Anekanta (Part-1)

First Steps To Jainism (Part-2)


Appendix F: Anekanta (Part I)

-Dr. Nathmal Tatia


The concept of anekant occupies a central position in Jaina philosophy. Although it is not possible exactly to determine the date of its origin, there is no doubt that the ontology of early Jainism was deeply influenced by this principle. Originally an ethical mode of speech, being concerned with what one ought or ought not to speak, it assumed an ontological role in the Ardhamagadhi Agamas, through three stages of development, viz. vibhajyavada (the method of answering a question by dividing the issues), nayavada (the method of defining the framework of reference), and syadvada (the prefixing of the particle syat, meaning “in a certain reference”, to a preposition, indicative of its conditional character). The anuyogadvaras (doors of disquisition) also played a vital role in this matter. This ontological orientation was further strengthened by Umasvati, Siddhasena Divakara and Mallavadin, and the concept was converted into a full-grown dialectic by Samantabhadra with whom the classical period of the doctrine begins. The ontological concept now acquires a logic-in epistemological character, and Jain philosophy is now indentified with anekantavada (the doctrine of non-absolutism) or syadvada (the doctrine of conditional statement) or saptabhangi (the doctrine of sevenfold predication). Anekanta as the negation of an absolutistic position or the rejection of a biased or truncated view of things is found in the Buddhist, Yoga and Nyaya schools as well in various contexts. A dispassionate assessment of the worth of a philosophy from various viewpoints was the objective that the propounders of anekanta set before themselves. And their efforts in that respect were laudable in that they succeeded in preserving some of the most valuable non-Jaina doctrines as well as texts, selected by them for critical comments, which were otherwise ravished from the world by the cruel hands of destiny.

The Origin

Jainism primarily is an ethical discipline, and as such all its tenets had a beginning in someone or other of the moral principles upheld by it. Thus the assertion or denial, affirmation or negation of a philosophical belief was to be carefully made in consonance with the rules prescribed for the right way of speaking in order to avoid false statements or unwarranted speculations having no bearing on the spiritual path of salvation. The metaphysical speculations about the beginning and end of the cosmos, or its eternality and non-eternality or the existence and non-existence of the soul before and after death, and such other issues that exercised the minds of the thinkers of those days were not considered worth while equally by Mahavira and Buddha. The latter’s repugnance to such problems is attested by the ten avyakrtas (indeterminables) mentioned in the Majjhima Nikaya (II pp, 107ft, 176ft) and the former’s in the Acaranga (1.8, 1.5) and Sutrakrtanga (11.5, 1-5) where such speculations are considered as impractical and leading to laxity in moral conduct. While this basic attitude of the Buddha remained unmodified throughout his teaching, Mahavira appears to have allowed a relaxation in conformity with his realistic outlook in the interest of a dispassionate estimation of the worth of those speculations and the discovery of the cause of their origin. Consequently whereas the followers of the Buddha were interested more in the repudiation of the current antipodal doctrines than in their proper appreciation, the followers of Mahavira devoted their energies to a proper evaluation of these concepts with a view to finding out a solution of those contradictory views. This led to the origin of the Madhyama pratipat (the middle path which eschewed both the antithetical alternatives) of the Buddhists on the one hand, and the philosophy of anekanta (non-absolutism which attempted at synthesising those alternatives into a comprehensive notion) of the Jainas on the other.

The Three Stages :

Three distinct stages of development of the doctrine of anekanta are discernible in the early Jaina Agamas.

  1. Vibhajyavada:
    Vibhajyavada which is perhaps the earliest phase of the doctrine is found mentioned in the Sutrakrtanga (1.14.22) where a monk is asked to explain things through the principle of division of issues (vibhajjavayam ca viyagarejja). The Bhagavati Sutra provides many an illustration where a question is dealt with in this way. On being asked by Gautama whether a person who says that he has taken the vow of desisting from committing injury to all sentient beings is a bonafide observer of the vow or a malafide imposter, Mahavira replied that if such person was incapable of distinguishing between the sentient and the insentient, or between the mobile and immobile living beings, he is the latter, but otherwise he is a true observer of the vow (op. cit., VII. 2.27). Similarly, on being asked by Jayanti which of the two, viz. slumber and wakefulness, was preferable, he replied that for the sinful, it was the former, while for the virtuous the latter (XII2.2/53-55). These and similar instances which are in galore in our text are obviously case of answer by division. It should be noted here that the alternative answers to the divided issues are sometimes introduced in the Agama by the particle siya (Skt, syad) meaning “in a certain reference”. The expression siyavaya in the Sutrakrtanga (1.14.19) : na yasiyavaya viyagrejja one should not explain anything without taking resort to siyavaya (Skt. syadvada, that is the principle of conditional predication)’ also deserves mention. It is obviously synonymous with the expression vibhajjavaya noted above and is the forerunner of the syadvada of later times. This also confirms our vies of vibhajyavada as the earliest phase of anekantavada.

