Anekāntavāda And Syādvāda: Section I

Published: 19.06.2012

[For non-scientist-philosophers, philosophy of relativity is synony­mous with the philosophy of Einstein or with the philosophy of Modern Science. But it will be interesting to note that in modern physics there are two schools with different epistemological approach to science - school of Einstein and the school of Niels Bohr. Bohr's approach is positivistic, while Einstein's is not. "Strangely enough the positivistic conception of physics had been stimulated by Einstein's pioneer work in the theory of relativity... but he was not ready to admit that one must abandon the goal of describing physical reality and remain content only with the combination of observations." ('Einstein - His Life and Time' by P.P. Frank (1949) p. 259). Einstein's opposition to positivistic approach puzzled many, but there it is.

The author of this article has rightly stated elsewhere that - "Both doctrines stress the relativity of standpoints in examining the object or its attributes" and all through the article this theme is elaborated.

But according to Syādvāda (as reported by the author). "It is impossible for the finite mind to have knowledge of complete truth and, therefore, relative truth itself is complete knowledge for him:" while that is not so according to Einstein. Having recognised the relativity of standpoints but having full faith in the existence of an absolute world-condition which the scientist wishes to describe, Einstein devised a language which would be commonly used by all observers to describe the same world-condition. And he was quite logical in holding such a belief in the existence of reality as it is thought and not as it is observed, because, as the author has pointed out, according to Dr. Radhakrishnan, the theory of relativity cannot be logically sustained without the hypothesis of an absolute.

This brings us to the famous controversy between Einstein and Bohr. The author of this article has quoted Bohr in the last para of his article. But this quotation is from an argument by Bohr against Einstein's philosophy. According to Einstein, we are only spectators in the great drama of existence and it is our endeavour to describe unequivocally the acts of this drama. According to Bohr, we are both spectators and actors in the sense that our very act of observation influences the drama of existence. The phenomena of the quantum world are so delicate and fine that our instruments of observation would interfere with the phenomena during our very act of observation and thus we would be observing the phenomena as disturbed by our observation. In this sense Bohr describes us as both spectators and actors. Against this Einstein believes that our instruments of observation may not be sharp enough today, but he has faith that someday these instruments will be made sharp enough so as not to disturb the observation of the delicate quantum phenomena. But then Bohr argues that the mathematics, which the modern quantum theory is using, actually puts a limit to the fineness of our instruments of observation and so the controversy continues.

It should, however, be noted that Bohr's ideas cannot be regarded as being on the lines of Syādvāda because of the following basic difference between the two:

According to Syādvāda, there is no uncertainty whatsoever about the various judgements by different observers (This article). But Bohr's ideas are pivoted round an uncertainty principle introduced in modern science by the basic limitation in the fineness of our instruments of observations.

This, in brief, will indicate the position of the two principal schools of scientific philosophy vis-a-vis Syādvāda.]

It would be really interesting to observe the similarities between two theories - one of which has been very recently enunciated in the West and the other, a theory which was promulgated centuries ago in the East. There are noticeable similarities in these doctrines which flourish in two different parts of the globe.

The Theory of Relativity, first put forth by the famous scientist Einstein in an Essay in the Year Book of Physics in 1905, spread like lightening to all fields of thought, it "struck the mind of man here, there and everywhere, illuminated the natural sciences, coloured the philosophies, touched the novelists and the artists and played round the roots of social theory."[1] The Theory has been widely hailed as the most radical and paradoxical since the days of Copernicus.[2] It became a stumbling block to classical Physics, shook the foundations of classical Mechanics; its consequences extend for beyond physics. The eminent British philosopher Bertrand Russell in his 'The ABC of Relativity' writes, "It is generally recognised that he (Einstein) has revolutionised our conception of the physical world."[3] Professor A.N. Whitehead points out that "The doctrine of Relativity affects every branch of natural science not excluding the biological sciences."[4]

After a great deal of opposition and criticism, the Theory of Relativity has been firmly established on clear and distinct mathematical principles. In spite of its abstruse nature and mathematical technicalities, the new conception as it seemed to strike at the root of our most solid notions, Relativity, a novel conception of the world, primarily a new system of physics demanding a revolutionary change of our views as regards matter, motion, energy, space, time and gravitation and elusive to our rigid ways of thinking, will become quite habitual and perhaps common place only to future generations, when rigid notions useful in ordinary life would be got rid of. A man in the street is familiar with the name of Einstein as it has something to do with the atomic bomb. Beyond this, it is simply a synonymous for the abstruse.

