Tension of Opposites Central to Existence

Published: 05.12.2002
Updated: 02.07.2015

In the book Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie asks: ‘‘Have I told you about the tensions of opposites?’’ I wondered. The tension of opposites? He continues: ‘‘Life is a series of pulls - back and forth. You want to do one thing, but are bound to do something else. Something hurts you and yet you know it shouldn’t. You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted. A tension of opposites, like a pull on a rubber band. And most of us live somewhere in the middle.’’

According to Acharya Mahaprajna, opposition is a fundamental rule for existence. ‘‘There is no type of existence in which opposites do not co-exist. In a sense, existence may also be defined as the coming together of opposites. It is the principle of the quest for unity between two apparently different characteristics of a substance. It tries to point out that the characteristics which differences have, also have an identicality. Reconciliation, which is a principle of anekant, comes about only with the recognition of the identity principle.’’

At the interpersonal level, if we are able to recognise that another person can have an opinion different from ours and if we can acknowledge that both can exist - he with his opinion and I with mine - we would not have any wars. Acharya Mahaprajna says that when we enter a garden full of flowers, we look at nature’s diversity and we get ecstatic. But we don’t look upon mental diversity - when faced with differing opinions - as beautiful; they become cause for conflict.

If we look at the working environment, many of the problems are born out of intolerance towards contradictory opinions. In the Mahabharata, a yaksha questions Yudhishtra: ‘‘What is forbearance?’’ Yudhishtra answers that forbearance is putting up with opposites. To reconcile opposing forces is in fact what tolerance is made up of.

Yudhishtra defined forbearance in terms of opposites. Interestingly, existence itself is defined in terms of opposites. This verse from the Kamba Ramayana describes Ayodhya, the land of King Dasaratha:

There was no charity for there was none to beg,
Valour was never seen for there was none who dared to challenge
Truth did not stand out, for none did speak a lie
Wisdom did not show, for all were well versed.

So do opposites define existence? For charity to exist, non-charity too has to be defined. How can one define light if there is no darkness? How do we understand something as being the truth unless there are lies? In the absence of foolishness, how to define wisdom?

Lao Tzu said: ‘‘When all the world understands beauty to be beautiful, then ugliness exists; when all understand goodness to be good, the evil exists.’’

So beauty is relative - to ugliness. Goodness is relative to evil.

Acharya Mahaprajna explains the logic of Jain philosophers:
That which is true contains its opposite - yat sat, tat sa pratipaksham.

Lao Tzu writes:

In order to weaken, one will surely strengthen first.
In order to overthrow, one will surely exalt first
In order to take one will surely give first
This is called subtle wisdom.

Lao Tzu’s wisdom also tells us that

Be bent and you will remain straight
Be vacant and you will remain full
Be worn and you will remain new.

In the opposite lies the affirmation of an attribute. This seems to be true at all levels. Even within the atom, the electron has an anti- particle called photon. Writes Richard Feynman, “Photons look exactly the same in all respects when they travel backwards in time... so they are their own anti-particles.”

The distinction remains, whether it is direct or subtle as it is in the case of very small particles: Even if the particle and anti-particle are neutral, like the neutrino and antineutrino.

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  1. Acharya
  2. Acharya Mahaprajna
  3. Anekant
  4. Ayodhya
  5. Environment
  6. Mahabharata
  7. Ramayana
  8. Times Of India
  9. Tolerance
  10. Yaksha
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