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Why everyone needs to know about Anekantavada?

Why everyone needs to know about Anekantavada?

Sushma Swaraj, Indian Minister of External Affairs recently said that Jainism’s principles of Anekantavada, Aparigraha (non-hoarding) and Ahimsa (non-violence) offer a solution to the present day problems the world is facing. She was referring to extremism, climate change, and inequality.

Next week when the world will celebrate Mahavira Jayanti (birth of Mahavira, twenty fourth and the last Tirthankara (Teaching God) of the present time cycle.) today I am writing about one of the most important and fundamental principle of Jainism – Anekantavada.

The world is suffering from absolutism and so much so that it has reached to the level of extremism. Extremism has spread to the extent of even killing people not compliant with the views of the extremists. This kind of world view is on the rise and tolerance limits of people not only have drastically come down, but also are on the further decline on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, religions, we human being has ‘invented’ have become points of discontent and a great reason for dividing people rather than uniting them. Every religion has a point of view and understanding of the truth. However, unless the thing is examined from all possible angles, view of the truth is either conditioned or partial.

Jain philosophy is very eloquent and elaborate on the subject of logic, metaphysics and life science. One of the fundamental principles of Jain philosophy is the principle of Anekantavada. Anekantavada is defined as ;

It refers to the principles of pluralism and multiplicity of viewpoints, the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently from diverse points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth.

The literal meaning of the word is: anekānta (“manifoldness”) and vāda (“school of thought”)

The guiding principle behind the concept of Anekantavada is; that objects are infinite in their qualities and modes of existence, so they cannot be completely grasped in all aspects and manifestations by finite human perception. Every human expresses his views as per circumstances, in relation to his mental condition and experience.

In her book, Applied Philosophy of Anekanta, author Dr. Samani Shashi Prajna writes;

A thing has many characters and it exists independently. It is called substance (dravya). It persists in and through all attributes and modes. Substance is defined by Umāsvāti as guṇaparyāyavad dravyaṁ, that which possesses qualities and modes. Out of these innumerable qualities of a substance, some are permanent and essential, while others are changing and accidental. The former are called attributes (guna) and the latter modes (paryāya). Substance and attributes are inseparable because the latter is the permanent essence of the substance and cannot remain without it. Modes or modifications are changing and accidental.

Anekantavada means Non-Absolutism which gives space for accommodating other contradictory view. Anekantavada helps us in understanding others’ point of view with a broad mind. The whole truth, complete in all aspect is only known by Omniscient i.e. Kevali, known in Jain terminology. Rest all can view the things or situation in seven different ways (Neither six nor eight).

These are;

  1. syād-asti—in some ways, it is,
  2. syān-nāsti—in some ways, it is not,
  3. syād-asti-nāsti—in some ways, it is, and it is not,
  4. syād-avaktavyaḥ—in some ways, it is indescribable
  5. syād-asti-avaktavyaḥ—in some ways, it is, and it is indescribable,
  6. syān-nāsti-avaktavyaḥ—in some ways, it is not, and it is indescribable,
  7. syād-asti-nāsti-avaktavyaḥ—in some ways, it is, it is not, and it is indescribable.

These seven conditional ways are also known as Svadvada. This can be understood with the help of an example:

I am right – can be viewed as;

  1. I am right (to someone agreeing with my view)
  2. It may not be right (to someone not agreeing with my view)
  3. It may be both right and wrong, depending upon certain conditions.
  4. Independent of all conditions, my views are indescribable (all knowledge rest on certain conditions)
  5. Indescribable in itself, I may be right subject to certain condition (a combination of 1 and 4)
  6. Indescribable in itself, I may be wrong, subject to certain conditions (a combination of 2 and 4).
  7. Indescribable in itself, I may be right or wrong depending upon certain conditions (a combination of 3 and 4).

Another example:

Is Narendra Modi (NAMO) the best Prime Minister?

  1. NAMO is the best Prime Minister.
  2. NAMO is not the best Prime Minister.
  3. NAMO is the best on certain aspect of his performance.
  4. We don’t know whether he is the best Prime Minister.
  5. NAMO is the best Prime Minister subject to certain conditions.
  6. NAMO is not the best Prime Minister subject to certain conditions.
  7. NAMO is the best or may not be the best subject to certain conditions.

Each of these seven propositions examines the complex and multifaceted nature of reality from a relative point of view of time, space, substance and mode. To ignore the complexity of reality is to commit the fallacy of dogmatism.

This can be still be better understood by a famous example which we all know:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a drain pipe”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, “I perceive the shape of the elephant to be like a pillar”. And in the case of the one who placed his hand upon its back said, “Indeed, this elephant is like a throne”. Now, each of these presented a true aspect when he related what he had gained from experiencing the elephant. None of them had strayed from the true description of the elephant. Yet they fell short of fathoming the true appearance of the elephant.

These multidimensional viewpoints are conditional views and not a complete view, but they are also not false views.

Dr. Satkari Mookerjee in his book on The Jain Philosophy of Non-Absolutism writes,

The Jaina conception of dynamic constitution of reality and of the eternity of existence may be applied in the various field of human activity to ensure our progress towards the summon bonum*, which is the goal of our destiny.

(* the highest good, especially as the ultimate goal, according to which values and priorities are established in an ethical system.)

This theory is used by scientist in metaphysics, is also equally applicable in our day to day life.

Albert Einstein himself remarked, “We can only know the relative truth, the real truth is known only to the universal observer.”

“We can only know the relative truth, the real truth is known only to the universal observer.”

Jeffery D. Long in his paper ‘Anekantavada and Ahimsa’ writes,

“the relationship of anekāntavāda to ahiṃsā is the relationship between theory and practice–to be more specific, that anekāntavāda is the abstract theory or philosophy of which ahiṃsā is the practical embodiment, and that ahiṃsā is the practice of anekāntavāda.”

Sushma Swaraj and Jeffery D. Long both are right, the only solution to widespread violence around us is to propagate the principles of Anekantavada. The biggest practitioner of this principle in the recent history was Mohandas Gandhi.

We all can find some peace of mind if we practice this principle in life.  Our anger, rivalry, ill feelings and all personal negative emotions towards others can be better understood and managed.

Practicing Anekantavada is a panacea for not only global problems but also for many of our personal problems.

Sunil Gandhi
Sunil Gandhi

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