Anekāntavāda : Two Conceptual Issues

Published: 22.06.2016
Updated: 22.06.2016

Anekāntavāda: Two Conceptual issues

The aim of this article[1] is to raise two issues concerning anekāntavāda and respond to them.  The issues I would like to raise are conceptual in that they arise in the course of elucidation of the concept of anekānta. I am not concerned very much here with the acceptability or otherwise of anekāntavāda.  However, the decision regarding acceptance or non-acceptance of anekāntavāda presupposes a certain understanding of it and probably a conceptual inquiry into anekāntavāda may help us in making a more reasonable decision. Secondly, my approach is not historical.  I am not dealing with the question as to how anekāntavāda was understood by a Jaina or Non-Jaina author at a given period of time.  However, a conceptual inquiry of this type can be useful in interpreting historical account of anekāntavāda in a clearer way.

The first issue is about the meaning or meanings of the term anekāntavāda. The second issue is whether the Anekanta is a self-referring doctrine; that is, whether anekāntavāda itself is 'anaikāntika'. 

(I) Meaning of the term anekāntavāda

The first question would be about the meaning of the term anekāntavāda: Is the term anekāntavāda univocal or multivocal? I suppose that the term has been used in Jaina tradition in at least two contexts.  I call the first context ontological and the other methodological. That is to say, sometimes the terms 'anekānta' and 'anekāntavāda' are used while answering the question about the nature of what there is.  It is said in this context that the nature of reality is anekanta. Sometimes on the other hand the term anekānta or anekāntavāda is used while answering the methodological question, i.e. the question about the way we can think about reality, talk about reality or justify our knowledge-claims about reality. It is said in this context that we should think and talk about reality or justify our knowledge-claims about reality in anekānta way. These two contexts are interconnected, but they are nevertheless different from each other.  Here I will first discuss the meanings the term anekāntavāda assumes in the two contexts separately and then discuss the way these meanings are interconnected.

Anekāntavāda as an ontological doctrine:

As I have suggested anekāntavāda as the ontological doctrine implies that reality is anekānta. In the statement that the reality is anekānta ("anekāntātmakaṁ vastu"), the term anekānta can be interpreted in two senses.  The first sense with its different shades can be called pluralistic-holistic whereas the second sense with its different shades can be called non-absolutistic or relativistic sense. Let me elaborate:

(a)  The first sense with its two shades.

The term anekānta in a sense means that which has many 'antas' The word anta in this context is interpreted as property, aspect of facet. Hence the sentence, 'reality is anekānta' means that reality is multi-faceted.  This is one of the most primary senses of the statement.  But the doctrine of anekānta implied by this sense is too common to be uniquely applicable to Jainism. It can be seen therefore that Jainas present the ontological form of anekānta doctrine in a more complex form.  Accordingly reality is not just understood as multi-faceted but infinite-faceted (Ananta-dharmātmakaṁ vastu).  In this sense the properties of all other things are also included in the nature of one thing.  This has also the epistemological implication that if one knows any one thing fully, he knows all the things fully.

This gives us a pluralistic and holistic conception of reality which we find in Jainism but we do not find in other systems of Indian philosophy. However, it seems that such a view may not be completely inconsistent with other systems.  For instance in Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika system we come across substances, qualities and different types of relational properties which bind the things together. The relations accepted in this system are both simple and complex- sākṣāt-sambandha and paramparā-sambandha, so that we can say that everything is related with everything else either by sākṣāt-sambandha or by paramparā-sambandha.  In this way the whole universe is an interconnected whole according to Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and so it is in many other systems also.  The only difference is that non-Jaina systems do not emphasize pluralistic/ holistic/ interconnected picture of the universe to the extent to which Jainas do.  However, the ontological anekāntavāda of the Jainas becomes really unique not because of its above mentioned characteristic, but because of its 'synthetic' character which is known as non-absolutistic or relativistic, and this is implied by the second sense of the term anekānta.

