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anekĀntavĀda and syĀdvĀda



Anekāntavāda and Syādvāda –

Anekāntavāda echoes the spirit of Jainism. It is the foundation on which stands the entire edifice of Jaina philosophy. The three stanzas that the Lord Tīrthaṅkara Mahāvīra uttered the first thing in His maiden discourse laid the foundation of non–absolutist view–point that the faith propounded by Him was going to take. In ‘Uppannai vā (things come into being)’, ‘Vigamai vā (things are destroyed)’ and ‘Dhuve vā (things are constant)’ the Lord hinted at the relativity of approach that was against the prevalent dogmatic absolutist approach, responsible for all the intellectual conflict and resultant strife between various religious philosophies of the time. He gave a conciliatory way of consideration that reconciled these conflicts and paved the way for better understanding of varying view–points.

Anekāntavāda or the theory of Non–absolutism is the unique philosophical gift to the humanity by the twenty–fourth Jina or Prophet Lord Mahāvīra. Herein, he says that the reality or the truth is many faceted and any ordinary being, with his limited vision and wisdom, can see only a few of its aspects. There is a lot that remains unseen and unknown by him. It will, therefore, be a perjury of truth to consider the partial truth, seen and known by him, to be the absolute truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is this realisation and not a dogmatic insistence on one’s views that gives the Jaina creed the tolerance that it is credited with and the right perspective to see and appreciate others’ view–points as well. This chapter brings out various facets of this wonderful theory in all its glory and, with suitable examples, impresses upon its readers the desirability of the relative view developed by adherence to this theory and many an acrimonious exchange that can be thwarted by its application in personal, social, national and international lives.

So far, this important gift has remained confined to theoretical study only and, therefore, has failed to yield the desired fruits in personal and social lives of its followers. There is, therefore, a need to take it out of the scriptures and present it to the people at large so that they may put it to a pragmatic use and derive the benefits that can accrue thereby.

Syādvāda, on the other hand, is the inoffensive and, therefore, verbally non–violent way to express the relative truth that one gathers by the application of the theory of Anekānta. It is said to be the linguistic side of Anekānta.

Anekāntavāda –

Lord Prophet the ford maker, (Tīrthaṅkara) Mahāvīra, was absolutely committed to the investigation and propagation of truth. On attaining enlightenment He could see the fallacy of the absolute and dogmatic adherence to part–truths and the intellectual strife that it generated. He could see that if all the part–truths are reconciled and a comprehensive view is taken, we can be much nearer the whole truth. This view formed a part of His realisation and His real knowledge. He felt that when one aspect of an issue or an object is mentioned in isolation of the other aspects, it generates controversy, as the others may not be viewing it from the same view–point. The key to reconciliation, therefore, lay in considering an issue or an object from various angles and whenit is possible to view it from a limited perspective only, to make allowance for the other view–points as well. This is, in essence, the non–absolutist view or Anekāntavāda.

Several examples have been cited to illustrate the futility of the absolutist view and the utility of the non–absolutist one. The classical example is that of six blind men coming across an elephant and each feeling it from different parts of its body and forming an opinion of it according to his own experience. The first blind man who felt the elephant’s trunk said it was like a banana–tree; the second one who felt its legs said it was like a pillar; the third one who felt its body said it was like a drum; the fourth one who felt its ears said it was like a fan; the fifth one who felt its tail said it was like a rope and the sixth one who felt its tusks said it was like a spear. They all stuck to their respective views and started quarrelling amongst themselves. They couldn’t help it as each could not appreciate the others’ views. Then came along a sighted person who heard their dispute and made each one feel the other parts of the elephant as well and thus, also made them see the others’ view–points. When this happened, all their differences that seemed irreconcilable earlier were reconciled and all of them had a better concept of the elephant than they had earlier with their limited perspectives. Non–absolutism does this to all of us. It makes us open to others’ view–points and enables us to have better concepts of things or issues.

In our day–to–day lives, too, we can see that the utility of the things around us and the relationships that we have in relation to others are never absolute. If we stuck to absolute view about them, we would find life difficult or make ourselves a laughing–stock in front of the others. Take the example of food. Food is essential and beneficial. This is an absolute statement. If we stick to it in isolation of the other considerations and keep eating in excessive quantities, we are inviting trouble for ourselves. When we correct ourselves and make the relative statement that the food is essential but it is beneficial only in requisite quantities, we are saved all the trouble. This is non–absolutism in practice. Take another example of relationships. Rāma, as is well known, was Daśaratha’s son, Laxman’s brother, Sītā‘s husband, Luv and Kuśa’s father and Ayodhyā‘s king. If someone took an absolute view and maintained that Rāma was only a son, or a brother or a husband or a father or a king, he will not only be making a fool of himself but also show his ignorance and arrogance. One has to accept the relative relationships in different contexts to be practical and non–controversial. This is practical non–absolutism.

