Presented at the Vedanta Society of New York on June 16, 2019
Good morning! Namaste, Namaskār, and, to use the traditional Jain greeting, Jai Jinendra! It is my great honor to speak once again here at the Vedanta Society of New York, established by Swami Vivekananda himself in 1894. I would also like to wish everyone a Happy Guru Pūrṇima and a Happy Father’s Day. On this auspicious occasion, Swami Sarvapriyananda has asked me to speak to you about Jainism, a tradition that is certainly distinct from Vedānta, but that also has a great deal in common with it.
For those of you who do not know me, I have been a member of the Vedānta Society for a number of years now. My wife and I both took initiation from Swami Tyagananda, of the Boston Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, in 2005, although both of us have been drawn to Vedanta for much longer, going back to our respective childhoods. I have also, in the course of my career, done a fair amount of research on the Jain tradition, and wrote a textbook on this tradition titled Jainism: An Introduction, which was published in 2009. I am grateful to say that my work has been warmly received by the Jain community, and that Jainism: An Introductionis even used as a textbook in the International Summer School for Jain Studies, which is run every year by members of the Jain community in New Delhi, India. In just three more weeks, I am scheduled to speak at the annual convention of JAINA, the Jain Association in North America, which is to be held in Los Angeles, California, and last year, I had the honor of speaking at the Indian Consulate right here in New York on the occasion of Mahavir Jayanti, the holy day celebrating the birth and enlightenment of the great Jain sage, Mahāvīra.
Over the course of my career, I have been told by some scholars that my interpretation of Vedānta bears some resemblances to Jainism. I have also been told, by some other scholars, that my interpretation of Jainism sounds a great deal like Vedānta. My presentation today will perhaps prove that both of these groups have a point; for I shall argue that, while there are indeed significant differences between these two philosophies–Jainism and Vedānta–there is also an important sense in which they share a philosophical vision. This is particularly the case of Jainism and the Vedānta taught by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda–the Vedānta of the Vedanta Society.
I shall begin with a very broad overview of both Jainism and Vedānta, spending somewhat less time explicating Vedānta, on the assumption that most of you are already deeply familiar with it. I shall then speak briefly on what has drawn me to both traditions–to the practice of Vedānta and the study of Jainism–and then delve into the central point of my presentation, which is that the vision these two traditions share is one of pluralism, in which all worldviews are given respect and in which each is seen as capturing at least an aspect of the infinite truth. I see this vision as being of particularly urgent importance in our world today, which is characterized by deep suspicion and violence among communities based on differences of belief and practice.
Jainism and Vedānta: A Broad Comparative Overview
The obvious similarities between Jainism and Vedānta arise from their having originated in India. Adherents of these two traditions share the same basic cosmology that is shared across all Indic religious traditions: Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh. Jains and Vedāntins both believe that the cosmos has always existed, there being no such thing as an absolute beginning of time, but that the realm of time, space, and causation goes through periodic cycles of arising, persistence, and destruction. Thus, this particular universe, the one we are inhabiting, had a beginning (which, according to modern science, occurred with the Big Bang roughly fourteen billion years ago–on a time scale quite compatible with the shared vision of the Indic traditions). It will also have an end, which is also quite far in the future. But this end will be followed by another beginning. A new cosmic cycle will start, and so on, and so on, to infinity. Similarly, our current universe was itself preceded by an earlier one, and another before that, and another before that, again, to infinity. The details of this process differ between the two traditions. According to the Vedāntic vision, creation, preservation, and destruction are presided over by a Supreme Being, a deity whose function is to ensure the smooth unfolding of the cosmic process. In the mode of creation, this deity is known as Brahmā, in the mode of preservation, as Viṣṇu, and in the mode of destruction for the sake of re-creation, as Śiva. Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva are each accompanied by a śakti, or a power, who makes possible their respective activities: Sarasvatī, Lakṣmī, and the Mother Goddess, variously known as Devī, Umā, Parvatī, Durgā, Kālī, or simply Śakti. According to the Jain vision, no such presiding deity is necessary to account for the smooth unfolding of the cosmic process, which can be explained fully by the workings of karma, the law of cause and effect that is affirmed by both Jains and Vedāntins, as well as by Buddhists and Sikhs.
