Truth, Falsehood, and In Between

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As a child, I loved the story of Pinocchio, the little wooden puppet who dreamed of becoming a real boy some day. He had an unusual trait- whenever he told a lie, his nose would begin to grow!


After a series of thrilling adventures, with the help of the lovely Blue Fairy, Pinocchio succeeded in becoming a real boy.

When we were in the 2nd or 3rd standard, our teacher once told our class that what happened to Pinocchio when he told a lie, could very well happen to us too.  I believed that for quite a while, and would occasionally check in the mirror to see if my nose was the same size as before!

Adults use the story of  Pinocchio to make children understand that lying is not desirable. On the other hand, sometimes people vie with each other to see who can tell the tallest lies!

Every year an unusual competition is held in a small pub in northwestern England. It’s a competition to decide the World’s Biggest Liar!

This year, the twelve finalists “kept the packed pub entertained all evening with their incredulous tales of sheepdogs that could round up fish, chips shops on top of Scafell Pike, the local La’al Ratty steam train service being extended to London and the discovery of the ‘marrapuss’, a web-footed tabby cat wandering the fells”.

In the end,  young Jack Harvey of Harras Moor, Whitehaven emerged the clear winner with a whopping tall tale that included badgers and the Roman army.

An interesting aspect of this competition is that journalists and politicians are not allowing to compete. Apparently both journalists and politicians are considered to have an undue advantage- they “are excluded on the grounds that they are too practised in the dark art of fibbing”!

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Truthfulness is generally considered to be a virtue. But in exceptional situations bending the truth is not frowned upon.

In the great Kurukshetra War, Guru Dronacharya fought on the side of the Kauravas, against the Pandavas. He was a formidable adversary and an invincible warrior. Shri Krishna knew that it was not possible to defeat Dronacharya in battle. So he devised a plan to make him lay down his weapons.

Shri Krishna instructed Bhima to kill an elephant called Ashwatthama. Ashwatthama was also the name of Dronacharya’s son. Bhima then announced to all that he had killed Ashwatthama, expecting that Dronacharya would believe that it was Ashwatthama, his son who had been killed.

However, Dronacharya did not immediately believe Bhima. He knew that though Bhima was capable of lying, Yudhisthira was not. So he went to Yudhisthira and asked him for the truth.

Yudhisthira answered- “अश्वत्थामा हतः इति, नरो वा कुंजरो वा”, meaning “Ashwatthama is dead. But, I am not certain whether it was a human or an elephant”.

Shri Krishna, however, had anticipated that Yudhisthira would not be able to tell an outright lie [ though he had not really told the truth either]. So Shri Krishna had instructed warriors who were nearby to blow their conches and trumpets and make such a loud din that Dronacharya would not be able to hear the latter part of Yudhisthira’s statement.

Dronacharya heard only that “Ashwatthama is dead”, and was plunged into grief for his son. He laid down his weapons and subsequently died.

Some do not agree that this “half-truth” spoken by the otherwise truthful Yudhisthira was justifiable, nor was the trick played by Shri Krishna.

Legend tells us that after Yudhisthira uttered the words, “अश्वत्थामा हतः इति, नरो वा कुंजरो वा”, his chariot, which until that time always stayed a few inches above the ground by virtue of his truthfulness, dropped down to the ground, signifying that he was no longer completely honest.

However, it is generally held that bending the truth in this way was justified in the larger interest of winning the Kurukshetra War, defeating the  Kouravas, and ensuring that the side of Dharma was victorious.

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Narada Muni has said-

सत्यस्य वचनं श्रेयः सत्यादपि हितं वदेत्।

यद्भूतहितमत्यंतमेतत्सत्यं मतं मम ।।

Speaking the truth is honourable.  However, one should speak that which is beneficial rather than that which is true. I believe that what is beneficial for all living beings, is the Truth.

Therefore, in Narada Muni’s opinion, even more important than speaking what is literally true, is saying what is beneficial for all living beings, what is good for society in general.

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We, most of us, tell untruths, often for the most charitable reasons. Suppose a friend is on an elaborate diet, denying herself her favourite foods in an attempt to lose weight. Even if we do not think she has lost any weight we exclaim that she is looking slimmer. That is, of course, a lie, but we tell it to encourage her in her efforts. Is that wrong?

Parents generously praise their young children’s attempts at singing, drawing, sports, cooking. If the children have displayed only mediocre talent then are the parents lying?

So it seems that the reason for telling the truth, or for lying is important. Also one needs to consider the consequences of telling the precise, unvarnished, truth or doing otherwise.

What do you think?

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28 thoughts on “Truth, Falsehood, and In Between”

  1. You have put the readers in a very tight spot 🙂 none of us have got here in life without a lie..nd if I say I havent I do expect my nose to grow 🙂

    but there are many who lie only to create problems. This has to be discouraged. It would be very good if we could get away without telling any lies.. but that I guess in next to impossible.

