Asian Philosophy 3: The Orthodox & Unorthodox Schools of Indian Thought

For this lecture, please read this treatise on Jain beliefs and practices.

Vedanta: The End of the Vedas

Vedanta Temple HollywoodAs mentioned last class, Vedanta means ‘end of the Vedas’ and is the further systematizing of the Upanishad wisdom.  While the Vedic hymns to the gods and rituals were kept, the Upanishads suggest again and again that self-discipline and philosophical insight are the inner meaning of the outer rituals just as the mind is the inner meaning and essence of the outer body.  This is the true knowledge (vidya) of the ritual, and it is knowledge rather than ritual that dispels ignorance (avidya).  Just as ritual was thought to please and nourish the gods, the Vedanta schools taught that knowledge and wisdom are the life’s blood of the cosmos, the nourishing of the cosmos through the nourishing of the self.  As the self grows in wisdom, the self expands the cosmos and the cosmos expands the self.

SV-AS10 ImageDataThis implies that the original position of the self is one of ignorance and darkness that is to be overcome through wisdom and enlightenment.  Just as the Jains and Buddhists share much of the Upanishads’ outlook, they share the idea that the cosmos and self, as it first appears in a disjointed and articulated state, is maya or illusion.  Sometimes maya was personified as a benevolent god (Maya, lord of illusion), sometimes as a demon as with some early Indian Buddhist schools.  In some stories, Maya is a playful trickster, while in some accounts of the enlightenment of the Buddha Maya, also called Mara, is king of the demons and sends all he can at the Buddha to prevent him from achieving enlightenment.

shankaraThere were several Vedanta schools with their own teachers and teachings.  The two most famous are the monistic school of Shamkara and the theistic school of Ramanuja.  Shamkara pushed beyond the personified gods towards the monism of the One and All, while Ramanuja criticized Shamkara by name as well as other ‘liberal worshipers’ like those admonished in the Vedic hymn we read, for abandoning the gods and Bhakti devotional worship as inessential to participation in the unity of the cosmos.  For Ramanuja, the gods and darshana are an important and essential part of rising into the unity of All.  Shamkara, the more progressive, pictured here, like the Buddhists and Jains understanding the Upanishads to be higher than the Vedas and thus beyond them, while Ramanuja, the more traditional, sees the Upanishads and Vedanta as essentially rooted in the theism of the Vedas and thus requiring them.

The Vaisheshika School of Atoms & Elements

Kanada VaisheshikaKanada, like the country up North but with a K, is the founder of the Vaisheshika school.  While there are subtle criticisms of the Vedas in the Vaisheshika Sutra, it is considered one of the orthodox Hindu schools of thought.  Kanada’s dates are debated.  Chinese scholars sometimes put his texts at 1000 BCE, while our scholars often put them at 200 BCE or even 100 CE.  This is quite political, because the Chinese tradition comes very much from India and the European tradition comes very much from Greece.  The publisher of this texts says it is safe to say that Kanada lived and taught by 600 BCE at the latest.

suspicious owlKanada’s name means One who eats grain, but it could also mean one who gathers particulars/particles.  He is also known as ‘The Owl’, or Uluka.  Legend has it that he was so ugly in appearance that he frightened young women, so he only ventured out at night, sneaking into granaries to eat corn and rice grains/particles.  Another story is Shiva taught him in the form of an owl.  Notice that there are many traditions and versions, some mixed with the stories of the Vedic gods and others not.

kanada atomistKanada began what is known as the Vaisheshika school, and thus his text is the Vaisheshika Sutra.  Vaisheshika means particular, but also particle, atom, particular, special, specific, and distinction.   Kanada may have been the first logician and first atomist in recorded human history.  Gotama’s Nyaya (Logic/Debate) school borrowed much from Kanada in forming rules and manuals of debate.  It is believed that Jainism and Buddhism took both of these systems and developed them in a skeptical and relativistic direction.  Thus, Kanada and Gotama are analytic logicians who are seeking fixed atomic truths (universal, necessary and certain), much like early British and American Positivists, and the Jains and Buddhists are skeptical logicians who criticize positivistic thinking with relativity and skepticism, much like German and French Existentialists and Postmodernists.  Once again, this is an excellent example of what Hegel saw as the back and forth between dogmatic absolute truth and skeptical relative truth.

Kanada set out his Vaisheshika system and its seven objects of knowledge to understand the cosmos, which involved debating well to arrive at the truth.  Gotama, who we will study next, was concerned primarily with debate and logical argument.

Brahman Cow with DewlapThe two schools of Kanada (Vaisheshika) and Gotama (Nyaya) focus on inherence, how  particular individuals are included as members of the general group, and inference, conclusions that can be drawn about a particular individual when one knows the general group.  For example, both schools used the example of cows having a dewlap, which I previously thought was the hump on the backs of Indian cows, but it turns out are the folds of skin beneath their necks.  Because many individual cows inhere in the group of all cows, and because, according to Kanada, all cows have dewlaps (as far as he knew in India), we can infer that if someone is a cow, then they have a dewlap.  Two types of inherence which allow us to make valid inferences include speciation (groups that have typical qualities, such as cows having dewlaps) and causation (events in time that lead from one to another, such as rain always being caused by clouds, an example Kanada also uses).

Kanada’s Seven Objects of Knowledge include:


1) Substance (dravya), nine in number: air, water, fire, earth, ether, time, space, self and mind.  These are composed of particles or atoms that are eternal and uncreated, and thus they can’t be created or destroyed.  Newton, like medieval alchemists before him but unlike modern physics and chemistry, believed in ether, the glue element that sticks the others together in combinations.