According to Jainism and Vedānta–and again, all the Indic traditions–we living beings in the realm of time, space, and causation are undergoing a process of rebirth, a cycle which is known as saṃsāra. As individuals, this lifetime is not our only existence. Rather, as Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gītā, “There was never a time when you and I did not exist, nor is there any time in the future when shall cease to be. Just as a person discards old and worn-out clothing and takes on a new set of clothing, thus does the embodied soul discard one body and take on another. The wise are not deluded by these changes.” Jains and Vedāntins thus share the reassuring view that, when we lose our loved ones, they have not ceased to exist. They have simply changed form, just as contemporary physics states that energy and matter (which are really the same thing) are never really destroyed. They simply change their state of being. Our loved ones carry on their existence in another form, and we shall do the same. We may even re-associate in the future. Similarly, it may well be that those who are near and dear to us today were our loved ones in former lives, and that we are now re-associating. And it may be that those with whom we have conflicts are souls with whom we have been in conflict in the past, and we still have yet to resolve our differences.
In both Jainism and Vedānta, though, the continuation of existence in a physical form, even though it is reassuring in the face of personal tragedy and loss, is not the ultimate aim of life. In fact, saṃsāra is seen in both traditions as a form of suffering (a teaching also found prominently in Buddhism). Our ultimate aim is to move from this time-bound, impermanent, and constantly shifting form of existence to the realm of the eternal: or in the words of the Upaniṣads, “from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.”
Our aim, in other words, according to both traditions, is mokṣa, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
According to both Jainism and Vedānta, we are bound to the cycle of rebirth by karma, the law of causation according to which each of our actions produces an effect. These effects must be experienced by their doer. As doers of action, we are therefore bound to experience the effects of our actions. This leads to rebirth, because, as we are constantly engaged in action, new effects are constantly being created for us to experience; so even at the moment of death, residual effects are still present which will pull us back into the cycle of rebirth, almost like a gravitational or magnetic pull being exerted on matter.
In regard to the details–the mechanics, if you will–of how karma works, and of how one becomes free from the karmic process, there are both similarities and differences between Jainism and Vedānta. I just mentioned the idea of karma as something akin to a gravitational or magnetic pull being exerted upon the soul, drawing it inexorably into the realm of rebirth after the death of the physical body. From a Jain point of view, this is precisely what is happening. According to Jain teaching, karma is not simply a law of causation (though it is that as well). It is also a type of matter or energy which adheres, in a very literal way, to the soul, causing it to experience karmic effects. The aim of Jain practice is to purify the soul of this karmic matter. This matter obscures the true nature of the soul, or jīva, and keeps it bound to a physical body. When the jīva is free of karma, it then manifests its true nature as infinite knowledge, infinite perception, infinite bliss, and infinite energy. It is then forever free, residing in a realm known as the Siddhaloka, the realm of the perfected ones. The ultimate aim of life is to realize, to fully manifest, the perfection that has always, already been the true nature of the soul: a nature that has been obscured by the presence of karmic matter.
According to Vedānta, we are all undergoing a similar process. Rather than literal, physical particles of karmic matter adhering to the soul and obscuring its true nature, Vedānta, particularly Advaita Vedānta, focuses upon our consciousness, our false belief that we are a body, a being that is characterized by the limitations of time, space, and causation. As in Jainism, it is taught in the Vedānta tradition that our true nature is not of this limited, physical nature. Rather, we are infinite being, infinite consciousness, and infinite bliss. In both traditions, our reality is one of infinity that has been limited by association with the finite. In Advaita Vedānta, this limitation is only apparent and is removed by the achievement of knowledge, or jñāna: the realization that we are, in fact, not limited beings, but that our true nature, or ātman, is identical with the infinite Brahmanthat is the foundation of all existence and the ground of all being. In Jainism, this limitation is not merely an apparent one, but is a function of energies that have become associated with the soul, from which the soul needs to disassociate itself. In Advaita Vedānta, our bondage is an effect of our ignorance, or of māyā, which makes reality appear to us other than as it truly is. In Jainism, our ignorance is an effect of our bondage, a consequence of the karmic energies adhering to the soul.
