Not just because that mode of expression is difficult to practice but because those two — truth and power — have so diverged from each other as to have become polar opposites. Can truth be in power or, coming into power, remain truthful?
The founders of our Constitution, aware of the dangerous dichotomy, sought a fluxion of truth and power in their selection of the nation’s national motto: Satyameva Jayate, meaning Truth Alone Triumphs. The motto can be interpreted and its lexical textures studied in more than one way, as the political scientist and historian Ananya Vajpeyi tells us in her remarkable book Righteous Republic.
This much is patent: The new nation was donning the apparel and appurtenances of nobility so as to fit into them. In adopting Asoka’s lion capital from Sarnath for its emblem, that emperor’s chakra for the central motif for its new flag and this upanishadic pronouncement about truth for its motto it was, so to say, welding ‘truth’ to power.
The selection of this text for the motto, symbolic as it was, stands out as an act in audacity and idealism. It was at once a political and a moral flotation. With the emblem and flag, it was the first move of the nationhood’s bead on the abacus wire of self-identity. And there it stands out as an example of outer vision. Mottos can be self-hagiographic.
We could have, in a Sanskritic mood, gone in for Vande Mataram or in a Hindustani moment, for Sare Jahan Se Achha. But Satyameva Jayate as a universal proposition that went beyond ourselves and our country to a human precept, was as universal as the Vedas and the Upanishads.
There is much to be sought but very little to be found by way of who it was in the atria of our republic that first thought of this excerpt from the Mundaka Upanishad, put it down on paper as a proposal for our motto with other, if any, alternatives. We do not know what the views expressed were on the appropriateness of that choice.
Records of the debates of the Constituent Assembly do not lead us to any discussion on this text for our motto or, indeed, on the need for the new India to have a motto at all.
Satyameva Jayate remains a great motto for what it can mean to a person reading it. The phrase is a self-challenge. It can be read as an assertion as well as a warning, a ‘given’ as well as a ‘should be’. To those who, in life-driven scepticism might say ‘Really? Untruth is such a frequent winner…’ , the motto suggests in words that are not there in fact but are there in spirit, ‘truth triumphs, ultimately’.
To those who, Pilate-like, would ask in semantic wisdom ‘Really?’ But what do you mean by “truth”?’, the motto suggests that the reader should ponder the full line which has and ends with ‘na-anritam’, meaning ‘not untruth’.
This second half of the full line constitutes a most desirable tautology.
If ‘truth’ is difficult to define, untruth has never been difficult to define.
The 1966 film Teesri Kasam has the song ‘Sajan Re Jhoot Mat Bolo’, with the important next line being ‘Khuda Ke Pas Jana Hai’. This film line is like a Prakrit rendering of our Sanskrit motto, should anyone want the message simplified. And just as Satyameva Jayate has become a successful ‘reality show’ , so has ‘Sajan Re’ become a TV Hindi sitcom, abbreviated to SRJMB. Jhooth Mat Bolo and Khuda Ke Pas form, basically, the colloquial short-hand version of our national motto. They can also lead to some amazingly redemptive experiences, if those concerned, were to say in the respective Houses, ‘I am sorry, I did not speak the truth…’
Will we hear that in the Madhya Pradesh or Delhi assemblies? Our motto is a most demanding mirror for any government to catch its un-airbrushed image on. It can humble or shame the face that falls on it.
If a minister were to reflect on that motto for a fraction of a minute each morning, instead of spending an hour or more on any form of ritual worship, she or he would do better by India for the rest of the day.
Likewise, if the Opposition were to apply it on itself, its words and actions would ring that much truer.
To raise one’s expectations of oneself, or relate oneself to an idea or a vision that is above the ordinariness of things is what mottos are expected to do. To seek to compound truth with power has to be to the good.
Truthfulness has to include, somewhere in its rich wardrobe, a small shelf for the dharma of acknowledgments.
Difficult as it is to quite accept that, but the Republic’s ushers were perhaps unaware of the fact that long before Satyameva Jayate became our national motto, two small princely states — Jambughoda in Gujarat and Baraundha in Madhya Pradesh — had the very same motto on their royal crests.
This is a humbling fact. It is not the ‘epic great’ or a republics founders alone who have lofty ideals, the ‘small’ can and do, too. And no less sobering is the fact that faith in truth’s invincibility is not an exclusively Indian wisdom.
Before SJ became the Republic of India’s motto, ‘Truth Will Triumph’ was the motto inscribed on the crest of the British Council. Jingoism cannot form part of the truth that India’s motto believes, wins.
And so we must also acknowledge the greatness of the words that Lord Irwin had inscribed on the Jaipur Column that stands before what is now, Rashtrapati Bhavan. ‘Truth’ did not figure in them, but that quality, truer than true, iman, did.
Irwin has written :
In thought, faith
In word, wisdom
In deed, courage,
In life, service
So may India be great.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a distinguished professor of History and Politics, Ashoka University. The views expressed are personal.