2) Attribute (guna): quality (color, texture, odor, taste) and quantity (number, measure, distinction, conjunction, disjunction).  Kanada argues in the text that attributes are not substances, but reside in substances and can cause substances, other attributes and actions.

3) Action (karma): Note that karma is the physical energy and motion that makes kicking someone cause pain and also gets the kicker reborn as a cockroach.  Kanada argues that substances and attributes can cause actions but actions themselves cannot produce other actions.  He also argues action belongs to one substance, not many.

bart simpson sound of one hand clappingIt is very possible that, in opposition to this theory, the Buddhist “sound of one hand clapping” is a counter example to this, and Gotama differs from Kanada on this also.  While the Zen koan certainly has deeper value as a contemplation device, it is also contemplating the impossibility of sound, an action, being produced exclusively by one thing, an example of the Buddhist doctrine of codependent arising, that things are always caused by complex situations and not single isolated things.  Buddhists certainly want us to be aware that if something is making you upset, it is not that thing alone, but you as well that is making you upset, two things creating an effect together much like two hands creating the sound of clapping together.

rain cloud4) General (samanya): the universal or group, such as the general group (speciation) of all cows or the general event (causation) of a rainstorm (in which clouds cause rain).

5) Particular (vishesha): the individual or specific, such as the individual cow or the individual event of a cloud causing rain.

6) Inherence  (samavaya): the particular being included and conforming to the general.  We can make inferences based on inherences.  If we know that the general group of cows have horns, then we know that this particular cow must have horns.  Likewise, if we know that generally rainclouds cause rain, then we can infer that this particular rain must have been caused by clouds.

7) Non-existence or Emptiness (abhava): non-being, nothingness and void.

camp fireKanada discusses fire as energy.  It is interesting that fire was the most common form of energy seen and used in the ancient world, whereas electricity is the most common form seen and used in the modern world.  Thus, the Egyptians, Greeks, Indians and Chinese thought of energy as fire whereas we think of energy as electricity.

Kanada argues that sound is caused and therefore it is impermanent.  Some have argued this seems to be a subtle critique of the earlier Vedic tradition (like arguing “paper is perishable” as a safe and subtle way of suggesting that the Bible must be temporary, not eternal).  Like Shamkara, Kanada may be saying, as we read in the Upanishads, that the oral tradition of the Vedas are the lower form, and his jnana yoga investigations of nature and the mind are a superior higher pursuit.

Smoke UpwardKanada argues that things move downward naturally, so things must have additional causes/forces to move sideways or upward (thus, smoke shows additional force or energy, namely that it has fire in it and fire moves upward.  He also argues thus that water moves upward by sun/fire in it, then comes downward in cycles.  Then, when the water collects in clouds, it causes the fire to be released as lightning.  He argues that the arrow flies first from cause and then from inherent tendency to remain in motion, similar if not identical to the modern concept of ‘inertia’.

The Nyaya School of Logic & Debate

Gautama Nyaya Sutra

Gautama, who lived sometime about 250 BCE, is considered the founder of the Nyaya school and the author of the Nyaya Sutra, a textbook and manual on logical debate.  The Nyaya Sutra was not the first Indian text concerned with logical argument and analysis, but it became one of the most popular and thus foundational for the Nyaya school.  It is believed that the Jains and Buddhists, who are more skeptical thinkers about logic but very involved in debate, later took much from the Nyaya Sutra and school.  Nyaya means “right”, “just”, “justified” or “justifiable”, the same way we use ‘logical’ to mean ‘right debate or speech’.  The school reached its height in 150 CE, but it traces itself back to Gautama and his teachings.

brick wellGautama is also called ‘Akshapada’, ‘Eyes in the Feet’, from a legend that he was so deeply absorbed in thought one day on a walk that he fell into a well, and Brahma gave him eyes in his feet to prevent this from happening again.  Notice that, like the Vaisheshika ‘particular’ school, Nyaya is concerned with putting particular things into categories and relationships.  Objects and substances can be called the ‘feet’ of things, and their families or causes (generalities) the head or mind of things.

Giant Buddha Indian TempleThe Buddha, who also lived sometime around 550 BCE is also called Gautama or Gotama.  Some scholars used to argue that Gautama may have been the Buddha himself, but in fact they were two different founders of two different schools who were both from the Gautama region in Northern India which is how they share the name.  Gautama, Buddha and Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), were also of the warrior caste, the second class in the Indian caste system beneath the first class Brahmins, the Vedic priests and scholars.

JackalThis shows that the period produced new thinkers with new ideas that were questioning the established Vedic tradition, and the schools of this period are known to have become very popular because they were open to people of all castes including the lowest.  A story from the period says that a scholar who gave up on the Vedas and turned entirely to logic turned into a Jackal.  This story was obviously told by Vedic scholars and priests who found the new systems a threat to the old established traditions.  Like science in Europe, however, the new ways were gradually added to the old ways, until the new system was an old standard alongside the Vedic traditions.