The difference between the two is a subtle one, and is obscured by the fact that a Vedāntin would certainly agree that our bondage, our experience of identifying with the body, has reinforced our ignorance: our mistaken sense that the body is really what we are; and a Jain would certainly agree that overcoming our ignorance, learning about the true nature of the soul and experiencing it through spiritual practice, is an essential component in freeing ourselves from our bondage. The difference thus must not be overstated. Both are about the same basic spiritual project of liberation.
The shared purpose of spiritual liberation and realization, the manifestation of our true self, also gives rise to shared values and practices. Jainism and Vedānta both, for example, teach that the acquisition of liberating spiritual knowledge is not simply a cognitive matter. It is not, in other words, simply a matter of reading books and listening to lectures and learning true things. It is a matter of direct realization, which must occur through practice. Both traditions teach that making the mind a suitable vehicle for realization requires moral training. Bad habits, or saṃskāras, that run contrary to the aims of the spiritual path must be replaced by good ones. Indeed, the five vows, or vratas, that define the basic teachings of Jain morality are identical to the five yamasfound in the Yoga Sūtraof Patañjali, a text which has been adopted into the Vedānta tradition for centuries, even though the Yoga tradition was originally a school of thought distinct from Vedānta.
These five shared moral principles that ground the practices of both Jainism and Vedānta are, first of all, ahiṃsā, or nonviolence in thought, word, and deed. Ahiṃsā is not merely refraining from harming other living beings. It is being free even from the desire to see others come to harm. It is also not a state of indifference to the suffering of other living beings. Although it is phrased negatively, as the absence of the desire to do harm, ahiṃsā, in practice, really amounts to dāyā, or compassion: an active love and concern for the welfare of all beings. Secondly, there is satya, or truth, to which both traditions are absolutely committed. Thirdly, there is asteya, or not stealing, which is followed by brahmacarya, or chastity, and aparigraha, or detachment, both from material things and from thoughts and emotional states which distract us from the spiritual path: negativity, fear, and so on.
Jains also share a number of other practices with Vedāntins. Both traditions revere sages who have achieved realization and who have taught the spiritual path to others. In Jainism, these are, primarily, the Tīrthaṅkaras: twenty-four spiritual teachers who have found the path to freedom and re-established the Jain community over the course of our current cosmic cycle. The last such teacher to appear in our world, for this cosmic cycle, is Mahāvīra, the ‘Great Hero.’ Mahāvīra was a contemporary of the Buddha who lived roughly twenty-five hundred years ago in northern India. Like the Buddha, he was born to the royal class and, like the Buddha, renounced the world around the age of thirty in order to pursue spiritual liberation, for himself and for the benefit of all beings. Like the Buddha, he established a community of ascetics, and a wider community of lay followers. Similarly, in the Vedānta tradition, we have a community of male and female ascetics–of swamis and pravrajikas–and a wider community of householders. Just as the Jains revere the Tīrthaṅkaras, we in the Vedanta Society revere Sri Ramakrishna, the Holy Mother, and Swami Vivekananda, as adherents of the various traditions that make up Vedānta revere their founding figures: sages such as Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Nimbārka, Madhva, Vallabha, and so on. And while Jains do not affirm a need for a single supreme deity to preside over the cosmic process, they do affirm, like Vedāntins, the divinity of the soul. As Jainism scholar John Cort has pointed out, the Jain concept of divinity is a collective one. Jains do use terms such as Dev, Bhagavān, and the English word ‘God’ to refer to the sum total of liberated beings: those who have fully manifested the divinity that is inherent in all of us, in the form of the jīva, or living soul. This is the ‘Jinendra’ mentioned in the greeting ‘Jai Jinendra!’ Jinendrarefers to all beings who have attained liberation, and who are jitendriya: that is, who have overcome attachment to the senses. And this is of course the goal of Vedānta as well. Finally, the Jains also revere various Hindu deities as beings capable of providing assistance in times of need, such as the Goddesses Lakṣmī and Sarasvatī, and Lord Gaṇeśa.
The difference mentioned earlier, though, between the basic vision of Vedānta and that of Jainism, does lead to a difference in emphasis between the two traditions. This difference, again, is that, from a Jain point of view it is our literal bondage to karmic energies that adhere to the soul that is the source of our ignorance, while, from the point of view of Vedānta, particularly Advaita Vedānta, it is our ignorance that gives rise to our bondage.
