The Jaina Doctrine of Anekāntavāda

In part II of A Buddha Land in this World, I proposed a variety of perspectival realism based on, among others, Yogācāra and the philosophy of Donald Davidson. The term “perspectival realism” refers to a loose collection of theories that are realist, in the minimal sense of recognizing the existence of a mind-independent, external reality, but that reject the idea that there is just one “right” way of describing reality. Rather, descriptions or understandings of or views on reality are perspectival, that is, they are views from particular perspectives, or constructions due to particular conceptual schemes. And because there is no view from nowhere or God’s eye point of view, descriptions or understandings of reality are necessarily perspectival. Moreover, a perspective is not a false view, but an incomplete or partial view; it does not and cannot radically misrepresent external reality because it is and can only be grounded therein.

This metaphysical view lead me to a brief exploration of some apparently similar views in East and West (in chapter 10), including the Jaina doctrine of anekāntavāda, which involves a kind of double perspectivism based on two closed lists of perspectives.1 These two lists are the core teachings of nayavāda and syādvāda which are often considered the “wings” of anekāntavāda. What exactly this metaphor means and how the three are supposed to relate to each other differs between Jaina thinkers, but they all agree that the three come together, and often the term anekāntavāda is used both for that trio as a whole and for a specific part thereof. Anekāntavāda in the broad sense is usually translated as “non-absolutism”. Satkari Mookerjee summarizes the core idea as follows:

What is necessary is to recognize the metaphysical truth that things are possessed of an infinite plurality of attributes and the predication of one among these attributes is not false, though it is admittedly incomplete as a description of the nature of the subject.2

That “metaphysical truth” is the essence of anekāntavāda in the narrow sense. Its two wings are “logical” or “epistemological” tools or methods.3 Often nayavāda is considered a method of analysis and syādvāda a method of synthesis, but it is not entirely clear what those qualifications are based on. Concerning the relation between the two wings and the bird (or building?) they are part of, Y.J. Padmarajiah writes that they “aid an apprehension of the complex structure of reality” (i.e., anekāntavāda in the narrow sense).4

The origin of anekāntavāda in the broad sense is the Jaina attempt to defend their views on soul, karma, and liberation against attacks from non-Jaina philosophers in the classical period of Indian philosophy.5 According to Jainism, things are simultaneously permanent and impermanent, and non-Jaina philosophers argued that this is a contradiction and, therefore, that it cannot possibly be true. The Jaina defense was based on the idea that the universe and all things in it are indeterminate, that reality is “manifold or complex to its core”,6 and that all things have infinite characteristics and are related to everything else.7 Because it is impossible to grasp all of this complexity, at least at once, any statement about some real thing or the universe as a whole expresses only a particular point of view or perspective (naya). Consequently, statements are contingent on perspectives, and no philosophical proposition can be true or false if it is asserted without some kind of implicit specification of that perspective.8 Things, then, may be permanent from one perspective, and impermanent from another, and there is no contradiction.

Anekāntavāda in the narrow sense is this metaphysical theory that every real thing has infinitely many qualities and thus can never be wholly characterized. It would seem that this idea leads to an apophatic conclusion. Acharya Mahaprajña explains that the real nature of a thing or substance is inexpressible, for example, because “a substance is possessed of an infinite number of attributes” and it is “not possible to express in language those infinite number of attributes taking place at every moment.”9 Nevertheless, Jainism is not apophatic but moderately kataphatic.10 According to Padmarajiah, Jainism aims to strike a balance between the apophatic view that ultimate reality is absolutely beyond words, and its opposite, naive realist views that assume that our conceptual categories carve reality at its joints. “Reality is both expressible and inexpressible, and […] there is no contradiction in holding this position since reality is so from different points of view.”11 Furthermore, anekāntavāda appears to strike a balance between apophasis and excessive confidence in language in an another sense: indeed, a thing cannot be expressed in all its aspects at once, but it is not wholly inexpressible either.12 To call some concrete particular a “pot”, for example, is not false, just perspectival and incomplete, and in that sense, the nature of this concrete particular is not wholly inexpressible.

This dialectic of expressibility and inexpressibility is the topic of syādvāda or saptabhaṇgī, the “doctrine of seven-fold predication”. The core of syādvāda/​saptabhaṇgī is a list of seven apparently existential statements, sometimes called “modes of predication”, that all start with the prefix syād-, which is translated in a number of different ways by different interpreters. Most common translations are variants of “from some perspective”, “in some sense”, “under certain conditions”, “relatively speaking”, “seen in some way”, and so forth. The seven modes of predication are the following:
(1) — Syād-asti: in some sense or ​perspective it is.
(2) — Syād-nāsti: in some sense or ​​perspective it is not.
(3) — Syād-asti-nāsti: in some sense or ​perspective it is, and it is not.
(4) — Syād-asti-avaktavyaḥ: in some sense or ​perspective it is, and it is inexpressible (or indescribable, unspeakable, and so forth).
(5) — Syād-nāsti-avaktavyaḥ: in some sense or ​perspective it is not, and it is inexpressible.
(6) — Syād-asti-nāsti-avaktavyaḥ: in some sense or ​​perspective it is, and it is not, and it is inexpressible.
(7) — Syād-avaktavyaḥ: in some sense or ​perspective it is inexpressible.

