Jainism : The World of Conquerors ► 4 ► Religion ► 4.8 ► Relativism

Posted: 07.12.2015

Jains have made 'relative pluralism' (anekaantavaada), supported by 'viewpointism' (nayavaada) and 'statements in some respects' (syaadavaada), the foundation of its philosophy. Relative pluralism promotes a many-sided approach to the problem of the knowledge of the 'real entity'. It is anti-dogmatic and presents a comprehensive and synoptic picture of the 'real entity' from multiple points of view. It affirms that there are different facets of the 'real entity' and that they have to be understood from various points of view by the predications of affirmation, negation and indescribability. Thinkers having a singular view in mind can see only one facet of the 'real entity', and cannot realise 'real entity' in full. According to the German scholar Hermann Jacobi, relative pluralism opens the floodgates to the comprehension of 'real entity' not only in toto but also in its differing aspects.

Different systems of philosophy have offered a variety of interpretations of the 'real entity'. There is ambiguity, and there are metaphysical contradictions and confusions. We are at a loss to know which theory of the 'real entity' should be accepted. This creates intellectual chaos. For instance, we see varying interpretations of the soul in different philosophies. Some argue it is all-pervasive like space, some maintain that it is atomic in nature, some say that it is the size of a thumb, and some say that it is the product of the elements. Some maintain that consciousness is not a characteristic of the soul but is produced by the metabolic changes of the body, others say that consciousness is inherent in the soul.

These differences arise from a basic outlook on the 'real entity'. Some take the point of view of synthesis and present the picture of 'real entity' in a synthetic sense. They seek unity in diversity, and posit the 'real entity' to be One. Others view the 'real entity' from an empirical point of view and emphasise diversity in the universe. Some schools of thought consider the 'real entity' to be incomprehensible. Thus, there is intellectual incoherence in the study of metaphysical problems.

The Jain theory of relative pluralism seeks to find a solution to this intellectual incoherence. It seeks to find meaning in the diversity of opinions and tries to establish that these diverse views are neither completely false nor completely true. They present partial truths from differing points of view. Absolutism, dogmatism or a singular approach are not inherent in the 'real entity', but are due to the workings of the intellect. They are the products of intellectual discrimination. If the intellect is pure in essence then absolutism disappears. The great Jain thinkers Haribhadra's (eighth century CE) and Yashovijay's (seventeenth century CE) support to the relative pluralism has been quoted by Devendra Muni in his work 'A Source Book on Jain Philosophy'. Haribhadra says that the one who develops a synoptic outlook based on the pluralistic attitude is always guided by objective and rational considerations in evaluating the theories of others. Yashovijay says that one who has developed the 'pluralistic' outlook does not dislike other viewpoints, but regards them with understanding and sympathy. One who believes in this outlook looks at the conflicting and diverse theories of 'real entity' with equal respect (Devendra Muni 1983: p.243).

Relative pluralism states that the nature of the 'real entity' should be studied purely from the rational point of view without prejudice or bias. The absolutist attitude is compelling, but it discourages us from accepting the point of view of others.

Truth can be understood in a true and comprehensive way through viewing the differing views of the 'real entity' in their proper perspective, and analysing the primary and the secondary points of view and giving them due consideration. The intellectual confusion created by absolutists is removed by relative pluralism. The current political practice of democracy is an application of relativism, for ideally it recognises the validity of different viewpoints. Due to intrinsic value the spirit of relative pluralism cannot be ignored by any school of thought.

The theory of relativism or relative pluralism was developed through a realistic approach to many fundamental philosophical problems. It has been successfully applied to such questions as the definition of 'real entity' in terms of permanence through change, and the relationship between the body and the soul. By adopting a pluralistic approach that substance is permanent but that its modes are changeable, the Jains have evolved realistic answers to the problems of permanence and change. Substance, jiva or soul is permanent, but its mode, the body of a living being, is changeable.

Aspects of Objects

Jain texts indicate that the infinite facets and nature of an object can be expressed under eight different predications, each of which forms a separate set of relativistic perspectives. These are: substance (dravya), location (ksetra), relation (sambandha), function (upakara), mode (paryaaya), time (kaala), association (sansarga), expression in words (sabda), meaning (artha and bhaava).

They should be considered with respect to the self and other entities. We may get a comprehensive picture of an object through a synoptic presentation of these aspects, through a relative perspective. Only when something is examined in all its aspects do we have what is termed a total and comprehensive presentation. Otherwise, the presentation will be partial and will be regarded as a particular viewpoint.

Relative pluralism is the fundamental attitude of mind that looks at the 'real entity' from multiple viewpoints. These points of view, called viewpoints (nayas), are its partial psychological expression. Relativism is the expression of relative pluralism through logic and predication.

