Non-One-Endedness (Anekantavada)



By Prof. P. L. Jain, Ahimsa Foundation, Jodhpur


Truth is the knowledge of reality. According to Jain philosophy, truth is a vast and wondrous complexity. However, reality is extremely difficult to fully grasp because of its four aspects: (1) its extension over time (past, present, future), (2) its extension across space, (3) the mix of changing forms and fixed qualities that characterize the different substances which make up the universe, and (4) the fact that those substances and forms are constantly undergoing new beginnings (origination) and endings (destruction) while still remaining permanent, all at the same time.

We often see some individuals, forcing what they feel is the only correct point of view. The dogma monger sees his or her perspective on human experience and the world as the only one that matters or makes sense. He tends to dismiss, ridicule or condemn those holding a different perspective. He may also prompt antagonism. In doing so he commits violence against others in his thoughts as well as speech, and a lot of misunderstanding and mis-conceptions are created. This is so common in our daily lives at every level. Many wars have been fought in the past and tensions amongst nations are caused due to poor understanding. We've heard it said that in order to understand things as they truly are, we need to be "objective". However, unless we know how to detach ourselves from the things we wish to understand, and comprehend that true objectivity starts with letting go of all our forgone views and biases, we can never be objective. We are each clouded by an environment that prejudices us, by past experiences that have shaped us, and by fixed ideas about the world that seem to make sense in our limited minds.

If we would approach our own natural omniscience we could fully comprehend this great universe. We would see the origins and destinies of every soul and substance, including our own selves. Persons who have attained such autonomy, whom Jains refer to as Jinas or Kevalins, experience this state of omniscience at all times. We, however, aren't quite there yet. Our situation is different. Our five senses are our indirect means to knowledge, but whatever they may grasp is always partial, and not always reliable. Our perspective view is often very limited and we do not see things in their whole form. We can see this partiality in the proverbial study of an elephant by seven blind men. Each man touches only part of the elephant and concludes that the creature is like a tree trunk, a rope, a fan, a wall, and so on. The same applies to our views and beliefs. We worldly souls tend not to rise above the limitations of our senses and experiences. So, our individual concepts of reality are not just incomplete, they are valid only from a particular point of view. "Absolute truth" cannot be grasped from any one point of view, by itself, because any viewpoint is dependent on the time, place, nature and state of both the viewer and whatever is being viewed. 

This attitude begins a science of thinking called Anekantavada, which is the principle of "Non-one-endedness". Anekantavada is an informed and engaging method of reason. Such a principle does not ask us to try balancing in our minds a "multiplicity of viewpoints" regardless of whether they hold merit or not. It is also not the same as "relativism" or "non-absolutism", meaning the belief in no absolutes. Rather than denying the existence of absolute truth, Anekantavada only reaffirms it - but with the cutting admission that truth is such an intricate and many-ended thing that no single belief system, no tower of dogma, no "grand unifying theory", and no faith or religion can ever do it justice. The doctrine of Anekant (Non-absolutism) is a great gift of Lord Mahavira to the human race. Anekantavada is at least, 2500 years old, if not oldest. Anekantavada does not preclude the use of absolutes or deny the existence of an absolute truth. It simply asserts that truth is so complex and intricate that no one except for an omniscient Kevali could ever fully grasp it all at once. Understanding something properly is a big intellectual job, which Anekantavada greatly assists us in doing. Anekant means to look into the truth from all angles, from the point of view of other persons and so one should not insist upon one's own views ignoring others' views. The eye of Anekant is the best philosophical method of knowing both type of broad and minute aspects and the alterations of the material world. Consciousness of un-insistency can be developed on the basis of this method; disputes can be solved and by calming down the sparking of quarrels steps can be forwarded toward the way of world peace.

Acharya Mahapragya has said - Anekant may be said to be third eye. We can look at the outer things by our physical eyes but we can't see and understand the internal emotions by these eyes. What the other person or the country is thinking, why thinking so, where thinking and in what circumstances thinking. What is doing, why doing, where doing and in what circumstances doing - without thinking on these aspects we cannot justify the thoughts and acts of ours or others.

Exploring the idea's four components will further reveal its meaning:

AN is like the prefix "non-", which makes the opposite of whatever comes after it EKA means "one" or "singular"
ANTA means "end", "boundary" and "conclusion", a conclusion drawn from an observation or an investigation or analysis VADA means "way of being", similar to the suffix "-ness".

