out that everyone is biased that “ what is told and what is heard” depends on the interpretation of the person. Today if we say God, the picture of God is different to different people. It depends upon how your mind is coloured through traditions, culture, value system, believes, etc. It also depends upon the creativity of a person to give shape and colour to God. If that is not true, then the picture of God should be the same in everyone’s mind. Hence I agree that we all live in our own World, we create God, we create value system, we create culture, we create what is comfort, we create stories, may be the good God wants us to be creative in our own way. Issue is when we want our creative stories to be believed by others. We live in our “own world” and forget “the world” that is existing. We hear that “it is my pleasure, my happiness, my way of doing things, my office, my job, my family, my children,…”. So there exists the two world ie mine vs others.

    Different News channel cover the same incident but highlights or says story differently. Yesterday in Parliament Arjun Singh, the person who handled Bhopal disaster narrated the incidents to the nation which led to the release of Anderson, then CEO of Dow Chemicals. All these days politicians mainly opposition parties were after Arjun Singh to tell the truth, when he finally opened up, none of the opposition parties ready to believe. If he cannot be believed then why they were after him all these days? So where is the truth, we have been told that “truth will triumph at last”. Every party has got their own story to be told on Bhopal Gas tragedy which they want their followers to believe. Please don’t think that I am trying to bring in politics. It is to bring up the point that we live in our “own world” ignoring the “the world” and hence the truth also will be subjective to the one how he or she sees it.

    • “Truth” is always hidden – rest is “advertisement”

  • Pravin

    Truth, it all depends on which side your belief are.

    Nothing like True and False.

    Everything is True. :))

  • Rohit

    Stories shape our life or our belief shapes the course of life? Doesn’t belief define the truth for most of folks?

    • Ramdas

      Belief define the truth for everyone.

      Right say Osama is terrorist, Left say Obama is terrorist.

    • Ramdas

      If you see life as only one span, then you may have valid question.

      But if you belief life have multiple spans( cycle life -> death -> life) then your question has no meaning.

  • We tend to confuse “facts” as akin to “truth” – the two are different.
    A law court attempts to arrive at the “truth” before passing its judgement. In the process what it really does is ascertaining the “facts” based on evidences presented before it — never mind the ‘truth’