1.11 From Epistemology to Ontology: A Revisit to Jaina Philosophy

Published: 06.06.2010
Updated: 03.01.2011

Chennai 2009: Non-violence, Compassion and Instrumentality - A Jaina Perspective

Non-violence, Compassion and Instrumentality

A Jaina Perspective

Seminar organized by the Department of Jainology of the University of Madras,

13 and 14 February 2009

Chennai, India



From Epistemology to Ontology: A Revisit to Jaina Philosophy

Compassion and reverence for life are the basic principles of Jainism. Compassion as the guiding principle of non-violence is considered the virtue of virtues (ahiṁsā paramo dharma), since life exists in all living forms. The roots of ahiṁsā are in the quest of anekānta, an epistemological tool for understanding the nature of validity. Unfortunately, the Jaina philosophical thought has not been paid enough attention, perhaps because it is generally supposed to hold that every statement is true from one point or other. The general attitude is to accept one viewpoint and reject the other. The entire philosophical analysis, both in the east and the west, is based on this dual structure. Jainism rejects this. In logic, the law of contradiction and the law of the excluded middle provide the basic structure on which all thinking proceeds. The two-valued logic of traditional and symbolic logic have their own limitations and hence there is a move towards many-valued logic. Jainism supports the many valued logic by developing the doctrine of syādvāda. Sometimes it is argued that the doctrine leads to skepticism, which is not true. The dictum “All statements are provisional” does not lead to skepticism. It only says that every judgment that we make in daily life is true only with reference to the standpoint occupied and the aspect of the object considered. It only maintains the view that each truth is a partial one and no one statement can never account for the totality of reality. Syādvāda or the “logic of somehow” emphasizes the conditional or relative character of every life-situation. It regards objectivity as complex, knowledge limited, speech imperfect, and therefore nothing can be described as plain “yes” or “no”.

The anekāntavāda and syādvāda provide the foundation for Jaina metaphysics, epistemology and logic respectively. The metaphysics of Jainism does not support any one concept in particular. In other words, it rejects the metaphysics of presence which is a dominating feature in philosophy. Jainism could be viewed from a postmodern perspective also. In postmodern approach, plurality and the difference are celebrated. Thinkers like Derrida also point out that the notion of meaning is always fluid in nature which means that it is only relative and not absolute in character. The Jains maintain a similar approach.

The Jaina environmentalism has a universal outlook. Āchārya Tulsi’s Anuvrat movement, which was started on 1st March 1949, has 12 vows: The first vow goes as follows: “I will not kill any innocent creature;” and the twelfth “I will do my best to avoid contributing to pollution.” Jaina philosophy emphasizes the need for harmony with nature. The Āchāraṅga Sūtra describes how the palanquin that Mahāvīra ascended was adorned with pictures of wolves, bulls, horses, men, dolphins, birds, monkeys, elephants, antelopes, sarabhas, yaks, tigers, lions and creeping plants (II: 15; 21). The Jaina environmental ethics shows how many problems arise because of over-consumption. By minimizing consumption, one minimizes harm to one’s environment.

Bio-centric egalitarianism which has been emphasized by Bill Devall and George Sessions contains in it the Jaina methodology: “The intuition of biocentric equality is that all things in the biosphere have an equal right to live and blossom and to reach their own individual forms of unfolding and self-realization within the larger self-realization. This basic intuition is that all organisms and entities in the ecosphere, as parts of the interrelated whole, are equal in intrinsic worth.” The Jains say that not only animals and plants, but also the smallest particles of the elements, earth, fire, water, and wind, are endowed with souls (jiva). The Āchāraṅga Sūtra says: “Injure not the water-bodies, injure not the fire-bodies, injure not the plants, injure not the animate beings and injure not the wind bodies: Some slay animals for sacrificial purposes, some kill animals for the sake for the of their skin, some for the sake of flesh, some for the sake of their blood, thus for the sake of their heart, their bile, the feathers of their tail, their horns, their teeth, tusks, nails, bones, with a purpose or without a purpose.” The modern approach to respect for animals contains in it the above principles of Jainism.

The man-centered ethics has been questioned by many philosophers like Hans Jonas, Leopold, Gandhi, Peter Singer and hosts of others. It has been pointed out by these thinkers that man should “respect other’s life, whether it is animal or plant. In this way, we are trying to derive a “holistic approach.” This means that non-human life, otherwise called the “non-person” should be treated on a par with human beings. We cannot neglect the life of other beings. The issue here is whether we are treating other beings as equal. The word “equality” can be interpreted and understood in different ways. One way of understanding it is to treat others as equal to one’s one self. Since other living beings also have the capacity and competence to live on this earth like human beings, it is necessary that we treat them equally. One of important reason for this distinction between human and non-human is that we consider that the entire world exists for the sake of humanity. Though this sort of “anthropocentric” approach is subscribed by many thinkers from the ancient past to the present, it is equally maintained by many scholars that man has the responsibility towards nature and to other living beings on earth. Hence there is a shift in ethics, i.e., from the theoretical to the practical or applied. Throughout the world, animals and birds are used for human consumption. We kill animals and birds for our pleasure. Animals are eaten neither for health, not to increase our food supply. It is argued by Peter Singer, that throughout the world, nonhuman animals have been seen as beings of no ethical significance or at best, of very minor significance. Over the past thirty years there has been a lot of rethinking concerning such philosophical concepts, and philosophers from a variety of ethical traditions have rejected the traditional view of the status of non-human animals. Philosophers have tried to bridge the ethical gap between the animal life and the human life. Jainism has shown a proper way of understanding the animate and inanimate. The solution for many of the environmental problems lies in Jainism.


Dr. Rudi Jansma
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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahiṁsā
  2. Anekānta
  3. Anekāntavāda
  4. Anekāntavāda And Syādvāda
  5. Anuvrat
  6. Anuvrat Movement
  7. Chennai
  8. Dharma
  9. Environment
  10. Environmental Ethics
  11. Gandhi
  12. JAINA
  13. Jaina
  14. Jainism
  15. Jiva
  16. Madras
  17. Mahāvīra
  18. Non-violence
  19. Objectivity
  20. Rudi Jansma
  21. Syādvāda
  22. Sūtra
  23. Tulsi
  24. University of Madras
  25. Āchārya
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