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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
IS NOT in a way that is describable,
IS and IS NOT in a way that is describable,
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, 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.
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.
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 non-being 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.
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.
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.