Relativism is the theory of manifold predication encompassing all points of view, in different contexts and from differing viewpoints. It is the expression of the total 'real entity'. The object of knowledge is of huge complexity. Every object has varying facets. They have to be studied facet by facet. Each aspect of the study forms a viewpoint; the summation of all aspects of study is relativism.

The aim of relativism is to co-ordinate, unify, harmonise and synthesise the viewpoints from all aspects into a serviceable whole, which has a bearing upon the psychological and the spiritual life.

According to this perspective, a judgement is only valid if it encompasses the 'real entity' or object as a whole. It is the Jain prescription for the view of an object as a whole. It is holistic in nature. Modern scholars have described it as a devastating weapon to counter absolutist philosophies in a rational and non-violent manner. It argues that judgements about an object must vary according to the observer's perspective. It shows the limitations of language and attempts to provide a rationale for describing the representation. It, therefore, develops the capacity for adjustment, accommodation and progress.


An object has many facets. To have a thorough knowledge and to be able to describe it as a whole, relative pluralism is necessary. One cannot know the whole truth about an object without a relative perspective. But in practice, when we have to describe an object, we speak only about particular aspects of that object. This is not to deny the existence of the other attributes of the object. This particular viewpoint is naya. The truth of the 'real entity' or the total knowledge of an object may have multiple viewpoints; naya describes one of the several characteristics from a particular point of view. As an example, when we want identify a car, we say 'white Rover' or 'blue BMW' etc.; there is no mention of engine size, number of cylinders, speed or accessories, but our statement does not mean that the car is devoid of other attributes.

Jain seers have classified nayavaada from two viewpoints: substantive (dravya) and modal (paryaaya). The first refers to descriptions of an object with reference to its substantiality, the other with modes or verbal terms used for an object. It is just like gold as a substance and gold as an ornament. There are seven viewpoints. The first four of them belong normally to the first and the remainder to the second category.

Universal Viewpoint (naigama naya): refers to the intention or objective rather than actuality. For example, a woman lighting a stove may say 'I am cooking food', when asked what is she doing. While her expression refers to her intended objective, she may not actually be cooking food.

Synthetic Viewpoint (sangraha naya): This refers to the apprehension of either the generality or the particularity of an object. When importance is given to generality, particularity becomes secondary and vice versa. For example, words like 'food', 'tree', ''real entity'' refer to generalising categories involving all foods, trees or 'real entities'. This generality will involve all substances and modes. The particularised viewpoint gives importance to the specific character of a classification or quality. In the above example, words like 'protein', 'fruit tree' and 'living being' refer to a particular category as they exclude other kinds of foods, trees and 'real entities'. Thus, this viewpoint refers to the identity of or classification of an object. This viewpoint concentrates on the aspect of unity, and disregards diversity. Thus, this synthetic unity is not absolute. It represents only the relative or a particular aspect of the truth. It is agreed that there are similarities within a classification and among individuals, but their distinctiveness in many respects cannot be excluded.

Conventional Viewpoint (vyavahaara naya): This refers to the practical, empirical or particular point of view. It places emphasis on the systematic differentiation of the synthesised object. It takes conventional or popular characteristics of an object into consideration. It gives prominence to particularity over generality, without overlooking that their co-existence is concomitant. It classifies the 'real entities' in differing specific categories. It asks: how can there be transparent knowledge of anything without particularity? For example, if one asks someone to bring vegetables from the market, what shall he or she bring? However, if specific vegetables like tomatoes or cucumber are requested, he or she will bring only those items. Thus, particularity has a specific importance in interpreting the world. Thus, this viewpoint is more specific than the synthetic.

'Pinpointed' Viewpoint (rjusutra naya): This refers only to the present state or mode of an object without concern to the past or the future. The present is the only aspect of an entity with which this viewpoint is concerned. For example, if someone has been a rich man in the past, but now is a beggar, the 'pinpointed' viewpoint will recognise him only as a beggar and not as a rich man. This viewpoint is purely particularistic in approach and refers to actual conditions at a particular moment in time.

Verbal Viewpoint (sabda naya): This verbal viewpoint refers to the synonymous nature of words, and propounds that these are different meanings of words in respect of their grammatical reference to sense, gender, number, person, case-endings and prefixes/suffixes. It is realised that synonyms have different etymological origins, but they may refer to the same object. There are specific meanings for synonymous words. For example, an earthenware pot or earthenware utensil (kumbha or kalasa in Sanskrit) refers to the same object. However, they may not be completely identical, and such an identity will be fallacious. Thus every word has an intimate correlation with its meaning, which has implications for that particular object. If words change with respect to gender, number, case etc., this may also involve changes in meaning. Many popular examples may be cited for each case. This viewpoint is more specific than that 'pinpointed' as the verbal designation of an object has definite connotations, despite the fact that the meaning may differ without changing the identity of the implied object. Different synonyms signify different attributes of the same entity.

