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Syädväda or Sapta-Bhanga (Seven Predications)

‘‘The doctrine of Syädväda holds that since a thing is full of most contrary characteristics of infinite variety, the affirmation made is only from a particular standpoint or point of view and therefore it may be correct or true. However, the same assertion may be wrong or false from some other standpoint or point of view. Thus, the assertion made cannot be regarded as absolute. All affirmations in some sense are true and in some sense are false. Similarly, all assertions are indefinite and true in some sense as well as indefinite and false in some other sense. Assertions could be true, or false or indefinite. Thus, Jainism proposes to grant the non-absolute nature of reality and relativistic pluralism of the object of knowledge by using the word ‘Syät’ (or Syäd) before the assertion or Judgment. The word ‘Syät’ literally means ‘may be.’ It is also translated as ‘perhaps’, ‘some how’, ‘relatively’ or ‘in a certain sense’. The word ‘Syät’ or its equivalent in English used before the assertion makes the proposition true but only under certain conditions i.e. hypothetically. What is to be noted is that the word ‘Syät’ is not used in the sense of probability leading to uncertainty.

Probability again hints at skepticism and Jainism is not skepticism. Since reality has infinite aspects, our judgments are bound to be conditional. Thus, Syädväda is the theory of relativity of knowledge. The Jains quoted quite a good number of parables, which are conventionally used by Jain writers to explain the theory. The most famous one for the grip over the core of the theory is the famous parable of six blind men who happened to come across an elephant. Each one was sure and asserting about his own description alone being correct. However, each one was correct from his point of view though contrary to each other. Thus the Jains hold that no affirmation or judgment is absolute in its nature, each is true in its own limited sense only. The affirmations will tell either about the existence, or non-existence, or about the inexpressible. Combining these three will give four more alternatives. So, we derive the seven alternatives technically known as Sapta-Bhanga Naya or the sevenfold Judgment.

Theory of Seven Predications (Sapta-Bhanga)

To clarify the above approach of ascertaining the truth by the process of Syädväda, the Jain philosophers have evolved a formula of seven predications, which are known as Sapta-bhanga. ‘Sapta’ means ‘seven’ and ‘Bhanga’ means ‘mode’. These seven modes of ascertaining the truth are able to be exact in exploring all possibilities and aspects. For any proposition, there are three main modes of assessment, namely,
(1) Syad Asti (Perhaps it is), 
(2) Syad Nasti (Perhaps it is not), 
(3)Syad Asti Nasti (Perhaps it is as well as it is not), 
(4) Syad Avaktavya (Perhaps it is indescribable), 
(5) Syad Asti Avaktavya (Perhaps it is and it is indescribable, 
(6) Syad Nasti Avaktavya (Perhaps it is not and it is indescribable), 
(7) Syad Asti Nasti Avaktavya (Perhaps it is, as well as it is not and it is indescribable.

 All these seven predications are explained with reference to an ethical proposition that ‘Does the soul exist?’ With regard to this proposition, the seven predications noted above can be made as under:

1)      Syad Asti: Perhaps the soul does exist.

2)      Syad Nasti: Perhaps the soul doesn’t exist.

3)      Syad Asti Nasti: Perhaps the soul does exist as well as it does not.

4)      Syad Avaktavya: Perhaps it is indescribable.

5)      Syad Asti Avaktavya: Perhaps the soul does exist and it is indescribable as well.

6)      Syad Nasti Avaktavya: Perhaps the soul doesn’t exist and it is indescribable as well.

7)    Syad Asti Nasti Avaktavya: Perhaps the soul does exist as well as it doesn’t and it is indescribable as well.

All these seven modes can be expressed with regard to every proposition. The Jain philosophers have applied them with reference to self, its eternality, non-eternality, identity and character. In fact, this approach of Anekänta permeates almost every doctrine, which is basic to Jain philosophy. S. Gopalan quotes Eliot in this connection as saying: "The essence of the doctrine (of Syädväda) so far as one can disentangle it from scholastic terminology, seems just for it amounts to this, that as to matters of experience it is impossible to formulate the whole and the complete truth, and as to matters which transcend experience, language is inadequate." At no time in the history of mankind, this principle of Syädväda was more necessary than in the present.

This is the general view of the method of the Jain dialectic. Only this type of dialectical method can represent Syädväda. The theory of sevenfold predication is treated as synonymous with Syädväda owing to the fact that the number of possible or alternative truths under the conditional method of Syädväda is seven only.’’

