‘Satyam’ (Truth)

Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Satyam’, in Boundless Sky, ed. by S.R. Das (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1964), pp. 332-40; in Talks in China: Lectures Delivered in April and May 1924 (New Delhi: Rupa, 2002), pp. 143-58.


Since, in the East, our minds grew weary of producing new thoughts and our lives ceased to carry out new experiments we have been losing our sense of balance through want of practice. This has been the cause of a lack of proportion in our thinking, leading to inaccuracy and exaggeration, and of a lack of reticence in our spiritual vision producing a wilderness of symbolism and superstition. On the other hand, when we try to follow the West in its pursuit of speed we forget that any movement that tears itself away from the eternal standard of rhythm is a frightful form of inertia. Such a movement belongs to the giants of disproportion who let loose immense forces from the bondage of beneficent limits and startle the world with their turbulence. At last the uncontrolled tumult of their own passion seeks peace through explosions and breaks them into pieces.

It is evident that life in the West, like an iceberg tottering under the weight of its growing hugeness, has lost its moral balance. The West knows that things are behaving in a drunken manner, but she does not know how to stop. She is casting about for some device to save herself from a crash, not by closing her drinking booths, but in spite of them.

The young generation of the East, who in their intoxication with the new wine of boisterous energy from the West are likewise growing unstable in their gait, are content jeeringly to remark that our pursuit of the cult of perfection which gives balance has led us to inertia. They forget that balance is even more needed for that which moves than for that which rests. I have been led to think deeply about [332] the contagion of this moral drunkenness that spreads from shore to shore.

While I was travelling to China, one of my Indian friends asked a Japanese fellow-traveller why Japan neglected to cultivate friendliness with China. Without giving a direct answer, the Japanese asked a German passenger, who was there, if he could ever think of Germany and France uniting in bonds of friendship. This clearly shows the spirit of the schoolboy in the present generation of Eastern youth brought up under Western school-masters. They have learnt by rote their texts, but not their lesson. They are proud when they can mimic the voice and gesture of their teacher, reproduce his language, earn their full number of marks and a patting on the back, while not even aware that the living lesson has escaped them.

It evidently caused great satisfaction to this Japanese young man, who, I am sure, does not represent the best minds of his people, to know that the feeling of animosity that exists between China and Japan has its analogy in Europe. He failed to realize the fearful meaning of the hatred which furiously drives Germany and France to ruin, in a vicious circle of mutual destruction. This conversation set my mind thinking how the carefully nurtured yet noxious plant of national egoism is shedding its seeds all over the world, making our callow schoolboys of the East rejoice because the harvest produced by these seeds—the harvest of antipathy with its endless cycle of self-renewal—bears a western name of high-sounding distinction.

Great civilizations have flourished in the past in the East as well as in the West because they produced food for the spirit of man for all time; they had their life in the faith in ideals, the faith which is creative. These great civilizations were at last run to death by men of the type of our [333] precocious schoolboys of modern times, smart and superficially critical, worshippers of self, shrewd bargainers in the market of profit and power, efficient in their handling of the ephemeral, who presumed to buy human souls with their money and threw them into their dustbins when they had been sucked dry, and who, eventually, driven by suicidal forces of passion, set their neighbours’ houses on fire and were themselves enveloped by the flame.

It is some great ideal which creates great societies of men; it is some blind passion which breaks them to pieces. They thrive so long as they produce food for life; they perish when they suck life dry in insatiate self-gratification. We have been taught by our sages that it is Truth and not things which saves man from annihilation.


It has been the tradition in India closely to attach our mind to some mantram, some great text, and daily to concentrate our thought upon it, while its meaning grows one with our being, and gives our worldly life its equilibrium. One such mantram which has been of great help to me, begins with the word Satyam, indicating that the Supreme Being is Satyam, which means truth.

