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Anekāntavāda And Syādvāda: A Side-View Of Syādvāda

Published: 22.05.2012
Updated: 30.07.2015

The name syādvāda is, as is well-know, applied in a general way to indicate the Jaina position in philosophy. The term is by itself a bit enigmatic, the meaning of which is, for this reason, misunderstood, and so the system to which it is applied has been open to much adverse criticism. The word does not mean to give by itself any information regarding the metaphysical view of the school. It was introduced simply to emphasise some general aspect of their epistemological position. The term, when rightly understood, will appear, however, to stand for a philosophic truth of high importance, emphasising, as it does, the natural limitations of human knowledge and speech. The wonder is that an expression of such high significance and truth should have been subjected to unjustifiable criticism at the hands, not of ordinary writers, but of thinkers of very great learning and penetration like even our Acharya Shankara himself. It is not my purpose here to show in detail how this doctrine was worked out and enlarged, possibly by later writers, into those of Saptabhaṅgī and Nayas. I shall confine myself simply to the general aspect of the position and its implications.

Jinendra Mahavira is supposed to be the first teacher of the doctrine of syādvāda, though it is questioned whether he was the originator to it. Suri Haribhadra, for instance, calls him simply "स्याद्वाद-देशक" (Syād-vāda-desśkaḥ) - the teacher of syādvāda. As a matter of fact, it may be questioned, and rightly questioned, whether a truth needs any originator, though it may require at times an expounder. Our revered Vardhaman is, at least, the first exponent of the doctrine in the present cycle of the Universe under the view of Jaina Cosmology. The promulgation of a doctrine like this one, at a period when the Jinendra prevailed, must be considered, however, to be of high significance in the history of Indian Thought. While other systems stand each for a well-rounded compact view of the Universe, Jainism, as represented by its syādvāda, finds in them all a side-view only, which can be relatively true at the most but not absolutely. This is the fundamental position of the Jaina theory of knowledge, and it is this which was, to my mind, meant to be emphasised by the exponents of the doctrine, by the short term that has furnished a fulcrum to many a controversy and criticism.

The position meant would appear, however, to be very aptly suggested by the very cursed term. The particle Syāt in the expression literally means perhaps, which, when applied to any piece of knowledge, means perhaps true. This does not imply that there is absolutely any doubt about the knowledge. It means simply partially true, as it has been well put by some writer. The position of Jainism is not here a sceptic one, as it might otherwise be supposed to be by the literal interpretation of this particle Syāt in the phrase. On the contrary, it emphasises by the particle one of the soundest truths about our intellectual achievements, namely, that any ordinary human way of knowledge is bound to be partially and not entirely, relatively and not absolutely, valid. And so any system of human creation, claimed to be perfectly and absolutely true, is necessarily bound to be defective, if not wholly erroneous, when judged by the impartial and wider view of things. This is the fundamental lesson the doctrine teaches, and as such it may be said to be negative. But does it not give expression, by the term, to a profound truth about our intellectual pursuits? What does the history of philosophy, or of science, or of any other intellectual pursuit of man, for the matter of that, show so unmistakably but this sound truth? We all move on, inevitably as it seems, altering our old way of thought and creating new ones in their place, giving up some elements of the old and replacing them by others, according to our limited standpoints and outlooks, but still far away from the distant ideal of perfect truth. In speaking of the ideal here, we are lead on to what may be called the positive aspect of the doctrine in question here. Does the doctrine really have anything positive about it? It has, at least by implication.

The doctrine of syādvāda relates, as it has been pointed out above, primarily to human ways of knowledge which are, it maintains, necessarily imperfect. The truth-value of such knowledge is but partial and relative. The doctrine means, therefore, that to attain perfect knowledge we have to rise above the ordinary human ways. But can we do so? Jainism claims emphatically, as other systems do, that we can. But that is an ideal which can be realised only when we have been completely rid of the influences, both physical and mental, which colour and cloud our soul. For the soul, according to the Jaina position, is by its essential nature the seat of perfect knowledge. The influences which bind it to narrow and imperfect views of things are foreign to it. In its pure nature, the soul of every living being is a divinity in itself. But this divinity is still inchoate in us because of the influences. It has to be made real by our personal efforts. The perfect knowledge which Jainism places before us as the ideal can arise only when the soul comes to itself by the purging out of the foreign influence. This is the condition called by them "Samyaktva" - a condition that has already been attained by their Kevalins - the Tīrthaṅkaras and the Gaṇadharas, and it is a condition that lies open to all of us to attain. Jainism thus offers a hopeful ideal to man without any distinctions of race, caste or creed. The catholic nature of its philosophic religion is plain here. The ideal, again, is pre-eminently an intellectual one, characterised, as it is by them, by perfect knowledge alone. The soul, when it attains its native condition of mokṣa does not go on existing eternally as an unconscious substance, as the Nyāya Vaiśeṣika or the Mīmāṁsaka would have it, nor as pure consciousness as the Sāṁkhya or the monistic Vedantin would say, but as enjoying the infinite bliss of perfect knowledge of the entire universe and every part and event of it - "सन्यकूझानदर्थन" In this respect, therefore, the position of Jainism is also characteristically different from that of the other systems of our land.

The one consequence of this position is that their metaphysical system is claimed to have originated, not in the ordinary ways of human thought and knowledge, but from one who attained the perfect condition of a Kevalin - characterised by infallible and absolute, knowledge of things. No wonder, therefore, that the orthodox of their faith should be so intolerant of other positions claiming to be perfectly true!

Published by:
Jain Vishwa Bharati Institute
Ladnun - 341 306 (Rajasthan) General Editor:
Sreechand Rampuria
Edited by:
Rai Ashwini Kumar
T.M. Dak
Anil Dutta Mishra

First Edition:1996
© by the Authors

Printed by:
Pawan Printers
J-9, Naveen Shahdara, Delhi-110032

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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Acharya
  2. Consciousness
  3. Haribhadra
  4. JAINA
  5. Jaina
  6. Jainism
  7. Jinendra
  8. Kevalin
  9. Mahavira
  10. Mokṣa
  11. Nayas
  12. Nyāya
  13. Samyaktva
  14. Saptabhaṅgī
  15. Science
  16. Soul
  17. Syādvāda
  18. Syāt
  19. Tīrthaṅkaras
  20. Vaiśeṣika
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