Monday Morning Greetings 2022 #37 – Is Honesty the Best Policy?

September 12th, 2022

Is Honesty the Best Policy?


Of course. Without integrity—matching one’s words and actions with one’s values—how can one make advancement on any spiritual path? And outright lying is a terrible sin:


“There is nothing more sinful than untruthfulness. Because of this, mother earth once said, ‘I can bear any heavy thing except a person who is a liar.’” (Bhag. 8.20.4)


So yes, honesty is the best policy, but not always. Commentators on the Yoga-sūtras make it clear that as all other yamas (regulations) are subservient to ahimsa, truth must never result in violence, which means not only avoiding the obvious, such as telling a killer where his victim is, but avoiding any kind of truth that harms any creature anytime and anywhere. It is sometimes a fine line gauging when truthfulness should be tempered with the pre-eminence of ahimsa. In my opinion, the challenges of balancing the two is best illustrated in the character of Krishna’s father, Vasudeva.


In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, we are introduced to Vasudeva’s diplomacy in a very difficult situation. Kaṁsa, Vasudeva’s very powerful demonic brother-in-law, held his wife’s hair in his left hand while holding a sword over her throat with his right hand. Kaṁsa was ready to kill her after finding out by an ākāśa-vāṇī (an unembodied voice) that her eighth child would be his death. Kaṁsa was much more physically powerful than Vasudeva, so he had to resort to various forms of diplomacy to try to save his wife, beginning with sama, flattery. Although Śukadeva Gosvāmī, the speaker of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, had accurately described Kaṁsa—the man who was willing to kill a woman, who is his sister, on the day of her wedding—as the most sinful, envious person, who was the dirt of his dynasty, Vasudeva, externally smiling, addressed that same Kaṁsa as the shining light of his dynasty who great heroes praised. He didn’t believe a word of what he said. Obviously, honesty is not always the best policy, especially when trying to save your wife from death. Śrīla Prabhupāda explains the principle:


“Sometimes one must act duplicitously in a dangerous position, as Vasudeva did to save his wife. The material world is complicated, and to execute one’s duties, one cannot avoid adopting such diplomacy.” (Bhag. 10.1.53, Purport)


Vasudeva eventually saved his wife, at least for the moment, by promising to hand over his children as soon as they were born. Due to Vasudeva’s reputation and how strongly the paramount importance of truthfulness was impressed in their society-at-large by the nature of their culture, it wasn’t surprising that Kaṁsa believed that such a man of character as Vasudeva would never deviate from his words. In fact, Vasudeva indeed handed over his children. The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam describes his worry in not doing so and thus breaking his promise:


“Vasudeva was very much disturbed by fear of becoming a liar by breaking his promise. Thus with great pain he delivered his first born son […] into the hand of Kaṁsa […] What is painful for saintly persons who strictly adhere to the truth?” (Bhag. 10.0.57-58)


Keeping his word was not the only reason Vasudeva handed over his children to Kaṁsa.[1] In fact, when Sri Krishna, the eighth child Krishna was born, he didn’t hand Krishna over to Kaṁsa as promised, but instead snuck Krishna out of the prison where he and his wife had been incarcerated to bring Him to Vrindavan under the shelter of Yaśodā and Nanda. What is significant, however, is that even in such a situation where truthfulness did not serve ahimsa, the thought of breaking his word and promise stilled weighed on Vasudeva.


So, is honesty the best policy? What do we learn from the example of Vasudeva in this regard? Although honesty is not always the best policy, to lie in the name of a higher principle is never taken cheaply. Deep impressions of truthfulness are essential for the development of a spiritual life, and if they are not strongly impressed on one it is too easy to rationalize away the many inconvenient responsibilities one must execute to uplift one in spiritual life. So, in that sense, with very rare exceptions, it is very healthy in this world of dishonesty to strongly embrace honesty as the best policy!



[1] Vasudeva knew that his eighth child was Krishna so he was also interested as his devotional service to expediate the appearance of Krishna. He had no choice but to turn over his children.

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