    So most journalists have such a bad reputation everywhere!

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    1. Yes, I guess most journalists do have a bad reputation everywhere! Unfortunate for the ones that do their job sincerely…

      Though isn’t it interesting that journalists and of course politicians are barred from this competition on the grounds that they are ‘professional liars’? 😀

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    1. Yes, probably everyone lies at some point or the other. I know that I have. But as long as we do not mean to cause harm to others by lying, it’s okay, I guess….

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  2. All of us have some grey and I am no saint either. I probably have lied myself. but it depends why you lieing for , I am sure i have not lied ever to put someone at risk or hurt someone ..

    I think it is better to know that you have lied and do something about it rather then try to make that lie into a truth ..

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    1. I agree, as long as we do not knowingly hurt someone by lying, it’s not too bad.

      And yes, far better to do something about the fact one has lied, than to cover it up and try to hide it. If we do that, hen the lies just go on adding up.

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  3. One of the most oft quoted (or misquoted) incidents is the one where Krishna abets untruths and deceit to help Pandavas win the Kurukshetra war. Announcing the horse Ashwathama’s death and the deceit he uses to take away Karna’s kavach are cases in point. It is taken to justify lying by humans with the argument, ‘If God can lie, why can’t we?’ white lies are told by most of us, just to make another person feel good or to hide the truth. Incidentally hiding the truth is also lying isn’t it? But of all lying malicious ones is the worst since nothing is gained by it. I was thinking of a post on lying but I could never have done such a wonderful job of combining mythology, epics and spirituality. As always, a great post.

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    1. Yes, these are the most quoted/ misquoted incidents of the epic. I was unsure which version of the story of Ashwatthama’s supposed death I should mention here- I have read a couple of somewhat different ones. I decided to go with the one given in Wikipedia.

      I am unsure myelf whether Shri Krishna’s deceits can be justified. We are taught that ‘Sadhan-shuchita’ [purity of means] should be observed. But I think in this particular case the ends do justify the means.

      I agree, malicious lies are the worst kind.

      And thanks for the appreciation! 🙂

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  4. I came to know about this story with my children’s book and liked it a lot! My children also were scared to lie in those days!

    I liked the rule that politicians and journalists were not allowed to compete! Sometimes I get angry while reading Krishna’s stories! He lied many times or twisted the truths! Yudhishtira was too gullible.

    It is very difficult for me to lie! But I have done artificial praising like your example of telling people that they have slimmed down! If the Pinoccio story is true, my nose must have grown at least by a few inches!

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    1. Sandhya, I cannot imagine you lying, at least not for any uncharitable reason! 🙂

      Yes, it does seem that Krishna acted badly by twisting the truth. Many people do not agree with his actions.

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  5. I can nevr tell a lie convincingly:), so I prefer keeping quiet then, I think sometimes not telling the truth is better, if it saves someone ogives someone happiness, rather then saying it and hurting others..

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  6. I hate lies, white lies included, especailly from close ones. The closer they are the more honesty and truth I expect from them. I am prepared to give the same too 🙂 I do agree that saying something is nice or well done is okay. If one is intelligent and perceptive enough, one grasps that people are just being nice to you and you are grateful for that. But obvious praise where it is no warranted sticks out like a sore thumb as a disguised lie. I think even children catch on such unreserved praise from parents. They then start losing trust. Perhaps that is just my view 🙂
    Lol, I am reminded here of how my children used to turn to me for confirmation because they believed I never would lie to them. Yes, even when their Dad teased them with a straight face, they would turn to me. since I did not want to lose the name I had earned, I always gave them the truth, that their Dad was pulling their leg 😉
    Many times I have told people, “Don’t Ashwathama hatha kunjara me! Give it to me as it is!” 😀
    Loved reading your post, Manju. Very well articulated.

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    1. I agree that we should be able to expect truth and honesty from the people we are close to. And we should be prepared to do the same- as you have mentioned.

      I guess if people are strong enough to handle the truth, then telling the truth is the way to go. 🙂

      I’ve never been really able to decide whether bending the truth for a good cause- as Krishna did, and made others do too,- is justifiable. But I am inclined to think that, in exceptional cases, it is.

      And thank you Shail!

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  7. Lies….difficult to live life without them..True!! .Sometimes they are useful but as long as they are not harming anyone, can be acceptable .. But mostly they shouldn’t be used.
    I concur with the concept Honesty is the best policy…

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    1. Yes, certainly, courage and integrity are needed to tell the truth. When we feel that it is better to modify the truth the reason for doing so is veryimportant. If the truth is bent to save someone from hurt, it can be considered justified.

      Thanks for the New Year wishes! Happy New Year to you too!

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  8. I think the lies I have said have not harmed anyone. Like the ones you have illustrated. I do believe one must tell the truth, but there are times it can hurt the other person ! And a white lie in such circumstances are not really bad. Happy New Year to you Manju.

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