Sunday, September 09, 2012

Lessons for Mumbai from the 6th Century BC

- By Deepa Krishnan

On my morning walk, I passed by the Jain temple in our neighbourhood. It was a beautiful calming sight.

Jain Temple, King's Circle, Mumbai
I paused for a few minutes to think of Mahavira, the founder of the Jain religion, who preached what is perhaps the most relevant message for our times: tolerance for multiple views

Mahavira's philosophy of anekantvad  - which translates literally to "multiple-view-ism" - is central to the Jain doctrine. In its most basic form, anekantvad means that there are multiple perceptions of Truth, and that no single point of view can be considered absolutely right. Quite different from dogmatic religions that insist it's "my way or the highway"!

In its more sophisticated philosophical interpretations, what anekantvad really says is that the universe and everything in it, i.e. the objects of our perception, are infinite in their qualities. Whereas human perception is finite, and what's more, each human's perceptions are different based on the filter through which they see the world. In fact, because no two people are identical, there are as many different perceptions of the world, as there are people! Thus, it is impossible for a single human being to completely grasp all aspects and manifestations of the universe and Truth.

Given this situation, a very refined or nuanced approach to the world is needed, which is called syadvad - conditional perception. Syadvad literally translates to "maybe-ism", and what it suggests is that when we make a statement about the world, we don't present it as dogma and absolute truth; instead we add "syad" to it, i.e. perspective. 

Thus, whenever we say something, we preface it by saying it is from one particular perspective. This allows room for other views. It's like the blind men and the elephant. We need the humility to accept that we may be only grasping the tail or the ear :)
And so these men of Hindustan
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 :) :)
I cannot help liking the anekantvad/syadvad approach, although I know I often present my beliefs very forcefully. Most of us are articulate lobbyists and passionate about one cause or the other. It is quite a giant leap to go from forceful debate to the kind of gentle approach that syadvad calls for. When we are  very forceful about what we believe in, and thrust it upon others, we are in reality refusing to accept the richness of the many world views that are around us. And we are being driven by ego, by the urge to be listened to and obeyed. 

It is really quite a fine line to walk. We must live in this world, and act upon our beliefs, but we also must give room and respect to other beliefs, even when they are very much in opposition to our own. How does one do that? Especially when some things make your blood boil? Food for thought, especially in this city where a new strain of intolerance seems to be gaining ground!!

For those who don't know - Mahavira, or The Great Valiant One, is the name given to the sage Vardhamana, who lived in the 6th century BC in what is now Bihar. The faith which he propounded - Jainism - received royal patronage from the Maurya kings, and spread all over India, including large tracts of South India. In Tamil Nadu, Mahavira is called Arugan. 

Jainism as a faith is much older than Mahavira, who is the 24th in a long line of Jain sages. But it was Mahavira, who lived a long and fruitful 72 years, who popularised the religion by formally expounding its tenets. 
Beautiful 8th Century AD stone scuplture from 
Kazhugumalai, Tirunelveli District, Tamil Nadu 
See this link for amazing detailed photos of this site 
where Jain and Hindu carvings co-exist. 
The sculpture above is of Parshvanatha, 
the 23rd in the line of Jain sages.
There are several Jain temples in India, and I highly recommend you visit one of the temples if you are coming to India. Almost all of them are beautifully carved and embellished, and the insides of the temples are worth seeing. You will usually be able to see not just Mahavira, but also the 24 sages, called tirthankaras, who came before him. 

Jains believe that these tirthankaras, the Enlightened Ones, the Kevala Gyanis, have been able to see the rich complexity of Truth in all its manifold aspects. Maybe they will inspire you as well :)
Marble Carving detail, Ranakpur Jain Temple, Rajasthan
Photo source for "blind men and the elephant":


Ravindranath said...

Very interesting, written with lucidity and perspicacity and to me, edifying. Keep it up! - Ravi

Dinesh Jain said...

Thanks, Deepa, You have really put the anekantvad/Syadvaad principle very nicely and few words. Even us Jains find it difficult to explain. Also your emphatic look at Jain Tirthankaras is appreciated it highly, especially covering the Southern Indian presence of Jainism. Most people are not aware of that. In fact one school of scholars believe along with us Jains that Thirukural is a Jain scripture written by Thiru Valluvar, a disciple of Kund Kundacharya, a great Jain sage of 1 CE.
Lastly a large amount of Tamizh literature until 10th Century CE was contributed by Jains.

Thombu Nanri.

Anuradha Shankar said...

Beautifully written... yes, we do indeed have lots to learn!

Aadil said...

Lovely article and pics too. Enjoyed the picture of the Jain and Hindu sculptures together.

Seema Buckshee said...

Very thought provoking-India does have all the riches of world philosophy but like fools we focus on the more popular concepts : hinduism as a way of life ,mutual tolerance,non-violence these have become hollow words-nowadays discussing religion is like walking a tightrope- you never know who can get offended by what!When my son argues religious world views,I am scared for him and tell him not to talk to anyone other than the closest friends or family-a strain of intolerance is being etched deep;y in our society and I miss the concept of syadvad,of anekantvad-thank you for reminding me that these are lost treasures-we may yet recover them...:)

Seema Buckshee said...

Beautifully expressed-thank you for reminding us that these concepts are lost treasures in our philosophy,we harp on tolerance and multiculturalism etc but have become increasingly intolerant of differences....hopefully syadvad and anekantvad will be restored by being aired and put in the public space-and so a big thank you!:)