Together they mean Non-one-endedness, or Nonsingular Conclusivity. A remarkable term it might seem but its tremendous practicality is for any of us seeking to learn, reason, investigate, theorize, visualize, systemize, solve or understand some issue, something, or someone. 

Just like every one of the seven blind men, any single perspective that we might take is inherently blind to some part, or many parts, of the big picture. Being attached to just one set of criteria for judging the truth or validity of something tends to distort our perception of it, by making other relevant facts and other possible criteria seem less significant to us, or by excluding them from our thinking altogether. If we would actually see and be aware of those other parts of the picture, we would also see that they could be crucial to the validity of whatever conclusion we might draw. If one blind man investigates only the elephant's leg, and on that basis alone decides an elephant is like a tree trunk, he would be partly right but mostly wrong. Like the blind men, each person perceives things only from their own perspective. These perspectives are determined by many factors, including socio-cultural conditioning, particular place, time, light, hopes, fears and, of course, subject to the limitation of our sensory receptors and reasoning power. A person seeking profit sees everything in terms of gains and losses; and insecure person sees threats everywhere and person devoted to God sees everything as God's blessed creation. 

That is because any one way of looking at things almost always leaves out some or most aspects of whatever is actually and fully going on in the big picture. Doing any observation or analysis based on the limited part of the picture we're able to grasp at one given time - what little bit of the proverbial "elephant" we can observe in just one attempt - leads to only one limited conclusion, which often appears wrong from a different angle, or way, of studying the picture. A single conclusion, by itself, is usually a mere part of the whole truth because it comes from a study of only part of the big picture. 

Non-one-endedness is a solution. To really understand something as fully as we can, first we need to set aside and relax (but not discard) our initial biases, pre-conceptions, paradigms and theories. This means among other things that we shouldn't shrink from considering either the fine details or the broad generalizations. We set out to do one investigation after another, multiple inquiries into our object, statement or issue of interest - each investigation or observation done from a different perspective, angle, paradigm or theory. 

In order to accomplish this we simply change our position, meaning we put ourselves in different shoes or we adopt a totally new or different method of investigation (depending on the kind of subject matter we're dealing with). We shift our sights to as many different perspectives as we are able to discover or synthesize. At each unique angle we stop for the opportunity to do a brand new observation or analysis, each one leading us to perhaps a new and unique conclusion. Then, we consider each conclusion that we are able to draw as one partial truth, as one aspect, dimension, sampling or part of the whole truth about the object or statement. 
At last we have the more involved intellectual job of attempting to integrate together each of those partial truths into a more complete understanding of the big picture. We use each conclusion - each anta, or boundary - to help structure a whole new concept of what the object under study, or the statement under analysis, entails. We might not get the big picture quite right the first time we try integrating all the partial truths we have derived. But that only means we need to continue the process. The more different perspectives we adopt, and the more different independent investigations we do, the more different conclusions we will gain, and the more deeply and comprehensively we are bound to understand. The more powerful will be our information, our ability to analyze, our solutions and our creativity. 

Non-one-endedness multiplies the freedom of the mind. Jains see even this principle from more than one angle. Its two philosophical developments are known as Nayavada, which is the scrutiny of contentions through a variety of specific perspective modes, and Syadvada, which is the truth-analysis of any given statement using disparate combinations of (1) its affirmation, (2) its negation, and (3) the admission of its inexpressibility. In other words, it is the view that knowledge depends on individual perception. Saptabhangi is the "Seven-fold mode of understanding" and is also called Syadvada, meaning the "'Perhaps' Way of Thinking". Nayavada is the "Modal Way of Thinking. While academic in nature, these methods of insight are a major contribution to epistemology and logic. A Jain thinker named Siddhasena Divakara (5th century) remarked, "All schools of thought are valid when understood from their own standpoints. A knower does not categorize them as true or false. They become false only when they deny that the others also express aspects of the truth." (Sanmati Tarka Prakarana 1:28). In other words, non-one-endedness means respecting a person's individuality by discovering his or her concept of the world and trying to see things through that model. If only this idea is accepted and inculcated, so many communal differences mis-givings about temples and mosques could probably be avoided. 

