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Anekantavada – Moving Beyond Exclusivist Religious Claims

By Nadya Pohran

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Ahimsa, non-violence, is a fundamental teaching of Jainism, a small, ancient religion originating in India. The concept has inspired numerous non-violent activists around the world. From Gandhiji to Martin Luther King, ahimsa has been used to promote peace throughout the world.

 This Jain symbol stands for Ahimsa, a doctrine much better known in the West than its sister doctrine, Anekantavada.

This Jain symbol stands for Ahimsa, a doctrine much better known in the West than its sister doctrine, Anekantavada.

An equally important teaching within Jainism, not nearly so well known, could contribute significantly towards peacemaking. Specifically, the philosophical teaching of anekantavada provides a kind of humility and openness that better understands and appreciates the diversity of worldviews within our society today.

Anekantavada literally means “no one, singular doctrine.”  It refers to a simultaneous acceptance of multiple, diverse, even contradictory viewpoints (without succumbing to moral relativism, as serious students discover). In our efforts to achieve an understanding of truth, anekantavada teaches that each of us has, at best, only a partial grasp of the complete truth. That is to say, I might have a complete and thorough understanding of my own particular viewpoint, just as you have a complete and thorough understanding of your own viewpoint, but each individual viewpoint remains but a fragmented glimpse of the vastness of truth.

Jain folklore expresses anekantavada through a story that is found throughout India’s many religions. The story also permeated Western, European contexts. John G. Saxe’s “The Blind Men and the Elephant” brought the fable to the United States in 1873, where it has been frequently republished, though better known as a children’s poem than a pillar of spirituality. In the Jain version of the tale, six blind men are told about an elephant nearby. Not yet knowing what an elephant is, they decide to go and, using their hands, discover what an elephant “looks” like. As they approach the massive elephant, each man places his hands on a different part of the elephant’s body – one man touches the trunk, another touches a leg. One touches a tusk, the stomach confronts another. One has the tail, another an ear. They begin to describe to each other their newly acquired understanding of the elephant.

Because their experiences are so different, their accounts do not align. One man compares the elephant to a tree, while another is convinced it feels like a rope, and so on. They begin to bicker among themselves, debating about who is correct. Saxe’s poetic rendition describes the scene this way:

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

In the Jain version, in the midst of the bickering, a king comes by the scene. The king sees the entirety of the elephant and realizes that the blind men are limited to what their hands can feel. The king explains to the men that they are each giving correct, but only partial, explanations of the elephant. At this point the men finally begin to accept each other’s testimonies as truthful. Before, each had been convinced that the others were either deluded or deceitful.

Anekantavada emerges from distinctly Jain philosophical, cultural, and metaphysical contexts, and it is wrapped up in other facets of Jain dharma beyond our scope here. But the gist of anekantavada – the acceptance of relativism, pluralism, and of having only a partial glimpse at a complicated, multi-faceted truth – can indeed be applied to Jain and non-Jain contexts alike.

Resonating through the Centuries

 This statue of Mahavira (599-527 BCE), can be found in New Delhi, India. Mahavira is known as the founder of Jainism and the source of the notion of Anekantavada. – Photo:  Jainmuseum.com

This statue of Mahavira (599-527 BCE), can be found in New Delhi, India. Mahavira is known as the founder of Jainism and the source of the notion of Anekantavada. – Photo: Jainmuseum.com

Everything we know, have, and understand is filtered through the lens of our individual experience. Similar recognitions of a limited, experience-based vantage point can be found in other religious contexts. Kabbalistic literature compares this process to beams of light coming through a prism and appearing to change colour: the light itself has not truly changed colour but, to the observer who sees the light in a particular way in a particular moment, it appears to have changed.  Likewise, within Christianity, Paul attests to being able to see only “in part.” He describes the vision of our time now as an ainigma, an enigma, where we are limited to that which is obscured, murky, and dim (1 Cor. 13).  

The notion that all truth is filtered through the lens of our experience has also been explored by secular philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Kant posited that the human mind has a certain condition that influences how we see the world; this prompted him to distinguish between “the thing itself,” das Ding an sich, and the way individuals experience and interpret a phenomenon.

Many worldviews, both religious and secular, propagate exclusivist ideas of truth. Like all things, exclusivism exists on a spectrum. Some worldviews unabashedly spew hatred on those outside of their own tradition. Other exclusivist doctrines teach tolerance and acceptance of the worldviews of others but ultimately declare their own worldview to be the sole correct one.

Moving Forward

 “Blind monks examining an elephant,” a Japanese rendering (1888) of the Jain myth, by Hanabusa Itchō – Photo: Wikipedia

“Blind monks examining an elephant,” a Japanese rendering (1888) of the Jain myth, by Hanabusa Itchō – Photo: Wikipedia

What if we began to consider our own viewpoint as one of many? What if we conceded that the world, much less God and Truth, are in fact far too complex and mysterious to be grasped completely and wholly from one particular vantage point? What if we moved beyond issues like “tolerance” and “acceptance” into genuine respect and reverence, wherein we learn from each other’s worldviews, a reciprocal give and take?

If we are willing to acknowledge that our own viewpoint is limited, we begin to see differing viewpoints not as “deluded” or “deceitful” but as accurate representations formed from different vantage points. Returning to the Jain parable about the elephant, the blind man who holds the leg of the elephant and concludes that an elephant is similar to a tree-trunk is no less correct in his statement than the blind man who holds onto the tail and concludes that an elephant is like a rope. 

Practicing anekantavada not only empowers our appreciation of others; ultimately it will further our own self-knowledge. If our quest for truth, our elephant, is indeed so massive that we cannot hope to grasp its completeness as individuals, we ought to be willing to learn from the experiences and testimonial accounts of others. Indeed, we might find that, in compiling our stories and experiences together, we are able to come to a more complete, deeper understanding of truth.