The many-sided truth

Working as a software professional, there were many occasions when none of the team members could agree on technique and style. On one occasion, an intelligent and perceptive senior asked all of us to research on a new technique for a new project.

While doing it, we understood each other very well and did a very decent job. After its completion, we realized that we could have benefitted a lot had we tried out each others’ preferred technique much earlier. I increasingly realize that this principle is applicable in all areas of our lives, be it personal, official, societal or philosophical.

This is exactly what anekantavada, one of the fundamental doctrines of Jainism says. It encourages its adherents to consider the views and beliefs of even their rivals and opponents. The origins of anekantavada can be traced back to the teachings of Lord Mahavira (599–527 BC), the 24th Jain Tirthankara. The Sanskrit compound an-eka-anta-vada literally means ‘doctrine of uncertainty.’ It roughly translates into English as ‘non-absolutism which is the opposite of ‘ekanta’ which means exclusiveness, absoluteness, or also monotheistic doctrine.

According to anekantavada, many versions of truth does not mean there are many truths. It just means there are different views of the same situation. Anekantavada uses the fable of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate the principle. When five blind men were asked to describe an elephant, each blind man had presented what he considered to be true. None of them had strayed from the true description of the elephant. Yet they fell short of fathoming the true appearance of the elephant as they could not visualize the larger picture.

Anekantavada asks people to apply this principle to everything, including religion and philosophy. It reminds people that any religion or philosophy (including Jainism) which clings too dogmatically to its own tenets, is committing an error based on its limited point of view.

Many-sided truth

As in all areas of personal growth, there are many aspects of anekantavada. It definitely means remaining open, present and focussed on the current views being stated.

Satish Kaku, a spiritual mentor from Mumbai, says, “Anekantavada can also be described as ‘Living in the NOW’ or being present and attentive, or simply listening to the opposite person without getting obstructed by your personal viewpoint. It is a way to achieve eternal happiness without creating a war of words within and without. It is also the way of peace and non-violence.”

In anekantavada, there is no ‘battle of ideas’, because this is considered to be a form of intellectual violence, leading quite logically to physical violence and war. Therefore it cautions against the adoption of ‘us versus them’ stances, as it could lead to lack of peace.

All religions and religious leaders can surely benefit from this doctrine. Anil Bhatnagar, an author and motivational speaker from New Delhi, says, “When the Dalai Lama was asked by Carl Sagan what would happen to Buddhism, if a central tenet like reincarnation was proven to be wrong, he said, ‘Buddhism will remain where it is except that we would delete that ‘reincarnation’ para from our scriptures.”

When the Dalai Lama himself can be so open to change, why can’t we? As Anil Bhatnagar states, “Today, in our pursuit of truth, we tend to listen to others only when they are saying what we want to hear or what validates our existing beliefs, and as a result we are becoming impenetrable islands of arrogance. We would actually benefit from listening to all points of view, because the contradictions refine, and the complementarities enlarge our collective understanding. This is exactly what the Vedas mean when they say, ‘Let the truth come from all directions’. Personally, I feel and have seen in all my experiences that when both parties converse with an open mind and listen with an open mind, we raise the level of human consciousness”.

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, an Islamic scholar from Delhi, concurs, adding, “If there is a true learning spirit in both parties, dialogue will surely bring about a meeting point. A better idea is bound to emerge from such an impartial discussion, and will help in the development of one’s own mind.”

Father Prashant Olelekar, head of the Department of Interreligious Studies, St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, says, “When participating in any dialogue it is important to remember that our perspective can often be a prejudice. Our views and beliefs are limited by factors such as our social background, religion, culture, country and so on. The story of the blind men and the elephant is particularly enlightening and humbling. It helps us to be more tolerant and understanding of various viewpoints thus helping us to move towards a more holistic perspective.”

This principle allowed Jain monks such as Vijayadharmasuri, a learned Shvetambar muni known for his support of Western Jainology to declare, “I am neither a Jain nor a Buddhist, a Vaisnava nor a Saivite, a Hindu nor a Muslim, but a traveller on the path of peace shown by the Supreme Soul, the God who is free from passion.”

Mahatma Gandhi was deeply influenced by Jainism since childhood. In his writings, Mahatma Gandhi attributed his seemingly contradictory positions over a period of time to the learning process, experiments with truth, and his belief in anekantavada. In response to a friend’s query on religious tolerance, he responded in the journal, Young India, “I am an Advaitist and yet I can support Dvaitism (dualism).” After explaining the doctrine of anekantavada, he continued, “I very much like this doctrine of manyness of reality.

It is this doctrine that has taught me to judge a Musalman from his standpoint and a Christian from his. Formerly, I used to resent the ignorance of my opponents. Today I can love them because I am gifted with the eye to see myself as others see me and vice-versa. … My anekantavada is the result of the twin doctrines of Satyagraha and Ahimsa.”

Knowing that there are indeed many perceptions, anekantavada advises us to not allow our perceptions to mould our views in a negative way, but to observe and learn from each other. Like this, we can use each other’s knowledge to create oneness in diversity. For after all, if unity is strength, diversity too is strength. Let us, as seekers, seek to embrace the multidimensional reality of life and the universe to grow and evolve.


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