According to Jain metaphysics, the reality is constituted by innumerable material and spiritual substances, each of which is the locus of innumerable qualities. Not only are there innumerable substances, each with innumerable quality, but each quality is susceptible to an infinite number of modifications. Clearly ordinary knowledge (non-omniscient) cannot comprehend this complex reality, for ordinary knowledge is limited not only by the limited power of the senses and reason, but also by the perspectives adopted by the knower as well as by the conditions of the space, time, light, and so on.
Recognizing the incredibly rich and complex nature of reality, Jains developed the concept of notion of the “Many-sidedness” (anekant) of existence in opposition to their opponent’s claims that Brahman alone, because it is permanent and unchanging, is ultimately and absolutely real or that, as the Buddhist claimed, nothing is permanent, and the changing process are the only reality. This concept of the many-sidedness of existence enabled Jain thinkers to affirm both permanence and change. What things are in the substance are in themselves, as substance, is permanent. But the forms or modes of these substances are continuously changing.
Emphasizing the limits of ordinary knowledge, Jainism developed the theory that truth is relative to the perspective (naya) from which it is known. Furthermore, because of reality is many sided and knowledge true only from a limited perspective, all knowledge claims are only tentative (syat) having the form, “X may be Y,” rather than “X is Y.”
The limitations of knowledge are illustrated with a popular Jain story, involving five blind man and elephant. A king once brought five blind men into his courtyard where he had fastened a large elephant and asked them to tell him what it was. Each man touched the elephant, and on the basis of their perspective, told the king that he knew this thing to be. The fist felt the trunk and declared that it was a huge snake. The second touched the tail and said it was a rope. The third felt the leg and called it a tree trunk. The fourth took hold of and ear and called it a winnowing fan, while the fifth felt the side of elephant and declared it to be a wall. Because each insisted that his claim was correct and truly described the object in question, the five men were soon in the middle of heated argument, unable to resolve the dispute because they failed to recognize that each of their claims was true only from limited perspective.
Like the blind men, each person perceives things only from their own perspective. These perspectives are determined by many factors, including socio cultural conditioning, particular place, time, light, hopes, fears and, of course, subject to the limitation of our sensory receptors and reasoning power. A person seeking profit sees everything in terms of gains and losses; and insecure person sees threats everywhere and person devoted to God sees everything as God’s blessed creation.
When it is understood that knowledge is limited by the particular perspectives from which it is achieved, it becomes easy to see that knowledge claims are conditioned by the limitation of the perspective that is assumes and should always be expressed as only tentatively true. Just as the blind men should have been more circumspect, saying for example, “Standing here, feeling the object with my hands, it feels like a winnowing fan. It may be a winnowing fan,” so should everyone understand that their knowledge claims should be asserted only conditionally.
Analyzing the logic of conditional assertion, the Jains came up with a sevenfold schema for making a truth claim about any particular object. For example, the following assertions are possible with respect to, say, the temperature of a glass of water:
- It may be warm (to someone coming from the cold)
- It may not be warm (to someone coming from a very warm room it felt cold)
- It may be both warm and not warm, depending upon certain conditions.
- Independent of all conditions, the water is indescribable (all knowledge rest on certain conditions)
- Indescribable in itself, the water may be said to be warm subject to certain (a combination of 1 and 4)
- Indescribable in itself, the water may be said not to be warm, subject to certain conditions (a combination of 2 and 4).
- Indescribable in itself, the water may be said to be warm and not warm depending upon certain conditions (a combination of 3 and 4).
The reason why the last three assertions all begin with the claim “Indescribable in itself” is that every substance known and described possesses an infinite number of qualities — each of which also possesses an infinite number of modifications. Although ordinary knowledge reveals some of these qualities and modifications, it cannot reveal them all. Thus, all descriptions of reality are only partial. The substance itself, with its infinite qualities and modifications, can be fully known only when all the limitations to knowledge are overcome.
The sevenfold scheme of conditional assertion forces us to recognize the partial and incomplete nature of ordinary human knowledge. This is very important initial step in overcoming the passions, because desire, hatred, pride, anger and greed stem from partial one-sided understanding of things dogmatically presumed to be the whole truth. How many times have we embarrassingly realized the inappropriateness of our anger, jealousy, pride, or greed when we came to see the “full picture”? Greed for money vanishes when it is understood that money can’t buy health, friends or happiness. Excessive pride gives way to humility when we come to appreciate the wonderful qualities and accomplishments of others. Anger and hatred disappear when we realize that other objects, situations, or persons are no threat to us. To the extent that we appreciate that the knowledge from which the destructive passions arise is partial, we are encouraged to restrain ourselves until our understanding increases.
Understanding the partial nature of ordinary knowledge makes Jains more appreciative of the knowledge of the Ford-makers (Tirthankars). It encourages faith in their teachings and motivates efforts to emulate their lives in the hope of achieving similar omniscience, purity, and bliss. This in turn awakens a deep longing for true insight and knowledge which may serve as a catalyst to activate the soul’s natural inclination to freedom and direct its energies toward recovery of its omniscience.