Introduction To Jainism ► [03] Ahimsa ► Respect and Understanding

Posted: 20.09.2008

Mahāvīra said that “as long as one holds on to one of the many aspects of a thing while at the same time rejecting or ignoring other aspects, one can never reach the truth. Therefore it is essential to fully understand the ānta doctrine as characterized by the concept of syāt. The word anekānta can be translated as “many aspects.” Truth shows itself to the observer in many aspects. Only the one who has reached complete insight can see the truth as a whole. No one on earth has this power of insight in its fullness, and it may be that two people with the same measure of intelligence and dedication look at the same truth from different angles, so that two opinions appear incompatible. The ethical consequence of the teaching is that one can fundamentally never accuse someone of having the wrong view, while claiming to have the right view oneself. Both views may appear to be correct in the final analysis, though only partly. Two opinions may seem incompatible, but in reality there may only be a paradox: when one has acquired deeper insight one may see that both are legitimate approaches to the same truth, or that both standpoints represent only limited views of the truth.

An example from modern science is that light and other electromagnetic radiation can be regarded as consisting of particles as well as waves: the truth of both views can be proven on the basis of the theoretical behavior which either particles or waves are expected to show according to our experiences on the macrophysical level. Solving such problems may finally lead to a deeper view - and paradoxes on another level. A simple example which one can find with the Jains as well as Buddhists and Sufis is that of the blind men and the elephant. One man touches the trunk, another a tusk, a third an ear, or the elephant’s tail, etc. They start to quarrel about what an elephant really is because their views differ completely. Then a sighted passerby says that all of them are right, and that all of them are wrong. In comparison to an omni-clairvoyant and omniscient Jina all of us are blind.

The word syāt means “from one point of view,” Thus anekānta is the doctrine about how truth presents itself to us, and syādvāda (a t becomes d before a v) is the doctrine, which teaches that we can approach the truth from different angles. These two doctrines are accompanied by a third, called nayavāda, the theory concerning partial knowledge. Even though there may be different views, none of which represents the whole truth, each of them contains a nucleus of truth. Therefore it is always useful to try to understand the other, because his or her story too contains a core of truth, and thus adds one other angle of approach. To try to fight each other with words (and eventually with weapons) to prove that one is right is a form of violence, which is contrary to this philosophy.

All these different approaches used by ordinary people are the result of the workings of their minds. The human mind in its present stage of evolution is by nature divisive because it is unable to grasp the whole. But once we see that this mental activity can never lead us beyond its natural limitations we will understand that we should seek the higher path: the path of renunciation of all illusions or “partial truths,” and direct one’s meditation exclusively to that which is beyond. This may take lifetimes, but once we have made the first step, deaths and rebirths cannot hamper us from reaching our goal. We will never again be satisfied with less.

These three approaches to Truth provide refined guidelines on how to work with the human mind within its natural limitations. They form a sound philosophy of cognition. They also gives rise to tolerance and are very beneficial when applied in the fields of science, politics and in daily social intercourse.

Nevertheless the philosophy can also be criticized, because it seems to allow tolerance and respect even for opinions that are completely wrong, or even consciously malicious. In a court of justice, for example, one could never come to a satisfactory conclusion, because no human judge is omniscient. And we see that even the most honest and morally sound efforts to do justice or to build theories in science can later appear to have produced completely wrong results (e.g. the view that the earth is flat). Only karma itself is a completely just operation of the cosmos. Only Truth itself is the right opinion. Therefore Jainism has designed criteria for truth to assist non-omniscient beings such as ourselves. The criteria themselves derive from what is taught to humankind by the omniscients. As given by Helmuth von Glasenapp:[31]


  1. emanated from the omniscient masters,
  2. was never refuted in disputations, because it is irrefutable,
  3. cannot be changed or attained by any type of knowledge, be it indirect or direct, by any sort of perception, influence or tradition,
  4. explains all things sufficiently according to their true nature,
  5. promotes beings of all types, from gods down to plants and elementary beings morally and does good to them,
  6. is so powerful that it is able to destroy everything that is false.