This inexpressibility, as explained above, is “due to the bewildering wealth of impressions directly pouring into the human mind whose limitations of powers are such that it cannot at once grapple with all the impressions by way of all-comprehending attention and precise expression.”13 Nevertheless, we are not “condemned to be cognitively overwhelmed and verbally dumb” according to Padmarajiah, and the inexpressible can eventually become expressible by paying attention to the “manifold features” of the real thing.

The main problem in interpreting this doctrine is not the notion of inexpressibility, however, but the pair asti/​nāsti, “exists” or “does not exist”.14 (3) Syād-asti-nāsti appears to claim that something exists and does not exist from one and the same perspective, and that sounds rather paradoxical. It has been suggested that this is an example of a non-classical or deviant logic, which rejects the principle of the excluded middle,15 but that is a controversial interpretation and it also has been pointed out that Jaina logicians were quite clear about their acceptance of the principles of classical logic.16 Furthermore, no appeal to deviant logics is necessary to explain (3), and there is nothing paradoxical about that part of syādvāda either. What must be realized, however, is that syādvāda is a doctrine of seven-fold predication, not of seven-fold being or existence. Asti, here, is not “being” as existence per se, but “being” something or existence as something.

Moreover, as Thomas McEvilley pointed out, Jaina scholars typically do not interpret (3) asti-nāsti as meaning “that something is both A and not-A, but that it is A and is not B.”17 Using the conventional example of a pot or jar, (3) means that the pot “exists” (as pot) relative to its own nature but not (as pot) relative to another nature.18 Or in other words, “non-existence is not related to the non-existence of the object itself but to its non-existence as another object. That is to say, a jar is not said to non-exist as a jar, but [to non-exist] as a piece of cloth.”19 Perhaps, the clearest explanation is given by Padmarajiah:

Every entity comprises, within the fullness of its being, two constituent elements, both equally important, viz., what is itself (svatattva) and what is other-than-itself (paratattva). A jar (ghaṭa), for instance, is constituted not merely by all the traits entering into its making, but also by the numerous other traits which constitute entities like a cloth (paṭa), a fruit (phala) or a book (pustaka), which are not, or are other than, the jar. The former group of traits forms the positive element (sat or vidhi), that is, what the jar is per se, and the latter group the negative element (asat or niṣedha), or what-is-not (or what-is-other-than) the jar.20

The doctrine seems more paradoxical than it is due to the potential confusion of “being” something with “being” as existence (i.e., of predication with ontology), but it is also due to a second problem: we cannot refer to an object in a text without predication. The only way to introduce a pot as an example is by using the word “pot”, but in doing so we are already calling the hypothetical example a “pot”, thereby implying that it is a pot. If we, however, want to say that that thing is not a pot from another perspective, or is inexpressible from another perspective, then that sounds paradoxical as well.

To avoid this problem, whenever I write “this ⛊”, imagine me standing in front of you pointing at some object that you and me might call a pot. Then, (1) syād-asti can be understood as “in some sense or perspective, this ⛊ is a pot”. According to the interpretations quoted above, (2) syād-nāsti does not mean “in some other sense or ​perspective, this ⛊ is not a pot” but means that in some sense this ⛊ is not a piece of cloth, nor a frog, a rainbow, and so forth. If the class of things a pot is not is denoted as “non-pot”, then (2) syād-nāsti means “in some sense or ​perspective, this ⛊ is not a non-pot”. And (3) syād-asti-nāsti means “in some sense or​perspective, this ⛊ is a pot and not a non-pot”. (3) is not contradictory because there certainly are many perspectives in which a pot is not simultaneously a piece of cloth, a frog, or a rainbow.

However, this does not solve the contradiction in (4) syād-asti-avaktavyaḥ; to say that “in some sense or perspective, this ⛊ is a pot and is inexpressible” is a contradiction. If in some perspective this ⛊ can be accurately described as a “pot” then, in that perspective, it is not inexpressible. None of the accounts of syādvāda I have seen offers a solution to this problem, however. Typically, it is not even recognized as a problem.