  2. The Nayas :
    The nayas (standpoints) constitute the second stage of the evolution of the concept of anekanta. The earliest and most important way of judging the nature of things was to consider them under four heads viz., dravya (substance) ksetra (space). kala (time) and bhava (mode). Thus in the Bhagwati Sutra (II.1.45), the loka (inhabited cosmos) is considered as finite in substance and space, but infinite in time and modes. There were also other heads such as guna (op.cit., II. 10.126), bhava (XIX. 9.102) and samsthana (XIV. 7.80) which were analogous to bhava. But all these heads were not called nayas. The expressions used in connection with the nayas were however dravya and paryaya (equivalent of bhava). The material atoms are thus stated to be eternal qua dravya (davvatthayae) and non-eternal qua paryaya (pajjavehim, XIV. 4-49-50) and the souls are characterised as eternal qua dravya (davvatthayae) and non-eternal qua bhava (bhavatthayae, VII. 2.58-59). Another pair of nayas, viz. avvocchitti naya (Skt avyucchitti-naya, the standpoint of non interception) and vocchitti-naya (Skt. vyucchitti-naya, the standpoint of interception) are also mentioned in the Bhagavati Sutra (VII. 3.93-94). Thus the infernal beings are eternal from the standpoint of non-interception (of their existence as souls), but they are non-eternal from the standpoint of interception (of their present state of being infernal after the expiry of that form of existence). A third pair of nayas is also mentioned in the same text, viz. vavahariya-naya (Skt. vyavaharikanaya, the popular standpoint), and necchaiva-naya (naiscayikanaya, the factual or scientifie standpoint). Thus from the popular standpoint the drone is black in colour, but factually or scientifically speaking, it is possessed of all the five colours, viz. black, blue, red, yellow and white (op. cit, XVIII. 6.108).

  3. Saptabhangi:
    As the third stage of development of the concept of anekanta, we find a primitive saptabhangi and syadvada in the Bhagavati Sutra XII. 10.211-226. Here the things are judged under the categories of `self’ (aya Skt. atman) and `not-self’ (no-aya Skt. noatman). An object is characterized as `self’ in some respect (siya aya), `not-self’ in some respect (siya no-aya), and `indescribable , that is, both self and not-self’ in some respect (siya avattavvam aya ti ya no-aya tiya). These three attributes are predicated of an object, noncomposite or composite, respectively from the standpoints of existent characters, non-existent characters, and existent-cum-non-existent characters. In the case of the objects that are noncomposite (for instance, a monad), the attributes are only three in number, viz. self, not-self and indescribable. Here `indescribable’ means the impossibility of the object being spoken of or described exclusively as `self’ or `not-self’, because of the same object being both (self and non-self) at the same time. These three attributes however, become six in the case of a dyad (a composite body of two space-points) as follows : (1) self, (2) not-self, (3) indescribable, (4) self and non-self (one attribute for each space-point), (5) self and indescribable (one attribute for each space-point). (6) not-self and indescribable (one attribute for each space-point). These six ways again become seven in the case of a triad (a composite body of three space points) in the following way : (1) to (6) as above, and (7) self, not self and indescribable (one attribute for each of the three space points). Here the fourth, fifth and sixth ways have each two more subdivisions. Thus the fourth, voz. self and not-self, has the following two additional subdivisions-(1) self (for two space-points) and not-self (for the remaining one space point). The fifth and sixth ways also have similar subdivisions. The text referred to above gives the divisions and subdivisions of the tetrad, pentad and hexad also. The basic ways however do never exceed the number seven as in the case of the triad, though the number of subdivisions gradually go up on account of the various possible combinations of the space-points. The basic seven ways enumarated above are the prototypes of later seven bhangas of what is called saptabhangi (the doctrine of sevenfold predication). What is to be carefully noticed in this connection is the fact that according to the Bhagavati Sutra, the joint predication of the attributes `self’ and `not-self’ to a monad is not possible because the monad has only one space-point. Such predication is only possible of a dyad which has two space-points. Similarly, the simultaneous predication of three attributes is only possible in the case of triad which has three space-points. The implication is that the joint predication of two contradictory attributes to the same space-points is purely a case of `indescribability’ and not an illustration of a dual predication of self and notself. The dual predication is meaningful only if the object has two parts in order that each individual attribute may find its own accommodation. The later Jaina philosophers, however, did not find any difficulty in such predication, and they made the dual predication (`is’ and `is not’ used by them in place of `self’ and `not-self’ ) irrespective of the noncomposite or composite character of the object. Some of them also interchanged the positions of the third and fourth attributes.