Syädväda: Critical Evaluation
Jains admit that a thing cannot have self contrary attributes at the same time and at the same place. What Jainism emphasizes is the manyness and manifoldness of a thing or the complex nature of reality. Dr. Rädhäkrishnan says, "Since reality is multiform and ever-changing, nothing can be considered to exist everywhere and at all times and in all ways and places and it is impossible to pledge us to an inflexible creed." A. N. Upadhhye writes that Syädväda and Naya-väda has supplied the philosopher the catholicity of thought. It also convinces one that Truth is not anybody’s monopoly with tariff walls of denominational religion while furnishing the religious aspirant with the virtue of intellectual toleration. This is the part of that Ahimsa which is one of the fundamental tenets of Jainism.’’ Lastly, in the words of Dr. Y. J. Padmarajiah, ‘‘Anekäntaväda is the heart of Jain metaphysics and Naya-väda and Syädväda (or Sapta-bhangi) are its main arteries. To use a happier metaphor: the bird of Anekäntaväda flies on its wings of Naya-väda and Syädväda.’’ Through Anekäntaväda, and thus through Naya-väda and Syädväda, Jains bring a solution to the age-old controversy between the absolutism and nihilism or between the one and the many or the real and the unreal.

Theistic Implication of Syädväda
Thus, the spirit to understand the other and other’s standpoint and to learn to tolerate the conflicting or contrary situation helps a lot towards the higher development of right conduct. It broadens the mind and makes a person quite objective and open in his thinking. Such a person, like Jain monks, reads extensively the treatises of other schools. It proves to be good training ‘‘to identify extreme views and to apply the proper corrections.” Thus, here also, we find Syädväda a great help towards right knowledge and right conduct. Syädväda, by molding a person towards better conduct and higher knowledge, proves to be of great theistic significance. One of the aims of life is to make the earth a better and worthier world. Syädväda in spite of its dry dialectic and forbidding use of logic is not without a lesson for the practical human beings of the world. Pundit Dalsukhbhai Malvania, an authority on Jainism, in one of his essays on Anekäntaväda explains that the motto of Anekäntaväda is Ahimsa and that is the prime reason that Jain philosophy is based on Anekäntaväda. The very idea of not to hurt others but to be kind and sympathetic towards others’ views and thus to be friendly is the logical outcome of Ahimsa. Ahimsa in its positive concept becomes love and compassion. A perfect theism, not in its narrow rigid sense, but in the sense where broad religiousness, deep spirituality and high knowledge are thought of for the soul’s ultimate liberation from bondage, require Syädväda as its valid approach to have an objective vision of truth, to be tolerant, to be sympathetic and to have an attitude of impartiality. Without all these, no theism in its actual practice is possible. Syädväda shapes a personality into a theistic one.

Moreover, subjective attitude and past recollections towards the same or similar objects play a decisive role in judgment. At the same time prejudices and predilections, social upbringing, environmental necessities and politico-social taboos also play a very decisive role in a judgment about an idea. In fact, every object and every idea has infinite characteristics and is required to be judged from a variety of standpoints. What should be our reaction towards a thing if we are convinced that everything in this universe has infinite characteristics and with limited knowledge, a human being is not capable of determining all these characteristics? Certainly, if our approach were objective and unbiased, we would not rush to take an absolute view of that thing or thought by keeping in mind the limitations of our knowledge. Our judgment based on limited data is likely to be wrong. We would, however, not have actual perception. Therefore, in our prudence, we would say that the judgment formed about actually perceived things is ‘likely’ to be true. While saying so, we would not rule out the possibility that it may turn out to be untrue if looked at from any other perspective. This is the approach of Syädväda, which implies that each and all knowledge is relative. What we know by the analytical process of Naya-väda, we express by the synthesis of Syädväda. As already noticed, the etymological meaning of the word ‘Syäd’ is ‘Perhaps.’ However, it is used to suggest a relative truth. The theory of Syädväda is based on the premise that every proposition is only relatively true. It all depends upon the particular aspect from which we appreciate that proposition. Since all propositions are related to many circumstances, our assertions about them depend entirely upon the particular circumstances through which we are viewing them. Since our view has a limited aperture, we cannot know everything and hence it is appropriate to avoid our absolute assertion.

For instance, when we say that a particular thing weighs 5 lb., our statement about the weight is related to the gravitational force exerted on that thing by our planet, the earth. The same thing may not weigh anything if removed from this gravitational field or may weigh differently on a different planet. The same can be said about our statements relating to time and space and about every human experience. It is the matter of our daily experience that the same object, which gives pleasure to us under certain circumstances, becomes boring under different circumstances. Scientific truths are, therefore, relative in the sense that they do not give complete and exhaustive knowledge of the objects under study and contain elements that may be changed with further advance in knowledge. Nonetheless, relative truth is undoubtedly useful as it is a stepping stone to the ultimate truth.

Is “Self” Permanent or Transitory?
In the field of metaphysics, there has been serious controversy about the real nature of ‘Self’. While Vedäntists believe that, everything that is found in this universe is ‘Brahma’, the super self, permanent, and the material things, which are found to have no reality, as they are transitory in nature. The Buddhists would say that everything in this universe including the super-self is transitory and constantly changing. These are the two extreme views as they concentrate only on particular aspects to the exclusion of other aspects. The Jains say that both are relatively correct from the viewpoint through which they see the thing, but both are incorrect in as much as they fail to take the comprehensive view of all the aspects involved. The Jains would say that, from the point of view of substance (Dravya) self is permanent but from the point of view of modifications (Paryäya), it is transitory. Since substance and its modes should be taken as an integrated whole in order to comprehend it properly, both the attributes of permanence and transitoryness should be taken into account. Both to the Vedäntists as well as to the Buddhists, the Jain seer would say ‘Syäd Asti’, i.e., "From one aspect you are right” and applying his ‘Anekänta Naya’, i.e., looking at the problem from different angles would come to the above conclusion. Thus the doctrine of relativity, which is the practical application of the theory of multifold aspects (Naya-väda), is nothing but the doctrine of metaphysical synthesis. This doctrine has a great value in our day - to - day individual and social life.