Etymological Viewpoint (samabhirudha naya): This is also a form of the verbal viewpoint. It refers to differences even within the meanings of synonyms based on their etymological origin. There are many synonyms for the paramount god of the heavens (Indra), but they all have different connotations due to their differing etymological roots, even though they imply the same entity. This viewpoint further specifies the connotations of the words and indicates that there may be no correct synonym. Thus this is still more specific when compared with the verbalistic viewpoint.

'Such-likes' Viewpoint (evambhuta naya): This refers to the fact that an entity can be designated by a word only when the entity is exercising the activity connoted by the word. For example, the word 'enlightened' (arhat) is an appropriate designation for the tirthankaras when human and celestials are worshipping them as such. Similarly when using the term jina (victor over passions) for the arhats. This naya is the mode of actuality, it indicates that one cannot use any word for an entity until it qualifies for that activity. The earlier viewpoint does not take the active connotation into account when designating a word. Hence this is still more specific than the earlier viewpoint.

These seven nayas are distinguishable from one another by the specificity of their scope, and each succeeding one is dependent on the preceding category. From the view of infinite characteristics of the 'real entity', the viewpoints have numerous divisions. They are inter-dependent, and their harmonious combination paves the way to finding the truth of an object. Thus, nayavaada shows the way to reconciling differing viewpoints and their harmonisation. Nayas reveal only a part of the totality and nayavada is the analytical method that investigates a particular standpoint of the totality (Kalghatgi 1988: p.109). Synthesis of every viewpoint is a practical necessity. Syaadavaada makes this synthesis possible by retaining the relative importance of each viewpoint.


The term syaadavaada is derived from two roots: syat, meaning 'in some respect', and vada, meaning 'statement'; thus, 'statements in some respect'. It will be denoted by the term 'relativism'. The Jain philosophers point out that the comprehension of the 'real entity' cannot be achieved by merely formulating certain simple, categorical propositions. The 'real entity' is complex; any one simple proposition cannot express the nature of the 'real entity' in its totality.

That is why the term syat ('in some respect') is appended by Jain philosophers to the seven propositions concerning the 'real entity', indicating that affirmation is only relative, from some point of view and with some reservations, and is not in any sense absolute. It is not enough that problems about the 'real entity' are merely understood from differing points of view, but such understanding must be expressed truly and correctly. This is met by the doctrine of relativism. Relativism comprehends the object of knowledge, despite its being complex embracing an infinity of modes; that the human mind is of limited understanding; that human speech has its imperfections when expressing the whole range of experience; and that all our statements are conditionally or relatively true. Hence, every statement must be qualified with the term syat, 'in some respect', to emphasise its conditional or relative character.

Seven Predications of Syaadavaada: Jainism states that an infinite faceted object can be described by seven possible statements or predications, seemingly contradictory but perfectly true. Because of its seven-foldness, the theory is known as the 'theory of seven-fold predications (sapta-bhangi). The seven predications are formulated on the basis of three fundamental postulates: affirmation, negation, and indescribability, and their permutations and combinations. Jain philosophers believe that these seven modes of predication together give us an adequate description of the 'real entity'. They are shown in the table 4.8 below.

Table 4.9 The seven-fold expressions for a description of an entity or an event.

(i) syad-asti

in some respects, it is


(ii) syad-nasti

in some respects, it is not


(iii) syad-asti-nasti

in some respects, it is and it is not


(iv) syad-avaktavya

in some respects, it is indescribable


(v) syad-asti, avaktavya

in some respects, it is describable and is not

Combination of (i) & (iv)

(vi) syad-nasti, avaktavya

in some respects, it is not and is indescribable

Combination of (ii) & (iv)

(vii) syad-asti-nasti avaktavya

in some respects, it is and isnot and is indescribable

Combination of (i), (ii), (iv)

Significance of Relativism: Relativism and 'viewpointism' are complementary. Whereas 'viewpointism' emphasises an analytical approach to the 'real entity', pointing out that different viewpoints are possible, relativism stresses the synthetic approach to the 'real entity', reiterating that the different viewpoints together help us in comprehending the 'real entity'. The relativism guides us in matters of physical experience, where it is impossible to formulate the whole and complete truth and in matters of transcendental experience where language is inadequate in describing everything. It provides a comprehensiveness of approach to these problems, inculcating rational, tolerant and sympathetic considerations towards other viewpoints. The twenty-first century may be an age of pluralism of religious teachings, and for social living in the world, and it is possible that the practical applicability of Jain relativism and its scientific and philosophic wisdom may be of value to the wider communities throughout the world.

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Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998