Rta, Satya, Dharma: Rta's Various Shades of Meaning

This article is part 4 of 9 in the series Rta Satya Dharma


It appears the concept of rta is multifold:

  1. System or Order in the Universe
  2. अवश्यम्बावी (Sure things, such as action and result, debtor and creditor relationship.) Where there are roots, sprouts are bound to be there, in cycle of deeds the good and bad results are inescapable.
  3. Development of Human Nature. In every human being or living thing there are some hidden characteristics. That becomes his nature. This nature is eternal. This undergoes series of transformations in cycle of lives. The development of this nature is like that of a tree. There may be differences in the size, number of branches, leaves from a tree to another tree born from it but there will be similarities in the inner constitution or taste of fruits. Human nature is quite similar, it may change in many aspects but in its fundamental element it would remain unchanged. If human conduct or principles are to be suitable a person, first it has to align to the nature of that individual. Principles which are contradictory one's nature will not come good and cannot be put into practice. Dharma is like shield. It will be appropriate when it follows the core element of that living being. Likewise it is easy to practice when he keeps his principles of dharma that he is qualified for. Dharmashastra (the codification of dharma) therefore follow basic tenets of rta.
  4. Rituals, process of worship, and elements used for yajna such as water, fire, and other sacred substances are also referred to as rta in our tradition.


The other meanings for ऋत are:

  1. Yajna
  2. Unchasheela
  3. Water
  4. Sun
  5. Vishnu
  6. Rudra
  7. Rishiprabedha

Thus rta is from ancient times referred to as natural occurrence, seed of truth and the result or outcome of such actions.


In our colloquial usage, satya is more widely used than rta, but anrtam is used as a common word for falsehood or asatya. In the Vedas, rta and satya have been used interchangeably and supporting each other. The following is a good example for this:

rtam vadishyami, satyam vadishyarni
rtam tapa, satyam tapa
rtam satyam param brahma
rtam tva satyena parisanchayami

Then what is the difference in their meaning? Shankaracharya opines the following:

rtam yatha shastram yatha kartavyam budhau suparinischithmartham |
satyam iti sa eva vakhyabhyam sampadyamanah |

(In accordance with the shastras and just to the context, with thought process the certainty formed is rta. The certainty which translates in speech and action it is satya.)

Sayanacharya's interpretation is as follows:

rtam manasa yatarthavastuchintanam |
satyam vaca yatarthabashanam |

(The 'as is' thought process in the mind is rta. Words expressed 'as is' makes up satya.)
satyam abadhyam |
satyatvam cha dvividham vyavaharikam paramarthikam cha |
hiranyagarbarupam vyavaharikam satyam |
tanirakarnena paramarthikam satyam |
pratipadayitam rtam satyamiti visheshyatha |
atyantam satyamityartha |

(Truth cannot be disturbed. Truth is of two types: one is transactional and other is absolute or the higher one. Inclusive of the creator who is four-faced Brahma first is related to the transactions of the Universe. The naturalistic meaning gets to be known as satya. If we separate out the transactions or business from it translates into rta.)

Saynacharya in another place has expressed as below:

vivkashitasya vidyamanarthasya adho manasa paryalochana vrutham vadanam |
paschyatadvachsocharanam satyavadanmiti tayovirvekah |

(The fact that is realized in the mind about the words to be spoken is rta and when spoken becomes truth. This is the difference between the two.)

The word rta may be more ancient than the word satya. It appears by the time of Shankaracharya, satya was more in usage for 'truth' and anrtam for 'untruth' -- this may be one of the reasons for making such a guess. "सत्यानृते मिथुनीक्रित्य" (Blending the untruth with grit) is one of his usages.

There is another point to be noted here. If rta (Cosmic Order) is slightly distant from satya (Truth), then anrta (violation of cosmic order) should be at same distance from asatya (untruth). In the above sentence, Shankaracharya, in suggesting the opposite of truth as untruth, has used anrta. There might be a mystery in this. Rta is the first form of Truth. Satya is the second state. Therefore anrta only suggests that there is lack of truth but if we interpret as there is deficiency in root of truth then that tone will seem like untruth.

Truth is practical usage of rta. Anrta is the complete absence of it. Shankaracharya in his commentary on the Kathopanishad "ऋतम् पिबन्तु सुक्र्तस्य लोके" has elaborated it as "ऋतम् सत्यम्, अवश्यम् भावित्वात्, कर्मफलम्, पिबन्तो." Sayanacharya has commented on the rk mantra "ऋतेन मित्रावरुणो" as "ऋतेन अवश्यम् भावितया सत्येन फलेन ...ऋतमित्युदक नाम सत्यम् वा यज्ञं वा यास्क:" Further, the commentary for "ऋतेन या व्रतो ऋदाव्र्तस्य" is given as "ऋतेन सत्यवचनेन यजमानानुग्रहकारणम् | ऋताव्र्दो | ऋतम् अवश्यम्भावितया सत्यम् कर्मफलम् | तस्य वर्धको." Then "गोपालम् ऋतस्य दीदिविं " is interpreted as "ऋतस्य सत्यस्य अवश्यम् भाविनः कर्मपलस्य | दीदिविं पोन:पुन्येन भृतं वा द्य़ोतकम्." Thus in the root meaning of "ऋत" along with the truth, fruit of the action as a debt relation with the fate is also included. Natural occurrings, the things formed by such natural occurrences, their usual conduct, and the fruits born out of them, thus representing a chain is rta. As it is impossible to escape this chain it becomes a rule or order. Thus it becomes a meritorious act of austerity and therefore a 'nature.' In this mutual cause and effect succession rta becomes dharma (nature).

To be continued…

This is an English translation of a Kannada monograph titled ‘ಋತ, ಸತ್ಯ, ಧರ್ಮ.’ Edited by Hari Ravikumar.



Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Haricharan has been an entrepreneur and software marketer. He has a deep interest in Indian history, culture, and Carnatic music. In 2014, he translated D V Gundappa's classic 'Baligondu Nambike' into English as 'Faith for Life.'

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