What is Anekantavada?
Anekantavada is the idea that truth has multiple viewpoints, and that there is no one absolute truth. One of the best explanations of Anekantavada is the parable of the blind men and the elephant:
“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a drain pipe”. 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, “I perceive the shape of the elephant to be like a pillar”. And in the case of the one who placed his hand upon its back said, “Indeed, this elephant is like a throne”. Now, each of these presented a true aspect when he related what he had gained from experiencing the elephant. None of them had strayed from the true description of the elephant. Yet they fell short of fathoming the true appearance of the elephant.”
3 Things I like about Anekantavada
We begin our exploration of questioning Jainism with Anekantavada. It is best to start comparative religion at a point of common interest, rather than attempt to pick apart differences.
#1 – Accepts the Limitations of Human Thought
According to Jain Philosophy, human thought is partial, and to hold a particular viewpoint as final is holding a limited picture of reality. The recognition that humans are finite creatures with a finite thought process along with the belief that one can, in fact, achieve a level of complete knowledge is the driving force behind Jain thought and philosophy.
#2 – Warns against Relativism
Anekantavada is often mistaken for the kind of relativism found in agnosticism. This is untrue. Relativism essentially states that all viewpoints are equally valid relative to time and culture. Anekantavada, on the other hand, states that viewpoints are valid based upon logic and evidence. This provides more of a rational framework to examine truth claims then simply stating that 1) there are multiple viewpoint of truth and that 2) all truth claims are equally valid.
#3 – Warns against Absolute Doctrine
This is where the confusion lies: just because Jain philosophy preaches against absolute doctrine, does not mean that it accepts all truth claims to be of equal validity. Because Jain thought is based in logic and evidence, it does recognize that contradictory viewpoints can not be reconciled.
Perhaps a better way to explain this is through the concept of ahimsa (non-violence). There is physical non-violence which suggests one should not kill under any circumstance. But there is also intellectual ahimsa, which suggests that when one engages in a “battle of ideas” the logical conclusion leads to physical violence. It is a movement away from a militant form of “either with us, or against us” thought process. Mahavira, the last jain Thirkanthara said, “Comprehend one philosophical view through the comprehensive study of another one.”
Criticisms of Anekantavada
My personal criticisms of Anekantavada are based more on how it’s practiced by Western Jains, rather than the actual philosophical purpose behind the principle. Anekantavada has been watered down and redefined as a tenet where we view a particular moment in life from the perspective of someone else. One such example can be found in this article.
Although such interpretations promote compassion and sound nice, they don’t really do justice to the millennia of philosophical thought surrounding the principle. When we water down such a powerful principle as Anekantavada for the masses, it essentially loses it’s meaning. It is because of this watering down of the principle that it has often been confused with relativism.
Anekantavada is not truly a religious doctrine, but instead an avenue for which one can explore ontological and epistemological questions. It is one of the most important teachings of Indian rhetoric.
For a Jain to truly implement this principle into their lives, they must:
1) explore their own faith
2) explore the faiths of others
3) use logic and evidence to decipher each perspective.