The Non-Unus and the Est-Non-Est Epistemology of Jain Philosophy

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.                                                                                                              -Marcus Aurelius

Jainism is one of the four major Indic religious. It dates back to the fifth century BCE, but its followers hold that aside from its historical founder Vardhamana Mahavira, the system owes its existence to twenty-four founders, known as Thirthankaras, and that Mahavira was  the last of these. The first Thirthankara is known as  Rishabha to whom the vision of Non-violence first arose. The 23rd was Parsva,  born two centuries before Mahavira. The Thirthankaras are referred to as Jainas: Victorious Ones, for they had conquered the bondage of life.

Jainism is very relevant in today’s world because of its value-system and philosophy. Perhaps the most important tenet of Jainism is ahimsa: non injury. Its first meaning is the non-hurting of fellow humans. There is perhaps no simpler and more precious nugget of ethical principle than this, for it embodies the quintessence of all moral injunctions. This should be a necessary and foundational principle in all ethical systems. Any system that permits or fosters the hurting of fellow humans is not worthy of being considered a civilized system. Extensions of this principle include non-injury to, and respect for, all creatures great and small. In no other culture in the history of humanity has this principle been so explicitly enunciated. Caring for one’s family and compassion for others is already a major step forward. But to apply this to every living being is as major an ethical leap forward as the jump from planet earth to walking on moon is on the physical plane.  Whether practicable or not, this is a mind and heart expanding vision of human goodness, as yet beyond the mind’s reach of the vast majority of people.  

Classical Jaina writings include philosophical and scientific speculations about the nature of matter and mind. In this context Jaina thinkers propounded what is called anekánta-váda or Not-One thesis. To make it sound metaphysically technical it may be called (coining a Latin word) the non-unus thesis. It states that any issue can be considered from a variety of perspectives, each leading to a different understanding. The idea was illustrated in Godfrey Saxe’s poem about the blind men and the elephant:

      It was six men of Indostan

      To learning much inclined.

      Wanted to see an elephant

      Though all of them were blind

      That each at least by observation

      Might satisfy this mind….

On the basis of their own observations they variously thought that the elephant was like a wall, spear, snake, rope, tree, and fan. Recognizing that multiple understandings of fundamental issues arise because of our limited scopes is a profound insight in the context of ideological and religious conflicts.

Related to this is the tenet known as  asti-násti-váda: This may be called the est-non-est doctrine by which a statement and its opposite might both be correct, depending on the context. Thus, the following contradictory pairs of propositions are all true, depending on one’s appraisal of a situation: (a) There is a God; (b) There is no God. (a) Humans are intrinsically good; (b) humans are intrinsically bad. (a) An electron is a particle; (b) an electron is a wave. (a) Religions are benign; (b) religions are evil.

What this implies is that there are many fundamental questions on which one can’t make absolute statements. The same sky can be dazzlingly bright and also pitch dark. Binary logic is not universally applicable. Moreover, each such statement, though challengeable, can still have contextual value and significance. Adopting a particular position on a complex issue is often useful and necessary in many contexts, but this should never be done at the expense of the first ethical principle of not hurting others in our actions.

January 25, 2016

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