(b) The second sense with its different shades:

The statement that the reality is anekānta is many times interpreted as "Reality is non-absolute".  The word 'anekānta' now is derived as negation of ekānta and 'ekānta' is interpreted as absolute nature.  Absolute nature or absolute characteristic is understood as the nature or characteristic which does not allow its opposite characteristic to exist. Hence if a thing is absolutely permanent, it cannot be impermanent, if on the other hand it is absolutely impermanent, it cannot be permanent. If reality is one in absolute sense, it cannot be many and vice versa.  This is the absolutistic conception of reality which Jainas deny. Reality according to them is permanent but not absolutely so, and hence it can be impermanent as well. 'Non-absolute' in this sense can be called synthetic because even 'contradictory' characteristics are synthesized in them.  Further explanation of non-absoluteness can be given in terms of relativity, as for instance we can say that an impermanent thing is not impermanent in itself but relative to something (say, A), so that it can also be permanent, but now relative to some other thing (say, B).  This non-absoluteness of reality is brought out in another description of it as samānya-viśeṣādi-anekāntātmaka (Bhattacharya, p.359). Accordingly everything has certain common and certain uncommon features.  These common and uncommon features are further classified into two kinds – horizontal (tiryak) and vertical (ūrdhvatā).  Due to horizontal commonness a thing is like other things and due to horizontal uncommonness it is unlike them.  Due to vertical commonness a thing has continuous existence in time and due to vertical uncommonness its existence is discontinuous one. Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika system also accepts both (horizontal) commonness and (horizontal) uncommonness holding among different things in the world, which may roughly be called sāmānyas and viśeṣas.  But in Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika system these sāmānyas and viśeṣas are sharply distinguished from each other and also from the things to which they belong.  In Jainism on the other hand they get mixed-up with each other and with the things without causing any antagonistic contradiction. Anekānta nature of reality in this sense consists of the synthesis of identity and difference, oneness and many-ness and permanence and change.

The above discussion throws light on the different senses in which Jainas uphold anekāntavāda as an ontological doctrine.  The other context in which the term anekāntavāda is used in Jainism is methodological.  Whereas the first context was that of prameya, the other context is that of pramāṇa.  In the first context, to be anekāntavādin means to accept anekānta as the nature of reality, whereas in the second context to be anekāntavādin means to accept a particular method or a pramāṇa-theoretic view of approaching reality.  Now let us go into the details of the methodological conception of anekāntavāda.

Anekāntavāda as a methodological doctrine:

As I have suggested above, the terms ekāntavāda and anekāntavāda are sometimes used for referring to two opposite methodological approaches, two ways or two attitudes of understanding reality, describing reality and justifying knowledge claims about reality. When, for instance, scholars identify syādvāda with anekāntavāda or even when they regard syādvāda and nayavāda as the two wings of anekāntavāda, they are primarily concerned with the methodological conception of the latter because syādvāda and nayavāda are the doctrines concerning describing and understanding reality rather than the doctrines about reality itself.  The, term 'ekāntavāda' in this context refers to the tendency of some philosophers or philosophical systems to go to an extreme pole and to regard such a uni-polar extreme approach as the correct approach.  This is the tendency to regard a partial standpoint as a complete standpoint or to treat an absolutistic view as the correct view.  The term 'anekāntavāda' in this context refers to the tendency to go beyond any partial stand-point and to develop a more and more complete or holistic approach by incorporating and synthesizing other partial standpoints in it. Anekāntavāda in this sense is a holistic approach to reality. This methodological approach is clearly indicated by the Jaina conceptions of naya and pramāṇa, according to which our understanding of reality and the mode of describing reality is guided by nayas whereas nayas are neither pramāṇa nor apramāṇa but pramāṇāṁśa, i.e. the parts of  pramāṇa, and the term 'pramāṇa' in this context stands for complete knowledge.  This is further indicated by Siddhasena's statement, "As many are the nayavādas as there are the modes of expression and as many are the rival views as there are nayavādas". (Sanmatitarka 3.47 as quoted by Malvania, p.273)

But the notions of 'partial stand-point' and 'holistic approach' do not bring out the distinction between ekāntavāda and anekāntavāda in their full sense. Just as we distinguished between the two senses of anekāntavāda in ontological context, such a distinction can be made even in methodological context. Accordingly anekāntavāda in its secondary sense not only stands for a holistic approach but also to a non-absolutistic or relativistic approach.  It implies accepting any description of reality as true relative to a certain stand point and not absolutely true.