Earth_Eastern_HemisphereThe Nyaya Sutra is one of many debate manuals that was written for Indian philosophical or cosmological debates.  Questions asked included: “Is the self/soul/mind eternal or temporary?”, “Is the world and its laws eternal or temporary?”, “Is it better to renounce or indulge in luxuries?”, “Are there particular things which are sacred or is everything equally sacred?”, and, a question seen in Kanada’s text, “Is sound (and thus the oral tradition of the Vedas) eternal or temporary?”.  This last question is central to the Nyaya text and Gautama’s form of proof that we will study.  It is noticeable that many of these debates are concerned with distinguishing the eternal from the temporary.  In ancient world cosmology, the eternal was the sacred and the object of true knowledge.  If one could determine which things and laws are eternal, one would grasp the ways of the cosmos.

indian sageNotice that these debates (vadas) are also all of the form Is X Y or not Y?  This is the typical form of Nyaya debate or Nyaya Vada.  If one could justifiably claim that all X are Y, one could then argue for further truths based on the established truths.  Jains and Buddhists also took this form as fundamental.  For instance, the Vedic priests argued that the self/soul/mind was eternal, while the Jains and Buddhists argued that it is temporary.  In Greek thought, particularly with Plato and Aristotle, this arguing back and forth between opposite positions is called dialectic.  Later, in Buddhist debates after Nyaya hits its height, three areas of debate for a proposition were conducted in order:  “Is X always Y?”, “Is X everywhere Y?” and “Is X Y in everything?”.

In ancient India, a king, authority or rich patron would organize a debate and banquet, invite participants from various schools of thought to debate (often the teachers of competing rival schools, like a competition in a Kung Fu movie).  This put them in good standing with the public.  Women were not unheard of as debate participants, but not nearly as common as male debaters (one can unfortunately say this of American and British philosophical departments today).

d7ab7-442aaristotle27sparkDebate manuals like the Nyaya Sutra were designed to introduce students and scholars to typical forms of argument as well as methods of attack and defense.  They also listed fallacies, types of false arguments that sound solid but have flaws.  The Nyaya Sutra tells us that the best debater will not take cheap moves, ‘quibbles’ or ‘clinchers’, but one is free to make them at one’s own risk.  The text is surprisingly honest and insightful on this point.  By using deceptive reasoning, you could win the debate but you could also could lose if your opponent points out your errors or shortcuts.  This is still true of argument today even in the most casual setting, and a good reason that looking into old Logic texts like the Nyaya Sutra is still useful today.  Aristotle’s Organon, his ‘Tool’, are six books that cover different areas of debate and knowledge, similarly dealing with construction of argument and fallacies.  Aristotle also must straddle the sometimes contrary goals of arguing truth and winning the debate.

The Four Sources of Knowledge are Perception, Inference, Comparison, and Testimony.  All of these can potentially give valid knowledge, but there are problems with each.

Human EyePerception is seeing or experiencing something for oneself.  Perception can only be valid if it tells you something determinate that doesn’t vary or change.  Three examples of false perception given in the text are confusing smoke and dust, confusing a rope with a snake, and thinking that the hot earth is wet when in fact this is a mirage.

rain cloudsInference is knowledge of an object produced by perception.  This shows induction of perception passing into deduction of inference which is still held in Philosophy and Psychology today.  Some authors have claimed that Aristotle’s syllogisms are deductively valid but the Nyaya proof is not and based on induction.  Actually, Aristotle has many syllogisms he admits are not deductively valid on their own and he also believes that one can only argue based on what one perceives and one can be mistaken exactly like the Nyaya School and Gautama.  We can see induction and deduction working together in both Aristotle’s syllogisms and Gautama’s form of proof.  As can see in the text, there are five steps but as the Buddhists correctly perceived the first and second are identical to the fifth and the fourth.  To make it easier, I have boiled it down to two steps.  The first is a general rule backed by an example.  The second step is a reason which leads to a conclusion.  The text gives us two examples:

Metal Indian PotWherever there is smoke there is fire, as in a kitchen.  Because there is smoke on the hill, there is fire on the hill.

Whatever is produced is mortal, as a pot.  Because sound is produced, sound is mortal.

Both of these have the form All B are C (like the example), and because A is B, A is C.  This is similar if not identical to the first perfect form of Aristotle’s syllogism, with his famous central example being, “All men are mortal, so since Socrates is a man, Socrates is (or rather, was) mortal“.

Indian CourtFallacies are mistakes commonly made in arguments.  Types of fallacies identified in the Nyaya Sutra include changing the thesis, contradicting the thesis, meaningless utterances, incoherent speech (‘colorless sleep furiously green’ is a famous example by Noam Chomsky), repetition, silence, ignorance (failing to understand typically), evasion (‘I am called by nature’, ‘I have another appointment’), sharing the fault (problem with both sides), overlooking fallacies, pointing out false fallacies.

Quibbling is objecting to an argument as a fallacy when it is not actually a fallacy.  If a fallacy is an error, quibbling is making an error about something being an error.  Quibbling can lose a debate just as surely as giving a fallacious argument.  The text gives three types: Term (ex: Someone claims to have a new (“nava”) blanket, but this is confused with the claim of nine (also “nava”) blankets), Genus (ex: Someone claims Brahmins are educated but the opponent objects that some Brahmins are two years old), and Metaphor (ex: Someone claims poetically, “The scaffolds cry out”, and the opponent objects, “Impossible, they are inanimate objects”).

Now that we have covered three of the orthodox Hindu schools of thought that are concerned with practices other than Bhakti devotional worship, we will turn to two of the three unorthodox, non-Hindu schools of ancient Indian thought, the Charvakas and the Jains.  We will then, over the next few classes, be covering the third unorthodox school, one of the largest schools of thought in world history, Buddhism.

