K Haridas Nair from Malaysia looks at the idea of absolute honesty from an Eastern perspective and finds that it is connected to the will to act in a broader sense. This is the first of a series in which we look at core moral values from an Eastern perspective.
As children my siblings and I were often rebuked and told to speak 'Satyam' or the Truth. Getting up to different childish pranks, ‘Satyam' did not always provide a refuge from conflict, and telling lies and blaming others was the easiest way out. When we were caught out, we were exhorted to speak 'Satyam' or otherwise punished.
'Satyam' or honesty was often highlighted by my parents in my mother tongue, Malayalam. So as children we grew up knowing about 'satyam'. As time went on and I finished school and left for further studies overseas I developed clever strategies to ensure that my parents did not know everything I was up to. So I invented stories to cover up my smoking habit and dressed up my accounts to cover questionable expenditure.
Like most of my peers, the level of my application of ‘Satyam’ thus became something that depended on circumstances. The ends often justified the level of application and I easily rationalised white lies as these did not seem to hurt anyone. Very soon 'Satyam' was something only to be exhorted as everyone seemed to claim that they were all honest.
Then at the age of twenty I met 'Moral Re-Armament' now known as 'Initiatives of Change'. Very soon I again came across this idea of 'Satyam' now expressed in English with 'Absolute Honesty' being amongst the moral standards outlined by IofC. I was impressed by the stories shared by several who had experimented with living by 'Absolute Honesty' as a moral standard in their lives.
Hearing about people returning library books and stolen money, admitting to lies and getting straight about relationships, was inspiring and challenging. I decided to try for myself this experiment of introspection, listening in silence and clarifying in my life this norm of 'Absolute Honesty'. Very soon ideas flowed into my mind of instances where I had not lived up to my highest understanding of 'satyam'.
These revelations highlighted weaknesses that I was ashamed about, yet at also brought great personal relief. My next steps involved restitution with victims, honesty with my parents and a desire to live a new quality of life. This experience of 'Satyam' exposed my weaknesses to the light and this was part of the healing, growth and understanding that followed. For all of us, the courage to face up to ongoing challenges as one moves through life helps develop a sense of will and determination to stand by new found convictions. I soon realised that as we take responsibility for our ideals and principles we become empowered by them.
Eastern thought emphasises that the totality of every human experience is related through one's body, mind and intellect. Through my physical body I perceive the world of matter and objects; through my mind I experience the world of emotions and feelings and through my intellect I comprehend my world of ideals and ideas.
Ideals and principles are part of the human intellect and a spur to action. When an ideal is broken, when the intellect compromises against its own convictions, a loss of will and moral convictions follow. Absolute Honesty or Satyam thus is critical to the development of the human will and the notion of being courageous about one's convictions.
'What is right' is born from this deep intellectual base while 'who is right' is a construct of the emotions. Yes, we are human enough and our reactions are often so quick that emotions get the better of us. It is only after much considered thought that we are able to separate the ideals from the emotions and recognise that 'what is right' is qualitatively different.
This calls for the discipline of keeping one's head always above the storms of the heart. As the faculty of discrimination and judgement, the intellect needs to operate above the rising tides of emotional feelings. However, when we quickly give into emotions, feelings and impulses, these then dictate the nature of our reactions. Very soon we develop fuzzy and mushy thinking leading to a loss of clarity and discernment.
It is the privilege of humans to mould their destiny and to develop their ideals and principles. Having clarity about this cultivates the human will providing convictions and a sense purpose and meaning. At the intellectual level one must be ready to consider and reconsider one's position in the light of all available evidence and facts before being ready to take the necessary action, popular or otherwise.
Having accepted the ideal and principles involved, one will then have the courage and heroism to live by it. This is the essence of Absolute Honesty or Satyam. A commitment to Absolute Honesty provides the strength and conviction which nourishes the development of the 'will' in human beings, a uniquely precious human condition. A desire to cultivate this sense of will and integrity requires constant vigilance and introspection with silence and meditation being key disciplines.
The lives of people with integrity reveal the development of a strong will to live up to their intellectual convictions and to act from this source of knowledge. Convictions act as the spring in the will of such individual and leadership is the outcome that spurs them to take great initiatives.
Absolute Honesty provides a key and a person of integrity develops an unseen power over life and its happenings. He or she stands out because they are no more fashioned by the notion "that everyone does it so it is OK". This is to accept 'relative honesty' acceptable as the lowest common denominator which is perhaps dishonesty expressed in fashionable terms.
Read the other four articles by K Haridas on this topic:
K Haridas Nair is Executive Director of an Educational Foundation in Malaysia, Vice-Chair of MRA Malaysia and is also active with several NGO’s in Malaysia in the areas of Inter-faith and Justice issues.