Consciousness and relativity: anekāntavāda and its role in Jaina epistemology

Jeffery D. Long, Elizabethtown College


Among the numerous intellectual traditions indigenous to South Asia, the Jaina or Jain tradition is distinctive in a number of important ways. Not least among these is its view of consciousness as inherent to all living beings. According to Jain tradition, not only are all living beings possessed of consciousness, but this consciousness is also, in each being, potentially infinite in extent. Indeed, the ultimate soteriological goal of the Jain path, as a spiritual practice, entails the attainment of a unique, absolute awareness (kevala jñāna) in which the practitioner realizes a state of literal omniscience. The attainment of this state is taken, in the Jain tradition, to be an extremely difficult achievement that requires many lifetimes of rigorous ascetic practice. For beings who have not attained this state–the vast majority of beings in the cosmos–consciousness is realized only in a relative way that is dependent upon the amount and type of karma to which a given being is bound. Karma is seen in the Jain tradition as a type of matter that adheres to a living being, or jīva, and obscures the infinite potential inherent in that being, thus giving rise to the great variety of organisms that exist in the world. This Jain understanding of consciousness gives rise to a set of doctrines–the Jain doctrines of relativity–that are among the most important contributions of the Jain tradition to world philosophy. These doctrines–anekāntavāda, nayavāda, and syādvāda–have profound implications for the discourses of interreligious dialogue and religious pluralism. Jain intellectuals of the modern period have begun to explore these implications, as have authors from outside the Jain tradition sympathetic to its approach to truth. This is an approach which affirms the relativity of perspectives but avoids a sceptical relativism that would deny the possibility of ever grasping the truth at all.