The second wing of anekāntavāda is nayavāda, which is often illustrated by means of the famous parable of the six blind men and an elephant.21 In the story, six blind men encounter an elephant for the first time, so they decide to inspect it. One, touching its trunk, announces that it is like a snake. Another, touching a leg, says it is like a tree. A third, holding its tail, thinks it is like a rope. And so forth. All of the six men perceive only a small part of the elephant and base their judgment on that. Like the blind men, we also perceive any thing only partially or from a single perspective. That is what the word naya in nayavāda denotes: a particular perspective, point of view, or opinion.

Given that according to anekāntavāda in the narrow sense, real things have infinitely many qualities, there also are infinitely many ways of seeing a thing, and thus infinitely many naya. However, trying to look at something from infinitely many perspectives is “too broad or gross”,22 and because we are limited beings, it is impossible anyway. For this reason, Jaina thinkers have classified the infinite perspectives into seven named naya. Hence, in some sense there are infinitely many naya, while in another sense there are just seven – or less than seven even, because these seven are further classified into smaller sets. There appears to be little agreement about those further classifications, however,23 with one major exception. According to the fifth century monk Siddhasēna, one of the foremost authorities on anekāntavāda, the first three concern the “substantial” (dravyārthika or dravyāstika) point of view while the last four are about the “modal” (paryāyārthika or paryāyāstika) point of view.24

In Sanmati-tarka I.7, Siddhasēna explains that the substantial perspective is really just concerned with “being” and, thus, with what the object really is, implying that the first naya on the list (naigama-naya) is the core of this subset, while the other two are elaborations or special cases. In I.5 he makes a similar claim about the modal point of view: the first naya of that subset (i.e., the fourth in the complete list: ṛjusūtra-naya) is the core thereof, while the remaining three are subtle varieties or “its branches and twigs”. The first three naya, are naigama-, saṃgraha-, and vyavahāra-naya.
(i) — Naigama-yana: the “non-distinguished” or “undifferentiated” or sometimes “teleological” point of view. It is also considered the “ordinary” or “common” point of view and has two varieties or interpretations. According to the first it is the grasping of an object in its concrete unity and the ordinary description of this ⛊ as “pot”. According to the second, it is concerned with the purpose of an action.
(ii) — Saṃgraha-naya: the “general” or “class” perspective. It describes this ⛊ in terms of the larger classes or categories it belongs to; for example, “container”.
(iii) — Vyavahāra-naya: the “practical”, “specific”, or “particular” point of view. It focuses on what makes this ⛊ different from the other members of the larger classes or categories it belongs to.

The substantial perspective appears surprisingly essentialist or absolutist.25 (i) This ⛊ is a pot. (ii) It belongs to a larger class; for example, of containers; and (iii) it has certain characteristics that make it a pot rather than one of the other kinds of members of that larger class. That’s all that the first three naya seem to state. But what does this have to do with the six blind men and the elephant? In that story, the elephant’s trunk is perceived to be a snake from the perspective of one of the blind men, but neither the first three naya nor the remaining four allow for such a perspective. And neither does syādvāda. The first three naya say (i) that it is a trunk, (ii) that it is kind of proboscis, and (iii) that it is formed from the elephant’s nose and upper lip, for example. According to syadvāda, (1) it is a trunk from some perspective, (2) not a non-trunk from some (other?) perspective, and so forth. Significantly, there is no perspective – neither in syādvāda, nor in nayavāda – in which the trunk is a snake or this ⛊ is not a pot. Despite the supposed inexpressibility and manifoldness of reality, the pot-hood of this ⛊ is apparently a real and undeniable feature of external reality, and thus part of this ⛊’s essence.

While the substantial perspective focuses on the inherent qualities of the object, and is therefore often associated with noumenal reality, the “modal” perspective concerns its fleeting qualities, such as the context of its appearance and its verbal classification and is usually associated with phenomenal reality.
(iv) — Ṛjusūtra-naya: the “immediate” or “manifest” point of view. It considers the object in its spatial and temporal context and how the object appears at some particular moment.
(v) — Śabda-naya: the “verbal” perspective or the point of view of “synonyms”, which puts the spotlight on the word (i.e., “pot”) and its grammatical roles and functions.
(vi) — Samabhirūḍha-naya: the “subtle” or “etymological” point of view. It focuses on the etymology of the word (i.e., “pot”) and its implications, and it clarifies subtle differences in the meaning of words that are commonly assumed to denote the same kind of thing. By implication, it rejects strict synonymy.
(vii) — Evambhūta-naya: the “thus-happened” or “such-like” perspective, which aims to restrict the word to a single use and meaning.