Each of these criteria can be criticized: How do we know whether a teacher is omniscient? What should we do if supposedly omniscient teachers of various traditions (outside the field of Jainism) seem to contradict each other? Because, as limited beings, we cannot ourselves judge the genuineness of a teacher (e.g. whether Mahāvīra is right, or Gautama Buddha, or both or neither of them). If we opt for our own beloved tradition, the choice is emotional rather than cognitive - which has, at least from a western point of view, no epistemological value.

Scriptural truth comes from outside ourselves and is only a reflection of Truth by means of words which already have an established meaning in the (naturally limited) mind of the reader, and thus scriptures have no more authority than what the reader is able to understand of their meaning. Words are isolated definitions of isolated perceptions and thoughts, which thus philosophically do not harmonize with Oneness and non-separateness - concepts which form the core of many thought systems, such as the Buddhist. So isolated perceptions are in themselves axiomatically wrong.

If a truth can not be refuted, it may be merely because it lacks the criteria for falsification as defined by Popper. If a theory or view can not be falsified now, it may still be falsified in the future. If it has the power to destroy all false ideas up to now, will it always have this power? We could only come to a final conclusion at the end of the future - and the end of the future will never occur according to Jainism. What if the ideas we regard as most fundamental or even axiomatic themselves appear to change, or to be a limited aspect of a still deeper truth? Modern scientific findings often seem to falsify the Jain or other religious teachings (e.g. in the Jain cosmography the earth is described as flat). But this falsification has limited value, because we do not know the intention and the full depth of cosmography: is it a scheme for esoteric teaching, not to be taken as a straightforward description of material truth? Was the designer of cosmography merely a dreamer or a fantastic visionary, or was he someone who really knew and designed the best possible picture to convey truth, to help us in our meditation, but engraving essential truths in our being, bringing us closer to our real being and the being of the universe in a step by step effort to guide humankind in its evolution?

The most interesting of the above criteria is the fifth: saying that truth promotes beings of all types morally and does good to them. This is an axiomatic statement: it implies that the true and the good (i.e. doing good to beings) are inseparable - as in Plato. Though this criterion is metaphysical and improvable from a western point of view, it is the one to make us the happiest. It gives a heart to Truth, as it were. How important this is for the world: the truth is not a thing to fear, to avoid, but gives humanity hope and happiness!
It seems that none of the above criteria alone or together can bring us to omniscience and salvation. They can sharpen our mind against mistakes and thus protect us. They give us confidence, comfort and happiness. They support our mundane culture in the best possible way.

But, if even the best part of our mind cannot help us to reach absolute knowledge and liberation from illusion, should we conclude that no real knowledge is possible for humans, unless fully enlightened, or even that our universe as we perceive and interpret it is possibly nothing but a mental error? This is quite a frustrating thought. If this would be the meaning of the Jain doctrine in this regard, the world would be complete chaos. But we see that it is not. It would be if our human mind were the only aspect of us. Must we go beyond the mind? Or can the mind have a link with the omniscient soul, or receive a ‘ray’ from it?

It seems to me that even the normal (not fully enlightened) human mind can be guided by deeper glimpses or hints of Truth, which create a direct link with the soul. This can be enhanced by ever greater experience and by meditation. Those who are pure, unbiased and unselfish enough, and know how to listen to their silent “voice” within will be guided by such rays or “gifts” from the soul. Thus, higher intuition can be developed. The opinion of such a person should then be highly valued. This, of course, is how our society is built: we have experts and great leaders in every field, and society is structured hierarchically, which means guided by the hièros, the holy (though in our dark era “hierarchies” are often upside down: who shouts loudest or has the most power is “right”).