The anuyogadvaras and niksepas

The early Jaina philosphers were fond of explaining things according to predefined lists of heads. Such heads were called anuyogadaras, doors of disquisition 20 (or 14) marganasthanas 24 (12 or 14) jivasthanas and 14 gunasthans may be quoted as illustrations of such lists. There are, however, other lists which had direct philosophical significance. Umasvati, in his Tattvarthadhigamasutra, 1,7,8,16,26 has given such lists, which can mostly be traced back to the Jain Agamas. These doors of disquisition played an important role in the evolution of the doctrine of anekanta. The Jaina doctrine of four niksepas is the final outcome of the speculations concerning the doors of disquisition. The niksepas were many, but finally they were reduced to four nama, sthapana, dravya and bhava, (Tattvarthandhigamasutra,1.5). The following dictum of the Anuyogadvarasutra, 8, deserves mention. One should fully apply to a subject whatever nikesepas are known about that subject; and to those subjects whose niksepas are not known, one should apply the four (viz. nama, sthapana, dravya and bhava). The Jaina thinkers took a very wide view of the subjects they took up for discussion and employed the niksepas as the media for the determination of the meaning of words involved in such discussion. The doctrine of anekanta owed much to the precise definition of the connotation of the technical terminology employed in the evaluation of antithetical doctrines, and the niksepas fulfilled this task as auxiliaries to the nayas.

In non-Jaina Thought

Let us now see whether the elements of the anekanta way of thinking are there in the non-Jaina schools of thought that flourished in those days.

  1. The Vedic thought :
    The sceptical outburst of the Vedic seer in Rgveda. I. 164.4 : Who has seen that the Boneless One bears the Bony, when he is first born, where is the breath, the blood and soul of the earth, who would approach the wise man to ask this (ko dadarsa prathamam, jayamanam asthanvantam yad anastha bibharti, bhumya asur asrgatma kvasti, ko vidvamsam upagat pratsum etal) ? poses a problem to be solved in mystic experience, or through anekanta or rejected as absurd and insoluble. The scepticism of the Nasadiya hymn (op. cit., X. 129) has also a similar tone. In the Upanisads we find rational thinkers as well as mystics. The Uddalaka (Chandogya, VI. 2 1,2) was partly a rationalist philosopher who advanced logical proof for the reality of Being (sat), and partly an uncritical empiricist when he ascribes thought to that Being to multiply and procreate and produce heat (tejas) which produces water (ap), and water food (annam). Yajnavalkya Brhadaranyaka, (II.4.12-14=IV.5 13-15) asserts that the self cannot be known as it is the subject, and whatever is known is necessarily an object. This may be called rational mysticism. This background of scepticism and rational mysticism was responsible for the Jaina and Buddhist patterns of thought that emerged and are found recorded in the Ardhamagadhi and Pali canons. We have made a brief survey of the Jaina way of thinking and shall now see its parallel in early Buddhism, followed by a similar study of the Yoga and Nyaya schools.

  2. The Buddhist Thought :
    The Buddha calls himself a vibhajyavadin (vibhajjavado…..aham…..naham ekamsavado-I am an analyst or propounder of my views by division of issues, and not one who takes a partial view of things – Majjhima Nikaya, II, 469). When the Buddha is asked for his opinion whether the house-holder is an observer of the right path, he says that it is not possible to give a categorical answer to the question inasmush as the house-holder with wrong faith (miccha-patipanno) does not follow the right path, while one with right faith (samma-patipanno) definitely does so. This vibhjyavada is not essentially different from that of the Jainas.

    In the Suttanipata p. 396, we find people stuck to their individual truths or opinions (pacceka-saccesu puthu nivittha). The Udana, pp. 143-145, gives the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Ten blind persons touch various parts of the elephant and give ten conflicting accounts based on their experience of the ten parts which they happened to come into contact with. Each of them took the part for the whole and as such they were all with their perceptions vitiated and partial (ekangadassino). The parable is suggestive of a definite stage in the evolution of Buddha’s thought, which approached too near to the thought pattern of Mahavira to be able to maintain its distinct individual character. The ultimate thought pattern of the Buddha, however, is to be judged by his attitude to the ten or fourteen famous avyakatas (indeterminables) mentioned in Majjhima Nikaya, II, pp. 107-113 and 176-183, and Candrakirtis’ Prasannapads, p. 446, Poussin’s Edition.

  3. The Yoga School : 
    The Yogabhasya (IV. 33; for the Buddhist counterpart of four kinds of questions, see Digha Nikaya, III, p. 179, and Anguttara Nikaya, II, p. 84) classifies questions under three heads : (i) there are questions which admit of a clear definitive answer (ekanta-vacaniya), (ii) there are questions which are answerable only by division (vibhajya-vacaniya), and (iii) there are questions which are unanswerable (avacaniya). The question ‘shall everybody be reborn after death’, is vibhyajya-vacaniya, that is, answerable by division. The person who has experienced the distinction between spirit and matter will not be born, the others however would take rebirth. The Yoga philosopher there opens for himself the way to the anekanta type of thinking, which, however, he does not pursue any further. The Sankhya-Yoga doctrine of parinama (change) again is essentially a vindication of the concept of anekanta, barring its insistence on the absolute pre-existence of the effect in the cause. The Sankhya-Yoga conception of purusa as an absolutely unchanging entity is of course an exception