The Charvaka School of Skepticism & Materialism

Jain carvingThe Charvaka skeptics believed in perception, like the Vaisheshika and the Nyaya, but they did not believe in inference or theory of any kind.  Not only did they believe in no gods or spirits or eternal soul, but they did not believe that the human mind can know things through inference but rather imagines simplified relations.  This imaginary connection is an illusion.  One can use inference as a tool, but it is always an imaginary illusion.  Thus, they are agnostic about theory as well as theism.  Only what is right in front of your eyes is real.  This is very similar to Wittgenstein’s famous opening line of the Tractatus, the book that began modern truth table logic: “The world consists of facts, not of things”.  The world may be real, but to us it is many imagined things and constructed facts, not a thing perceived directly.  Thus, one can imagine and theorize that rain always requires clouds, but one cannot perceive all rain or all clouds or the connection between the two groups as a whole, and so one’s inference that rain always comes from clouds is an imaginary illusion, albeit a useful one to keep around.

Egyptian beer makingOther schools criticized the Charvakas for failing to explain the origin of consciousness.  The Charvaka reply was that consciousness was like the fermentation of alcohol.  When one mixes several ingredients in the right proportions and gives it time, alcohol is produced.  As such, consciousness is a temporary combination of elements that dissipates back into the material world from which it arose.


jain temple complex

The Striver Movement

jain veneration

As the primary Upanishads were being written down and shared between 1000 and 600 BCE, the golden age of ancient Indian thought dawned as many thinkers founded new schools of thought, including the six orthodox schools of Hinduism.  There are also many references at the time in texts to “strivers” (shramanas) who were leaving Hinduism and setting off to form new unorthodox (non-Hindu) Indian traditions.  Today we call this the Shramana Movement, which gave rise to two of the most famous thinkers in human history: Mahavira (599 – 527 BCE) and the Buddha (563 – 483 BCE).  These two distinct but similar seekers were dissatisfied by traditional life and beliefs and went off to seek, learn and practice on their own, often in the jungle beyond civilization.  In the Abrahamic tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, similar sorts of strivers traditionally practice in the desert, symbolic of death.

jain debate

Both Mahavira and Buddha were of the Kshatriya second caste, beneath the Brahmin first and top caste, warrior’s sons who wanted to be priestly philosophers instead.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whom some scholars thought wrongly was the Buddha, is also said to be a king who abandoned the throne to become a sage, symbolic of the mind’s superiority to the body, the mental conquering the physical.  Both Mahavira and Buddha supposedly left home at age thirty, with Mahavira obtaining enlightenment in twelve years and the Buddha in six.  The Buddha and Buddhist tradition follow just after Mahavira and the Jain tradition in years, developing in dialog with each other, so this may possibly be Buddhists claiming the Buddha did what Mahavira did, but in half the time.  Jainism, founded by Mahavira, is one of the world’s great religions with five million followers today, most living in India but with communities throughout the world.  Buddhism is one of the three largest cultures of human thought in history, along with Christianity and Islam.

jain monk preaching

One of the stranger parallels in world history is that Jainism was a small, local culture which gave rise to Buddhism, a large, international culture, much as Judaism gave rise to the larger, international cultures of Christianity and Islam.  Both Buddha and Jesus taught that diet and ethnicity are not centrally important, creating international traditions out of earlier local teachings.  Jains are a minority in India, and have been stereotyped as merchants, traders and bankers who keep wealth amongst their own kind, much as Jews have been similarly stereotyped in Christian and Islamic lands.  While both groups have historically suffered charges of usury (profiting from the misfortunes of others), discrimination and exclusion leads to the development of an exclusive, localized community and economy that justifiably looks after communal interests.  Because Jains and Jews were excluded from investing in the mainstream community, both invested in cultures of business and trade amongst their own.  Both Jains and Jews, small in numbers compared to many cultures, have small communities spread throughout the world that developed over thousands of years along major trade routes.  This is in spite of the fact, as we will shortly see, that Jainism is not a philosophy that favors long distance travel.

The Tirthankaras

fording a river

‘Jain’ means follower of the Jina, the conqueror, the one who conquers themselves.  In the Chinese Dao De Jing, an early verse reads, Those who conquer others are powerful, but those who conquer themselves are truly strong.  The Jains worship and leave offerings for accomplished human sages who conquer themselves rather than gods, much as Buddhists do, leaving offerings at statues much as Hindus do for gods and sages alike.  Just as Buddhists revere the Buddha and other buddhas, the Jains revere the Tirthankaras, the Ford-Makers (tirtha means ford), not originally from Detroit, but there is a sizable Jain community in Toronto nearby, one of the largest outside India.  In the American educational video game The Oregon Trail, early (not so PC) versions would ask if the player would like to hire an “Indian” (Native American) guide to help ford a river, crossing where the water is shallow enough for travelers, animals and wagons to walk across.  The Tirthankaras are the actually Indian guides who help all sentient beings ford the chaotic river of life to find firmament on the other side, with water symbolic of chaos and death and earth symbolic of permanence and life.

wheel of life

The Jains innovated several ideas which became central to Hinduism as well as Buddhism, including the idea that the cosmos works in cycles.  Just as the Sun rises and sets over the course of a day, the Jains claimed that the consciousness of the Cosmos awakens and then falls asleep in each great era (kalpa), destroyed and then reborn, much as ancient Mayan astrologers predicted would happen in 2012.  Today, modern physicists debate as to what was before the Big Bang, whether or not there will be a Big Crunch, and whether or not there would be another Big Bang again after such a Big Crunch, with no clear consensus.  For the Jains, Buddhists and Hindus, as our own era awakened, humanity began teaching philosophies and religions, and then after the golden age of ancient Indian thought, the apex and high noon of our era, humanity began to “lose religion” and fall into darkness, the time in which we now live.


