Anekāntavāda And Syādvāda ► Non-Absolutism (Anekāntavāda) ► Section I ► The Dialectic Of Sevenfold Predication ► Part 1

Posted: 21.03.2012

The Jaina affirms that an existent is possessed of an infinite number of attributes, and though the knowledge of infinite attributes is not attainable on this side of omniscience, the affirmation or negation of a predicate is not untrue. The affirmation or negation gives only a slice of the existent, but that does not afford a reason to doubt its authenticity. The most characteristic contribution of Jaina thinkers lies in their formulation of the theory of sevenfold predication, which for its originality and novelty roused the philosophical conscience of India at the time of its promulgation. We do not undertake the baffling task of tracing the chronological landmarks in the evolution of this theory and we deliberately address ourselves to the purely philosophical interest and value that this theory possesses in so far as it has been interpreted by philosophers of the Jaina school from the medieval ages down to very recent times. Our interest is purely philosophical and we leave the historical problem to be tackled by other scholars. The Jaina asserts that even the knowledge of a single attribution in respect of a substance must assume the form of seven modes, if it is to be free from obscurity and inadequacy. The sevenfold predication is, thus, a representation of this sevenfold conception and is expressed in a set of seven distinct propositions from which the knowledge of mutually consistent predicates, affirmative or negative, in respect of one subject is derived. The full predication of an attribute, it is asserted, requires seven distinct propositions and an additional proposition is superfluous and the suppression of any one results in incomplete knowledge. But why should the number be seven, neither more nor less? The answer is that each proposition is an answer to a question, possible or actual. And only sevenfold query is possible with regard to a thing. The questions are seven because our desire of knowledge with regard to any subject assumes seven forms in answer to our doubts, which are also seven. Doubts are seven because the attributes, which are the objects of doubt, are only of seven kinds.[1] So, the sevenfold assertion is not the result of a mere subjective necessity, which has nothing to do with the objective status of attributes. All assertions are in the last resort traceable to an objective situation, which actually possesses seven modes or attributes as an ontological truth.

The seven attributes are, thus, real properties in a subject and they are stated as predicates in seven different propositions (bhaṅgas). The assertions derive their genesis from an initial doubt which is occasioned by the prima facie opposition of the positive and negative attributes. Take a concrete example of the attribute of existence, and we can illustrate the sevenfold proposition. Does a pen exist or not? This is an instance of doubt, since the opposition of existence and non-existence is self-evident. The predicates, it should be remembered, are but the expressions of real attributes. The full formulation of the predicates will assume the form as follows: (1) existence (in a specific context); (2) non-existence (in another specific context); (3) successive occurrence of both the attributes; (4) inexpressibility; (5) inexpressibility as qualified  by the first predicate: (6) inexpressibility as qualified by the second; (7) inexpressibility as qualified by the third. These are seven attributes which are expressed by seven propositions. The same rule holds good of any other attribute. The seven propositions distinctly stated will be as follows: (1) The pen exists (in a certain context); (2) the pen does not exist (in another context); (3) the pen exists and does not exist (respectively in its own context and in a different context); (4) the pen is inexpressible (qua having both existence and non-existence as its attributes at the same time); (5) the pen exists (in its own context) and is inexpressible; (6) the pen does not exist (in other than its own context) and is inexpressible; (7) the pen exists and does not exist and is inexpressible. All these assertions' are to be understood as subject to the conditions which objectively demarcate the attributes. Thus, existence can be predicated of the pen only in relation to a definite context. The pen exists in so far as it is a substance and a specific substance at that, that is to say, in so far as it is a pen. Thus, existence can be predicated of it conformably to reality only by qualifying it by a necessary proviso indicated above. Again, the pen exists in its own space which it occupies and in the time in which it is known to endure. Further, the pen has a particular size, colour and shape and so on. The pen is not the pen if it is abstracted from these attributes which give it a definitive individuality. Thus, substance (dravya), attribute (bhāva), time (kāla) and space (kṣetra), form the context, in relation to which an attribute, existence etc. can be predicated. As has been observed more than once, the affirmation of an attribute necessarily involves the negation of its opposite, and, thus, the predication of the opposite attribute is also a logical necessity. The existence of a pen is necessarily bound up with its non-existence in another context. So both are to be predicated. But a question naturally arises. If existence and non-existence are understood in relation to definite contexts, then there is not only no opposition between them, but one is the necessary concomitant of the other. Such being the case, there is no possibility of a doubt regarding them, and in the absence of doubt, no enquiry is felt and, consequently, no answer is necessary. Where then is the psychological necessity which was propounded as the basis and occasion of the sevenfold predication? The answer is that the opposition in question is not between existence and non-existence as part-characteristics, but between unqualified existence and qualified existence. The affirmation of existence is, thus, necessary in order to rebut the possibility of unqualified existence irrespective of time, place, substance and attribute, which give the predicate a determinate reference. Thus, the assertion of the first proposition is logically necessary and significant. And if, again, we are to take the opposition to refer to the opposite of existence, viz., non-existence, there would not be any difficulty either, as non-existence, too, is to be understood in an unrestricted reference. The assertion of determinate existence in the first proposition, thus, rebuts the possibility of absolute non-existence or absolute existence.

