Physics and Metaphysics In Jainism

Dr Sanjay Jain
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Physics seeks to know nature through the study of matter, energy and their interactions and the laws of physics are often termed as laws of nature. Thus, physics had been studied as a philosophy of nature since antiquity. Jain scriptures too provide us interesting insights into physics and metaphysics.

In physics, the physical attributes of matter, such as size, shape, weight and colour are studied using experimental observations and their interpretation through theoretical models. For example, the observation that an object thrown up comes down is explained on the basis of model of gravity. The research endeavours in physics are aimed at bringing to fore secrets of nature using the existing knowledge in physics, i.e., physics is used to unlock more physics.

There are striking similarities between what we know today through physics and what is available in jain scriptures. For example, the natural phenomena like propagation of sound and scattering of light have almost similar explanations. The use of the word pudgal for matter by jain seers brings forth their fundamental understanding of atomic unifying basis of all matter that compares well with what we know from physics. Pudgal is a combination of puran (fusion) and galan (fission) and thus explains the various states of matter and the myriad variety of materials around us. Mahavira’s Anekantawad and Einstein’s theory of relativity share many ideas in common and can be looked upon as philosophical / scientific translation of each other.

The metaphysical philosophy of Jainism is centered around the sharp distinction between the characteristics of the ‘knower’ and the‘known’. Knower, also termed as chetan, atman, self or soul, has characteristics explicitly different than those of the known, also termed as pudgal, jad, achetan or matter.

The knower, according to Jainism, does not possess any of the attributes of matter. It has no shape, size, weight or colour. It thus transcends the boundaries of physics and falls outside the realm of physics. It becomes a subject of metaphysics. The founding principle of Jainism is that knower cannot be known physically as it does not follow physical laws. It is beyond any physical means of detection because it is nonphysical or metaphysical. According to Jainism mind, intellect and psyche are also not the knower but can be considered its reflections.

The attributes of the knower are richly discussed in jain scriptures. They are knowledge, experience, belief and potency. However, these attributes should be understood in their proper perspective. Knowledge and experience here means stoic beholding and perception of things as they are in time and space. This knowledge is somewhat different than the one we generally understand and is gathered through mind’s eye, e.g., scientific knowledge. A knower is also termed as dnyata–drishta for this reason.

The presence of knower in a body means the presence of perception ability. The body that houses the knower is physical and thus obeys laws of physics. Branches of physics such as biophysics or medical physics deal, respectively, with the physics of life in general and physics of human bodies in particular. The sense organs through which we take the world in, i.e., know about it, are highly evolved and sophisticated physical systems. We normally tend to attribute perception to these organs but Jainism accords perception to them because of presence of chetan, i.e., the knower in them. Just as spectacles aid seeing but don’t see by themselves, organs aid perception but don’t perceive by themselves.

Thus, when one dies body exists but can’t perceive. In a dead body eyes can’t see, ears can’t hear, nose can’t smell, skin can’t feel and tongue can’t taste because all these perceptions are not attributes of a physical body. They are attributes of the soul that has left the body and hence organs fail to perceive. The body that houses the self takes birth, grows and dies. During its existence it follows all the laws of physics. But the metaphysical soul is immortal and imperishable, i.e., it existed before birth and will continue to exist beyond death. It neither grows nor decays.

The knower and the known thus form two mutually exclusive worlds. The world of known is the world of physics where we have amassed huge knowledge of things that can be known. But in this world the knower becomes unknown as it is out of focus. But the interesting paradox is that knower cannot be in focus as it is engaged in knowing. Spirituality is a journey of disengaging the knower from the world of physics and engaging the knower in knowing or realizing the self.

Both physicists and spiritualists pursue research in their worlds with openness, honesty and dedication and bring forth their revelations. In physics, the revelations take the form of discoveries and inventions reported in research papers and seminars. The scriptures and sermons bring forth the revelations of self – realization by spiritualists and saints. Thus all that can be discovered (i.e., passes the test of physics) is either a part of existing physics or will be a future output of research in physics but the discovery of discoverer will alone lead to the spiritual progress of a discoverer.

In Jainism the attachment with pudgal is considered to be at the root of all disharmonies and binds one to the perpetual cycle of birth and death. Thus the disciples are enjoined upon to detach from the outer world and make a journey into the inner world with a goal of self – realization by following the three fold path discussed in the following.

The dawning of the reality that chetan and pudgal are explicit is called samyak dnyan (right knowledge). Firm belief in this knowledge is called samyak darshan (right belief) and conduct that will lead to complete self – realization is called samyak charitra (right conduct).

Though chetan dwells in all life, its powers seem to be weakened due to attachment with pudgal. It is like covering an intense source of light by a thick cover and asking where the light is. The purest soul is the one that is liberated from the bondage pudgal. The purest soul is thus referred to as a state of ‘kewal dnyan’ i.e., ‘only knowledge’. It is a state of bliss, omniscience, omnipotent and omnipresence. In this state knowledge is not ‘acquired’ through senses, i.e., acquiring knowledge is not a process. This state is somewhat like a mirror in which the knowledge of all reality in space and time reflects and which thus ends all ignorance and curiosity that are the prerequisites for ‘acquiring’ knowledge.