Jainism is increasingly included among the “world religions” with a growing number of books available for both academic and general readers. Typically, Jainism is introduced as an Indian religion with around 4 million members and with a strong focus on personal development through non-violence and asceticism. The BBC website, for example, states that “Jainism is an ancient religion from India that teaches that the way to liberation and bliss is to live lives of harmlessness and renunciation.”
However, when I spoke to Jainas as part of my doctoral research in Karnataka, I found that many Jainas object to the idea that Jainism is their religion. For example, a lecturer at a Jainology department told me that he considered there to be only one true religion, and that would not be Jainism but non-violence. A bhattaraka, a highly venerated Digambara functionary, said that every religion claims to have the ultimate solution, but when new problems arise, subgroups will just form new religions, and that to him race, caste or religion did not matter for defining a person. Another bhattaraka told me that Jaina dharma, Christ dharma and Muslim dharma were all limited but that the universe was unlimited. All these people shared an aversion against having their Jaina beliefs and practices categorised as religion not because they believed in the superiority of secular labels but because to them fencing off a part of reality as “religion” or “Jain-ism” carried connotations of a narrow-minded ideology and arbitrary boundaries.
This highlighted a problem I experienced again and again when trying to write about Jaina teachings: what concepts and phrases do I use for talking about what Jainas believe and do?
My doctoral research is about anekantavada, the Jaina teaching that every object in the world has infinitely many aspects even though only a limited amount of information can at any single point in time be grasped by human perception or expressed by human language. In that respect anekantavada is a philosophical teaching that involves questions of ontology and epistemology. But anekantavada is also one of the most important teachings of Indian rhetoric or, as the study of argumentation in India is commonly called, Indian logic. If objects have infinitely many aspects, this impacts on the way we should speak about reality, especially in arguments about ultimate meaning. The claim is that ideally the expression “from a certain perspective” should be added to every statement, to show that it reflects only one of many equally justified possibilities. This has strong ethical implications which have become predominant in contemporary discussions about anekantavada as “tolerance”. However, anekantavada also has to be seen in the light of the ultimate goal of the Jaina, becoming an omniscient, a liberated being who can grasp at will all aspects of past, present and future simultaneously. According to Jainism these omniscients, who have cleansed their souls through right conduct and knowledge of karmic particles, already exist in higher spheres. Anekantavada tries to show the limitations of human perception while bringing us as closely as possible to the reality of the omiscients. So is anekantavada a religious teaching?
I found that anekantavada cannot be properly understood if it is labelled either philosophy or religion, so throughout my dissertation I kept somewhat unhappily repeating the expression “Jaina philosophy and religion”. Trying to avoid controversial terminology I also spoke of the “Jaina worldview” though I was not happy at all with this term because it lacked the emphasis on praxis. Just using Indian terms did not seem a solution to me either because an important part of my dissertation was explaining an element of one culture for the readership of another. Of course concepts overlap and there are ways of explaining how they are connected but every concrete text passage calls for a concrete choice. It does, after all, make a big difference if I write that anekantavada is part of “Indian logic” or “Jaina rhetoric”.
I cannot say that I have found a solution to this problem of categories and terminology but I try to make the tensions visible in the text. A first point was to reflect the different conceptualisations in the structure of my text. Anekantavada is about the many perspectives one can have on the world, and I therefore discuss in one chapter anekantavada as part of ontology, in another as part of epistemology, in another as soteriology. Then I try to bring them together in an overarching, more organic section, hoping that every time I present anekantavada in one way the other presentations will have some presence in the reader’s mind. The other point was that I decided to provide a substantial amount of background information on terms that should not appear natural but contested. When I speak of anekantavada as being part of Indian logic I devote a whole section to discussing the field of Indian logic in comparison to Western logic, and that it is based on rhetoric and grammar, not mathematics. I thereby hope to draw mental landscapes that present a realistic impression even if the embedded terminology remains deficient.
I am not sure if the Jainas I spoke to in India would agree with how I present their tradition but I hope they would acknowledge that at least I have learned a lesson from anekantavada about the complexity of the world and the limitations of language.