Question: My friend says that lying to one’s parents is fine if it is for devotion to Kṛṣṇa. She cites the examples of gopis to justify this. I find this unethical.
Answer: Scripture contains prescriptions and descriptions. The descriptions of Kṛṣṇa’s lilas with the gopis are meant to bring us to the prescriptions – the dos and donts for sādhakas. And in the first ten prescriptions which are binding on all devotees, Rupa Goswami writes that one must do sādhu-vartmānuvartanam which Jiva Goswami glosses as sadācarita-śruty-ādi-vidhi-sevitvam – that means following the prescriptions (vidhi) from scriptures (śruti) that teach proper behavior (sadācāra). And there is no prescription that one should lie. And there are several statements extolling speaking the truth as a virtue. After all, Kṛṣṇa is the absolute truth.
The gopis are siddhas, being Kṛṣṇa’s own internal potency. It is risky to use the example of a siddha to justify actions of a sādhaka. If studying the gopis’ life was sufficient to decide what to do and what not to do in bhakti, then Rupa Goswami had no need to formally present the 64 limbs of bhakti.
Of course, in exceptional situations, one may have to lie. There are examples where relaxing the rules somewhat in the scriptures is wise. One example is from the Mahabharata, where Yudhisthira had been defeated by Karna, but let off alive (Karna had promised Kunti that he would not kill more than one Pandava). Yudhisthira felt humiliated. He waited in his camp for Arjuna, sure that Arjuna would never tolerate such an insult. When Arjuna arrived, Yudhisthira assumed that Arjuna had killed Karna. But out of concern for Yudhisthira, Arjuna had come directly. Yudhisthira was very upset at this, and insulted Arjuna by asking him to give up his Gandiva bow.
Arjuna had taken a vow that he would kill anyone who asked him to give up his bow. He was now in a quandary- he would have to kill his own brother. He ultimately resolved to do so in order to not break his vow, and then to kill himself for the sin of killing his brother. He drew his sword and slowly advanced toward Yudhisthira. Fortunately Krsna was present, and He drew Arjuna aside. After chiding him for taking such a foolish vow, He suggested a solution. Following His advice, Arjuna insulted Yudhisthira, which is akin to killing him as he was a ksatriya. This way his vow remained intact. Also, being a younger brother, insulting his brother was like killing himself. So he achieved both ends without actually acting on it.
In this way, sometimes one has to relax rules in order to not become deviated from one’s goals. But for someone aspiring to become an uttama-bhakta, deriving inspiration from the lives of siddhas like Arjuna or the gopis does not mean ignoring the angas of bhakti! What is important is the motive for lying. And motives are mostly unknown unless there is bold and honest introspection. Such introspection, if it has to be effective, requires a clear understanding of sastra, and a functional and healthy intelligence. For example, one may think one is doing a noble thing by lying for Kṛṣṇa, but one’s motive may not really be for devotion. Many people think they are sacrificing family etc. for uttama bhakti, when in actuality, the sacrifice may be for a host of unrelated reasons. Such people would be hard-pressed to even define what uttama-bhakti is, leave alone making informed decisions that have profound impact on their lives, and the lives of others including parents. Here are some:
- Looking for a cause which gives one’s life meaning
- Desire to reject societal trends.
- Desire for a surrogate family.
- Feeling less lonely and more valued when part of a big temple.
- Desiring the attention given by temple preachers.
- Desire to associate oneself with a famous person so that one can cure feelings of inferiority.
- Security that comes from simplistic solutions like joining an organization that will guarantee liberation.
So if one’s motive is not really bhakti for Krsna, then the lying is not justified at all. If one’s motive is for bhakti alone, one likely will not need to lie at all. Bhakti is a path of knowledge and understanding, involving study and practice, and doesn’t require that one drops out of society. It is possible to do bhakti independently of the external situation, as it is a path of awareness. Finally, no external situation is permanent. It is more important to work on one’s understanding and motive, and to search for a genuine guru.
It is a human trait to justify one’s actions, even if they are demonstrably unethical. A person living in the temple may lie to donors and bring in money, with the thought that such lying is doing the donors a favor as the money is being used in Kṛṣṇa’s service. But bhakti doesnt work like that. It is a path of sraddha- faith, and deceiving donors is hardly a way to build sraddha in them.
There is no mention anywhere in the scriptures that one should lie to others to give them bhakti. Actually speaking the truth is easier than lying, because lying requires that one remain alert and remember the details of the lie all the time. It is easy to be found out and lose credibility. Such type of lying makes a virtue out of a vice. The person can become habituated to lying, and their personality can become completely distorted and untrustworthy.