The second proposition is also significant as there is opposition between determinate non-existence and absolute non-existence or absolute existence. It can be shown in this way that each predicate is asserted in response to a logical necessity, viz., the exclusion of its opposite. It may be contended that the opposites under consideration viz., absolute existence or absolute non-existence, are not objective facts, as no existent is known to have absolute existence or absolute non-existence as its characteristic. Thus, the opposite in question is unreal and the exclusion of an unreal opposite is not necessary, as an unreal fact cannot be the object of doubt. But the contention is not true to psychology. Though absolute existence or non-existence be not real facts, it cannot be denied that a thing may be conceived as existent or non-existent without reference to their ontological context. Though not ontologically real, absolute existence or non-existence is conceivable, and doubt as a psychical fact has reference to this conception. So, the charge of lack of logical necessity for the sevenfold proposition is not founded upon a fact. The opposition is a logical relation and it is not necessary that the opposite must be of the same ontological status. The very fact, that absolute existence is opposed to even limited non-existence, and absolute non-existence is not compatible even with limited existence, shows that the relation is true, though as a matter of fact, absolute existence and absolute non-existence are not ontologically real.

The Vedāntist, who holds absolute existence to be the only reality, cannot believe in the reality of non-existence, absolute or qualified. Similarly the Śūnyāvādin who does not believe in any existence, absolute or limited, cannot but regard absolute non-existence as standing in opposition to existence. The opposition between existence and non-existence has, thus, a logical or psychological value and does not involve the reality of the terms in opposition. It is enough if the other opposite is conceivable. In point of fact, opposition may hold between two ontological facts or between an ontological fact and an unreal fiction, provided it is psychologically conceivable. The first two propositions in the sevenfold chain of predication are, thus, logically valid and psychologically necessary inasmuch as they serve to exclude absolute existence or absolute non-existence from their respective loci. The insertion of the qualifying phrase 'syāt.'1 which emphasises the relative truth of the predication, is dictated by a twofold necessity of, firstly, furnishing a necessary proviso and, secondly, a corrective against the absolutist ways of thought and evaluation of reality.

In the evaluation of the necessity and justice to the assertions in the chain of sevenfold predication, which the Jaina thinks to be the universally valid form, whatever be the predicates, we shall have to take into consideration two facts, one logical and another ontological. The logical criterion is satisfied by considering whether the assertion is in response to a genuine desire for knowledge of a fact and the ontological criterion is the consideration whether the assertion is true of the fact. The word fact is to be understood in the present context as standing for anything possessed of a characteristic. In the first proposition 'the pen exists', existence is predicated of the pen. The existence is a determinate characteristic having reference to a definite context. But is there any necessity for this assertion? Does not the factuality of the pen carry the assurance of existence by itself? The answer is simple. The proposition in question may be viewed as analytical and synthetical according to our intellectual equipment and psychological interest. If perfect knowledge were possible, the assertion would be redundant for such a person, as nothing is unknown to such an omniscient person; but philosophical enquiry is instituted only for the benefit of persons who are aspirant for perfect knowledge, but have not reached the level. A perfect man, who knows all things and each thing as possessed of characteristics which follow from the very nature of each, will regard all assertions as analytical: Bui the consummation is not the possession of imperfect human beings like us, for whom the growth of knowledge is a slow process! Proceeding by stages, and for such each stage is a discovery attained after a laborious investigation of the nature of reality. It is not necessarily true that existence is understood only as a part of the connotation of the subject, since there has been a class of thinkers who call in question the reality of all things in an unrestricted reference. Again, 'existence' by itself is not capable of being understood in a uniform sense. Existence may be absolute or relative and, as such, there is room for misconception. Moreover, the assertion of all predicates is subjected to a question, which has been made a peg upon which the idealist and the sceptic hang their respective theories. Is the predicate a real characteristic of the subject, which belongs to it in its own right, or a characteristic which is foisted upon it from outside? In the first alternative, the predicate is useless as it does not assert anything new. In the second alternative, it is false as it does not belong to the subject of which it is affirmed. But the question is neither fair nor sincere. The necessity of predication lies in the subjective necessity of attaining knowledge of an objectively real characteristic. The very fact that there has been a difference of views among philosophers about the authenticity of the predication shows that the problem is not so simple as the question seems to indicate. The predicate 'existence' may be a part of the connotation of the subject, but it is discovered only after the meaning of the assertion is understood and verified. So the proposition is synthetic before it is ascertained and verified, and is analytic after such discovery. The sceptic ought to be satisfied by the answer that all propositions are analytical to an omniscient soul, but synthetical to an enquirer of truth, who has his doubts and difficulties about everything.

