Jain Studies And Science ► Theory Of Mattereals And Jain Philosophy ► Scientific Aspects Of Anekanta

Posted: 02.03.2009

Truth is what we all aspire for. Truth is one of the five basic tenets of Jainism. Erudite Jain Acharyas of yesteryears, interestingly, found themselves in a serious predicament when it came to practice truth. They realised that there are infinite ways to describe even the simplest of the object or incidence, All 'descriptions' could be partial truths but not the whole.

Situation 1: Let us consider a coin. What is its whole truth? It has infinite radii, infinite points on its circumference, countless atoms, and so on. While we are seeing the head, the tail cannot be described and vice-versa. Even it is not pure in its material composition. So, the Jain Acharyas cautioned their disciples that whatever is being described is only a partial truth pertaining to a relevant situation.

Situation 2: Let us try to describe the height of a person. He may be taller or shorter than another. It necessarily means that the description of height cannot be completed until it is measured with respect to some standard reference. Again, in their zeal to follow the path of pure truth, Jain Acharyas found to their amazement that the truth not only changes but it turns topsy-turvy when the reference itself is changed. They, therefore, postulated that the truth contained in all statements is subject to the space-time reference chosen.

During the course of time, several theories emanated to explain the truth being either partial or relative. Some theories which find mention in ancient Jain literature are - Syadwada, Naywad, Anuyogadwara, tribhangi, chaturbhangi, saptabhangi, nikshep, etc. Finally, a consolidated theory was propounded and adopted by the Jains which is today popularly known and practiced as Anekanta. As we shall see later in the discussions, Anekanta turns out to be a principle which is also the basis of modern scientific theory of Relativity.

Postulates of Anekanta

  1. Whole truth exists but can neither be perceived nor be expressed wholly.
  2. As our perception, thought and expression are sequential in time and space, we can grasp and express only partial truths.
  3. All descriptions of an object or situation are subject to the chosen reference. It is like a person in England says India is in east while another one in Tokyo says India is not in east but in west. This fact gave rise to a piquant situation of'either-or', popularly known as Syadwada in Jain parlance.
  4. Sequential time and space are due to our limited speed of perception. Kewali, on the other hand has infinite speed of spiritual perception resulting in the capture of the whole truth of the entire existence in zero time.

A very important and powerful corollary of Anekanta principle is that it leaves vast space for various view points to be true. While one may be partially true, others too have equal, if not more, chance of being true. It is like two persons standing on different radii of same circle and travelling towards centre. Both are treading the entirely different paths but arrive at the same destination. This all encompassing thought is the need of the hour in the present world scenario where one religion is up against another and one nation against the other.

Though Anekanta contained a universal principle, its popularity remained in oblivion. It was only after Einstein, the international community awarded the due credence to the Jains' line of thought. In one such international recognition, a German Professor Hermann Jacoby has written that the principle of Anekanta has opened the floodgates of understanding the 'truth'.

Contribution of Siddhasen Divakar

The comprehensive study to understand the 'truth of existence' has taken place only on the Indian soil. Three main thought streams were developed -Vedanta presumed substance indestructible, Buddhism treated substance as unstable and Jainism believed in eternal universe in which the substance can exist in infinite forms and shapes in the existence. As stated earlier, this concept was termed as Anekanta. According to the Digambar belief, the first reference to the Syadvad and Saptbhagi is available in the 'Pravachan-Sar' and 'Panchastikaya' written by Acharya Kundkund in the first century. Repeat references are available in the 'Atma-Mimansa' of Acharya SamantBhdra. A very comprehensive description of Syadvad is available in 'Nyayavtar' written by Acharya Siddhasen Divakar.

Historically, the subject of Anekanta had remained a bit controversial. People would argue that if everything said is a partial truth then what is the guarantee of Anekanta being true? The answer is not simple, but not impossible too. To understand the essence of Anekanta, we need to elaborate this subject on three different planes-

  1. Theoretical
  2. Philosophical
  3. Logical or Scientific

1.  Theoretical Aspect

In Jain Agama 'Bhagwati Sutra', substance can be described by combining its two aspects -

  1. Physical/quantitative/constitutional part
  2. Mode/Paryaay (quality) part

Acharya Siddhasen has written that both the parts play vital role in the description of truth. Elaborating further, Acharya Umaswati has written in the Tatwarth Sutra that the eternity of substance co-exists along with the cycles of creation and destruction. This tri-state - eternity, creation and destruction is the basis of Anekanta. This can be better understood with the help of a practical situation -

We have seen Gold being used in making ornaments. It can be given any desired shape. Making of an ornament involves three stages - destruction of old form, creation of new form, perpetuity of gold as a substance.

A very interesting conversation between Lord Mahavira and his disciple Gautam is self illustrating -

Gautam: Bhagwan! Is Atma (soul) ephemeral or immortal?

Mahavira: It is both. As a mattereal, it is immortal, eternal and perpetual, whereas, in view of its birth and rebirth, it is changing its form and is mortal.

In a similar conversation with Skandha Parivrajak, Lord Mahavira has described the Lok as finite as well as infinite. With reference to matter and extent, Lok is finite, but on time and activity scales it is infinite.

2.  Philosophical Aspect

Mahapragya has explained the origin of Anekanta doctrine as contained in the Jain Agama. According to him, our knowledge is based on our senses and intelligence. The limitation of our perception results in the fragmented truth. Only transcendental knowledge can be whole. His comments are of great importance -

  1. Sensory perception is neither wholly true nor wholly false, it is relative to space-time.
    Example - In a moving train, our eyes actually see platform moving, while a person on the platform perceive train to be moving. The senses of our eyes and our organs are space-time relative and not absolute.
  2. Intellectual knowledge is neither wholly true nor wholly false, it is relative.
    Example - A person facing a hot furnace may feel duration of ten minutes to be long enough as two hours, while one watching an interesting stage play may feel the entire episode to be over in a wink. It is a relative mental and emotional perception.

Since both the sources (senses and mind) of human information are relative and not absolute, the truth of our statements and expressions is exhibited only to the extent of given reference of space and time. Mahapragya declares that the absolute truth exists but cannot be expressed due to limitations of our senses, intelligence, speech and language.

Jains, therefore, have extensively used a 'Chaturbhangi' of Configuration (Vastu-Bheda), Position (Ashray-Bheda), Duration (Kaal-Bheda), and Mode (Avastha-Bheda) in their literature. Classifying with respect to the above four parameters, four probabilities may arise for any Substance or Situation -

  1. Eternal or ephemeral
  2. Ordinary or specific
  3. True or false
  4. Definable or indistinguishable

For its probabilistic approach, above four postulates came to be known as Syadwad. At first reading, above four options sound quite confusing. Shankaracharya had commented to the extent that because of conflicting statements, the entire theory of Syadwad loses its authenticity. However, Dr. Radhakrishanan accepted that the wisdom of Jain ism has most often been misconstrued by those who do not refer the original Jain literature but resort to the translated languages which often fail to comprehend the true spirit of the Jainism. He stressed that in order to make concepts of Jainism popular, an authentic English translation of ancient Jain literature is essential.

An example at this stage will make the readers comprehend the essence of Syadwad. Let us consider a room illuminated by the sun during the day, dimly lit during the evening and dark during the night. What is the truth behind 'illuminated', 'dimly lit', and 'dark'? What is absolute light or absolute darkness?

What do we call illumination - absence of darkness? Or, is absence of light darkness? Even the brightness of sun is different at its own surface and at the surface of earth! There are stars which are million times brighter than our sun! So, how do we define brightness? There are three possible conditions -

  • Brightness: presence of light (Aasti-bhava) and absence of darkness (Naasti-bhava).
  • Darkness: less of light (Naasti-bhava) and more of darkness (Aasti-bhava).
  • Quantum: In all situations, quanta of light and darkness are indeterminate (A-vaktavya).

In view of the modern advancements in scientific concepts, a striking resemblance can be established between laws of physics and theory of Anekanta.

3. Scientific Aspect

Scientists, during their journey into the micro world, hit upon the unique properties of 'light'. Soon it was established that the light represent a boundary condition between the micro and the macro world (similar to a quadon being a link between massless dions and massive octons). Subsequently, Einstein proposed his theory of relativity which is entirely based on the physics of light. Paradoxically, Einstein declared in his theory of relativity that the speed of light is independent and not relative to the speed of observer. However, space and time will be observed differently by the observers moving at different speeds. This means that two observers, positioned differently will describe the same event differently. Both may be true to the extent of their individual observations, at the same time, they are false relative to each other. Now, readers can realise how close the theory of relativity is to the principle of Syadwad?

3.1. Light a Unique Substance

(For reasons of ease in understanding, author has treated all waves travelling at a speed of 3xl08m/s as light)

  • Light has the fastest speed known to us so far. No matter can travel faster than light.
    As a particle approaches speed of light, three things happen
  • Its volume shrinks to zero.
  • It's mass become infinity.
  • Time is rendered void.

In other words only massless particles (!) can travel at the speed of light. This condition is defines by the following equation of Einstein-


  • No law of physics remains valid at the speeds greater than that of light - mass, volume, time all will assume negative or imaginary values in such a case.
  • Light comprises of massless 'packets (quanta)' of energy called photons. Some scientists also call them as 'massless particles' because, light is observed to travel like a wave, and also interact like a particle. This duality is called principle of uncertainty in scientific terminology.