Jains believe that Mahavira did not create or discover the truth, but rediscovered it, as it is rediscovered at the pinnacle of each era by similar sages of each age.  Buddhists refer to Mahavira as “The Boundless One”, without attachments.  Jains believe that Mahavira is the 24th and final Tirthankara of our era, the pinnacle of enlightenment, liberation and omniscience that can be achieved in this cycle, just as Buddhists say of the Buddha.  Mahavira’s name means Great Hero, and he is revered along with other triumphant heroic Tirthankaras who conquered existence and the mind.  Mahavira is said by Jains to have fashioned four fords, the four ordered communities of Jain monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.

jain text

Today, scholars are critical of the existence of Tirthankaras listed before Mahavira in Jain texts just as they are about the existence of Buddhas listed before the Buddha in Buddhist texts.  According to the Jains, the first Tirthankara of our era was Rishabha, who discovered agriculture and thus founded civilization.  While the ancient Chinese say the same about their ancient sage kings, it is likelier that agriculture and city-states disseminated to both India and China from earlier human cultures, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians.  ‘Rishabha’ means bull, and there is evidence of bulls identified with kings in early Indus civilization, much as cows are venerated as sacred by Hindus.

jain tathankara bahulbali

One of the central Jain pilgrimage sites is a towering statue of Rishabha’s second son, Bahubali, the second Tirthankara of our era.  According to the story, Rishabha’s first son conquered all of India for himself and forced everyone to submit to his power except his younger brother Bahubali, whose name means Strong Arms.  The wise sages of the day declared that the two brothers were virtually invincible, both having obtained unsurpassed spiritual powers, and so the two brothers were asked to settle their dispute with three contests: an eye-fight (also known as a staring contest), a water-fight (splash battle?) and a wrestling match.  Bahubali bested his brother in all three, but renounced his claim to the kingdom after he saw the pain and humiliation his brother faced in losing.  This parallels second caste Kshatriyas challenging first caste Brahmins, as well as the superiority of the mental sage over the physical warrior.  Bahubali stood in the jungle for an entire year without moving, as vines grew up his body, until he became the first in our turn of the great cosmic wheel to obtain complete enlightenment, liberation and omniscience, what Mahavira and Buddha are also said to have obtained through similar sorts of mental and physical disciplinary practices.

Three Viewpoints of Skepticism

Kalpasutra_(heroic_deeds_of_the_conquerors) jain

The Jains are credited with articulating three doctrines of skepticism and relativity, what are possibly the clearest expressions of philosophical skepticism in all of human history.  These are often called ‘principles’, but they are more skeptical perspectives and points of view, tools for understanding truth and meaning, than they are laws or commandments given in words.  All three are intended to encourage acceptance and neutrality towards others and their perspectives, particularly when their understandings and interests conflict with our own.

blind men elephant turbans

First is anekantavada, the “non-one-sided-view”  (vada = view) that things are complexly some and some-not rather than simply all or none.  Things that are good are somewhat good in some ways, just as things that are said are somewhat true in some ways.  Jains argue against doctrines they consider ekantavada, one-sided and dogmatic.  Around 700 CE, fourteen hundred years after Mahavira, the Jain Shvetambara monk Haribhadrasuri wrote an influential work entitled Anekantajayapataka, often translated as The Victory Flag of Relativity.

Second is nayavada, the “perspective-view” that things are known from a particular perspective in a particular situation rather than known universally for all times and places.

descartes perception diagram

Third syadvada, the “maybe-view” that things are known and understood hypothetically, as if our evidence, perspective and reasoning are reliable, rather than known certainly without the possibility of being wrong.  The Jains, in dialog with the Nyaya orthodox Hindu school, consider the four sources of evidence (perception, inference, comparison and testimony) to be somewhat reliable but also somewhat unreliable.

Japanese Bline Men and the Elephant

The famous parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant is a Jain story which is known throughout the world and used to teach this idea.  Just as each blind man directly experiences part of the elephant through direct contact, but mistakenly argues against the others who each experience their own part of the whole, Jains argue that there is truth in all religions, philosophies, ideologies, perspectives and points of view, and there are many paths up the same mountain and rivers that feed into the same ocean.  Jains argued as logicians of the ancient world in debates with the other competing schools such as Vedanta, Nyaya, Buddhists, and Charvakas, arguing that each school has some of the truth, but not all of it together.

golden crown of the andes

Another Jain parable used to illustrate these principles is The Golden Crown, a simple story about a king with a crown, a prince who desires it and a queen who wants it melted down and made into a necklace.  Much as time transforms the old into the new by way of desire, the king agrees with the queen and melts down the crown, making the prince sad.  Whether or not the king decides to melt down the necklace and reform the crown, making the queen sad and the prince happy, the king remains happy no matter what happens, as the king cares about the gold, and it remains constant.  Whether or not the prince or queen get a reality that coincides with their perspectives and interests, the king retains a perspective that always coincides with his interests, no matter what happens or who wins.

Jains, like Buddhists, believe that things may or may not be as they seem and may or may not be expressible as they are, and that there are seven points of view as to how describable and conceivable anything is.  Each thing, including the cosmos and the self:

jain scholar

IS in a way that is describable,

IS NOT in a way that is describable,

IS and IS NOT in a way that is describable,

IS indescribable,

IS in a way that is indescribable,

IS NOT in a way that is indescribable, and

IS and IS NOT in a way that is indescribable.

Nagarjuna print

Nagarjuna, the greatest of Buddhist logicians, was likely thinking of these and other formulas as he formulated his Catuskoti (The Four Things), that each thing:



Both IS and IS NOT, and

Neither IS nor IS NOT.

