Anekantvada: A Befitting Response To Religious Fundamentalism

Posted: 30.08.2013
Updated on: 02.07.2015

XXIII World Congress of Philosophy

The Paper

presented at XXIII World Congress of Philosophy held at Athens, Greece from August 4th - 10th, 2013.




Prof. Kusum Jain

Humanity is going through the most trying times of its history. Disasters of every kind and magnitude (natural or man-made) are posing threats to the very existence of human civilization. Amongst the innumerable problems our contemporary world is beset with, wars, terrorism, racial hatred and violent clashes between religious groups are becoming the most urgent issues demanding solutions at the earliest. One of the root causes of these problems, in my view, is Religious Fundamentalism.

        Religious Fundamentalism is generally defined as a movement or point of view, which stresses upon return to the fundamental principles of one's religion and emphasizes upon rigid adherence to a set of basic ideas, beliefs or rules and regulations. But during course of time, the definition of this term gradually took different forms & shades and at present, religious fundamentalism is characterized as a belief that the fundamental principles of one's own religion are the expressions of 'The Truth' and every other principle which differs from it is mere falsity, misconception, perverted view or simply ignorance and hence is to be squarely contradicted, refuted, irradiated or annihilated. This kind of conception of religion naturally breeds intolerance, arrogance, divisions, racial conflicts, religious fanaticism and most dangerously terrorism.

        In this scenario of religious fundamentalism, which is unfortunately gaining wider acceptance day by day, we have a religion, which bases itself on Anekantvada (the theory of multiple perspectives) and Syadavada (the theory of relativity of truth or the method of conditional predication). Anekantvada maintains that every object in the world has infinite qualities (Anant Dharmakama Vastu). According to it, Reality is manifold and inherently complex in nature and hence can be comprehended from infinite alternative perspectives. These perspectives may be different from each other but each of these is an equally valid expression of some aspect of the reality and therefore is true relative to that particular aspect. According to this theory, there cannot be any proposition, which can be called expression of the 'Absolute Truth' or 'The Truth'. Truth-value of every statement is relative to the perspective from which the object of knowledge is viewed at. These statements are called 'Nayas' and 'Jainism', the propounder of Anekantvada, emphasizes that we should always be open to possibility of infinite 'Nayas' with regard to any object or aspect of reality. These Nayas may appear to make different, sometimes contradictory claims, but still each of these is a valid expression of truth relative to that aspect of reality, which it is trying to express.

        Jainism provides a detailed analysis of various aspects of different kinds of 'Nayas' and in that, it lays the foundation for multi-valued logic. According to its theory of Syadavada, which is epistemological corollary of its metaphysical theory of Anekantavada, the truth-value of every statement/proposition it to be determined in relation to the four coordinates - Dravya (substance or material), Kshetra (space), Kala (time), Bhava (mode or the state of being). These four coordinates constitute a particular perspective. Any change in any of these coordinates changes the perspective and in turn the truth-value of the statement. Therefore, before making any statement or determining the truth value of any proposition one has to clearly specify all the four coordinates. The truth-value of the proposition will depend on and may vary in accordance to these coordinates. The same statement may take the truth value 'true' relative to one perspective but may be designated as 'false', if looked at from some other perspective. In some cases, it may take the value inexpressible. In other words, according to Syadavada, every predication is a conditional predication and absolute affirmation and absolute negation, both are erroneous. The nature of Reality in its concrete richness cannot be expressed completely by any single predication or absolutistic judgment because it can admit innumerable predicates simultaneously.

        Right from the beginning, Jain thinkers realized that the immense complexity of the infinitely manifold relativistic universe is too baffling for the human mind with its limited capacity of perception and verbal expression. Due to these limitations, all our judgments can be expressions of partial truths only, not of the whole truth. The problem arises when we start claiming the status of the absolute/ whole truth for our partial truths. The oft-quoted parable of the elephant and blind men expresses this situation beautifully. When asked to describe an elephant, each blind man makes a statement according to the part of the elephant he has touched. For example, one who has touched its tail says that elephant is like a rope, for the one who touches its stomach, elephant is like a wall, and for the one who touches its legs, elephant is like a pillar, so on and so forth. They start furiously vehemently fighting on the disagreement in their judgments. But any wise man who can 'see' the elephant in totality can realize that they are fighting in vain. Each one of them is right in describing the elephant and still is wrong in his judgment. Each one is right from the point of view of the particular perspective from which he is describing the elephant, but is wrong because he is not realizing the limitations of his particular perspective and is trying to claim the status of the whole/absolute truth for his partial truth/Naya. Jains believe that most of the fights and conflicts in our world (whether of theoretical nature or of practical nature) arise and take furious form mainly because of the fact that we tend to ignore the conditional character of our judgments.