Light is therefore a boundary between existence and nothingness. Light is the substance which carries and transact the whole information. But, light itself is uncertain in its behaviour! This observation of absolute nature of speed of light gave birth to the two great theories which are of immense importance to science as well as anekant aspect of philosophy -

  1. special theory of relativity which was later extended to the general theory,
  2. principle of uncertainty.

3.2. Relativity

It all started with the Michelson-Morley experiment to determine the absolute speed of the Earth in the space. The experiment could not achieve what it actually envisaged but accidently concluded that the speed of light is independent of the speed of the observer. This means that two persons that follow the same light ray at different speeds will measure the same relative speed for the ray. In our day to day experience, if two vehicles are travelling at 60Kmph and 40Kmph respectively, they will measure their relative speeds as either lOOKmph or 20Kmph depending on wehther they are travelling parallel or opposite to each other. But, surprisingly the same is not true if they both measure the speed of light. They will obtain the same result!

Einstein postulated his special theory of relativity around this spectacular experimental finding. He proposed and proved that it could be possible only if the length contracts or the time expands in the moving frame as compared to the stationary frame of reference. This is represented by two mathematical equations -

Here, t = time measured in moving frame of reference, or coordinated time

T= time measured in stationary frame of reference, or proper time

v = relative velocity of two frames of reference

c = velocity of light

Above equation represents time -dialation in moving frame.

Similarly, the length contraction can be represented as

In both the equations, the same happening is observed but the measurements of time and length are not absolute. In fact the observations will be drastically different if the relative velocity approaches the speed of light. It is 'space-time' which is invariant for both the observers. So relativity teaches us that don't take up to the fight if your results are not in sync with those of others - your frame of reference may be different!

3.3. Principle of Uncertainty

The uncertainty principle is one of the milestones of quantum mechanics and was propounded by Werner Heisenberg in 1927. In quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or the Heisenberg indeterminacy principle states that when measuring conjugate quantities, increasing the accuracy of the measurement of one quantity increases the uncertainty of the simultaneous measurement of the other quantity. The most familiar of these pairs is the position and momentum.

Mathematically, if Δx is the uncertainly of the position measurements and Δp is the standard deviation of the momentum measurements, then

where, ћ is the reduced Planck's constant (Planck's constant divided by 2p).

Connected with the theory of relativity, a similar relation exists in space-time descriptions also:

As excited states have a short lifetime their energy uncertainty is substantial. This relation helps to explain the 'chaotic' behavior of the space-time, wherein very small time steps result in huge energy variations.

A fundamental consequence of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that no physical phenomena can be described as a 'classic point particle' or as a 'wave' but rather the microphysical situation is at best described in terms of wave-particle duality. The uncertainty principle, as initially considered by Heisenberg, is concerned with cases in which neither the wave nor the point particle descriptions are fully and exclusively appropriate. Such cases exist only in the sukshma matter and we can compare it with syadwad.

We recognise syadwad by its three distinct features of expression -

  1. Aasti (to be/is)
  2. Nasti (not to be/is not)
  3. Avaktavya (Uncertain/probabilistic)

If we describe wave particle duality in terms of above postulates, three possibilities arise -

  1. When a microphysical matter exhibits particle behaviour, wave properties are absent or obscured.
  2. Conversely, when it 'is' wave, it 'is not' particle. This duality is inherent and not induced. In fact, an EPR (Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen) experiment in 1935, established that the uncertainty does not arise only while making measurements, but exists intrinsically. In Jain Agamic literature, referring to the indivisible paramanu(dion) it is written that dions vibrate as well as remain stationary. Implying, they do not always behave in the same manner..
  3. Avaktavya, it is the third most important aspect of syadwad. This term envisages two different meanings for micro- and macro-physical entities. In case of former, it is unpredictability, uncertainty or probability, whereas, in case of latter, it is the partial descriptivism.

In context of macrophysical entities it is multi-faceted manifestation. For instance, an entity can be called 'table' if the shape is to be mentioned. It may be referred to as 'wood' if the material used is talked about. It may be called a part of tree, so and so forth. Each noun used denounces others.

In context of microphysical entities it is unpredictability of the entity under consideration. Here, the uncertainty creeps in due to the limited ability of an observer. For an Arhat, who is keval-gyani, word Avaktavya is meaningless as HIS observation is total and not inhibited. In scientific terms, motion-position, wave-particle, and energy-time can be measured with a certain proportion of inaccuracy only. In terms of mathematics, it is proportionality and in terms of statistics, it is probability.


The Jain principles of Anekant and Syadwad find semblance in the scientific theories of relativity and uncertainty. Acceptance of truth having multiple facets, partial perception of truth due to limitations of the observer, incomplete description of truth due to limitations of expression, and recognizing the equal possibility of different view points to be true sum up the attitude of a Jain Anekantwadi. This spontaneously drives a Jain away from extremism, radicalism, and fanaticism. An Anekantwadi approach is the need of the hour, as the world scenario is abound in discord, friction and conflict.

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