Shamanic Fire Mongolia

Nagarjuna seems to have realized, in one of the greatest conceptions of Buddhist logic and debate, that if being describable or being indescribable is a way that things are or are-not, then we can boil the seven things down to four, and say that each of the four ways things are are also describable and indescribable in the four ways as well.  For example, if we consider the example “Fire is hot”, an objective and absolute truth according to Nyaya logicians, then it is also true that, in some way, fire is not hot (relative to the plasma in a star), fire is both hot and not (hotter than some things, but not others), fire is neither hot nor not hot (is neither the hottest nor the coldest thing), and that fire being hot, fire being not hot, fire being both hot and not hot, and fire being neither hot nor not are each describable, indescribable, both and neither.  For the Jains, the completely indescribable is qualified as neither IS nor NOT.


While other schools, including Nyaya logicians, claimed that Jains and Buddhists are at fault for contradicting themselves and seeing contradicting views in things, the Jains and Buddhists argue that we only fall into problematic contradiction if we make one-sided (ekanta) claims about things, ignoring the legitimate contradictory opposite side.  Jain texts use the example of hot and cold.  If a more absolute-minded logician argues that a thing cannot be both hot and cold at the same time, a relativist would argue that a thing is always somewhat relatively hot and somewhat relatively cold, and to say a thing is simply hot ignores how cold it is, and to say it is simply cold is to ignore how hot it is.  We could supply the example of a refrigerator, which cools on the inside by heating up in back and drawing the heat out of the inside.  A refrigerator is simultaneously hot and cold, and it could not be cold in one part unless it is hot in another.

pots india

Jains also use the example of a pot as both being and non-being, solid and empty, there and not there in a particular arrangement, much as Lao Zi says in chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing that a wheel or a room is an arrangement of being and nonbeing together.  Jains also use the example of a multicolored cloth, which is and is not many colors all over.  Notice that each thing one can say about anything is true in some ways, but false in others, a very critical way that things are and are not as they are described yet are never fully describable.

tree with hindu temple

Jains argue that one sees and argues for the side of things that one wants to see, that one wants to be true.  Jains argue that because human views and descriptions are always one-sided, it is perfectly alright to understand the whole yet lead people in one direction as opposed to another if one sees what one is doing.  It is only a low and ignorant mind that thinks such leading is impossible because it is contradictory.  Jains use the image of a tree, with the absolute view as the trunk and the particular view as the branches and twigs.  Notice that the trunk is and is not the twigs, just as the absolute and all-encompassing view is each particular view as a sum of them all but is not each particular view in that it is everything opposed to each particular view as well.

singapore shiva temple

Similarly, Jains argue (like Hegel, who considers seeing being, non-being and becoming simultaneously in things as the first leap of philosophy and associates it with the ancient Greek skeptic Heraclitus) that things simultaneously are and are not because they are being birthed/generated, stable/still, and decaying/transforming at the same time at all times that they are.  Each of these views are false if they are considered independently true as opposed to their opposite, but in conjunction with their opposites they are the whole truth of each particular thing and of the truth as a whole.  The union of stability with transformation as a single whole view is entirely similar to the orthodox Hindu union of Vishnu, the preserver/savior, and Shiva, the destroyer/transformer, in Brahma, the personification of all.

Mind Over Matter

bahubali sun under arm

Asceticism is severe mental and physical self-discipline, practicing mental meditation and physical exercise while avoiding indulgence and luxury, what is also called raja yoga in the Indian tradition, the second of the three paths of Hinduism.  While many of the world’s religions and traditions have ascetic fanatics, such as Christian monks who wear hair-shirts and whip themselves, the Jains are famous for going without food, clothes or any other comforts while meditating and holding yogic postures in the jungle.

Heraclitus sad painting

Much like Descartes, the first major modern European philosopher who dualistically argued for the separate existence of the mental and the physical, Jains teach that there are two distinct substances that become intermixed in our world, jiva and ajiva, mind and not-mind, spirit and matter, conscious and un/not-conscious.  When consciousness is not mixed with and thus obscured by the unconscious, when the mental is not clouded by attachment and involvement with material things, consciousness is naturally perceiving, understanding, powerful and blissful.  Jains argue that all of existence shares a single mind which becomes increasingly evident to those who rid themselves of material attachments and involvements.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, very similar in ways to the Buddha, said that waking we share one world in common, while sleepers each turn into a darkness of their own.

buddhist wheel of life

The unconscious (ajiva) does not have any inherent properties of its own, but when it mixes together with consciousness the two combine to create particular types of karma (action), active situations of conscious experience via cause and effect.  This is the Jain explanation for the same sort of karma that Hindus, Buddhists and others believe in, governing our present conscious experiences as well as past and future lives.  Thus, much as we would say in the frame of modern psychology, our blissful and painful experiences in this life have a cause and effect relationship with our past and future selves and actions.  This is how our minds become attached and addicted to particular material things, including the human body, your own as well as the bodies of others.  The Jains treat cause and effect between the conscious and unconscious as a material causal process, though like many ancient cultures they incorporate much into the material and natural that we banish to the immaterial and supernatural with modern considerations today.

puddle reflection

The Jains and Buddhists use the example of a muddy puddle, which when trampled is opaque but when settled becomes clear.  Once the dirt (material) mixes with the water (mental), passions are produced of two different kinds: attraction (positive) and repulsion (negative).  Experiences lead to passions, which lead to further experiences.  Forms of desire for things and fear of things are the entanglements our minds get into, though we can also perceive and interact with particular things neutrally, without either desire or fear.  Through neutrality, we can gain freedom from cycles of cause and effect.  The Jains are thus strange determinists who believe we can also earn an increasing freedom of will through neutrality and detachment.