        Jainism has resolved many metaphysical and epistemological conflicts in Indian philosophical tradition by using this technique of Naya or Syadavada. For example, Buddhism characterizes reality as completely momentary. It emphasizes its ever-changing nature and believes that there is nothing stable in the universe. Everything is momentary. Stability is mere misperception or misconception. On the contrary, Advaita Vedanta philosophy believes that Real (the Brahman) is unchangeable & stable. Change is simply illusion, ignorance or Maya. That which changes cannot be considered 'Sat' or 'Real'. Thus Advaita Vedanta propagates philosophy of identity or permanence, which is the exact anti-thesis to Buddhism, which supports with equal tenacity, the doctrine of total impermanence and the consequent idea of continuous flux. Buddhism and Vedanta engaged in long vehement debates on this issue in the history of Indian philosophical tradition. Jainism, using the theory of Syadavada tried to resolve this conflict by showing that like the blind men of the above mentioned parable, both of these philosophical systems are looking at only one aspect of the reality and claiming it to be the 'whole truth'. According to Jainism, the Real is characterized by birth or origination, death or destruction and stability or continuity (Utpadavyaya Dhrauvya Yuktam Sat - Tatvartha Sutra V-30). Everything real must have these triple characters of productivity (Utpada), destructibility (Vayaya) and at the same time permanence or persistence (Dhrauvya) underlying it. Conversely, whatever lacks any of these three aspects is simply a mental abstraction and not real. In consistency to this, Jainism defines substance as 'Guna Paryayavada Dravayam' - the substance is constituted by 'Guna' - the intrinsic permanent attributes or qualities, and 'Paryaya - the ever changing modes or states. For example, the mental substance - Atman or Soul has some intrinsic permanent qualities like consciousness, knowledge etc. and constantly changing Paryayas like greed, anger, love, hatred, happiness, grief etc. This kind of characterization of reality presents a fine example of identity - in-difference that very consistently accommodates both Being and Becoming.

        Thus, Jainism provides a balanced way for resolving the conflict between the two extreme ontological positions taken by Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta about the nature of reality. From the Anakentic approach one can easily see that both these schools emphasize only one aspect of the reality in complete exclusion of the other aspect and therefore are not able to appreciate the point of view of the other philosophical systems. Once their attention is directed towards the lopsidedness or one-sidedness (ekantic) of their approach the conflicts may be resolved more easily.

        A similar approach is needed for resolving differences in practical realm also. Most of the conflicts, divisions, strife and animosity of our lives - whether on personal level or on social, cultural, political, economical, religious, national, inter-national level, are rooted in the fact that we, as individual as well as community or groups, tend to become self-centered. We do not leave room for and are not able to appreciate any perspective, which is different from ours. We are not ready to recognize validity of the multiplicity of perspectives and hence treat our own perspective as 'The Perspective'. The theory of Anekantvada and Syadavada warns us against building closed systems of philosophy, bring 'Openness' in our approach, make us more tolerant, generous, understanding and respectful towards differences of opinion and inspires us to transcend our own self-centered perspective.

        Describing Syadavada as a philosophy of standpoints a critic has rightly observed: "It is a revolt against the tendency in philosophers to build closed systems of philosophy. According to Jainism, the universe in which we live is an active universe, plastic and full of possibilities and no particular current of thought can fully comprehend it. In order to do justice to the complexity and variety of such a universe, thought must not be hurried to any easy terminus but must be allowed to follow its course freely and meander through the whole field of experience, crossing and recrossing it, so as to create a great confluence of standpoints rather than a closed system. The tendency ingrained in the philosophers to build architectonic systems is inimical to the adventure of thoughts. Each philosopher approaching reality from a particular and a partial standpoint looks upon the one he adopts as the only true standpoint. Jainism rejects the idea of the absolute, which is playing havoc in the field of philosophy by creating absolute monisms, absolute pluralisms, and absolute nihilisms. By thus rejecting the absolute and the one-sided, it claims to save philosophy from the chaos of conflicting opinions. Without partiality to any one it promises to give us a theory of relativity which harmonises all standpoints". (G.H. Rao: The Half-Yearly Journal of the Mysore University, March, 1942, pp. 79-80.)

        Thus, in stark contrast to the Fundamentalist Religions, Jainism encourages religious generosity, openness for possibility of new perspectives, tolerance for differences of opinion and respect for other religions. It entails one of the profoundest expressions of intellectual non-violence and its concepts of Saptabhangi Naya (the doctrine of sevenfold predication) and Nayavada - the doctrine of partial stand points, provide a strong foundation for a religious framework which can provide a befitting response to ills & threats of religious fundamentalism and pave the way to build a more harmonious, more tolerant, respectful, non- dogmatic non-extremist, pluralistic, cooperative and peaceful human society. This endeavor needs to be guided by the spirit of Anekanta, the unique contribution of Jainism to human civilization.

Share this page on: