The depth and profoundness of the principle of pluralism is not new and in our current global affairs we are reminded that it has been an ongoing issue for thousands of years.
Anekantavada is the Jain theory and practice of multiple perspectives, or relative pluralism and manifoldness. It is the foundation and clear, not easy, path to aparigraha or non-possessiveness, ahimsa or nonviolence, and happiness.
Anekantavada states that truth and reality are perceived differently from different points of view, and no single point of view is the complete truth. Every object has infinite qualities and modes of existence. They cannot be completely grasped in totality by a finite and limited human perception. No specific human view can claim to represent the absolute truth. Nothing is absolute. What seems true in one situation may look false in another.
Mahavir, commonly cited as the founder of Jainism (but Jains state that he was the last in a line of 24) countered claims of absolute truths by the repeated use of a parable we now think of as a children’s story to illustrate the principle of anekantavada. He called it the Maxim of the Blind Men and the Elephant. Most readers will probably be familiar with this story but let me go over it briefly.
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal called an elephant had been brought to their small village. Out of curiosity, they decided to go find out about this strange animal—they could at least touch it. They went to the elephant and groping in space felt whatever their hands touched. The first person touched the trunk and said this animal was like a tree trunk. Another reached the ear and said no, it was actually quite different and like a fan. The next touched the leg and wondered aloud what the other two were talking about because this animal was like a solid pillar. The one who touched the tail thought this creature is like a rope and how could anyone think otherwise. The person who touched the back shouted that this elephant was like a throne. They all began shouting and fighting and saying that he was right and the others wrong. A wise man came along and told them they were all right in their own ways depending on what part their hands had touched, explaining that these were individual parts of the whole elephant and they could go back to the elephant and feel those other parts themselves. This brought peace in the village!
Each blind man presented a true aspect of the elephant from his personal experience, but none perceived the whole elephant. The thought that it may be only a partial or single aspect did not arise either. It is as if each blind man was looking through a straw and thought that the very limited view was surely the whole picture. If he could not see or feel parts of the elephant from that one position, those parts could not exist, and any claim otherwise was flat out wrong. None saw that each man needed the perspectives of others to feel the entire elephant, none could do it individually.
This view directly opposed the theory of ekantavada or one-sidedness, absolute truth. In the fifth and sixth century BC there were intense intellectual debates taking place in the Indian subcontinent regarding philosophy, religion, wars, and society. Mahavir (and Buddha) were radical in disrupting the existing system established by the Vedantins, controlled by the brahmins.
Those who follow the concept of pluralism and manifold nature of existence, anekantavada, encourage listening to the views and beliefs of other philosophies and religions and accept their truths. As each philosophy and religion is limited in its perspective as in the story, the collective is a larger perspective of reality. No single perspective can grasp an infinite reality.
Anekantavada stands firmly against all dogmas, including the assertion that anekantavada or Jainism is the right way. This is called intellectual ahimsa or nonviolence of the mind. There is no battle of ideas because this is considered intellectual violence that can and has repeatedly led to physical violence and wars.
In Acaranga Sutra, Mahavir urges his followers to understand and study other traditions: Comprehend one philosophical view through the comprehensive study of another one. An old Jain canon (second oldest Sutrakritanga) states: Those who praise their own doctrines and ideology and disparage the doctrines of others distort the truth and will be confined to the cycle of birth and death. (https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/anekantavada#cite_note-29)
It is not surprising that anekantavada should come from Mahavir and Jains. There is no other religion that emphasizes non-violence, takes the interpretation and practice of non-violence in daily life, to the extent that Jains do. It is the heart and core of a practicing Jain and dictates every aspect of living and dying. There is zero justification for violence in thought, word, or deed in Jain teachings.
Anekantavada is the foundation of nonviolence. To see multiple perspectives, there has to be interaction with people who do not think like us. It requires the ability to listen with an open mind, free of preconceptions and prejudice. There is tolerance, acceptance, and respect. We are not forcing our ideas on anyone—that would be intellectual violence. There is NO need to be right. There are many problems when each side needs to be right and the other to be wrong. This is very true in families as well. With the need to be right, there can be the need to control others thinking and behavior which is again violence. Anekantavada can only be followed by interacting, listening, tolerating, and letting go the need to be right.
That brings me to another important concept that flows inseparably from anekantavada and is common to yoga and other Indian philosophies. Aparigraha is commonly translated as non-possessiveness but I prefer non-ownership. People think of it in terms of not owning too much material stuff. Some extend it to not having unhealthy emotional attachments in relationships. Both are more tangible and relatively easier to see and work on. The abstract mind is much tougher.
However, aparigraha begins with mental non-ownership which results in material and emotional ownerships. Nonviolence of the mind is more likely if there is non-ownership in mind. It is not about shirking responsibility for one’s actions and behaviors. In absolute terms, no one owns anything. We have something for a certain period of time, perhaps a lifetime even, but then it no longer belongs to us.
As the parable of the blind men and the elephant clearly illustrates, we vigorously, violently if deemed essential, defend what we own materially and intellectually. Whatever is part of a well-developed sense of “me/I”, a strong self-identity. We own our I-centric self. Ownership and violence can go hand-in-hand. To minimize the little self identity, Jain monks and nuns have no possessions. Many religious orders take vows of poverty or minimal material ownership.
A word of caution here: Those who are deeply attached to their minimalism and see it as a superior virtue miss the point of aparigraha. Owning minimalism is no different from any other ownership, it is still a strong clutch. A wealthy person with many possessions who is free from a strong attachment to them, enjoying what she has but does not identify with them, is more in line with aparigraha. It is the vise, not what the vise grips, that is the issue.
If we examine our material lives, look at history, our families, none of us own anything even though it seems we do. Our homes, cars, possessions, bodies, health, wealth, relationships are with us for a finite amount of time and there is no telling or guarantee of how long we will experience that ownership. So can we be with all of it without the sense of ownership or possessiveness?
This also applies to beliefs and concepts. We see over the years how these have changed with each generation within our families, even within us. Think of slavery, women’s rights, inter-racial marriages, same sex marriages. And embracing the change has made us better.
If concepts and beliefs are simply concepts or beliefs/ideas, not yours or mine, or this group’s or that group’s, we have non-ownership and we have dropped a whole lot of divisive baggage. It removes the burden of attacking or defending. Tolerance and acceptance follow naturally. If we accept, without personalizing, that thoughts and beliefs, including in religion, have changed and evolved greatly over time, we can perhaps get over the need to be right and someone else to be wrong.
I always discuss with my boys whatever I am going to present. And they said to me that they have long thought about anekantavada (surprise to me) and the story. My younger son said it reminds him of cubist art. Why cubist? He said look at the way a cubist takes a form and breaks it down. Then the artist looks at the parts from multiple perspectives and shows these perspectives in the painting. It is anekantavada art.
Art, poetry, photography, literature, theater, dance, music, fashion, science, philosophy, religion, spirituality, law, finance, medicine, you name it, are all part of this manifold, relative pluralism–all aspects of an infinite reality.
This principle is also very important in research, business, innovation. One has to question the so-called givens and assumptions and not hold on to ideas out of habit, or attachment as my idea. An idea did not work out—that’s it. And maybe it did but as conditions change it may not. But if it is my idea, I own it, it is harder to let it go even if it is not working and time is wasted justifying it (and money). We instinctively defend and try to justify what we own. It has become personal.
The essence of aparigraha is release, sometimes expressed as letting go–not as giving up but by releasing the clinging hold. Holding on is like gripping the wind tightly in the fist—it is not possible. Trying to own people, relationships, experiences, ideas, can and do cause a lot of pain, suffering, unhappiness.
Holding physically, emotionally, mentally requires a vise. The grip has tension, pressure, tightness, confinement. Loosening that vise is releasing all of that–it is freedom. Moving from a hard clutch of confined space to the untethered freedom of expansive, boundless spaciousness. In meditation it is also seen as relaxation of the body and mind. Moving beyond the limited space and the hold of both to a freedom from both.
We have been practicing this exercise in release and freedom in every meditation we have done together. Nobody sees me the way I see me—everyone, including me, sees only certain aspects of me and it can be quite a shock to observe how others see us. And it is an evolving, changing perspective. So who is me/I? I is experienced as a string of thoughts and feelings, creating a narrative or concept of me. Then we identify with that narrative with deep attachment. But every other person has a different concept and narrative. None of it is constant or absolute. How many “I” are there in this one life-time from birth to death, each sometimes barely recognizing the earlier incarnation? The school-age incarnation is so different from the young adult to the parent to the grandparent ones.
Every view “I” has is I-centric emanating from this single narrow, limited perspective. We can simplify it by not personalizing and acknowledging that it is just one personalized perspective.
In meditation, we state over and over again: see the body as a body, not my body; the breath as a breath not my breath; see the thought as a thought, not my thought; feel the sensation as a sensation, not my sensation. And when there is just awareness, mindfulness, a neutral Witness, the perception changes—there are multiple perspectives. It changes the experience of life. It makes us open and free.
With openness and freedom comes happiness. We all know the destruction and unhappiness due to violence and intolerance in families, communities, countries. The World Happiness Report ranks the most violent countries much lower than countries that are relatively more peaceful. Chronic anger removes the space for happiness. Studies show that cities that are less violent, more open, tolerant, and conducive to exchanges between very diverse groups are happier, more prosperous. They are far more creative, innovative, and productive.
But we need to experience and feel for ourselves. In meditation, we will examine how anger and violence feel in our own bodies and mind. Is it possible to be chronically angry and be happy? What does happiness feel like in the body and mind? With my limited perspective I think people who are angry and violent are acting out their pain and suffering because they do not know how to handle it, they are very unhappy. The first person who is the victim of violence, anger, intolerance, is the very person who experiences those thoughts. Wishing others harm, we first harm ourselves. The first person to experience peace and happiness is the one who is open, accepting, tolerant, and not possessive. In wishing others well, we feel well.
Now let us open this up to discussion and then we will meditate.
This was written a few years ago for the meditation group and is being posted to the website now. Many thanks to my brother Mukesh for initially making the connections between anekantavada, aparigraha, and ahimsa.
I have used the article on anekantavada from the New World Encyclopedia for definitions and the base of this writing.