blue lake reflection

By becoming tranquil, we gain space to shape our relationship with the situations of cause and effect around us, whether or not we strive to become totally detached or remain intermeshed and interactive with them.  There is much in both Buddhism as well as Chinese Daoism, incorporated into Buddhism in China, which speaks of this kind of freedom.  As we become free through proper practices, abstaining from wrong actions and engaging in good actions, we react less and less to joy and pleasure by becoming attached and less and less to sadness and pain by becoming afraid.  For example, when we become more neutral towards possessions, we cease to hoard things we do not need and engage in charity to give others things they need.  This in turn makes us unafraid of loss and regarded with appreciation by others.

flowering plant

While the Jains share many of ideas, including several of their own creations, with other Indian traditions, particularly Buddhism, Jains are quite unique in one particular way.  While Hindus, Buddhists and many others argue that karma can be either good or bad, Jains argue that involvement with karma, cycles of cause, act and effect, are always bad, always a source of delusion, ignorance and suffering.  Jains call karmic particles of matter seeds (bija), which imbed themselves and then sprout in consciousness as experiences, called fruits (phala).  Different seeds become fruit at different times and in different ways, consciousness having different experiences arise in different situations.  Jains believe we must seek, cook and thus destroy the karmic seeds we have in us in the fires of disciplined, effortful experience, such as the ascetic practice of fasting naked in the jungle for long periods of time.

Jain Monk with text

Those who do the hardest of monastic practices can strengthen themselves against karma in advance, such that future involvements will no longer plant seeds in their minds.  Thus, if Jain monks or nuns unfortunately suffer or witness violence, this does not plant seeds of desire for revenge or seeds of fear for death in them.  If ethics is the theoretical consideration of why we shouldn’t punch others, Jain monastic practice is the sustained elimination of the desire to punch anyone, regardless of future experience.  Buddhists argue against Jains that we should cook the bad behaviorist-seeds out of ourselves, but we can also plant good seeds that result in enlightenment for others and ourselves.  For Jains, enlightenment is neutrality and the elimination of involvements, the clarification of what already is.

Jain Sadhvis

Jain monastics take five vows to become nuns and monks, vowing to abstain in thought, word and deed (mind, mouth and body) from 1) violence, 2) sex, 3) lies, 4) stealing and 5) possession.  These are the most karmic producing activities, the ways that mind becomes most entangled with matter.  These vows are considered to be Mahavira’s realization and teaching which created the Jain communities in our era.  Jain commoners are not expected to abstain from violence and sex completely, but are educated and encouraged by monks and nuns to avoid doing evil, engage in doing good and attempt to obtain neutrality as much as possible.  Monks and nuns are more aware than commoners of the harm we each do to other living things, so commoners are highly encouraged to keep in mind that the harm we do to others is harm we do to ourselves and the good we do for others is the good we do for ourselves.


In the classic Introduction to Ethics dilemma as to whether to lie to Nazis about anyone hiding in the attic, a Jain commoner could lie and sacrifice morality for utility, but nuns and monks are supposed to remain silent rather than lie, even if threatened with death.  Similarly, as for the ethical dilemma of Les Miserables, a Jain commoner could steal food when they are starving, but a nun or monk should starve rather than steal.  It is for these reasons that Jains, like Buddhists, believe that full practitioners should completely abstain from sex and procreation, as they unfortunately involve us with attachment and fear, as do Nazis and starving.

The Leaky Boat

boat india river

For Jains, karma is always bondage, always weight that keeps you down, always division or blockage between you and the ALL.  Thus, one tries best to avoid accumulating karma and to destroy the karma one has already accumulated.  The Jains use another metaphor to teach the dual practice of avoiding karma and shedding karma, what I call the Jain Leaky Boat.  Suppose you ride in a boat across water to a distant shore, much as the Tirthankaras forded across before the community could be used as a boat.  Water represents chaos and desire, and the land represents firmament and enlightenment.  The boat is leaky, with water pouring in, and so you must do two things to get across without sinking.

ship stormy sea

First, you must plug the leaks so that water stops coming in.  For example, Jains take on the discipline (dharma) of a vegetarian diet as a vital part of their ascetic practice, such that they avoid causing harm to animals.  When we take steps to reduce stress in our life or better our routine, it is by eliminating negative things.

Second, you must bail out the water that is already in the boat.  The Jains call this “shedding” karma, much as we throw off chains or heavy clothes.  For example, Jains fast, meditate and stand in yogic postures to cook the seeds of past involvements out of themselves.  When we train to strengthen our bodies and minds, it is by engaging in positive things.

Jains believe that it is only by this two-pronged strategy of plugging and bailing, eliminating the negative and engaging in the positive, that the individual can be liberated from desire, suffering and round after round of rebirth into future lives of desire and suffering.  From the Tattvartha Adhigama Sutra, a central Jain text, it says:

bailing water india

There is a stoppage of inflow of karmic matter into the soul.  It is produced by preservation, carefulness, observances, meditation, conquest of sufferings, and good conduct.  By austerities is caused the shedding of karmic matter…  Liberation is freedom from all karmic matter, owing to the non-existence of the cause of bondage and to the shedding of the karmas.  After the soul is released, there remain perfect right-belief, perfect right-knowledge, perfect perception, and the state of having accomplished all.

ball of twine

Gosala, a sage who was an opponent of Mahavira and Buddha in early texts, taught that we can stop bad karma from coming in but can’t do anything about bad karma already acquired, using a ball of twine to teach that we have to let our past sins unravel on their own accord.  Both Mahavira and Buddha taught that rather than simply wait, we can live a disciplined life that not only stops bad attachments and conditioned desires coming in but gets rid of those we have already accumulated.  Some today argue that Gosala was somewhat misunderstood by Jains and Buddhists, and that he was not arguing we should do nothing to undo the bad we already have in us but rather that we have no control as to when that bad is resolved, no matter how hard we may want it.

