Satyamev Jayate (“truth alone triumphs”), taken from Mundaka Upanishad, is the national motto of India, and, therefore, of all governmental departments. The message of being on the side of truth is not lost on anyone. Satyamev Jayate also happens to be the motto of High Courts across the country while that of the Supreme Court is taken from the message of Lord Krishna to Arjuna in Mahabharat -Yato Dharmastato Jayah (“where there is dharma, there will be victory”). Justice Kurien Joseph believes that the motto of the Supreme Court also ought to be Satyamev Jayate.

I beg to differ.

First and foremost, although High Courts are not constitutionally inferior to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court occupies a higher pedestal. The Constitution of India vide Article 142 empowers the Supreme Court to pass any order/decree in order to do “complete justice” to the parties in any matter pending before it. Article 141 of the Constitution emphatically and unambiguously states that “Law declared by Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts in the territory of India” including the High Courts. Article 136 grants a discretion to the Supreme Court to grant “Special leave to appeal from any judgment, decree, determination, sentence or order in any cause or matter passed or made by any court or tribunal in the territory of India” which includes even the High courts. There are no corresponding parallels for the High Courts. Thus, it is only practical that the Supreme Court and High Courts, although birds of the same feather, have different mottos.

In V.K Chaturvedi Petitioner v. Union Of India (2011), Justice Pradeep Nandrajog quite eloquently said that “the jurisdiction we exercise is under the shadow of 'Satyamev Jayate' i.e 'Truth shall prevail' and the Supreme Court exercises jurisdiction under the shadow of: 'Yato Dharmastato Jayah' i.e 'Truth alone I uphold', in other words, our jurisdiction relates to Niti and the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court relates to Nyaya. We sit under the jurisdiction of upholding the law and the Supreme Court sits under the jurisdiction of doing complete justice by virtue of Article 142 of the Constitution of India.

Under the Indian Constitution, a Judge of the Supreme Court takes oath:-

  1. To bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India;
  2. To uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India;
  3. To duly and faithfully and to the best of his ability, knowledge, and judgment perform the duties of the Office without fear or favor, affection or ill-will; and
  4. To uphold the Constitution and the laws.

If this is the oath of a judge of the Supreme Court, there is no gainsaying that its motto ought to be the guiding light which helps a judge live up to its oath.

How will a judge bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution? At times, it also needs to be asked what the Constitution is. Is it only what is written in black and white? Likewise, how to best uphold the Constitution especially when competing rights are at loggerheads?

Therein lies the utility of the motto “Yato Dharmastato Jayah”. Dharma is elastic enough to condone the bloodshed in Mahabharata while at the same time being strict enough that Dashratha’s mistaken killing of Sravan Kumar’s parents qualifies as adharma. In A S Narayana Deekshitulu vs State of Andhra Pradesh (1996), the Supreme Court, while recognizing that dharma regulates mutual obligations of individual and society, stressed that “Though dharma is a word of wide meaning as to cover the rules concerning all matters such as spiritual, moral and personal as also civil, criminal and constitutional law, it gives the precise meaning depending upon the context in which it is used.

Dharma is outcome oriented. Unlike truth which is objective, dharma is prescriptive. If truth answers the question “what is” dharma answers the question “what should be”. Being the sentinel of the Constitution and tasked with the enormous responsibility of being the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution, the Supreme Court must have an eye on “what should be”.

Justice Kurian Joseph said that "the truth is the Constitution, Dharma - not always."

True as it may sound, but we all have heard the parable of seven blind men touching an elephant. The one who touched its leg equated the elephant with a pillar, while the other who touched its trunk equated the elephant with a thick snake. Likewise, the Constitution may be the ultimate truth, but that truth has to be discovered in the context of society and time.

While the Constitution serves as the legal foundation of a democratic society, dharma complements it by providing a moral and ethical framework that guides the interpretation and application of constitutional principles. Dharma reinforces the underlying values of justice, fairness, and equality enshrined in the Constitution, ensuring that legal decisions are not only legally sound but also ethically justifiable. By integrating dharma into legal reasoning, judges can address ethical dilemmas and promote principles such as empathy, compassion, and social responsibility, which are integral to a just and equitable society

Dharma offers interpretive flexibility that allows for its adaptation to contemporary legal challenges and societal needs. By integrating dharma into legal discourse, judges can navigate complex issues with sensitivity to moral considerations, thereby enhancing the effectiveness and legitimacy of the judicial process. Guided by the motto of Yato Dharmastato Jayah, the Supreme Court in Kesavananda Bharati (1973) could read the Basic Structure into the Constitution, which is nowhere mentioned in it. It is this motto which captures its authority to answer “what should be” which enabled it to interpret “consultation” as “concurrence” in the 2nd Judges case. One may disagree with the interpretation, however, there cannot be two thoughts on the existence of such a power to read something which is explicitly absent but is needed. However, such a power should not be stretched too far, and therein lies the beauty of dharma.

In light of its avowed motto, the Supreme Court has expanded Article 21 to cover a plethora of rights which were either not explicitly mentioned, like the Right to Privacy (Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) vs. Union of India (2017)) or which were present as Directive Principles of State Policy like Right to Livelihood (Olga Tellis vs BMC (1985)). It is towards the fulfillment of this motto that the Apex Court in Vishaka Vs State of Rajasthan (1997) issued guidelines on the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation of Women at Workplace or coined the concept of Absolute Liability in MC Mehta v Union of India (1985).

In summary, while the Constitution serves as the supreme law of the land, dharma enhances its application by providing a moral compass that guides legal interpretation and decision-making. Rather than pitting one against the other, one should recognize the complementary relationship between dharma and constitutional law, emphasizing the importance of integrating ethical principles into its interpretation to uphold justice and fairness. Supreme Court itself, in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India (2016), calls justice as the modern concept of dharma and that “the foundation of administration of justice after the advent of the Constitution is the motto ‘yato dharmastato jayaha’”.

The author is an Advocate practicing in the Delhi High Court. The author has taken inputs from his team comprising Sheetal Khandekar, Deepak Gupta, Sparsh Atri, and Chhavi Gupta.

[The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Verdictum does not assume any responsibility or liability for the contents of the article.]