The Jaina asserts that unguarded predications have been a source of confusion and misconception in the history of philosophical speculations; and in the interests of precision of thought and clarity of our conception it is imperative that the predicates should be so asserted that the chances of misconception are eliminated as far as possible. It is for this reason that he adds the corrective proviso syāt to every assertion, which serves as a warning-post. But it is certain that whatever attribute may be predicated, it must not be understood to exclude the other attributes. Every predicate involves the concomitance of its opposite, and we shall see that the compresence of the two gives rise to a different attribute. Each predicate in the sevenfold proposition is distinct and different from the rest and so none of the propositions is superfluous. That the first predicate is different from the second is obvious. 'Existence' and 'non-existence' are not the same attribute. The combination of the two, successive or synchronous, gives rise to a distinct attribute and so also the combination of these derivative attributes with the original attributes of the first two modes is the occasion for the emergence of novel attributes. But however much we may vary the combination, the number of attributes and consequently the number of propositions will neither be more nor less than seven. It is to be remembered that the seven attributes stated as seven predicates in the seven propositions are numerically different from one another, and, secondly, that whatever ways of permutation and combination may be resorted to, the number of the attributes and of the consequential modes will remain constant. We now propose to substantiate the thesis stated here in dogmatic form by arguments.

Assuming for the present that the seven propositions state seven numerically different attributes, it may be questioned why the combination of the first and the third, and of the second and the third, modes should not give rise to different attributes in their turn. The successive occurrence of the first two attributes, positive and negative, is believed to evolve that third attribute, and it is quite conceivable that the same law of synthesis should operate in the combination of the first and second attributes respectively with the third, which is believed to be distinct and different from the first and second. If this possibility is conceded, we should have two other additional attributes and, consequently, two other additional modes and propositions. In answer to this question the Jaina avers, that the assertion of the first and third attributes, either successive or synchronous, does not evolve a novel attribute is obvious from the consideration that the combination of the first and third attributes involves false tautology. The first proposition states existence as the predicate and the third asserts a combination of existence and non-existence as two distinct individuals. The combination would imply the addition of another 'existence'. But neither experience nor reflection reveals the reality of two existences in the subject. The combination may result in such a proposition as 'The pen exists and exists and does not exist'. But the assertion of existence twice is useless, as the pen does not appear to have more than one existence. It may be contended that the existence of the pen, as qualified by the pen-character, and the existence of the pen, as qualified by the character of the stuff of which it is made, are different and so the assertion of the two existences is neither illegitimate nor unnecessary. But the contention is hollow. Granted that the existence of the pen qua pen and its existence qua 'wood' are different, the latter existence as contrasted with its non-existence qua earthy substance would necessitate another sevenfold proposition. The upshot is that the predication of double existence in the same reference is logically impossible as it is ontologically false. It is maintained that the sevenfold predication as generated by a psychological and a logical necessity, which are based upon an ontological situation, and further that the predicates, in their different combinations, are to be understood in reference to the same context and not different contexts. The apparently 'identical pen' in reference to different material, as e.g., the pen made of the wood and the pen made of steel, is only identical in one reference, but as concrete existents they are not absolutely the same. In the sevenfold predication, the subject and the predicate are to be understood as standing for the same ontological facts, subject to the same universe of discourse. The subject 'pen' in all the seven propositions is the same pen, of the same material, and not of different material. The combination of the first and third propositions is, thus, not logically factual. The combination of the second and third modes is equally a logical impossibility. The non­existence of the pen as other than pen is one identical attribute and the addition of another non-existence is logically false and ontologically unreal. It follows that the emergence of two other additional modes as the result of the synthesis of the first and second modes with the third alternately is not possible, logically and ontologically, and, consequently, the number of propositions cannot be multiplied.

But a difficulty may be raised with regard to the last three modes, which arise from the synthesis of the first three modes consequently with the fourth mode. The fourth predicate is inexpressibility, which is but the abbreviated formula for the simultaneous co-existence of the positive and the negative attributes asserted in the first two propositions. 'The pen is inexpressible' is but an abbreviated assertion of the attributes of existence and non-existence at the same time in the same subject. Such being the case, the combination of the first and the fourth modes is not any more possible than in the case of the first and the third modes. The fifth mode is but the synthesis of the first and the fourth, but this should be impossible in view of the impossibility of the coincidence of two existences. The sixth mode should also be regarded as an impossi­bility, as the coincidence of two non-existences in the same reference is ontologically impossible and logically absurd. The seventh, again, being a combination of the first, second, third and fourth modes are vitiated by the same defect. But the difficulty raised is unreal. The simultaneous compresence of the positive and negative attributes, e.g., of existence and non-existence, is not a mere summation of the two attributes, existence plus non-existence, nor is the expression, "inexpressibility' only an abbreviated formula for the combination of such attributes. The compresence of the two opposite attributes is no doubt a fact, but the very compresence of the two attributes engenders a novel attribute, which is incapable of being expressed by human language. The inexpressibility is a synthetic attribute, different from its elements, and. so, the combination of the first, second and third attributes is neither ontologically impossible nor logically absurd. We shall subject the concept of inexpressibility to a further scrutiny when we shall discuss its difference from the third attribute.

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Published by:
Jain Vishwa Bharati Institute
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General Editor:
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Edited by:
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T.M. Dak
Anil Dutta Mishra

First Edition:1996
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