Thursday, August 06, 2009

Syādvāda: The Jain concept of relativity of knowledge

Chandradhar Sharma writes in A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy about a central concept in Jainism, Syādvāda:
Syādvāda is the theory of Relativity of knowledge. Reality has infinite aspects which are all relative and we can know only some of these aspects. All our judgments, therefore, are necessarily relative, conditional and limited.

The Jainas are fond of quoting the old story of the six blind men and the elephant. The blind men put their hands on the different parts of the elephant and each tried to describe the whole animal from the part touched by him. Thus the man who caught the ear said the elephant was like a country-made fan; the person touching the led said the elephant was like a pillar; the holder of the trunk said it was like a python; the feeler of the tail said it was like a rope; the person who touched it on the side said the animal was like a wall; and man who touched the forehead said the elephant was like the breast. And all the six quarreled among themselves, each one asserting that his description alone was correct. But he who can see the whole elephant can easily know that each blind man feels only a part of the elephant which he mistakes to be the whole animal. Almost all philosophical, ideological and religious differences and disputes are mainly due to mistaking a partial truth for the whole truth. Our judgments represent different aspects of the manysided reality and can claim only partial truth. This view makes Jainism catholic, broad-minded and tolerant. It teaches respect for others’ point of view.
Why, you may wonder, this noticeable increase in posts to do with religion? Because I have never understood religion in any substantive way. The time has now come to fill that gap. And what better place to begin than with ancient Indian schools of thought. I grew up in the Hindu tradition but never was I told that there was more to practicing religion than rituals and boring visits to temples. I knew about Shankaracharya, but it was only last month that I learned that there is such a thing as Advaita Vedanta, which he preached; I was told Hinduism was polytheistic but only now am I beginning to learn that it is polytheistic only in manifestation, and that the Upanishads actually suggest the unity of all life, of everything in fact.

But let me not get carried away with details: all I wanted to say was that I need to catch up with reading of a different kind, and that there will be more posts to come on similar themes.


Krishnan said...

I think this will interest you

Hari said...

Thank you very much, Krishnan -- this indeed a very interesting link. We hold plenty of misconceptions about many parts of the world, and it is only by traveling and engaging sincerely with a place that we can see the complete picture. On the Africa front, I am deficient since I haven't traveled there, even though I read a lot about the continent.

Anonymous said...

Everything is Relative, except with your relatives....then they think they know better.

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