Radical Nonviolence

carrots in bundles

Much in line with their negative view of all karma, Jain monastics are famous for their radical practices of nonviolence (ahimsa).  The average Jain is a commoner, neither a nun nor monk, who does not engage in extremes, but nuns and monks often wear face masks over their mouths outside to prevent insects and microorganisms from flying in and sweep the ground on paths and in areas of ceremony to avoid killing them, as even though the killing would be unintentional, it would still be an accumulation of karmic involvements.  While Hindus and many Buddhists are vegetarian, Jains don’t eat root vegetables such as potatoes or carrots as the whole plant must be uprooted and killed.  Some only eat what has fallen from plants on its own.

gandhi and followers

Jains are sponsors of many charities which fight animal cruelty, and Jainism has influenced the world through Gandhi, who was not a Jain but had a Jain teacher Raychandbhai Maheta who taught him about radical nonviolence, and Gandhi had a direct influence on Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and many others.

The Samans and Samanis, are an intermediary group between the ascetics and lay people, men and women who are not full monks and nuns who travel to common people to give the teachings of the purest monks and nuns who choose not to travel and harm the world and organisms in it by doing so.  In spite of this, Jains traveled even in ancient times great distances for business and trade.  As mentioned, while Jains are sometimes stereotyped as affluent merchants and businessmen in India, Jain monks and nuns own nothing and do not travel.

jain temple

The Whiteclad & The Skyclad

Jain monk broom

The two most ancient sects of Jains are the Shvetambaras (the Whiteclad) and the Digambaras (the Skyclad).  The two sects diverged and hardened against each other over the years, with the Digambara saying the Shvetambara aren’t dedicated enough and the Shvetambara saying the Digambara are too puritanical.  Shvetambara monks and nuns wear simple white robes and carry a begging bowl, much as many Buddhist monks and nuns own only a robe and bowl for receiving food from the community.  Shvetambaras also sometimes carry a small broom for clearing paths and open areas of insects.  These Whiteclad (clothed in white) make up the majority of Jain monks and nuns.

jain guru teaching

The Skyclad are even more hardcore, and own nothing.  They often carry a broom like the Whiteclad for sweeping insects away from potential trampling, but these brooms, like other things used by Whiteclad Jain and Buddhist monks and nuns, are communal property.  Friends who went to a Jesuit Catholic high school tell me that their teachers, who are educated Jesuit priests, drive decent cars that are owned by the Jesuit order, not by the priests as individuals.  Unlike Jesuit priests or Buddhist monks, Skyclad Jain monks do not own or wear clothes, much like the original ascetics who left traditional life to train in the jungle.  Digambara monks also do not own or use a bowl, and only eat what they can hold in their hands.  The famed Greek cynic Diogenes, who lived a somewhat Jain-like existence outside the marketplace of Athens in a large jar around 400 BCE, is supposed to have smashed his bowl, one of his only possessions, when he saw a poor boy using his hands to drink from a fountain.  The Yapaniyas were a third group that survived until the 1400s, who wore white in public but practiced naked.

jain nuns

Sadly, Digambara nuns are not allowed to be naked and are thus considered inferior.  The Digambara argue that only those who go without clothes can obtain full enlightenment, and because women cannot be naked without problems arising, Digambara nuns wear clothes and must await being reborn as a man to have a shot at being a Digambara monk and then being enlightened.  Some Digambara texts argue that women are more physically complex than men, are host to more microorganisms and experience the violence of menstruation.  The Digambara also believe that all Shvetambara, monks and nuns, are incapable of total moksha wearing clothes, which means that Digambara monks, according to themselves, are the only Jains who are capable of being full Jains and having a shot at the final goal.

There is a Mahayana Buddhist story of the dragon princess who heard a Buddhist chant, became enlightened, and went to monks to confirm her awakening.  On hearing that she couldn’t be completely enlightened as a dragon or a woman, she levitated into the sky, transformed into a man (dragon?) and shot up into the higher heavens in front of the monks’ eyes.  This story shows the Mahayana extending enlightenment popularly to women beyond the earlier Theravadins, much as the Shvetambara do beyond the stricter Digambaras.

jain nun

The Shvetambara believe that both women and men are capable of obtaining enlightenment and liberation in this very life without needing to be reborn into a more favorable existence, such as a lower-class Hindu being reborn a Brahmin, a woman being reborn a man, or a Shvetambara being reborn as a Digambara.  The Shvetambaras believe that the 19th of the 24 Tirthankaras, Mallinatha, was a woman, unlike the Digambaras who think s/he/they was/were a man.  Sadly, the Shvetambaras believe that Mallinatha was born a woman because she had been a man in his previous life who lied to his fellow Jains and snuck off into the (deeper?) jungle to be even more hardcore in secret.  The Shvetambaras believe that Mahavira’s mother Trishala also achieved enlightenment as a woman.

Jain Monks 1800s

Mahavira did practice meditation and asceticism naked, but only because he was so detached from his body that his white loin cloth slipped off one day.  This can be interpreted by the Digambara as the universe itself leading Mahavira to truly proper conduct and by the Shvetambara as accidental and inessential.  The Shvetambara texts record Mahavira speaking and acting after obtaining enlightenment, while the Digambara do not believe that Mahavira did anything other than sit in tranquility after his liberation.  According to the Digambara, when Mahavira obtained total enlightenment he did not speak or act, but his body emitted a sound that his closest followers were able to understand as the final Jain teaching.

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