There is one curious verse in Srimad Bhagavatam:
In flattering a woman to bring her under control, in joking, in a marriage ceremony, in earning one’s livelihood, when one’s life is in danger, in protecting cows and brahminical culture, or in protecting a person from an enemy’s hand, falsity is never condemned.SB 8.19.43
What would you make of that? Srila Prabhupada left no purport so we are on our own. I guess we should forget about speaking only truth at all times, as is expected from pure vaishnavas, and this verse does not talk about withholding information either, it’s about straightforward lying.
But first let’s look at the word for “lie” – here it’s “anṛtam — falsity”. The etymology of this word is interesting – if sat is truth then why falsity is not asat but anritam, which is the opposite of rita? Rita refers to a natural progression of things in the universe, most notably seasons following one another. Sun should rise in the morning and set down at night, when Moon takes over – this natural progress of the universe is rita. Falsity, or lies is therefore defined as deviation from natural flow of things, while asat is either that which does not exist or that which is temporary, which is another definition of non-existence – things that exist are eternal. A lie is not like that – it’s a deviation from nature, a rejection of what is supposed to happen, replacing with what we want to happen instead. Going against the flow of the universe is bound to end in frustration as we are too small to resist, so why is lying practically prescribed here?
First of all, this verse is spoken by Sukracarya to Bali Maharaja to justify cheating Lord Vamana of the promised three steps of land. This should immediately reduce its credibility, but our acaryas quote it elsewhere so it is meant to be accepted, not rejected out of hand. At the same time we understand that this is not the ultimate instruction for devotees but refers to rules of conduct in a society. I would also add “absolute rules” – not that it’s only for Vedic era but not for us. It’s the rules by which Krishna and His associates live in the spiritual world, too – in as much as it’s non-different from His pastimes here.
Now let’s look at what we are allowed to lie about. There are three pairs covered in three lines and then the prescription in the fourth – these lies should not be condemned. Personally, I have no idea what lying in a marriage ceremony refers to, but, thankfully, our acaryas make it clear and for some cases they give sastric support, too (not for marriage, though). Anyway, first line is a pair of a man and a woman.
We can lie to a woman to win her trust. This is a major one and I would stress that it’s a permission to lie about womanly things, not about your taxes to a female auditor. Women want to look attractive and by that they want to bring men under control. In this we, men, can play along and validate their aspirations. There is nothing wrong with praising women’s looks or grace or wit to make them feel happy about themselves. It’s not spiritually enlightening but as far as social interactions go it’s permissible.
This brings us to “women are less intelligent” and “women are like children”. Isn’t similarity with children obvious here? You want to encourage and boost confidence of both. They want it and they often really need it, and so this is our service to them. It’s not lies – it’s service. We understand that this is the right way to make them truly shine, to let them achieve the best they can do, to fully express themselves. In as much as we think it’s important to let them do that – we can help, and help means lying in this case. There can be a whole other article written about it but I will say just this – this kind of free, unencumbered expression is what makes jivas get full satisfaction in their selected endeavors and start looking for something better. Without it they might become devotees but they would still carry these holdover material desires, something they wanted to do but never achieved. We should all get these out of our system, not just women among us.
This proves “less intelligent” statement, too – people who depend on others’ approval are not very confident in themselves and lack of confidence means lack of clarity, which means foggy picture of reality, which means their intelligence is subpar. I take intelligence in Sankhya terms here – the ability to distinguish one thing from another and their connection. If you are unsure about something it means there is a lack of discernment, which means lack of intelligence. It’s not about measuring IQ – the very question “Do I look fat?” already indicates lack of confidence, clarity, and therefore intelligence.
But this is also an integral part of the female nature, we, men, are not excited by women who do not care for their looks and who do not seek our help and affirmations. Well, maybe some do get excited, but I suspect they are latent homosexuals – in a sense they are drawn to male qualities, not the female ones.
It is also a part of the female nature to take offense at questioning their abilities and so telling women they are stupid is stupid in itself. Rather we should tell them what they need to hear to make the next step in their spiritual progress and we should do it with an attitude of service, remembering that there is a thousand ways we can screw this up and therefore we should be prepared to take the blame for it.
