Tell me a truth

Devdutt PattanaikWhen people argue, there is an assumption that one of the two parties knows the truth. But what if no one knows the truth? Then, the argument is about domination: one party wants to impose his truth on the other.

In the Purans is the story of Brahma and Vishnu arguing about who the supreme divine being is. Brahma claims it is he, for all living creatures spring from him. Vishnu claims it is him for the world comes into being when he awakens and ceases to be when he sleeps. Suddenly, a pillar of fire appears between them. It seems to have neither beginning nor end, as it pierces both the earth and sky.

Brahma takes the form of a swan and rises to the sky to find its tip. Vishnu takes the form of a boar and bores into the ground to find its base. “He who finds the origin is God,” say the competing gods to each other. But neither finds it. Brahma lies, “I found the top,” and presents the Ketaki flower as proof. Vishnu accepts defeat as he has not found the root. Suddenly a being appears from the pillar of fire. It is Shiva! He punishes Brahma for lying and praises Vishnu for not lying.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

This story is highly allegorical. Unfortunately, most people take it literally. So it is seen as a story to show who is the greatest of the trinity: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; Shiva, the destroyer. Wars have been fought on the outcome. Devotees of Shiva insist this story shows Shiva as the greatest while devotees of Vishnu counter this claim. Any discussion along these lines misses the point.

The story is attempting to explain the notion of infinity. The world is infinite, without boundaries. The human mind continuously seeks to give it a boundary. That is what Brahma does, and that makes him unworthy of worship. Vishnu accepts that the boundaries of the world cannot be fathomed and so becomes worthy of worship. Shiva, in this story, is visualized as the being who knows the truth but can never reveal it as the truth defies language. What the person who knows the truth will speak will not be understood by the person who does not know the truth. And so Shiva remains silent.

Where is the Goddess in all this? We can assume, as many scholars do, that the argument of the supreme divine being excludes the Goddess, revealing a gender bias. But it is not so. The Goddess here is the sky and the earth; the world that Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma inhabit. Engagement with her provokes the quest for the truth.

Brahma chooses a finite truth that grants him certainty and comfort. Vishnu accepts that truth is unfathomable and is comfortable with uncertainty. Shiva knows the truth and that silences him, stills him, prevents him from engaging with the world. Vishnu functions with maya, truth that is based on comparison. Shiva functions (or rather does not function) with satya, truth that is not based on comparison. For Shiva to participate in the world, he has to abandon infinity, open his eyes, marry and become Shankar-Shambho, the husband, engaging with the world’s practical day-to-day realities.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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