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A Pragmatist Critique of Jaina Relativism

Author(s): Ramakant Sinari


Source: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1969), pp. 59-64
Published by: University of Hawai'i Press
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Ramakant Sinari

A pragmatist critique of Jaina relativism

Against the absolutist theory of knowledge set forth by various orthodox


philosophies in India, syadvada (the doctrine of "may be," or the relativity of
judgments) in Jainism has the unique virtue of being a liberal relativistic
epistemology. With syddvada, philosophy in India put forward a partly skeptical and partly agnostic standpoint, and interestingly deviated from traditional Vedic thought. And although this standpoint, considering the widespread influence of the idealist metaphysics of the Vedanta, proved to be
feeble, its contribution to the receptive-to-all-isms temper of the Indian mind
is undeniable. One may also say, without any exaggeration, that for his
pacifism and universal brotherhood Mahatma Gandhi owed much to Jainism,
whose syadvada approach he had consciously and unconsciously adopted. Yet,
having hit upon one of the most remarkable epistemic concepts, the Jainas
were unable to determine its pragmatic basis. They failed, in short, to grasp the
philosophical foundations of their relativism, and they thereby failed to understand it correctly.
Syddvada, the doctrine of the relativism of judgments, states that all actual
and possible assertions in regard to an object are relative and, therefore,
conditionally true or false. No judgment can be absolutely true, or absolutely
false. What is judged about a thing by one person may be valid from his own
standpoint. A standpoint is circumscribed by the point of time and the sense in
which it occurs. Thus, when one makes an assertion about something, one's
assertion is as true as, or as false as, any other assertion. No judgment is final;
no predication is wholesome; no description is complete.
As a matter of course, syadvada suggests that every statement must be
prefaced by syat or "relatively." The word syat denotes uncertainty, a sort of
"may-be" ness, and attributes to the statement in which it is used limited
truth or relative validity. We should say when we describe the earth, for instance, that relatively speaking it is round, relatively speaking it is flat, relatively speaking it is elliptical, and so on. It is only a specific view of the
object that any single statement refers to; and this very statement, in relation
to statements embodying other persons' views or views at other points of time,
would be fallible. So every statement may be true from one single point of
view and untrue from another; each statement mirrors one aspect (called by
the Jainas naya) and misses all other aspects. By extending the same argument
to our knowledge of the universe, the Jainas argue, we have to say that, there
being an infinite number of views and statements the universe offers itself to,
no finite number of such views and statements could embrace a complete
knowledge of the universe. All knowledge is incomplete, piecemeal, valid up
to a point, in a sense true and in a sense false, a series of syat or "may-be"
assertions.
Dr. Ramakant Sinari is a member of the Department of Philosophy, SIES College,
Bombay, India.

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60 Sinari

All statements with regard to a given thing reflect different aspects of that
thing. Now, an aspect is something that a person obtains exclusively from his
encounter with the given. The word naya, used by the Jainas to signify the
aspect or view of a thing, suggests the ontological counterpart of a syat statement, for it represents a partial cognition, a partial knowledge, of reality. For
instance, a statement S1, containing a naya N1 perceived at time T1, would be,
according to syadvada, a "may-be" statement in relation to other statements,
say S2, S3, S4 containing N2, N3, N4 obtained at times T2, Ta, T4 respectively.
Of course, between Si and N1, both fastened upon T1, there is bound to be a
necessary relation; and to that extent one could say that Si is absolutely true,
or absolutely false, by virtue of its relation with N1. However, it is not this
problem that the Jainas are concerned about. Since any single aspect of a
thing can never stay inert, insofar as the human mind is concerned, one has
to refer to N1 only retrospectively or from a naya other than N1. When
referred to in this manner, N1 would be seen as merely one in an infinite
number of nayas and, consequently, as relatively valid. Notwithstanding the
fact that Si and N1 are inseparable, neither Si nor N1 can prevent the other
statements and nayas from taking place. The status of N1 is as relative as
that of any other naya, the status of S1 is as relative as that of any other statement, and the status of N1 is as relative as that of S1. The relativism of statements (syadvada) and the relativism of aspects (nayavada) are two sides of
the same epistemic thesis. To hold that a particular statement may be true, or
is relatively true, is the same thing as to hold that the particular aspect of the
world that it expresses is related to an infinite number of other aspects in
respect of which that aspect constitutes only a fractional knowledge of the
world.
According to the Jainas, while a syat statement and a naya stay tied together
so that diverse syat statements reflect diverse nayas, all of these have for their
metaphysical foundation the multiplicity of reality. The doctrine that reality
is multiple-called by the Jainas anekantavada-is an important correlative of
Jainism's relativistic epistemology, and the unique support behind their ethic
of self-improvement. There is an infinite number of atoms and souls, each one
of which is real and open to limitless perspectives. It is impossible for an
individual mind to grasp all the perspectives. Therefore, whatever the apparent
richness of knowledge in any given age, the total acquisition of human intellect
as such is bound to remain always inadequate. Consistent with the tenets of
syadvada and nayavada, anekantavada describes the relativistic manyness of
all the primordial elements of reality and underlines the fact that, if we take
into consideration the frightful innumerability of the "reals," of their nayas,
and of the possible assertions about both, then it would be proper to state that
what man actually knows is only a fragment of what is. However, when a
philosopher, without recognizing the inherently restricted nature of his per-

