Anekantavad of Jainism

Markandey Katju

Markandey Katju

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Anekantavad encourages its adherents to consider the views and beliefs of their rivals and opposing parties.

Although there are many Jainis in India, most people, including most Jainis, do not know about the philosophy of Jainism.

I was a student of philosophy in the Allahabad University, and was deeply impressed by the Jain philosophy. In a country of such diversity as India, Jainism is very relevant, as it promotes tolerance and secularism, which is absolutely essential if our country is to progress.

The cornerstone of Jain philosophy is the concept of Anekantavad. This is defined as ‘non-absoluteness’, or ‘non-onesidedness’, or ‘many-foldedness’.

The Jain scriptures often explain this concept by the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

A group of blind men came to an elephant. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”.

For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk.

The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

None of them got to know the whole truth as they knew only one aspect of it.

Jain philosophy is thus against dogmatism. It believes that reality is complex and multi-faceted.

Anekantavad does not mean compromising or diluting one’s own beliefs, principles or values. It allows us to understand and be tolerant of conflicting and opposing views, while respectfully maintaining the validity of one’s own views.

Anekantavad encourages its adherents to consider the views and beliefs of their rivals and opposing parties.

Anekantavad also does not mean conceding that all arguments and views are true, but rather that logic and evidence determine which views are true, and as to which aspect, and to what extent.

For this, Anekantavad relies on ‘samayakva’ which means rationality and logic, and ‘syadvada’ which means ‘perhaps’ or ‘may be’, i.e. ‘in some ways’ or ‘ from a particular perspective’.

Democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, tolerance, and secularism impliedly reflect the Jain philosophy of Anekantavad.

In the Holy Quran it is stated “Unto you be your religion, and unto me be mine”.

The great Emperor Akbar had great respect for Jainism, and I have mentioned in some detail about his meetings and discussions with the Jain monks Hirvijaya Suri, Bhanuchandra Upadhyaya, and Vijaysen Suri in my judgment.

Science also adopts a non-absolutist approach in understanding nature. Thus, at one time it was believed that light travels as waves (Huygens theory), but Max Planck demonstrated that it travels in discrete particles called ‘quanta’ or packets of energy (which is why it is called the Quantum Theory).

J.J. Thompson’s plum pudding model of the atom was disproved by Rutherford’s famous gold foil experiment which showed that electrons were not embedded on the surface of the atom, but were instead existing outside the nucleus and revolving around it (like planets orbiting the sun).

Quantum mechanics demonstrated that electrons, protons, etc can be conceived of as both particles and waves (because they undergo diffraction, interference and polarization, which are characteristics of waves).

Science is constantly developing, and hence no theory can be said to be absolutist or the last word on the topic. What was regarded true yesterday may be found untrue today.

Ptolemy’s geocentric theory, which was also the Biblical theory, (that our world was the centre of the Universe) was disproved by Copernicus’ heliocentric theory.

Similarly, what is regarded true today may be found untrue by later scientific research. But whatever theory is advanced must be supported by logic and evidence (which the Jain philosophy calls ‘samyakva’).


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Markandey Katju

Markandey Katju

Justice Markandey Katju is former Judge, Supreme Court of India and former Chairman, Press Council of India.

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