The examples abound – the water, which is a giver of life by virtue of its qualities of quenching thirst and irrigating crops, is also a perpetrator of death by virtue of its being a cause of floods and drowning. Who does not know that the fire is destructive but, at the same time, it also helps us in cooking, warming etc. The food sustains life but the same food is poison for those suffering from Typhoid and Dyspepsia.

Let us take a philosophical example. The beauty of non–absolutist view is most evident in the Jaina concept of reality. The Upaniṣadas and the Vedānta, as presented by Śankara believe in the absolute constancy (Kūtastha–nityatā) of reality and say that the changes we see around us is all Māyā or illusion. The Buddhist school of thought believes in absolute transitory nature of reality and maintains that everything changes every moment, nothing is constant and everything is in a state of flux. It believes that things originate every moment and they are destroyed the very next moment. The believers of Sānkhya philosophy advance the view that the conscious reality (Puruṣa) is constant while the inert nature is variably constant (Pariṇāmī nitya). The Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika philosophies, on the other hand, believe in absolute constancy of the soul, ultimate particle, etc but maintain that the things like the pot (Ghaṭa), cloth (Paṭa), etc, we see around us are only transient and they just originate and get destroyed. Now, ifwe were to stick to any one of these views in isolation, we would never get anywhere. The contradictions in these absolute statements are just too visible to merit any explanation. These absolutist approaches also resulted in such violent disagreements that Buddhists were forced to abandon the country of their origin as they were neither ready to reconcile to the majority view held by the Vedāntis nor could they withstand the virulent opposition that the latter forced upon them. The Jaina concept of reality, as enunciated in the three phrases mentioned in the very first paragraph of this chapter, summarised in the maxim ‘Utpāda–Vyaya–Dhrauvyayuktaṁ Sat’ so beautifully and so completely reconciles these two opposite views that there remains no room for any disagreement. It is a relative concept of reality that states the truth as seen by the omniscient Tīrthaṅkaras.

Truth, as we can see, is never absolute. Absolutely stated, we can at best grasp the part–truth. Sticking to absolute statements is arrogance and can be termed as violence. The Jaina thinkers call such arrogance as thought–violence. Such arrogance cannot promote non–violence. That is why they said, ‘first be moderate in your views and then state them with reference to the contexts. It is not sufficient to state one’s own position from one’s own point of view; one must permit the other to state his point of view as well. Only then can one see the truth; only then can one be truly and practically non–violent.’ It is, here, that the non–violent way of stating things from limited but relative perspectives comes in. This was made possible by the discovery of Syādvāda or relative predication.

Syādvāda –

Syādvāda, is a reflection of Lord Mahāvīra’s absolute commitment to non–violence. His life’s whole commitment and endeavour had been to uphold the view that while the truth must be revealed in its real sense, its statement must not suffer from the flaw of opposing others in absolute terms and, thereby, hurting them; thus, causing violence of speech. However, this is possible only through relative statements when while stating one aspect of a thing or issue, we also keep an eye on its other aspects. The Syādvāda style of predication makes it possible by prefacing ‘syāt’ meaning ‘in a certain context’ before a statement.

From the Syādvāda system of seven–way predication, the Jaina seers have brought the precept of Anekāntavāda to the level of vocal practice. We all know that in this world nothing is absolutely good and that nothing is absolutely bad. Everything has in it some goodness and some badness. There are traces of goodness in bad things and vice–versa. If we were to make practical statements about something that we are not absolutely certain about, and know that there is something that is good in it and there is something that is bad as well and we are not sure about how much of it is good and how much of it is bad, the readers would agree that absolute statements like ‘This is good’ Or ‘This is bad’ will not be the true statements of its true nature. Under such circumstances, we can state the truth in one or more of the following seven ways: –

1. In a certain context it is good.

2. In a certain context it is bad.

3. In a certain context it is good and bad both.

4. In a certain context it is not possible to say whether it is good or bad.

5. In a certain context it is good but how good is not possible to say.

6. In a certain context it is bad but how bad is not possible to say.

7. In a certain context it is good in some way and bad in some other way but how good or how bad is not possible to say.

In philosophical terms these very alternative ways of expression (bhaṅga) can be put as follows : –

1. SyādastiIn a certain context it is.

2. SyānnāstiIn a certain context it is not.

3. Syādasti–nāsti In a certain context it is as well as it is not.

4. Syādavaktavyaṁ In a certain context it is inexpressible.

5. Syadasti–avaktavyaṁIn a certain context it is but it is inexpressible.

6. Syānnāsti–avaktavyaṁ In a certain context it is not but it is inexpressible.

7. Syādasti–nāsti–avaktavyaṁIn a certain context it is as well as it is not and it is inexpressible.

Here, I wish to quote an example (suitably modified) from daily life, which I have read in the book, ‘First Steps To Jainism’ by AL Sancheti, and which, I am sure, will make this rather abstract discussion quite easily understood. If a person is ill, say he has common cold and fever, and if someone enquires about his state of health, he is likely to come across one of the following seven alternative answers to his query, which are illustrative of all the possible conditions of the sick man. Also, these alternative replies beautifully represent the seven–fold predication of his state of health: –


1. He is somewhat well – The cold is better (the fever is not).

2. He is somewhat unwell – The fever has not improved (but the cold has).

3. He is well as well as unwell – As far as the cold is concerned, he is well, but as far as the fever is concerned he is not well.

