Satyam, Shivam Sundaram or Poetic Truth

March - 2021
Satyam, Shivam Sundaram or Poetic Truth

                                                                                                                                                                                                                For Members only. For Private Circulation only.

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Thought Mailer                                                                       Vol. 11 1 No. 08 1 March 2021

Mr. Harsha V. Dehejia

Satyam, Shivam Sundaram or Poetic Truth


Through Indian history runs a thread of enquiry by sage, philosopher and king. To this list should be added the poet. This fearless search into the inner depths of man’s being and the human condition gave birth to some of the most profound insights of the human race equally through philosophic dialogue as well as artistic expression and representation. It is said that if one wants to know facts one should read history but if one wants to know the truth one should read poetry. While contemplation leads to adhyatmik satya or metaphysical truth, the experience of objects and expressions of beauty, otherwise called art, leads to kavyagata satya or poetic truth, both of which are valid and illuminating, and one does not negate the other. This immediately raises the question whether there are multiple or a single truth, which is turn takes us to the oft repeated Vedic dictum:

ekam sat bahuda vipraha vadnati
truth is one, the wise speak of it in different ways.
Rg Veda

Truth, thus is one, but not monolithic, and therefore there are many paths to it. The Abrahamic traditions proclaim that Gid is Truth. We in India say God is Truth.

Without attempting to define truth at this stage, for no easy definition is possible, it is important for contemplative persons to undertake a journey to discover and realise satya or truth. In a world that is constantly changing and one that leads to dichotomies of pleasure and pain, the human mind longs for certainty, continuity and serenity and that can only come through the realisation of truth and that this truth is above and beyond historical or rational truth. Historical or rational truth can provide only short lived satisfaction.

Early in our tradition our rishis of the Upanishads declared satyam eva jayate. This metaphysical satya that the rishis of the Upanishads speak about is not just a historical truth or an ethical state justified by the absence of falsehood, but a state of being which is characterised by purnatva or fullness, a condition of akhanda or where there are no dichotomies or fragmentation, by advaita where there is none of the dualities of dvaita of samsara, by nitya or something that is unchanging and beyond time, by akasha or what is as vast and free as space, which is nirguna or formless and which cannot be contained by form, and which above all is anandmaya or blissful. Jayate in that cryptic statement must be distinguished from the word vijayate, the latter means a resounding triumph or victory, implying defeat of someone, the former a state of subjective celebration or rejoicing, an exultation and enchantment, caused by the inner and serene experience of satya. Satya and jayate are therefore related as cause and effect. Poetic truth, if it is to be deeply meaningful, must share most or some of these attributes of metaphysical truth and cannot be totally laukika or worldly. Both truths, metaphysical and poetic, are a movement from one reality to another, in the first case from avidya to vidya, in the second case from sakshatartha or the surface apprehension to parokshartha, from the objectively beautiful to the subjective beauty, on deeper realisation. Poetic truth does not involve moving from falsehood to truth but from one level of truth to another. This it achieves through artistic techniques such as rasa and dhvani.

The Vedas do not entertain the term satya but do posit rta or cosmic order and this is the truth of the Vedas. They also invoke exalted truth or vak and equally celebrate the Vedic rsi as a kavi or poet. The problem with the ex-alted concept of satya in the Upanishads, is that by itself it is very arid and it does not allow for the experience of what is sensually and emotionally beautiful, in other words there is no aesthetic representation of that. The Upanishads do not entertain or accept poetic truth. They take their stand on metaphysical truth.

As the tradition evolved, and we expressed the beautiful in many different ways and forms, through the many arts, oral, visual and performing, we enlarged the concept of satya to include saundarya and a window was now opened to the arts to be considered as an experience of satya. This was an important step in the recognition of poetic truth. In keeping with the spiritual ethos of our traditional artistic traditions, satya and sundaram were coupled with shivam or goodness, for the beautiful must answer not only to a certain truth but also to nobility of thought and character, and be within the context of dharma. Thus it was, that poetic truth or the truth of the arts, was called satyam shivam sundaram.

All three words have an ancient origin but it is generally believed that the trinity became popular because of Tagore who used it in his writings. While there is discussion in the Western aesthetic tradition about the inter-dependence of beauty, morality and utility, we in the Hindu tradition have always linked truth and beauty to shivam or what is good or what fits in the orbit of moral order. This therefore serves as a working definition of poetic truth. All human effort, including the arts, must serve the overriding ends of life or the purusharthas. Art cannot be understood apart from life, and it must promote an understanding of how the purusharthas have to be understood and realised in individual and collective lives. This is the mandate of poetic truth as it is of other truths.

The Vedic and Upanishadic periods generally kept philosophy and theology separate from aesthetics. Vedic hymns mostly praise power and the eternal, as in the case of Rudram and the Purusha Suktam, and when the beauty of the dawn or Ushas or Shri is referred to, it is not combined with satyam and shivam. The Mundaka Upanishad sets forth satyam eva jayate nonritam, while the Shvetasvatara Upanishad talks about shivam. In the whole long description of Narayana in Narayanopanishad the word beautiful does not occur once. The Upanishads downplay power but in the Taittiriya the trinity is satyam, jnanam, anantam brahma, viz. truth, wisdom and eternity is brahman. The term sundaram is never used in the Upanishads. This is in keeping with overall nirguna, non-sensual, metaphysical, ethos of the Upanishads and its non-aesthetic texture.

The Indian trinity of satyam, shivam, sundaram, or the true, good and the beautiful is an impressive combination, and summarises in the same breath, Hindu aesthetics and dharma. But as an ideal and its expression it is not as hoary as it is claimed and dates perhaps from the 7th or 8th century. The satyam, shivam, sundaram combination was developed mainly through four other non-Vedic sources, namely Sanskrit kavya literature and Tamil bhakti poetry on the one hand and the Mother Goddess cult and the Natyashastra on the other. Kavyas starting with Ramayana describe the beauty of Rama and Sita in detail and Kalidasa goes much further in describing the beauty of Uma in Kumarasambhavam. The attribution of great beauty to divine incarnations thus started in the kavyas. Tamil bhakti poets, inspired by Sangam love poetry, sang of God as their lover and had no hesitation in relating divinity and beauty closely. One of the earliest use of the word sunder occurs in the Tamil text Silapatikaram where fragrant powder is called “sundara chunnam”. Shiva in the Madurai temple is referred to as “alaal sundarar”. The concept of sunder was fully extended in the Bhagavata Purana later through the persona of Krishna and the concept of madhurya.

The trinity of truth, goodness and beauty in the concept of satyam, shivam, sundaram is a great achievement of the Hindu mind and underscores the concept of poetic truth as a valid source of transcendent knowledge.

(The purpose is not to criticize but to awaken.)



About: Mr. Harsha V. Dehejia,

Harsha V. Dehejia has a double doctorate, one in Medicine and the other in Ancient Indian Culture, both from Mumbai University. He is also a member of the Royal College of Physi-cians of London and Canada, by examination. H is a practising Physician and Adjunct Professor in the College of the Humanities in Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He has more than 30 books, 3 documentary films and many curated exhibitions to his credit. His special interest is in Krishna Shringara.

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