Anekantvad: A philosophy of non-absolutism in the time of absolutes

Even as you watch politicians shout out each other on TV decrying the opposite party’s version as falsehood and their own narrative as the absolute truth, a question often pops up. What exactly is the absolute truth?

An interesting concept in Jainism called out explicitly is that of ‘Anekantwad’. Before I move forward here is a disclaimer. This post is not a propaganda of any religion. In fact, I have been at loggerheads with the very concept of organised religion as long as I remember. Having said that I tend to pick up general concepts that resonate with me from across walks of life.

So, coming back to Anekantwad. By definition itself, the word means (as per my knowledge) that there is NO specific word or a singular narrative that can either describe a phenomenon in its entirety or even ascribe to it an absolute meaning. Taking this logic, a bit further, it simply means to me that no version of truth is absolute. What may be true for me w.r.t. an incident, may not be true for you. At the same time this does not mean that my truth is a falsehood. It just means that I have a partial view and that there are other facets of the same incident that are equally true which I am not aware of.

The most popular example that I have read describing this logic is below. We have all read that the sun rises in the east, a phenomenon that has always been presented as an axiom. However, let’s stretch our imagination a bit here. Let’s assume that we are the mighty Galactus of the Marvel universe who has the power to destroy entire planets. Now if he is watching the entire milky way from afar, the sun for him neither sets nor rises. Both the perspectives are true, even if they are inherently contradictory on a stand-alone basis. It’s a farfetched example but nonetheless a suitable one.

Let us try a more practical example. On Feb 4, 1990 the Voyager 1 took one of the most iconic photographs of earth from a record distance of 6 billion kilometers. Why this is an iconic photograph is because in Carl Sagan’s words while the earth in the photograph is nothing but ‘a pale blue dot lost in the vast and dark universe’, it is at the same time a lot more to all of us. As he famously said and I quote “We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam”

Now if the same image were being seen by someone who has never lived on earth and never felt the same attachment to it like we do, why the narrative would have stopped at ‘a pale blue dot of little consequence in the vast darkness of the universe’. However, this definitely does not mean that Carl Sagan’s narrative is untrue.

This I believe really explains the fundamental logic of Anekantwad. Obviously, a question can be raised that by the same logic the veracity of Anekantwad can itself be questioned. That is whether it’s true or not. But that’s the beauty of it. After all, like all other philosophies, religions and also god, Anekantwad was also created by a human and his/her fertile imagination combined with a deep-thinking mind. It’s therefore always up to us whether we wish to try this philosophy or not. Ascribing meaning (positive or negative) to the outcomes of trying out a philosophy or a technique for that matter, is after all again up to us.

Concluding this long write up, and coming back to our hallowed politicians, who are always busy in the eternal game of one-upmanship, I believe a thorough lesson in Anekantwad from a learned guru would really help them. However, knowing whatever little I understand of them, it’s a guarantee that even then their supple minds and consciousness will find ways to achieve their own agendas within the framework of Anekantwad.

On a parting note, there is one phenomenon that I believe is universal, absolute and without any disputes. That is death. As far as I understand, it’s the most absolute truth out there, if there is any. However, the ingenious human mind, has even found a way to counter it. After all it’s the body that dies but the soul is immortal, and since the soul is immortal, are you ever truly dead? Anyways that is a discussion for another time.

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