Fact, Opinion and Truth–M.S. Srinivasan

Someone who considered himself a spiritual seeker, commenting on Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine, said in a critical tone “It is abstract and intellectual” with an implied suggestion that there is nothing spiritual in it.  When I suggested to him gently, “perhaps it is your personal opinion”, he asserted vehemently – “No it is not an opinion, it is a fact.  Not only I but many do feel in the same way about this book.”  Again, when I pointed out to him how some seekers, not all of them disciples of Sri Aurobindo, had profound spiritual experiences while reading the book, he struggled his shoulders disdainfully with a “may be”.

We are here in the presence of a vexing problem of human judgment.  Most of us are not able to distinguish between fact, opinion and truth.  We mistake our personal opinions as truth.  Most of the time, when we assert our opinions as “facts” we use the word in the sense of “truth” or what we think or feel as the entire truth.

Here comes the importance of understanding the distinction between fact, opinion and truth.  The fact is the outer forms and appearances we see with our senses and the surface mind. This fact or appearance creates or induces certain impressions, reactions, responses or conclusions or judgments in our mind, which are the opinions.  Most of our opinions are purely subjective and personal, coloured and conditioned by a multitude of personal factors like likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices, temperament, education, occupation, culture and level of inner development.  Our opinions are mostly subjective Maya with very little truth in it.  As Mother points out “….. people act according to their opinions…. And always, more than ninety nine out of a hundred, it is wrong”.  The truth lies behind and beyond fact and opinions.  The truth is the deeper, more universal and impersonal realities that lie behind the outer fact and appearance, invisible to senses and unknown to surface mind.  In the example cited earlier, fact is the outer verbal or literal form of the book Life Divine.  The comment or judgment that it is abstract or intellectual is a personal opinion.  The truth is the inner spiritual experiences and realizations of Sri Aurobindo expressed through thoughts and words in The Life Divine.

The other part of the comment that many felt the same way is another common fallacy of our ordinary mind.  Truth cannot be ascertained by democratic opinion and feeling.  Just because many or even a majority of humanity has a similar feeling does not necessarily mean that it is true. For in our present condition of human evolution only a few can feel or perceive the deeper truth.  For example, modern physics tells us that the apparent solidity of the world is an illusion.  What we perceive as solid matter is nothing but a dance of energy or wave particles in so much of empty space!  But how many can perceive, feel or experience this deeper truth of matter?  A small minority of elite scientific minds or a few mystics.  If truth can be known by democratic feeling, then there is no need of philosophy, science or spirituality and great thinkers, scientists or sages.  A ballot-box is enough to know the truth!

Personal opinions and judgments, when we cling to them with ignorant attachment, become great obstacles to deeper understanding of life and also a source of friction in interpersonal relationships.  When we pass cocksure judgments on people what do we do?  We look at the fringe of his surface personality, observe its appearance, behaviour, character, temperament, capacities, or weaknesses and pass categorical judgments like he is introvert, extrovert, mental, emotional, good, bad, right, wrong, cold, aloof, warm, kind and indifferent.  He may be all these in his outer appearance.  But what we see at the surface is perhaps less than ten percent of his total being.  We cannot see the rest of the ninety percent of his subliminal and spiritual being hidden behind his external personality.  We don’t know his past and future or the balance of his karma.  Thus we form opinions, conclusions and judgments looking at a fragment of his total being.  For example, someone who is outwardly aloof and indifferent may have a great capacity for love in his inner being or another who is outwardly mental or intellectual may have a deep and sweet heart not visible at the surface; a person who is emotional and volatile in his outer self may have a remarkable capacity for intuitive understanding and knowledge in his deeper self or someone who is externally lazy and indolent may have an exceptional inner capacity of persistence, patience and endurance.  But we cannot see or feel these deeper virtues as long as we make hasty judgments on people based on outer appearances.

In the Buddhist story of the cruel robber Angulimala and his conversion by Buddha, behind the brutal exterior of Angulima, there was perhaps an inner saint waiting to manifest who came forward by the spiritual influence and touch of Buddha, who was not repelled by the outer appearance of the robber.  This is because Buddha was able to see with his enlightened inner vision the total being of Angulimala and his past and future.

And when opinions and judgments are of adverse kind, it create painful inner and outer frictions in interpersonal relationship.  We must note here that adverse judgments harboured silently in thought and feelings can cause as much or even more havoc to human relationship than those that are openly made in speech.  For our thoughts and feelings are not mere abstractions; they are a force and an adverse thought, opinion or feeling hits the other person inwardly with as much force as a stone hits the body.  As the Mother points “when we meet a person, our criticizing thoughts give to him, so to say, a blow on the nose which naturally creates a revolt in him”.  Kindness, generosity and mutual goodwill are source of harmony in a community.  However, even if we are not able to practice these positive virtues, we could at least keep the non-judgmental attitude and desist from adverse judgments, it will be a very effective first step towards harmony in a community.

Not only for harmony, but the way of true knowledge is also based more or less on the same principles.  To cease from all unnecessary judgment based on a clear, concrete and humble perception of our ignorance is the first step towards true knowledge.  When people threw stones at Mary, the prostitute, Christ said to the mob  “O, ye people who judge, I judge not.”   Enlightened souls like Budha and Christ do not judge because they have true and total knowledge.  But we, who are still seeking for this higher knowledge must cease from all unwanted judgment out of a clear perception of our own ignorance, understanding clearly how all our opinions and judgments which we take for knowledge are ignorant responses of our mind to outer appearances.  One of the well-known sayings of the Chinese sage Lao-tse is that “someone who knows not and thinks he knows is a fool” and conversely, “He who knows not and knows he knows not is a wise man”.  So we should know that we don’t know.  Flower of wisdom blossoms not on the rocky ground of pride of knowledge but on the soft soil of humility which knows it does not know.

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One thought on “Fact, Opinion and Truth–M.S. Srinivasan

  1. Pingback: Karma | Blog

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