Man is afraid of the numerous, of numbers which add but do not connect. It is wearisome for him to approach things through their several individual doors and pay to each one of them its separate homage of recognition. At the beginning of life’s experience a child puts everything into its mouth, until it gets to know that all that comes to its hand is not food. In the primitive stage of our intellect, our mind, in its indiscriminate greed, grabs at detached facts and tries to make a store of them. At last the mind comes to know that what it seeks is not the things themselves, but, through them, some value. [334]

Where can man realize Satyam, the Supreme Reality? Nothing is ever in a state of quietude; things rapidly change their form and become something else, even as we try to fix our gaze on them. The very mountains, which are looked upon as the symbol of solid permanence, behave like shifting screens on time’s stage, and one never knows when they may slowly be folded up as the play proceeds and one act gives way to another. The stars are bubbling out into light on the bosom of darkness and dissolving into oblivion. So, in Sanskrit, our term for the world phenomenon is samsara, or that which is ever on the move—and this samsara we know as maya, we call it a dream. Where then is Truth?

Does it not become evident that Truth must have its full expression only in this movement itself—in the current which always leaps over the fixed boulders of finality and can therefore suggest the indefinable, the infinite? In a dance it becomes possible for the different gestures to move together and yet not thwart each other because they are the expression of a certain musical truth which is ineffable, which comprehends and yet transcends each separate part of its manifestation.

Moralists have often lugubriously cried out that the world is vanity because everything in it moves and changes. They might as well say that a song is nor real because every note is transient, giving place to another. We have to know that this moving and changing world, because of its mutability, is giving expression to a truth which is eternal. It would come to a standstill in a crash of discord, had it not such truth permeating and transcending it.

It is to the person, who keeps his eyes solely fixed upon this aspect of the world which is an unceasing series of changes, that the world appears as delusion, as the play of [335] Kali, the black divinity of destruction. To such a one it becomes possible for his dealings with this world to be superficial and heartless. The world being for him an unmeaning progression of things, an evolution that goes blindly jumping from chance to chance on a haphazard path of survival, he can have no scruple in gathering opportunity for himself, dealing cruel blows to others who come in this way. He does not suspect that thereby he hurts his own truth, because, in the scheme of things, he recognizes no such truth at all. A child can tear, without compunction, the pages of a book for the purposes of his play, because for him those pages have no serious truth.

The way to be considerate in our dealings with the world is to realize the permanent meaning which underlies it and makes each one of its changing facts touch its end every moment. It happens in this way with our own movements of vital growth: they are innumerable, and yet they have their joy for us because every passing fraction of their totality immediately reaches its end, which is life itself. This very moment, when I am speaking, all my separate words would be a burden to me, if they were not the expression of my life, of my mind, which is the source of their truth.

What is evident in this world is the endless procession of moving things; but what is to be realized is the Supreme Truth by which the world is permeated. When our greed of wealth overlooks this great truth and behaves as if there were nothing in this world but the fact of these moving things, then our pride rises with the amount of things produced and collected, and jealous competition thunders down the path of conflict towards dark futility.

Thus, according to the Upanisad, the complete aspect of Truth is in the reconciliation of the finite and the [336] infinite, of ever-changing things and the eternal spirit of perfection. When in our life and work the harmony between these two is broken, then either our life is thinned into a shadow, or it is set on fire.


We must confess that in the East our minds have dwelt more upon the peace of the Eternal One and not so much on the movement of its manifestation in the many. This mentality represents a kind of miserliness about one’s spiritual wealth which tries to keep it secure by shutting it within a. limited receptacle. Such narrow limitation of our world has produced in us a simplicity whose contents are small. It has given us long life, but nor that vigour of life which is ready to earn a richness of experience in untried adventures. The river of Truth’s ideals, which once sprang in the East from the ever wakeful personalities of great souls, has in course of centuries become stagnant, its flow of inspiration choked by the reeds and rubbish of a lazy imagination.

When the current of the mind grows feeble, things that are dead accumulate, their ponderous immobility intimidates our life into stillness. This awful burden of the dead we see in China as well as in my own motherland. Because we have surrendered our right to question, and have deliberately refused to understand, we are constantly paying the penalty of sacrificing our soul on the altar of the lifeless. We are extending in every department of our life the burial ground of the past, erecting tombstones in places where bread should be produced for the growing need of the future. What immense energy do we waste in trying to prevent dead bones from crumbling into the dust! The current of immortal truth from the past once had its river-bed open through our life. It is growing narrower [337] every day; the sand which chokes it claims reverent attention from us owing to the sublimity of its immutable barrenness.