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61

spective, mistakes a fragment of knowledge, a single naya, for the entirety of


the known, he commits the fallacy of nayabhasa (a particular naya taken as
the absolute). In order to avoid such a fallacy, the Jainas hold, one must be so
open-minded as to concede that one has no access to the knowledge of a thing,
or of the world for that matter, more than that which comes within one's grasp.
The eminent text' emphasizing the basic relativism in the knower's approach
to the known mentions the "seven-standpoint system" known as saptabhaigi.
According to the saptabhatngisystem, there can be seven possible forms of a
statement about any single entity or its attributes: (1) somehow a thing is
(syad asti), (2) somehow it is not (syad nasti), (3) somehow it both is and
is not (sydd asti ca nasti), (4) somehow it is indescribable (syad avaktavya),
(5) somehow it is and is indescribable (syad asti ca avaktavya), (6) somehow
it is not and is indescribable (syad nasti ca avaktavya), and (7) somehow it is,
is not, and is indescribable ( sydd asti ca ndsti ca avaktavya).2 What is suggested by these seven statements is that nothing can be asserted as absolutely
existent or absolutely non-existent, absolutely describable or absolutely indescribable. Thus, every judgment is situational and superficial. It emerges
from and dwells on a darsana, a perspective, an angle of reality that meets
one's mind.
In fact, it would have been only a short step further for a syadvadin to
evolve what may be called a dogmatism of doubt and maintain, as, for instance,
the Greek skeptic Pyrrho did, that not only in knowledge, but even in conduct,
there could never be any legitimate basis for preferring one action to another.
But the Jainas did not take such a step, and the reason for this is that they
tacitly preserved the separation between their relativistic epistemology and
ethical perfectionism. The perspectivism of Jainism's epistemology does not
permeate their reflections about life and its ultimate aim.
The operative effectiveness of syadvada must have proved greater than its
logic, and in polemics, in particular, the people who practiced it must have
had an edge over their opponents. The syddvadin, acting as a nayavadin on the
one hand and as an anekantavadin on the other, must have functioned in all
matters of intellect like a mind oscillating between skepticism and agnosticism,
with an admirabletolerance and integrating spirit toward all sorts of dissenters.
However, he dared not carry his intellectual uncertainty to such a point as to
suggest ethical anarchism, or to support what Russell, while commenting upon
Greek skepticism, has called "a lazy man's consolation."3
The Jainas do not seem to have acknowledged that if syadvada, or nayavada,
trans. F. W. Thomas (Berlin: Akademie1 Sri Mallieniasiiri,Syad-vada-maiijarl,
Verlag,1960),p. 137.
2 See S. Radhakrishnan
and C. A. Moore,eds., A Source Book in IndianPhilosophy
(Princeton:PrincetonUniversityPress, 1957), p. 261.
8 BertrandRussell,A Historyof WesternPhilosophy(New York: Simonand Schuster,
1965),p. 234.

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62 Sinari

is to become a consistent intellectual description of the actual state of affairs in