4. I cannot say. – His condition is such that nothing can be said for sure.

5. He is well but cannot say. – He is somewhat improved but nothing can be said for sure.

6. He is unwell but cannot say – He is somewhat unwell but nothing can be said for sure.

7. He is well as well as unwell – He is somewhat improved, some–what not improved and nothing can be said, for sure, about his condition.

We notice that all these alternative statements are relative and none of them is absolute. Also, they truly represent the goodness or badness of the thing under scrutiny in the first example and the condition of the patient in the second. Also, when we preface each statement with the phrase ‘In a certain context (syāt)’, we make our statements absolutely inoffensive. The modern scientific method of criticism also advocates bringing out the good points first and then the bad points, and that, too, only contextually and to present a happy mix of the two, in an as much inoffensive way as possible, so that it does not hurt.

In the philosophical example of the nature of reality, the Jaina view states that in the context of matter, everything isconstant and in the context of modes, every one of its modes comes into being and gets destroyed. This can, also, be understood by an example – Suppose, we give a golden ornament, a bangle, to the goldsmith, to be melted and remade into a necklace and he does our bidding. In this case, the bangle mode of the gold has been destroyed and the necklace mode has come into being but in both the modes the gold, as material, remains constant. Thus, the Jaina concept of reality is relative. From the material stand–point everything is constant but from the stand–point of modes (moods for the soul), everything is given to creation and destruction. When a person grows, his childhood gives way to youth, which in turn, yields to old age but the person remains constant in all three modes of life. This distinction between the matter part and the modes part of everything is clearly visible in nature as well as in life. Syād–vāda way of seven–fold predication brings this out beautifully.

I wish to make it quite clear that ‘syāt’ is the most misunderstood phrase of the logic–terminology. It does not mean ‘perhaps’ as interpreted by the other philosophers who decry the Anekāta of the Jaina philosophy andits seven–fold predication by prefacing syāt’before every statement as philosophy of uncertainty. It means ‘In a certain context’, as already stated earlier, and restated now for emphasis.

Applied Anekānta –

There are infinite numbers of objects around us and each has infinite modes that keep changing continuously. Through absolute predication, we can describe only one mode and make the truth disappear from our statement. To an ordinary person Margosa (Nīma) is a plant whose every part tastes bitter. However, for the ailing its constituents make for invaluable medicines. Therefore, it will be improper to view ‘Nīma’ from one angle only and to disregard its other qualities. When the position in respect of an ordinary Margosa plant is such, it is well nigh impossible to know and state the infinite qualities of infinite number of things through absolutist statements. The Jaina philosophers deeply realised this and, therefore, they did not limit their concerns up to the human–beings only but extended them to include the sensibilities of the other creatures as well. They realised that like the humans the other creatures, too, enjoy the right to live. They, too, are free to express themselves through the means at their command. This is the outcome of the Syādvāda of Jaina philosophy.

The non–absolutist view is as essential in the day–to–day practice as it is essential in the field of philosophy and thought. Actually, this view–point gives us an essential flexibility and discriminating insight whereby we can distinguish between the good and the evil. The experience tells us that Absolutism is the root cause of differences and conflict while Non–absolutism that of agreement and friendship. In order to understand it more clearly let us take the example of traffic signs. Those who follow the traffic signs reach their destinations unhindered. Similarly, the seven ways of predications that constitute Syādvāda can be taken as the seven traffic–signs that regulate the traffic on the intellectual high–way. Following them does not augur any accidental conflict of thoughts and, therefore, Syādvāda is the surest remedy for intellectual conflict as well as intellectual exploitation.

Conclusion –

From the Syādvāda of the Jaina philosophy it is evident that we must also accommodate others’ views and thoughts. The doors of our minds must always be open for the guest–thoughts. From the childhood itself we have, generally, been writing on the paper after leaving a margin so that we leave some space for correction as well as expansion and, resultantly, make our writings complete and error–free. The Say-dvāda gives us a message toleave a margin in every field of our thought and activity. Whether we engage ourselves in gathering knowledge or wealth and fame, the relativity must always be an essential attribute in all our endeavours. We must remember that to share is to understand non–absolutism and herein lies the key to our character. Non–absolutism makes our thinking flawless; flawless thoughts lead to flawless and relative speech and such speech is the vehicle of intellectual non–violence. The non–violent attitude does not permit us unnecessary accumulation and exploitation and our lives become free from binding attachment. Thus, Syādvāda is the formula for spiritual purification. The Jaina masters have said – ‘our salutation to the revered doctrine of Anekāntavāda, which is the preceptor of this whole universe and without which the conduct of the very worldly business itself is impossible’.

Jeṇa viṇā loyassa vi vavahāro savvahā na nivvaḍai ™

Tassa bhuvaṇekkaguruṇo ṇamo Aṇegantavāyassa ™™”


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