Syadavada or Saptabhangi


Jina, An Enlightened Jain Monk

by Jayaram V

There is a general argument among intellectual circles that most of our knowledge is unreliable and inaccurate because it is relative knowledge, which appears to be true from a particular point of view and false from another. Unfortunately our knowledge is driven by the senses and the mind and these are imperfect organs of truth.

They cannot present to us the multidimensional view of our reality but only a tunnel vision. Jain scholars are well aware of this human predicament and have therefore put forward the theory of standpoints. They explain the theory, using the story of six blind men trying to describe an elephant each using a particular sense organ. This theory is known as Anekantavada or Nayavada, which as been explained by me in another essays on this subject.

Closely related to this doctrine is the theory of probabilities, popularly known as syadavada, which may be described as the theory of "May be" or the theory of predications. It is also known as Saptabhangi or the seven postures.

According to it is impossible to consider all aspects of reality at a time due to the limitations of the human mind. However, we may consider each aspect at a time. Since, understanding is relative to a viewpoint, each predication can be affirmed or negated using seven different probabilities, ranging from "Is" to "Is not." Each represents a partial view and holds good from that particular viewpoint. Using this approach, one can make a series of seven statements about an object or reality, denoting its affirmation, negation and indescribability in the following manner.

1. Is

2. Is not

3. Is and is not.

4. Is inexpressible.

5. Is and is inexpressible

6. Is not and is inexpressible

7. is, is not and is inexpressible

These statements are not used in daily conversation but to explore truth regarding doctrinal subjects such as the nature of soul or reality. For example a soul is in existence in a jiva. It is not in existence in an inanimate object. It is eternal in its essential nature, but not eternal in its modification. In Jainism, each of the seven arguments are started with the expression "syad," meaning "it would be like." It is used to denoted that a statement or expression can be true only in a certain sense.

This is further explained in the following description of them.

1. Syad asti (IS): A thing exists in the context of its self or from the perception of a seer. You saw a tree through your own eyes at a particular place in your backyard and so you know from your experience that the tree of such and such type, shape, color and size exists at such and such place and time.

2. Syad nasti (IS NOT) : A thing does not exist in the context of other forms, other substance, another place or another time. The same tree that you saw does not exist as another type, shape, color and size tree or at a different place or time. Simply, a thing does not exit other than what it is. (Hope this is not rather too much for you to understand.)

3. Syad asti nasti (IS and IS NOT): A thing may or may not exist at the same time. It may exist from one point of view and many not exist from another point of view. If you see an object with your eyes it exists, but if you close your eyes and want to perceive it with your hearing, it may not exist. Also if you are preoccupied with some other matter, you may not see it even if it is there. Similarly, if you are familiar with the concept of a tree, you would say the tree that you saw is a tree. But if you are not at all familiar with the concept of a tree, you would perhaps argue that what you saw was something else.

4. Syad avyaktaya: A thing is inexpressible means you cannot speak about it because it is indescribable, indeterminate or you do not know how to express it. It is when we try to express in term other than what it is. For example I cannot speak about a tree other than what it is or I cannot speak about a tree other than in its own terms.

5. Syad asti avyaktaya: A thing exists but I cannot express it. A tree exists but certain aspects of it are indescribable. We know that some of the things that exist in the universe are inexpressible, either because we do not know about them or because we do not have the capacity to express them. or because of our own limitations. This is a predicament many of us experience. Sometime we know for sure something exists, but we do not have adequate words to express it or the means to express it. This is especially true about abstract concepts that are difficult to express.

6. Syad nasti avyaktaya: The thing does not exist, and also cannot be expressed. If the tree does not exist from my vantage point, how can I express it? We can speak about things that exist. But how can we speak about things that do not exist at all? We can speak about existence. But what can we say about non-existence? We can express what is known and perceivable. But how can we speak about what is unknown and what is not? So we cannot express that which does not exist.

7. Syad asti nasti avyaktaya: A thing is there and also not there at the time and it is inexpressible. The tree exists in the present. It might not have existed in the past. The tree exists when I am standing near it and does not exist when I am far away from it. When the same thing exists and also does not exist, how can it be expressed correctly without losing the truth of its simultaneous existence and non-existence?

In conclusion we may say that according to Jainism, truth cannot be comprehended by our minds completely. We can view it relatively and relationally from various view points and each holds good in a certain sense. We cannot take a relative truth and argue that it is universal, a logical fallacy to which most of us are prone in our mundane lives. Each of us experience the world and various aspects of life in our own ways; yet we forget this truth when we express our opinions or foist our beliefs upon others.

A Jaina ascetic knows that it is possible to make statements or draw many conclusions about the same truth. A thing may exist in the context of its own form, substance, place and time. Similarly a thing may not exist in the context of another form, another substance, another place and another time. For example you may say a person exists because you know him and saw him. You may say the person does not exist because he died and you view him in the context of your present moment. Both statements are true in a limited sense, but neither of them represent the whole truth regarding the person. You may say you cannot describe that person's past because you met him only after he grew up. Hence for you his past is inexplicable, but for his childhood friend who grew up with him it is not. Therefore, you can see that we cannot claim exclusive authority on any truth. All things have states and dimensions. Hence, all truth are conditional and relative.

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