human experience, it has to have a subjectivist and pragmatic foundation. The
relativeness of every "may-be" assertion or every point of view (naya) can be
understood, necessarily with a reference to some mind and its specific purposiveness. No relative judgment, no naya, can be self-explanatory. A person's
selection of a naya-or, its empirical counterpart niksepa-involves his interests and attitudes, needs and beliefs, preferences and prejudices. The Jainas
might have been unaware of the fact that the justification of a relatively true
or relatively false judgment, of a naya, a darsana, an opinion, a perspective,
is to be sought in an individual mind's pose. Otherwise, what is the ground of
a materialist's commitment to interpret everything materialistically, a yogin's
commitment to dissolve it in spirit, and a nihilist's intellectual marriage to
nothingness? As F. C. S. Schiller, in an attempt to correlate relevance with
the subjectivity of the thinker, puts it: "To say that relevance means subjectivity merely means that it is conceived not as a quality residing in the thing
thought of per se but only in its relation to us; it lies in its value for us and in
our attitude towards it. It implies a relation to a human purpose by its very
etymology."4 Both in thought and moral conduct, relativeness does not make
sense if it is abstracted from the subject. When an individual mind takes a
pose in its encounter with the world, a kind of selectiveness is generated within
itself. Indeed, many of the factors conditioning this pose, internally and externally, can be ascertained by a scientific analysis. But there will remain in it
something strictly subjectively oriented, something incomprehensible in all its
intents, something aligned to the mind's purposive attitude, whose role in the
very exercise of the pose is beyond doubt. It would have been fitting had the
Jainas argued, as, for instance, pragmatists in general and Schiller in particular
argue, that what is selected in perception or reflection is plainly a part, an
extract, and not the whole, because of a peculiar "act of will," a special "logic
of values," inherent in the unique mode of a subject's consciousness. ". . . The
relevant is only part of the Truth, which must include all that has been or can
be judged true, as well as what is relevant to the particular inquiry."5
Thus in any intercourse between the knower and the known, or in any selection by the knowing subject of a naya, mind exhibits a purposiveness of cogninition, a disposition, to which something is revealed, opened out, and becomes
known. The entire structure of this purposiveness, in which, perhaps, intellect,
impulse, and desire are exceptionally blended, cannot be brought under definable concepts. Consequently, its functioning is largely shrouded in obscurity.
However, as it goes on manifesting itself, laying hold of this or that naya and
reading the world in this or that manner, it projects its own teleological mean4 F. C. S. Schiller,Logicfor Use: An Introduction
to the VoluntaristTheoryof Knowl-

edge (London:G. Bell & Sons Ltd., 1929),p. 77.


5Ibid., pp. 77-78.

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63

ings. All such meanings have their anchorage in a human system, with all its
enduring aspirations, values, and practical exigencies. The world that human
minds perceive or make judgments about is a world generating an unending
diversity of excitements, that is, a world emitting forces in order to stimulate
innumerable human responses. Every judgment is a syat judgment, or every
object of knowledge is a naya, because it denotes only that which human purposiveness at a particular point of time is able to catch of the given. Had the
Jainas directed their inquiry to the psychological background of naya-formation
they would have unfailingly come upon the central thesis of pragmatism,
namely, that all perceptions and judgments have at their bottom man's concrete
needs and aims, in reference to which the relative truth, the adequacy, and the
emergence itself of them all can be demonstrated.
As in the case of every other inwardly oriented school in Indian philosophy,
the Jainism epistemology centers mainly upon the question of the conditions'
of mundane knowledge. The Jainas were not unaware of the fact that the
relativism they were propounding suggests a verdict of disfavor of all knowledge obtained and obtainable by us in the phenomenal world. For a world
which is divisible into an ever inexhaustible number of points of view and
whose entirety we never comprehend is just inaccessible to empirical sensibilities or rational statements. While pragmatism, therefore, could complement
the Jainas' relativistic epistemology by supplying it with a logical basis, a
subjectivist and teleological justification, it would not change in any way their
conception of the most ideal kind of knowledge, described by them as "complete and full, the unobstructed, unimpeded, infinite and supreme, best knowledge and intuition called Kevalajnina."6 When looked at from this kind of
knowledge, the whole sphere of relative truths-pragmatically risen nayas and
sydt statements-would be found to belong to some lower tier of consciousness
where things glide from the stage of being known to that of being semi-known,
and further to that of being obscure. Besides, it is the absolutely self-evident
and illuminating nature of this knowledge that renders every form of relative
knowledge not only inauthentic but also ultimately useless.
The philosophical tendency underlying the relativistic epistemology of the
Jainas is toward transcendentalism par excellence. It is in fact through a
wholehearted adherence to this tendency that they chose to profess a relativistic
way of meeting earthly situations. Their emphasis on the method of knowledge
was never central to their discipline. Most probably they imagined that by
constructing a non-absolutist skeptical epistemology they would teach themselves
and others that any experience short of the experience of the transcendental,
short of kevalajidana or omniscience, would amount to pseudo-experience.
Their syadvada does not seem to have had a direct bearing on their study of
6 SinclairStevenson,The Heart of Jainism(London:OxfordUniversityPress, 1915),
p. 39.

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64 Sinari

the origin and requirements of knowledge. And this is the reason why they
left their ingeniously conceived relativism incomplete. While being beckoned
by the ultimate aim of realizing the innermost stratum of experience, where
the knower-known distinction would no more prevail, they, rather negatively,
embarked upon a program of proving that what is known or expressed by
man during his unenlightened existence is merely a fragment of what is in all
its totality. All debates and discussions, as, for instance, between one group of
Jainas and another, or between the Jainas and the Vedantins, are basically
collisions of nayas, darsanas, points of view, springing from different purposes
in different minds. Their diversity is due to the immanent limitedness of the
very conduct of intellect. The only plane from which the Jainas would want
to resolve them is the plane of kevalajnina or universal vision.

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