Importance of Anekäntaväda
The importance of this comprehensive synthesis of ‘Syädväda’ and ‘Anekänta Naya’ in day-to-day life is immense in as much as these doctrines supply a rational unification and synthesis of the manifold and reject the assertions of bare absolutes. Mahatma Gandhi’s views (wrote in 1926) about the Jain theory of Anekänta are as follows: “It has been my experience, that I am always true (correct) from my point of view and often wrong from the point of view of my critics. I know that we are both (I and my critics) right from our respective points of view." "I very much like this doctrine of the manyness of reality. It is this doctrine that has taught me to judge a Muslim from his standpoint and a Christian from his. From the platform of the Jains, I prove the noncreative aspect of God, and from that of Rämänuja the creative aspect. As a matter of fact we are all thinking of the unthinkable describing the indescribable, seeking to know the unknown, and that is why our speech falters, is inadequate and been often contradictory."

The history of all conflicts and confrontations in the world is the history of intolerance born out of ignorance. Difficulty with the human being is his/her egocentric existence. If only the human being becomes conscious of his/her own limitations! Anekänta or Syädväda tries to make the human being conscious of his/her limitation by pointing to his narrow vision and limited knowledge of the manifold aspects of things, and asks him/her not be hasty in forming absolute judgments before examining various other aspects - both positive and negative. Obviously, much of the bloodshed, and much of tribulations of mankind would have been saved if the human being had shown the wisdom of understanding the contrary viewpoints.

The doctrine of Syädväda also clarifies the metaphysical doctrine of ‘Self’ envisaged by the Jains. The proposition ‘Syäd Asti’ is positive in character and points out the positive attributes of the thing in question. These are individual attributes, which belong to and are inherent in the thing in question. Therefore, when the proposition ‘Syäd Asti’ is applied to ‘Self’, it conveys that ‘Self’ is justified in its existence only from the point of view of its own individual attributes, modes, space and time. However, when the other proposition of the doctrine namely ‘Syät Nästi’ is applied to it, it means the ‘Self’ does not possess the attributes and modes which do not belong to it. It is just like a pot that can be identified as a ‘pot’ only if it carries the attributes of a ‘pot’ but it cannot be identified as a pot if it carries the attributes, which are foreign to it. So the negative identification of ‘Syät Nästi’ when applied to ‘Self’ would mean, that if the self tries to adopt the attributes of Pudgal (matter) which are foreign to it, it is not the ‘self’. In other words, Syädväda teaches us that ‘Self’ can be identified positively as ‘Syäd Asti’ only if it is viewed from its own attributes, and negatively as ‘Syäd Nästi’ to show that it is not Pudgal, etc. if it is viewed from the attributes that are foreign to it.

Thus, the doctrine of Syädväda gives clarity to the real character of the ‘Self’ and by the same process of reasoning, the real character of ‘Pudgal’, i.e., non-sentient things.

Anekäntaväda and Ahimsa
However, the important aspect of Anekäntaväda and Syädväda is the subtlety with which it introduces the practice of Ahimsa (nonviolence) even in the realm of thought. The moment one begins to consider the angle from which a contrary viewpoint is put forward, one begins to develop tolerance, which is the basic requirement of the practice of ‘Ahimsa’. The origin of all bloody wars fought on the surface of this earth can be traced to the war of ideas, beliefs and disagreements. Anekäntaväda and Syädväda puts a healing touch at the root of the human psyche and tries to stop the war of beliefs, which lead to the war of nerves and then to the war of bloodshed. It makes all absolutes in the field of thought quite irrelevant and naive, and it imparts maturity to the thought process and supplies flexibility and originality to the human mind. If mankind will properly understand and adopt this doctrine of Anekäntaväda and Syädväda, it will realize that real revolution was not the French or Russian; the real revolution was the one, which taught man to develop his/her power of understanding from all possible aspects.

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  1. Very nice sir,
    well defined.

  2. Dear sir,
    Trying to give an example ANEKANTAVADA
    A.C.Current is having 50 cycles (becoming on & off 50 times in a second of time)
    A house hold lamp looks glowing by bare eye, but is becoming on & off 50 times in a second.
    only fully on, only off is an illusion.
    1)it is on. (Syad Asti)
    2)it is off.(Syad Nasti)
    3)it is on al well as it does not(AC current is a sine wave above zero ref & below zero ref (Syad Asti Nasti)it happens in micro secs
    4)it is indescribable by any human language (unless one see A.C.sine wave on oscilloscope)(unless one experience kewalgyana).
    SO ON BY 5,6,7,

    1. that's a very good example... thanks for sharing!