The corresponding part in this pair is a groom at the wedding party. Groom’s qualities should be praised and exaggerated and there is nothing wrong with it, and this should be done jokingly, not that one should dare a man to do something dangerous and tell him nothing will happen because he is very strong. This explanation – to praise groom at the wedding, is offered by Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti. I see it as a similar confidence building gesture. The groom should be confident about himself, as he has never tried marriage before, and the bride should be confident about her choice, too, and the rest of both families as well. At this point no one knows how the marriage will turn up, means no one has any clarity, means their intelligence is clouded, and to move forward they need positive reinforcement. And at the same time everybody understands that this praise doesn’t come with “satisfaction guaranteed” kind of promises. It’s a moral booster, not much more.
Next line is about oneself, with two situations given – improving business and self-protection. This is left without commentaries but the meaning is clear – trade-offs are worth it. It’s better to be alive but with bad karma for lying than dead, and it’s better to be rich, too. We’ve heard this from Srila Prabhupada many many times – businessmen are permitted to lie about their dealings and about their products, it comes with the territory. And it is also true that lies like this create karma to be “enjoyed”. You get more money but also more customer complaints and it’s easy to overdo it. Bhaktivinoda Thakur writes in his autobiography about one period in his life when he was placed in a position where he was making tons of money, but questionably, and he didn’t feel comfortable with it and gave it up.
Last pair is about protecting others, cows and brahmanas and everybody else. Their protection justifies lying and Jiva Goswami mentions that devotees are also included. Srila Visvanatha gives two quotes from sastra in support: varṇināṁ hi vadho yatra tatra sākṣy anṛtaṁ vadet from Yajnavalkya, who adapted Manu smriti specifically for Kali Yuga. Vadho is “killed” here and varninam is translated as a “person of status”, which derives from varna as in good qualities and good descriptions of someone.
This poses a bit of a conundrum. Typical example from Puranas is someone I don’t remember seeing a person running away and then a group of thugs asking which way he went. To protect that person it’s okay to point in another direction but imagine if this becomes your job? Let’s say highway robbers attack half a dozen people a day and they all flee past you. How do you make a decision which of these unfortunate souls are “persons of status” and which are nobodies not worth lying for? Should you develop a scale where for true VIPs you point in a direction 180 degrees from where they went and for everybody else it’s less – some at 90 degrees, some at 45, some, who are near rascals, get the search party sent very close to where they went, maybe only at 10 degrees off, and some, who clearly don’t deserve to live, are given 100% accurate directions. How do you get to decide? But this is what sastra says, the second quote from unnamed sruti: tasmāt kāla eva dadyāt kāle na dadyāt tat satyānṛte mithunī-karoti. According to time, kala, one gets to decide whether to tell the truth, satya, or a lie, anrite. I’m not sure how mithuni fits in here, it’s not reflected in the translation, but karoti indicates that this is what we should do and decide ourselves, making it into our karma.
Jiva Goswami simplifies it – lying is permitted to prevent harm, himsa, to others and, conversely, truth is condemned, jugupsitam, when it produces violence. Just sit on that for a minute – if telling the truth results in violence it is condemned. It’s not a rocket science and we see examples of this everywhere but it is not explicitly stated in our usual definitions of truthfulness. Now there is a war, for example, and everybody understands that governments will lie to protect their own. Or take Julian Assange who is facing 160 years in jail because he disclosed information that allegedly put other people in danger.
This is easy to understand in principle, though danger can be seriously overstated, but what if you don’t take sides in a war, as a devotee should, but soldiers come to you and ask if you have seen enemy spies? What do you do? If you refuse to cooperate you put yourself in danger and this is covered in the second life of the verse – you have to protect yourself. What to do if demands of the second and the third line contradict each other? Sanatana Goswami usually says about lists like this that they are sorted in the order of importance, which means protecting others is more important than protecting oneself, especially if they are brahmanas or devotees, obviously, but Sanatana Goswami didn’t comment on this verse so this convention of sorting lists might not apply.
Regardless, we can’t cover all possibilities in any set of instructions, let alone one wordpress article, but the principles themselves are pretty clear – there are circumstances, mostly social interactions, where deviating from the expected natural flow of things in your descriptions is desirable or at least not punishable.