Emphasizing the limits of ordinary knowledge, Jainism developed the theory that truth is relative to the perspective (naya) from which it is known. Furthermore, because of reality is many sided and knowledge true only from a limited perspective, all knowledge claims are only tentative (syat) having the form, "X may be Y," rather than "X is Y." Analysing the logic of conditional assertion, the Jains came up with a sevenfold schema for making a truth claim about any particular object. For example, the following assertions are possible with respect to, say, the temperature of a glass of water:

  1. It may be warm (to someone coming from the cold)

  2. It may not be warm (to someone coming from a very warm room it felt cold)

  3. It may be both warm and not warm, depending upon certain conditions.

  4. Independent of all conditions, the water is indescribable (all knowledge rest on certain conditions)

  5. Indescribable in itself, the water may be said to be warm subject to certain (a combination of 1 and 4)

  6. Indescribable in itself, the water may be said not to be warm, subject to certain conditions (a combination of 2 and 4).

  7. Indescribable in itself, the water may be said to be warm and not warm depending upon certain conditions (a combination of 3 and 4).

The reason why the last three assertions all begin with the claim "Indescribable in itself" is that every substance known and described possesses an infinite number of qualities -- each of which also possesses an infinite number of modifications. Although ordinary knowledge reveals some of these qualities and modifications, it cannot reveal them all. Thus, all descriptions of reality are only partial. The substance itself, with its infinite qualities and modifications, can be fully known only when all the limitations to knowledge are overcome.

The sevenfold scheme of conditional assertion forces us to recognize the partial and incomplete nature of ordinary human knowledge. This is very important initial step in overcoming the passions, because desire, hatred, pride, anger and greed stem from partial one-sided understanding of things dogmatically presumed to be the whole truth. How many times have we embarrassingly realized the inappropriateness of our anger, jealousy, pride, or greed when we came to see the "full picture"? Greed for money vanishes when it is understood that money can't buy health, friends or happiness. Excessive pride gives way to humility when we come to appreciate the wonderful qualities and accomplishments of others. Anger and hatred disappear when we realize that other objects, situations, or persons are no threat to us. To the extent that we appreciate that the knowledge from which the destructive passions arise is partial, we are encouraged to restrain ourselves until our understanding increases.

Awakening Vision. Understanding the partial nature of ordinary knowledge makes Jains more appreciative of the knowledge of the Ford-makers (Tirthankars). It encourages faith in their teachings and motivates efforts to emulate their lives in the hope of achieving similar omniscience, purity, and bliss. This in turn awakens a deep longing for true insight and knowledge which may serve as a catalyst to activate the soul's natural inclination to freedom and direct its energies toward recovery of its omniscience. Jainism and Anekantavada are not political platforms to be used or abused by whatever political causes might be popular in our society. In Anekantavada, the more different perspectives we adopt, and the more different independent investigations we do, the more different conclusions we will gain, and the more deeply and comprehensively we are bound to understand. The more powerful will be our information, our ability to analyze, our solutions and our creativity. Non-one-endedness multiplies the freedom of the mind.

The practical applications of Anekantwad in our day-to-day life are many-fold, though these may be taking place unknowingly or unconsciously. In Chemistry, as we know, the gases like Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton and Xenon are considered as inert and non-reactive. Researches have however led to their abundant use in for lighting, medical and engineering production and inspection purposes. A common technique called Method Study in Industrial Engineering is used to analyse and examine problems so as to find a best solution, ensuring that all possible angles have been considered and no aspect, whatsoever is ignored. Five basic questions asked to carry out critical examination are: what, how, where, who and when. Similarly, in the field of computer applications, the topics, like Expert systems, artificial intelligence and knowledge engineering, used for medical diagnosis as well as for problem-analysis in engineering are all based on the same concept of Anekant in a simplified form.

The concept of Anekantwad is therefore universally applicable and if it is rightly understood and applied, it can help in solving many serious problems faced by individuals, families and nations. Albert Einstein has mentioned in his article, "Science and Religion" {Nature, Vol. 146-1940): "Science without religion is lame; Religion without science is blind. Jain science encompasses every aspect of the cosmos, including the living and non-living entities. Jainism is science with religion."

References: 1. Scientific Foundations of Jainism: Prof. Kanti Mardia, MLBD, New Delhi-1990. 2.Some thoughts of mind, matter and complimentarity: Journal of Physics , Vol. 2, No. 2, Dec. 74.


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