Words can hurt others, so it’s always good to avoid
harsh language, backbiting and even friendly teasing
By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami
One of the key teachings of my guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, is that we are a soul, a divine being. However, we live in a physical body—as embodied souls—with strong thoughts and emotions. Thus, we have a soul nature, an intellectual nature and an instinctive nature. He describes this plurality as three phases of the mind: superconscious or spiritual (which is the soul); intellectual or mental; and instinctive or physical-emotional.
It is the instinctive, animal-like nature which contains the tendencies to become angry, jealous, fearful or hurtful to others. Part of making progress on the spiritual path is learning to control the instinctive mind. This is where the yamas, the ten ethical restraints, come into play. They provide a list of tendencies we need to subdue. The classical Hindu depiction of restraining the mind is the charioteer pulling back on the reins of a team of three, four or five horses to keep them under control. The yamas are the reins which help us control our instinctive and intellectual natures, which are like strong steeds that can work for us or run wild if not kept in check.
The first yama is noninjury, ahimsa: not harming others by thought, word or deed. Noninjury, as we all know, is a central Hindu principle. Of course, most of us do not indulge in physical violence. We may conclude from this that ahimsa presents no challenge to us. However, looking more closely at the definition of ahimsa, we see that it includes not harming others by our thoughts or words. Hence those following a spiritual life need to practice noninjury in our speech and even our thoughts.
To make progress on the spiritual path we need to focus on our weak points and strive to improve them. Furthermore, we need to hold the attitude that no matter how well we are doing in a particular practice, we can always do better, find ways to further refine our behavior. Speech is perhaps our most powerful tool for communication and a worthy focus for our attention.
Gurudeva provides a fourfold guideline to judge if our speech is appropriate: “Speak only that which is true, kind, helpful and necessary.” Let’s take the example of a friend who is overweight. We are genuinely worried that it is vital for his health to lose some weight. We voice our concern by saying, “Ravi, you are way too heavy.” Our message passes the test of helpfulness but fails the test of kindness. We need to express our concern more diplomatically. Perhaps, “I hope you won’t mind my saying this, Ravi, but it would be good for your health to get serious about diet and exercise.” Even helpful words need to be expressed in a kindly way if they are to have the intended effect. There are four common forms of hurting others with our speech: joking, teasing, gossiping and backbiting.
Joking & Teasing
Let’s look at some examples that illustrate joking and teasing. First example: a peer has a special privilege or position. We grumble, “Look at Mr. I’m-better-than-you! Why was he exempted from the work we had to do today?” Second example: someone speaks with a foreign accent. You mimic his faulty pronunciation and laugh. Third example: a coworker has difficulty multiplying numbers. When she struggles with a calculation, you make fun of her. The rationale is “I’m joking,” “Just being humorous,” “Entertaining my friends.” In truth, your words are himsa; you are harming others through your speech and justifying it by saying you are just joking, as if humor removes or exempts the hurt. Words can cause real pain, even if they are said in jest. Many don’t realize this. Critical humor comes at the expense of the person you are joking about. In evaluating these examples with our fourfold test, we can see that they are neither true, kind, helpful nor necessary.
Gossip is talking about the details of others’ personal lives for the delight of it when they are not present. It’s like creating and watching our own soap opera. Such talk entertains those present at the expense of the person being gossiped about. Some wives regularly gossip about their husbands, on the phone or on the Internet, with other wives. Some husbands complain about their wives among coworkers. Such idle talk may perhaps pass the test of being true, but it fails the other three tests: kindness, helpfulness and necessity. Husbands need the support of their wives to be successful. Wives need the support of their husbands to be secure. Telling tales and teasing disastrously undermine support in any relationship.
Last but not least is backbiting. Finding faults in another and sharing such shortcomings with others is a hobby many enjoy. It is so much easier to look for faults in others and complain about them than to see the same faults in ourselves and correct them. The Tirukural challenges in verse 190, “If men perceived their own faults as they do the faults of others, could misfortune ever come to them?” And in verse 188: “If men are disposed to spread the faults of friends, what deadly harm might they do to strangers?” Backbiting clearly fails our speech test.The fact is that unless we are responsible for someone’s upbringing or training, such as parents to their children or supervisors to their staff, it is best to ignore the faults of others and focus instead on finding and improving our own shortcomings. Improving ourselves produces positive spiritual advancement; criticizing others does not. The next time you find yourself dwelling on the faults in others, ask if you might have that same fault, for what disturbs you in others often indicates what you need to improve in yourself.
Focusing on Three Virtues
For those on the spiritual path, it is not terribly difficult to avoid backbiting, gossip and hurtful humor. But controlling and refining our speech on more subtle levels is a lifetime sadhana.
Three virtues we can focus on are courtesy, tact and sensitivity. Courtesy is being polite, respectful and considerate of the needs and feelings of others. Tactfulness is being diplomatic and skillful in dealing with people and situations, responding to disagreements judiciously, and maintaining harmony by seeking solutions that offend no one. Sensitivity is holding a delicate appreciation of others’ ideas, attitudes and natures, listening carefully in conversations and not interrupting, striving to uplift rather than dominate. The Tirukural warns, “Not knowing the companionable art of cheerful conversation, men estrange even friends by divisive discourse” (verse 187).
As a general strategy, Gurudeva directed us to “Think before you speak.” Reflecting on what we are going to say is necessary, as it protects us from speaking inappropriately. Thus, control of speech has two parts. First, before you speak, stop and consider what you will say. Second, determine if your words meet the test of being true, kind, helpful and necessary. This simple practice can avert many difficulties. It can also be applied after a comment has slipped out, providing important lessons to guide future conversations.
We can learn much about speaking pleasant words from the ancient weaver, Tiruvalluvar, who devoted chapter ten of his Tirukural to the subject. Here are four verses to live by.
“Poverty-producing sorrow will not pursue those who speak joy-producing words to all they meet.” verse 94
“If a man seeks to do good while speaking sweet words, his virtues will wax and his vices will wane.” verse 96
“Words yield spiritual rewards and moral excellence, when they do not wander far from usefulness and agreeableness.” verse 97
“To utter harsh words when sweet ones would serve is like eating unripe fruits when ripe ones are at hand.” verse 100