Article: Jainism and scientific thought

Contributed by Aidan Rankin and Kanti V. Mardia


Jain philosophy is based on a concept of ‘many-sidedness’ – anekānta-vāda or, more usually, anekant. This is the foundation of a system of logic called syād-vāda.

The basis of anekant is the idea that truth or underlying reality has multiple aspects and can be approached from an apparently infinite variety of standpoints – nyayas. A frequently used analogy is that of the facets of a cut diamond, in which the same light is reflected from different angles. Another example is the different pathways up a mountain, which all lead to the summit. It follows that many interpretations of the truth should be respected or engaged with and that dogmatic certainty – ekant – distorts the quest for truth.

Anekant is not the same as post-modern relativism. This is broadly defined as the notion that there is no objective truth and all beliefs are more or less equally valid, with their legitimacy depending on the circumstances. Anekant holds that truth does exist but is hard for mere humans to grasp in more than a few details.

However, anekant does provide useful guidelines for living in a pluralist society. Importantly, other species, including animal and plant life, have their own entirely valid nyayas or perspectives on the truth. Anekant is thus a form of intellectual ahiṃsānon-violence – of the mind.

Interconnectedness and careful action

This manuscript painting shows perfect beings that have been liberated from the cycle of birth and some of the ways of reaching liberation. The exalted status of the liberated souls in the crescent-shaped siddha-śilā is stressed by their ornate parasols.

Perfect beings and paths to liberation
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

For Jains, all life in the inhabited universe is interconnected and interdependent. From this it follows that all beings are held to have a unique purpose and the potential for enlightenment. The ancient Jain concept of 'careful action' takes account of this and gives equal significance to each form of life. Contemporary science is finding evidence of how deeply interrelated eco-systems are, in which even minute or overlooked elements are necessary for the whole system to continue.

Millennia before the invention of the microscope, Jain thinkers held that the earth and cosmos were teeming with ‘invisible’ life-forms, which could be complex systems playing a crucial role in sustaining life as a whole. In Mahāvīra’s words, ‘Non-violence and kindness to living beings is kindness to oneself’. Compare also Noble Truth 4B.

Modern laboratory-based science is increasingly bearing out these conclusions. The critical role of plankton in regulating the health and temperature of the oceans is an example of previous assumptions about a micro-organism turning out to be wrong. In fact, plankton occupies a powerful place in the hierarchy of life and is complex rather than elementary, as once supposed. Similarly, the cyclical view of time and the universe accords with what is now known of the expansion and contractions of stars or galaxies. This view is much more accurate than the linear view of progress.

Like Jainism, modern science asks radical questions about the way human beings behave and think, including the exploitation of other species. Īryā-samiti – careful action – is a concept that lies at the core of Jain philosophy (see Noble Truth 4C). It involves thinking of ways to minimise actions that harm or adversely affect other forms of life. This ancient insight gives a philosophical basis to contemporary understanding of the effects of human activity on the environment.

In the context of the 21st century, the concept of careful action has profound implications for human behaviour. It asks human beings to live within limits rather than continuously expand and is a reminder that knowledge has a wider social purpose. In this context the term ‘social’ covers all living systems.

The implications for scientific research are also radical. Taking this stance of careful action, human society is realigned with ‘the rest’ of nature, rather than viewed as superior to or in conflict with it. In the same way, science is reunited with an ethical framework. Its purpose becomes understanding of and working with dharma, rather than asserting human mastery of it. In this holistic world view, the rational and intuitive aspects of human thought work in partnership, rather than opposition. They are aspects of the reality for which both the laboratory researcher and the spiritual practitioner search.

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