A major paradox with which the world as a whole is struggling involves this very philosophy of ahimsā and anekānta: if the other party is unwilling to behave non-violently, what should we do? On the personal level we can offer “the other cheek” to our opponent, and forgive him again and again his evildoing to ourselves. This is the real practice of ahimsā. But on a broader level the question becomes different: should we talk or fight with terrorists? Should we tolerate the large-scale industrial destroyers of the environment and respect their point of view? Should we regard them as unavoidable agents of karma, fulfilling the unpleasant duty of destroying the old so that something new can be born and grow? As to terrorists, as long as he or she is impersonally serving an ideal other than rendering service to some private psychological frustration, this man or woman too is thinking that he or she is doing the best he or she can for his or her people, religion, ethics, or whatever conviction it may be (blinded as they may be by ignorance concerning the real meaning of religion and service), and we should try to understand the core of their motivation, and the cause which aroused their feelings and the feelings of those they represent. When two people or groups of people such as nations or religious brotherhoods are connected in an unpleasant relationship, both are part of the problem, both have their ignorance, especially about the others real inner intentions - for which they are often willing to sacrifice all comforts and possessions, their family and even their lives. Both may think they serve the universal good of divine intention or justice. Both may even be driven by compassion - though probably not enough wisdom. A terrorist for the one may be a hero for the other; a chosen president or other national leader may be a devil for those who suffer on the other side. Talking and serious willingness to listen and understand the other’s viewpoint may turn the worst enemies into the best friends, recognizing each other as brothers serving the same cause of higher human dignity and destiny. So the anekānta doctrine, if implemented, can avoid tremendous amounts of fear, misunderstanding, and social, material and physical suffering and violence among the human community (and even the animal and other communities - which are usually forgotten during conflicts).

Still, however many “other cheeks” we may present, however much we talk and try to understand, some will always remain enemies because of their psychology. In such cases, let the parties battle, with words and psychological confrontation, on as small a scale as possible - at best on the personal level - and let as few as possible be actively involved. The real judge is karma alone. Let their karmic debt be as small as possible. The two sons of the first king Rishabha, named Bharata and Bāhubali, had a conflict in which the power over the whole world was at stake. Both had strong armies. But they decided that they didn’t want to inflict suffering on thousands of their subjects, and fought personally until victory (after which they became friends).

As to “tolerating” destructive forces instigated by selfishness: if we ourselves and our chosen governments did not have the same selfish attitudes or indifference, humankind would naturally design laws which would make such behavior impossible. Even those who destroy without concern will in the end admit the righteousness of such laws, and submit to them, even though it may take generations for this outlook to become the norm. Even criminals feed only on the thoughts we all nurtured, and therefore even the most decent man or woman is partly responsible for what is happening in the world. Not so long ago, in the nineteenth century, protests against slavery were ridiculed. Nowadays we regard slavery as something utterly inhuman and contemptible. Will not the same be said about our present behavior towards the environment and our cruelty towards animals in a century or two from now? Let us sow the seeds for the centuries to come.

There are as many viewpoints as there are thinkers, but none of them is entirely perfect. Thus the world exhibits a richness of philosophies, all of which are the result of deep human reflection. But because no matter-bound, limited soul can perceive the universe in its entirety, all these thinkers remain under the influence of their personal context. This does not mean, of course, that no viewpoint may contain more truth than another viewpoint, or that no opinion could be entirely wrong. If we were to lose sight of that, we might adopt an attitude of lazy tolerance, and thus approval of any viewpoint - without any point of reference to universal truth or ethics. Jains are not postmodernists. There is a final truth concerning and including all, and it can and will be known. Jains have often been staunch participants in disputes, but with the only objective of coming closer to real understanding and of defending the deepest truths they can grasp. But feelings of respect and tolerance always remain present in their hearts, because they are aware that they also do not know and see everything - but at one point in the future they will reach omni-clairvoyance and unstained omniscience, and so will each person’s opponent.

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First Edition, 2006
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Translated and revised edition of:
" Jainisme - Een introductie"