The point I have been trying to make so far is that when we say that Jainas are anekāntavādins, we do not always mean exactly the same thing.  Sometimes we are referring to their ontological approach, sometimes to their methodological approach.  Sometimes we are referring to its benign version, i.e. a version which could in principle be accepted by other systems as well, sometimes to its more radical and problematic version which is generally criticized by other systems.  I want to suggest here that when we conduct any philosophical discussion  on anekāntavāda, we have to be clear about the context in which we are talking about it and also about the version of anekāntavāda we are taking up for discussion.  It would not be appropriate to mix up different contexts or versions of anekāntavāda or to jump from one to the other without sufficient theoretical grounds.  For instance I believe that it is possible for one to be holist without being a non-absolutist, and to be a non-absolutist without being a holist.  Similarly although pramāṇa and prameya are logically interconnected, and therefore epistemological and ontological approaches are interconnected, one can always ask as to what is primary and what is secondary. One can accept a scheme of pramāṇas first and then develop a system of prameyas on the basis of that or accept a system of prameyas first and then develop a theory of pramāṇas for making and justifying knowledge claims about it. The question is complex. Recently it has been raised and discussed by Dr. Ambikadatta Sharma with special reference to Nyāya and Buddhism (Sharma, 1997). I am not going into the answer that Dr. Sharma gives there, but I want to suggest here, insofar as Jainism is concerned, that the Jain methodological or epistemological approach should be regarded as primary and ontological position as an outcome of that. That is to say, it seems to be more appropriate to hold that the great Jaina thinkers must have first adopted the anaikāntika way of understanding and describing reality and this must have made their conception of reality anaikāntika. One can go a step further and claim that even the anaikāntika methodology of Jainas need not ultimately be regarded as primary but it could be regarded as an outcome of their non-violent moral-spiritual approach to life. Many scholars hold this view. Dr. Nathmal Tatia, says, for instance, "Non-violent search for the truth should inspire the inquiries of a thinker. It is this attitude of tolerance and justice that was responsible for the origin of the doctrine of non-absolutism (anekānta)" (as quoted by Dayanda Bhargava in Shah (2000), p.115) Dayanand Bhargava in one of his recent articles refers to many scholars holding such a view and raises some doubts about the truth of it.  Dayanand Bhargava's important claim in this context is, "If non-absolutism becomes intolerant towards those who are not non-absolutist, it itself assumes the form of an intolerant dogma and its characteristic of tolerance remains only in name and not in spirit." The point in Bhargava's claim can be appreciated only with a reservation. The reservation is that one has to distinguish between two kinds of oppositions. The opposition between two absolutistic claims is different from the opposition between non-absolutism and absolutism.  The opposition of the first kind is non-accommodative. The view that everything is impermanent and impermanent alone and the view that everything is permanent and permanent alone, by their very nature, are opposed to accommodate each other.  But the non-absolutist view that everything is both permanent and impermanent accommodates or tries to accommodate both these absolutist views. One can of course say that it does not accommodate them fully or wholly.  But a certain limitation to tolerance is inevitable in the intellectual field. One should not expect that a person showing the spirit of tolerance should surrender to the other person's view.  The mark of the intellectual tolerance of the Jainas is their holistic and accommodative form of non-absolutism.  The point that I am trying to make is that the ontological non-absolutism of the Jainas is the outcome of their methodological non-absolutism and that the latter is the expression of their non-violent moral-spiritual approach. Of course a non-violent moral-spiritual approach can assume different expressions even in intellectual realm. One can accommodate other views in one's universe of discourse in various ways.  Jainas regard their own view as complete truth and the views of their opponents as partial truths.  This is one type of accommodativeness. An alternative policy could be to say that one's view is possibly true but the opponent's view could be true instead and the truth with certainty could probably be reached through further investigations and discussions.  This latter type of accommodativeness is more humble and more suitable for ignorant persons like us.  This type was not suitable for Jaina tradition. Because insofar as the lord Mahāvīra was regarded as omniscient, he was regarded as having certain and complete knowledge and Jainism therefore could accommodate rival views only as partial or relative truths. The accommodative character of Anekantavada interpreted in this way becomes dependent upon the doctrine of omniscience and those who do not accept the latter will not appreciate the former.