Ideals of perfection have to be reborn age after age, taking new bodies and occupying new fields of life. Otherwise, if they end in mere thoughtless repetitions, human beings become puppets of the past with a ludicrous pride in the strings that produce perfectly correct gestures. Solemn doll’s play of this kind could perhaps go on indefinitely if its stage were but secure from outward intrusion, and was not liable to be hustled out of gear by irreverent crowds who rudely snatch away its adornments for their own distant markets.

It is, indeed, just such a disrespectful shaking up by these marketmen that may lead us to our salvation. It has already roused us from our languor; and the awakened, at least, must think, even while the drowsy may continue to mumble their repetitions. The first effect of our sudden discomfiture is a mistrust of the original ideals themselves. It may take some time before we are able to realize that it was not those ideals that were to b1ame, but our own treatment of them. For, if our ideals, which are for giving freedom to our spirit, are shut up in a dungeon of blind habit then they become the strongest fetters that keep our spirit enchained.

Life is rebellious. It grows by breaking the forms that enclose it, the forms that only give shelter for a particular period, and then become a prison if they do not change. Death is the last fight of freedom of this born rebel always trying to break the form that has gone wrong. In our society wherever that spirit of rebellion, which is the spirit of life, is completely checked, the tyranny of form becomes supreme; there words become more sacred than spirit, [338] and custom than reason. We do not serve Truth by passively clinging to it with our habits, but by deliberately relating all our movements to it as the centre, thus attaining both rhythm of control and freedom of spirit.

It is true that he who wants to realize truth, not merely through self-control, but also through freedom, is assailed by dangers and difficulties; but as a brook finds its voice more fully as it trips over its bed of flints and stones, this very resistance brings a richer music into his life. For those who are in love with a serene slothfulness, with whom every movement in the direction of active creative effort weighs as an offence against the ancient dignity of tradition—their being is smothered under exuberant growths of disease and distress, poverty, insult and defeat. They are punished with the deprivation of freedom because they try to keep Truth fettered.

I have said that life is rebellious. Some of our Eastern schoolboys may at once jump to the conclusion that this rebellion must take form in imitation of the West. But they should know that while our dead custom is plagiarism from our own past life, imitation would be plagiarism from other peoples’ life. Both of them constitute slavery to the unreal. The former, though a chain, at least fits our figure; the latter, for all its misfit, is just as much a chain. Life frees itself through its growth and nor through its borrowing.

It will never do for the Orient to trail behind the West like an artificial appendix, sweeping with it the soot-laden dust, and vainly trying to imitate its gesture of lashing the sky in defiance of the divine. For humanity this will not only be a useless excess, but a disappointment and a deception. For if the East ever tries to duplicate Western life, the duplicate is bound to be a forgery.

The West no doubt has overwhelmed us with its f1ood [339] of commodities, tourists, machine-guns, school-masters, and a religion which is great, but whose followers are intent upon lengthening the list of its recruits, and not following it in details that bring no profit, or in practices that are inconvenient. But one great service the West has done us by bringing the force of its living mind to bear upon our life; it has stirred our thoughts into activity. For its mind is great, its intellectual life having in its centre intellectual probity, the standard of truth.

The first effect of our mind being startled from its sleep is to make it intensely conscious of what is before it; but when the surprise of awakening has subsided, then comes the time to know what is within. We are beginning to know ourselves. We are discovering our own mind.

I have no doubt in my own mind that in the East our principal characteristic is to set a high price not upon success through gaining advantage, but upon self-realization through fulfilling our dharma, our ideals. Let the awakening of the East drive us consciously to discover the essential and the universal meaning in our own civilization, to remove the debris from its path, to rescue it from its bondage of stagnation that produces impurities, to make it a great channel of communication for all human races. [340]