Supposedly, each of the seven naya is a one-sided (ekānta) and partial, imperfect point of view. Only a judgment that takes all seven naya into account is many-sided (anekānta, or literally, not-one-sided). Nevertheless, one-sided judgments are not false and reveal real aspects of the object.26 Or, in the words of Siddhasēna:

All nayas are true in their respective spheres, but when they [cross over into each other’s spheres and] refute each other they are false. One who comprehends the many-sided nature of reality [i.e., anekāntavāda] never says that a particular view is just true or false.27

What is most puzzling about the doctrine of anekāntavāda is how this is supposed to work. It is hard even to conceive of the formulaic list(s) of nayas as different “spheres” of reality. And it is very unclear what these seven nayas have to do with the infinite nayas born from the manifoldness of ultimate reality. The basic idea of anekāntavāda – that reality is indeterminate and that there are, therefore, many different perspectives – sounds very much like a kind of perspectival realism, but its elaboration in syādvāda and nayavāda appear to have very little to do with that basic idea. Those “elaborations”, in their essential affirmation of the pot-hood of this ⛊, appear to be antithetical to perspectivism or non-absolutism more than that they support it.

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  1. The remainder of this post is an edited extract from A Buddha Land in this World.
  2. Satkari Mookerjee (1944), The Jaina Philosophy of Non-absolutism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass), p. 143.
  3. John Cort, for example, calls nayavāda and syādvāda “logical tools”, but they are not really concerned with logic in a conventional sense of that term. Most Jaina authors who write in English seem to prefer the term “epistemological”. This term does not seem exactly correct either, as there are also issues in the philosophy of language involved, but it is more appropriate than “logical”. John Cort (2000), “‘Intellectual Ahiṃsā’ revisited: Jain Tolerance and Intolerance of Others”, Philosophy East and West 50.3: 324–47.
  4. Y.J. Padmarajiah (1963), A Comparative Study of the Jaina Theories of Reality and Knowledge (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass), p. 381.
  5. Cort, “‘Intellectual Ahiṃsā’ Revisited”.
  6. Padmarajiah, A Comparative Study of the Jaina Theories of Reality and Knowledge, p. 275.
  7. Mookerjee, The Jaina Philosophy of Non-absolutism.
  8. Bimal Matilal (1981), The Central Philosophy of Jainism (Anekānta-Vāda), (Ahmedabad: LD Institute of Indology).
  9. Acharya Mahaprajña (1984), “The Axioms of Non-Absolutism”, in: Rai A. Kumar, T.M. Dak, & Anil D. Mishra (eds.), (1996), Facets of Jain Religion and Culture, Volume 1: Anekāntavāda and Syādvāda (Ladnun: Jain Vishva Bharati): 1–32, p. 9.
  10. The apophatic/kataphatic distinction concerns the describability of mind-independent reality (or of God, in Christian theology). According to an apohatic view, reality is not describable or inexpressible. According to a kataphatic view reality is describable or expressible.
  11. Padmarajiah, A Comparative Study of the Jaina Theories of Reality and Knowledge, p. 353.
  12. See, for example: Mookerjee, The Jaina Philosophy of Non-absolutism, p. 103
  13. Padmarajiah, A Comparative Study of the Jaina Theories of Reality and Knowledge, p. 306.
  14. For a valuable discussion of various interpretations, see for example: Arvind Sharma (1996), “The Doctrine of Syādvāda: Examination of Different Interpretations”, in: Rai A. Kumar et al. (eds.), Facets of Jain Religion and Culture, Volume 1: 326–38.
  15. See, for example: Filita Bharuch & R.V. Kamat (1984), “Syādvāda Theory of Jainism in Terms of a Deviant Logic”, in: Rai A. Kumar et al. (eds.), Facets of Jain Religion and Culture, Volume 1: 339–44.
  16. John Koller (2000), “Syādvāda as the Epistemological Key to the Jaina Middle Way Metaphysics of Anekāntavāda”, Philosophy East and West 50.3: 400–7.
  17. Thomas McEvilley (2002), The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (New York: Allworth), p. 337.
  18. Mahaprajña, “The Axioms of Non-absolutism”.
  19. Sharma, “The Doctrine of Syādvāda”, p. 336.
  20. Padmarajiah, A Comparative Study of the Jaina Theories of Reality and Knowledge, p. 149.
  21. This parable almost certainly predates Jainism and also occurs in the other Indian religious traditions.
  22. Padmarajiah, A Comparative Study of the Jaina Theories of Reality and Knowledge, p. 312.
  23. Ibid., pp. 324ff.
  24. Siddhasēna Divākara (5th ct), Sanmati-tarka, §§I.3ff.
  25. And thus, antithetical to perspectivism or perspectival realism rather than being similar to (or supporting) it.
  26. Narendra Bhattacharyya (1999), Jain Philosophy: Historical Outline (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal), pp. 143–4.
  27. ṇiyaya-vayaṇijja-saccā, savvanayā para-viyālaṇe mohā | te uṇa ṇa diṭṭhasamao, vibhayai sacce va alie vā — Siddhasēna, Sanmati-tarka, §§I.28.

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