This post is the second in a series on the 8 Limbs of Yoga.
Satya is the second of the five yamas, or universal truths.
“To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.” – Patañjali, “The Yoga Sutras” II-36
The literal meaning of the word satya is “truth.” But in the context of the yamas, it refers to the virtue of being truthful in action, speech, and thought. It includes exaggerations and little white lies. (More on that later.)
According to the Vedas (the oldest religious scriptures in India), satya helps to hold the fabric of reality together. Without satya, the universe cannot function. In the Rig Veda, truthfulness is considered a form of reverence to the divine. In the Upanishads (another ancient Indian religious text), satya is described as the means to Brahman, the Ultimate Reality or Universal Principle. It’s equated to dharma, meaning morality, ethics, or the law of righteousness.
Nothing is higher than the Law of Righteousness (Dharma). The weak overcomes the stronger by the Law of Righteousness. Truly that Law is the Truth (Satya); Therefore, when a man speaks the Truth, they say, "He speaks Righteousness"; and if he speaks Righteousness, they say, "He speaks the Truth!" For both are one.
— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, I.4.xiv
Truthfulness is an almost universal value. Satya is one of the five vows of Jainism and one of the five vows for lay people in Buddhism. The Bible addresses truthfulness for Jews and Christians in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” [Exodus 20:16]. The Quran states, “O you who believe! Be afraid of Allah, and be with those who are true (in word and deeds)” [al-Tawbah 9:119]. The relatively young religion of Sikhism also considers satya a virtue.
In modern times, Mahatma Gandhi said, “Truth is God and God is Truth.” And in 1950, India declared its national motto as Satyameva Jayate, “Truth alone triumphs.”
In the yogic tradition, there are certain benefits that follow an honest person. When someone speaks the truth for a long enough time, then everything she or he says starts to come true. She or he doesn’t have to run after things because God, the source of all truth, provides for her or him. In addition, the truthful yogi becomes fearless because she or he has no secrets. And others trust and respect her or him, because they know this person speaks the truth.
Now we know what this ethical virtue is, but how do we practice it? In Patañjali’s view, we may not know the truth or the whole truth, but we still know if we’re exaggerating, distorting the truth, or deceiving another. He considered satya to be the moral restraint on falsehoods through either telling the absolute truth or holding our silence.
Truth or silence. This doesn’t leave any room for the little white lie. When I asked my mother whether my new blouse made my behind look big, she said very lovingly, “No, Honey, your behind is big.” We had a great laugh. And I wore the blouse anyway, because it wasn’t like I was going to lose weight in one day.
It doesn’t leave any room for the C.Y.A. (cover your assets) maneuver, either. I once had a job where I worked with a team of people. Sometimes, because I’m human, I’d screw up. When I did, I always went to my boss and told him that it was my fault. Unfortunately, some of my teammates weren’t as truthful. When they’d make a mistake, they’d try to blame someone else, and sometimes that person would be me. After I’d been working there a while, though, my boss knew that if it had been my fault, I’d have already been in to see him. He trusted me, because I was straight up with him when I make a mistake. I had earned his trust through my honesty.
We need to keep in mind that “telling” the truth is not limited to our speech. We can lie by omission or even by silence. (Anyone else ever let someone believe what they wanted to believe because it was easier for us?) We can also lie by our actions, and most of us frequently lie in our thoughts. Just like with ahiṃsā, satya applies to our body, speech, and mind.
A common question that arises is what happens when this virtue comes into conflict with the first virtue, ahiṃsā or non-harming? The ancient epic Mahabharata puts it this way: “Truth should be told when agreeable, should be said agreeably, and truth should not be said that does harm; however, never lie to give pleasure.” As with everything along the spiritual path, our intention is of utmost importance. In other words, “No, Mr. Nazi Officer, there are no Jews hiding in my basement.”
One more thing. We need to remember to be truthful with ourselves, too. We humans tend to delude ourselves quite a bit. Mindfulness training can help us become aware of when we’re kidding ourselves. All that negative self-talk that most of us do on a daily basis? That’s not true, either. And it’s certainly harmful. Positive self-talk is one intersection where ahiṃsā and satya meet.
So the next time someone asks us to do something we don’t want to do, we can rest in the knowledge that “No” is a complete sentence. We don’t have to lie or come up with an excuse. We can be honest, and we can be kind. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.” Now that’s satya and ahiṃsā.
 Patañjali, “The Yoga Sutras” II-36, Sri Swami Satchidananda, trans.
 Johnston, Charles, “The Mukhya Upanishads: Books of Hidden Wisdom”