Syādvāda and Ahimsā - Ahimsā not only of physical life but also of intellectual outlook - are the corner-stones of Jainism. Syādvāda is a peculiar and distinctive doctrine of Jaina philosophy. It is an approach, a method, a device by the aid of which a thing is observed in its innumerable aspects from different points of view. "It is," says Warren, "a method of knowing or speaking of a thing synthetically."[5] The nature of concrete things is extremely complex, they possess innumerable attributes and relations. "There is nothing certain on account of the endless complexity of things. It emphasises the extremely complex nature of reality and its indefiniteness. It does not deny the possibility of predication, though it disallows absolute or categorical predication. The dynamic character of reality can consist only with relative or conditional predication. Every proposition is true, but only under certain conditions, i.e., hypothetically."[6]

The apprehension of an object or a thing as possessing this or that quality or as appearing in relation to this or that from a particular standpoint is what is technically called 'naya' in Jainism. Every aspect or attribute of a thing in its own way reveals the nature of a thing. Hence 'naya' is a means of insight into the nature of reality. Theoretically, they are infinite in number since the attributes the Reals may possess are infinite but usually they are spoken of as seven. There are many different ways in which they are classified. According to one scheme, there are seven nayas, four of which refer to meanings or objects and the remaining three refer to words.[7] "These nayas," says Prof. A. Chakravarti, "have an important place in the Anekāntavāda of the Jaina system. All human descriptions and predications are relative and circumscribed inasmuch as they issue forth from the limited and partial nature of the intellect. Not in our every-day-speech but also in the language of the metaphysics and relation, universalising their meaning apart from their setting in the background would result in practical inconvenience and physical confusion. Jaina thinkers recognising the extreme complexity of reality are never wearied of emphasising the anekānta aspect. Multi-faced reality may lead to 'multitude of descriptions.' Every one of them may be partially true but not one of them is really true. Philosophy is but the fable of the seven blind men and the elephant. Each one perceives a certain aspect of the real and congratulates himself that this is the only reality. When reality would not fit in with his own petty frame work, then there is the ruthless pruning and chopping to make it convenient."[8]

Finite beings as we are, we do not have an immediate knowledge of an object in all its innumerable aspects that a Kevali (one who has attained Kevela Jnāna, i.e., an omniscient being) possesses. Such is the implication of the Theory of Relativity also. Albert Einstein says, "We can only know the relative truth, the Absolute truth is known only to the Universal Observer."[9]

Let us refer to certain examples that are given by Syādvāda and Relativity. We already had occasion to refer to one classical illustration of the seven blind men and the elephant. Each of these men laid their hands on a different portion of the elephant and tried to picture the whole animal as a winnowing fan, a big round pillar and so on. Here we see the case where the partial description of an animal leads to partial truth and this is due to defective perception but only the man who perceives the whole can recognise each of their descriptions as a partial truth. So too it is with our empirical knowledge. It is relative to the standpoint which one adopts in determining characters of the things perceived and so becomes fallacious if taken as absolute and entire. It is said that once two knights began to quarrel with each other because each maintained that the side he saw was the whole truth. Syādvāda or "the science of Assertion of Alternative Possibilities" is corrective of the fallacy into which the knights fell. Tom Smith, for example may be a son with reference to his father John Smith; he may be a father with reference to Willy Smith. Thus we see that two apparently contradictory attributes or characteristics of the same person, thing or event may be found to be true, if the trouble is taken to bear in mind the point of view adopted.


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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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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. A. Chakravarti
  2. Agamas
  3. Ahimsā
  4. Albert Einstein
  5. Anekānta
  6. Anekāntavāda
  7. Bertrand Russell
  8. Chakravarti
  9. Digambara
  10. Eddington
  11. Einstein
  12. JAINA
  13. Jaina
  14. Jainism
  15. Kevali
  16. Naya
  17. Nayas
  18. Niels Bohr
  19. Omniscient
  20. Para
  21. Quantum Theory
  22. Russell
  23. Science
  24. Siddhasena
  25. Space
  26. Syādvāda
  27. Sūtra
  28. Tattvārtha Sūtra
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