Some Sanskrit words are all the more meaningful and powerful because of their brevity, all the more complex and difficult to understand because they are easy to pronounce. Satya is one such word.
Etymologically, it derives from “sat”, the present participle of the verb “to be”, meaning “which is, which exists”. When it is an adjective, the word satyacan be translated as “real, true, authentic, sincere, faithful, loyal”, and as a noun it means “reality, truth, veracity, authenticity, sincerity, loyalty”.
What is striking is that in Sanskrit there is a single word to designate both reality and truth, whereas already in Latin there are two, “realitas” and “veritas”. The dictionary defines reality as “the characteristic of that which is real, that which actually exists, as opposed to that which is imagined, dreamed, fictional”, and truth as “the correlation between reality and the individual thinking it”. Alongside this, the Sanskrit dictionary says of satya, “sate hitam satyam”, meaning “that which leads towards SAT, Being, reality, is satya”.
So what is reality? Is the correlation mentioned in the dictionary definition possible or desirable? How can we reach that point?
According to the Yoga Sutras, reality is made up of two principles – that which sees and that which is seen. We could think that human beings are the seers and reality is everything they can see around them, but that is only partly true. What humans can see forms their internal reality, a collection of thoughts, emotions and feelings that are created within them by contact with the world around them. They think they are seeing the world, but in fact, just like in Plato’s myth of the cave, human beings see a reflection of the world in their own heads, they think it, they recognize it on the basis of past experiences, they do not see it as it is in the present. Creating their identity on the basis of a subjective vision of the world, humans become attached to that vision and get caught up in an illusion that the Yoga Sutras call avidya. They confuse reality and the vision they have of it, and, identifying with the subjective truth of their thoughts, emotions and feelings, cut themselves off from the seers’ deep reality that would enable them to become aware of what is going on.
Avidya is a source of suffering, but it is often physical or moral suffering or suffering in relationships that triggers a desire for change and sets us on the path of truth.
The Yoga Sutras suggest several ways of avoiding future suffering. Even if we do not know it to start with, they have a common aim of enabling us to discover the link between suffering and avidya, in order to develop a clear view of ourselves and of reality. The areas that Patanjali suggests exploring form part of ashtanga yoga (the eight limbs of yoga), which is represented as a wheel with eight spokes. The hub of the wheel is our deep unchanging reality, the seer. The spokes represent the different aspects of our changing field of vision, which are: our relationship with the environment and with ourselves (yama and niyama), the physical realm (asana), the breath and energy realm (pranayama), the senses (pratyahara), the mind (samyama). The latter is made up of three spokes: concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and integration with no thought (samadhi).
The role of these areas of experience is to throw light on the different aspects of our changing reality in order to distinguish them from our deep reality which illuminates them. As the spokes work together, any realization in one particular domain will benefit all the others and help us to ascend towards the hub.
Satya in the sense of truth, veracity, sincerity, authenticity, is one of the attitudes towards others, along with non-violence, non-stealing, moderation and non-grasping. Are these precepts, moral rules, principles to be applied? If we think of them in that way, we remain in the superficial layer of our being and run the risk of falling into judgement and feelings of guilt. They are more like points of reference which help us to question our views and habits and in so doing they enlighten us about ourselves and our relations with others. Thus Patanjali does not tell us how to achieve the yama, but defines them in terms of their outcomes, using for all of them a term that has very strong echos, “pratisthayam”, meaning “rootedness”.
Sutra II:36 says that when satya is well rooted, actions and the fruits of those actions are aligned. This pithy definition of satya enables us to understand that in order to carry out right action, at the same time we have to be clear about the situation and our motivation. It opens up a path of exploration which can be related to the three aspects of kriya yoga (tapas, svadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana).
The first stage of the path towards truth requires effort and purifying, deconditioning discipline (tapas), and this is done through a physical practice and breathing practices, which eliminate impurities from the body and the organs of the senses. A healthy body and sharp senses enable us to better perceive reality and establish a harmonious relationship with our environment.
The main obstacle to satya is that, in order to defend our identity, we retreat behind a fixed, subjective vision of ourselves which cuts us off from the movement of life. Blocked breathing can indicate anxiety about living in an ever-changing reality. A regular practice helps us become aware of the constant changes in our physical and mental state, and reconnecting with the breath, freeing up the movement of the diaphragm, can help to liberate us from our defenses and accept the risk of living with change.
At another level of satya, exploration of our intentions and acts, we progress to greater knowledge of our deep nature (svadhyaya), and every time the results of our actions do not meet our expectations, we can question the sincerity of our intentions. It is not about either feeling sorry for ourselves or criticizing, but rather taking responsibility for our actions and moving forwards.
In relations with others, we are constantly confronted with a different vision of reality which questions our certainties. We can either close ourselves off or open up to others, fully accepting our subjectivity, whilst respecting that of others. At this level, meditation in a broad sense makes it possible to work on purifying the memory (Yoga Sutra I:43), which helps us recognize when we are projecting our own vision onto reality, and accept that reality may be different from the image we have of it. We recognize that respect for what is true goes much further than sincerity in words, intentions and actions. Truth is not possible without adherence to reality.
Those who get to the third stage of satya are in the service of truth (ishvara pranidhana), where thought is no longer an obstacle between the seer and what is to be seen, and they adhere to reality. As Desikachar put it, “these beings tell the truth because they know reality”. Faithful to their commitments in the world, with a clear view of every situation, they no longer act in their personal interest, but in order to respond to what is being asked of them. “Those who are ignorant act through attachment to actions, oh Bharatide; the wise must always act in the same way, only seeking the wholeness of the Universe” (Bhagavad Gita III:25). At this level satya, personal truth, is the same thing as rta (Yoga Sutra I:48), the moral rule which is in line with universal truth. In the words of Krishna which conclude the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita: “thus I have revealed to you this knowledge which is more mysterious than mystery. Meditate on it in your heart, leaving nothing out, then do what you like”.
Note: The article was kindly translated by Joy Charnley.