In the foregoing discussion we have seen that the term anekāntavāda has been used in four different senses.  It is used to refer to an ontological doctrine and also to a methodological doctrine where in each case it either refers to holistic approach or non-absolutistic approach. I do not want to claim that Jainas always distinguish clearly between these meanings and approaches.  Distinguishing between different aspects of anekāntavāda, however, is significant for throwing a better light on some aspects of Jaina philosophy.

(II)      Is anekanta anekanta?

The second question I would like to discuss is the question, to put it in a catchy way, whether anekānta is anekānta.  We have to be clear here as to which understanding of anekānta is presupposed in this question.  First of all this question is not about the ontological understanding of anekāntavāda but about its methodological understanding. Secondly the question will not be much significant if anekāntavāda is understood just as a holistic methodological approach, but it will be more significant if it is understood as a non-absolutist or relativist methodological approach. Thirdly whether anekānta is anekānta is not a tautological question, the obvious answer of which will be in the affirmative. But the question is about the self-referring character of the doctrine of anekānta. The question then means, "Does a Jaina holds non-absolutism absolutely or not absolutely?" The question immediately becomes paradoxical and then it can be compared with many such paradoxical questions arising from self-reference.  For instance: 

  1. Does a barber, who shaves only those who do not shave themselves, shave himself or not?
  2. Is a class of all those classes, which are not members of themselves, a member of itself or not?
  3. Is the statement, "The statement I am now uttering its false", true or false?
  4. Is the statement "Everything is śūnya", itself śūnya or not?

The first three examples are well-known in western philosophy whereas the last one was discussed by Nāgārjuna in his Vigrahavyāvartanī.  These questions are paradoxical in that they lead to serious difficulties whether we answer them as "Yes, true" or as "No, false." I will explain this only with reference to the last example and then see how similar paradox can arise with reference to anekānta.

Let us consider the statement "Everything is śūnya." The opponent of Nāgārjuna points out that the statement is paradoxical, because:

If the statement "Everything is śūnya" is itself śūnya, then the statement is not acceptable, so "Everything is not śūnya". On the other hand if the statement "Everything is śūnya" is aśūnya, (non-śūnya) then there is at least one thing in the world which is not śūnya and hence the statement "Everything is śūnya" gets falsified.  In this way the doctrine of śūnyatā comes in danger by trying to characterize the doctrine in terms of śūnyatā itself.

Now let us turn to anekāntavāda. Anekāntavāda as methodological non-absolutism can be stated as follows:

No statement is absolutely true. When a statement is accepted, the negation of that statement too can be accepted along with it.  

Now let us take up the statement, "No statement is absolutely true" and call it A. We can ask, "Is A absolutely true?" If A is absolutely true, then there is at least one statement which is absolutely true and hence A is false.  If on the other hand A is not absolutely true, then the negation of A can also be accepted as true, that is "Some statements are absolutely true" will be accepted as true, which harms the truth of anekāntavāda.

How can this paradox be resolved? I suggest that there are two alternative ways. One way can be called logical-meta-logical and the other can be called hermeneutical.

(A) Logical-meta-logical way:

This is the way suggested by Russell, Tarski and others as a response to different paradoxes of self-reference. Accordingly a statement and a statement about that statement do not belong to the same type or to the same language. If a statement S belongs to the language L1 then the statement about that statement cannot belong to the language L1 but to the language L2 which is the meta-language of L1.  Hence when a Jaina says that there are no absolutely true statements, he is saying that there are no absolute statements in the language L1. But this statement, viz. that there are no absolutely true statements, does not belong to the language L1 but to L2 which is the meta-language of L1. The paradox arises due to confusion between language and meta-language.  Hence Jainas can very well say that they hold, in an absolute way, the view that there are no absolutely true statements.  But this absoluteness is meta-linguistic and hence is does not harm non-absoluteness at object-linguistic level. To use another analogy, one can develop a system of many-valued logic by challenging the laws of classical two-valued logic. But the meta-logic of that logic can be again two-valued. Hence if anekānta-vāda is understood as a doctrine in non-classical or deviant logic and this is how syādvāda as an offshoot of anekāntavāda has been interpreted, at meta-logical level Jainas can be ekāntavādins – i.e. absolutists. In this way Jainas can be ekāntavāins about anekāntavāda itself.

(B) The hermeneutical way:

The other way is hermeneutical in that here we try to interpret anekānta in such a way that it does not generate a paradox. Here the crux of the problem is whether anekāntavāda as a methodological doctrine is about statements having two or more truth-values or it is about sentences expressing different propositions under different interpretations.  Hence when we say that pot is both permanent and impermanent from different stand-points, we are not saying that the statement "The pot is impermanent" is true and false from different standpoints, but we are saying that the sentence "The pot is impermanent" can express a true or a false statement under different interpretations.  I have suggested elsewhere (Shah(2000) p.p. 75-86) that syādvāda can be interpreted on these lines. If we interpret methodological anekāntavāda on similar lines, it will mean that no sentence expresses a true proposition under all interpretations. Since Jainas according to this formulation of methodological anekāntavāda, accept essential openness of all sentences for different possible interpretations, the sentential expression of anekāntavāda is equally open for different interpretations.  Jainas can very well say that they accept anekāntavāda when it is interpreted in the way intended by Jainas, but they do not accept it under some other interpretation.  Now if non-absolutism of Jainas is understood in this way, then Jainas can very well say that they are non-absolutists, but not absolutely  so.  Their expression of anekāntavāda itself is interpretation-relative. Anekāntavāda is anaikāntika in this sense.


    1. Malvania, Pandit Dalsukh, Agamayugaka Jaina-Darsana, Sanmati Jnanapeeth, Agra (1966)
    2. Shah, Nagin J. (Ed.) Jaina theory of Multiple Facets of Reality and Truth (Anekāntavāda), Motilal Banarasidass and B.L. Institue, Delhi, 2000
    3. Bhattacharya, Hari Satya (Tr.), Pramāṇanayatattvālokālaṁkāra, Jaina Sahitya Vikas Mandal, 1967.
    4. Sharma, Ambika Datta, "Pramāṇasamplava and Pramāṇavyavasthā", JICPR, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Jan.-April 1997.


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  1. Agra
  2. Anekanta
  3. Anekantavada
  4. Anekānta
  5. Anekānta-vāda
  6. Anekāntavāda
  7. Anta
  8. Apramāṇa
  9. Buddhism
  10. Dayanand Bhargava
  11. Delhi
  12. Ekānta
  13. JAINA
  14. Jaina
  15. Jainism
  16. Mahāvīra
  17. Mandal
  18. Nathmal Tatia
  19. Naya
  20. Nayas
  21. Nayavāda
  22. Non-absolutism
  23. Nyāya
  24. Omniscient
  25. Pandit
  26. Prameya
  27. Pramāṇa
  28. Pune
  29. Russell
  30. Satya
  31. Syādvāda
  32. Tolerance
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