Because Jainism is focused on purifying the soul of karmic matter, there is a much greater emphasis in this tradition on a highly rigorous ascetic process aimed at not only mental, but also physical, purification. Jain ascetics seek to practice ahiṃsā, the non-harming of any living thing, to the greatest extent that is humanly possible, and even Jain laypersons go to great lengths in order to avoid harming any living being, cultivating a lifestyle of maximum nonviolence. This, indeed, is the thing for which Jains are known best: for practicing not only strict vegetarianism, but also for avoiding even certain vegetables, such as root vegetables, whose consumption involves killing of an entire plant. I have seen Jains at a religious gathering near Philadelphia clustered along the sidewalks near their temple in order to avoid stepping on the grass and harming not only the small life forms that might be crawling there, but also the very grass itself. Jain munis and sādhvīs, or ‘monks and nuns,’ depending on the particular Jain tradition to which they belong, will often wear a face-mask, or muhpatti, to avoid accidentally inhaling or ingesting small life forms like insects. Many carry a whisk or broom to sweep the ground in front of them to avoid accidentally stepping on an insect, and to sweep any space on which they might sit, also to avoid injuring small living things.
Because Vedānta is focused on the transformation of consciousness, on purifying the mind, the practice of Vedānta is focused more upon the cultivation of inner states than upon the outward impact that one might have upon the world. Three of the four yogas taught by Swami Vivekananda are aimed specifically at making the mind a fit vehicle for realization. Through jñāna yoga, the path of wisdom, one develops one’s discernment in order to differentiate between the real and the unreal, between Brahman and its appearance as māyā. Through bhakti yoga, one subordinates the ego completely to a personal form of Brahman, using the power of love to achieve realization, and submerging the ego completely into the divine beloved. Finally, through raja or dhyāna yoga, or meditation, one allows one’s consciousness to be absorbed completely in the contemplation of the divine self within: the state of samādhi. Even karma yoga, though, in which one dedicates oneself to the service of others, the focus is not so much on achieving results in the external world as on the effect this has upon our own consciousness, through overcoming the ego by subordinating it to the service of others. This is why Swami Vivekananda, when explicating karma yoga, explains “that in helping the world we help ourselves. The main effect of work done for others is to purify ourselves. By means of the constant effort to do good to others we are trying to forget ourselves; this forgetfulness of self [meaning ego] is the one great lesson we have to learn in life.” (Complete Works1:84) In order for such service to be effective in eradicating the ego and leading to liberation there must be complete detachment from its fruits. One must not worry about success or failure, but must simply dedicate oneself to the work, as it is good in its own right. And one must certainly not worry about receiving gratitude or recognition. If we do our work with these things in mind, then we simply receive the karmic result that is its outcome, rather than purifying the mind for the sake of liberation. The aim, again, is not the work itself, much less its outcome, but the overcoming of ego and the dawning of spiritual realization: the transformation of consciousness.
Again, the difference between Jainism and Vedānta in this regard is subtle, and should not be exaggerated. Certainly the Jain practice of ahiṃsā, while outwardly devoted to the protection of living beings, also issues in a transformation of consciousness. Indeed, Jain ascetics often say that they see their practice of nonviolence as a way of cultivating mindfulness. Similarly, it is not the case that Vedāntins do not care about the good of the world. Swami Vivekananda would not have made the long journey in 1893 to spread Vedāntic teaching in the West, nor would he have initiated the work of the Ramakrishna Mission, if he had were not motivated by deep compassion for the sufferings of others, both spiritual and physical. The difference in the metaphysical visions of these two traditions, though–the emphasis of one on material energies actually adhering to and impeding the vision of the soul, and of the other on a fundamental misconception of the nature of existence that needs correction on an existential level–could be seen to correspond to the greater strictness of the one in terms of the actual practice of nonviolence and the greater emphasis of the other on meditative and contemplative practice.
My Interest in Vedānta and Jainism
Turning now from a broad overview of the philosophies and practices of these traditions, I would now like to speak briefly to my own interest in them, which shall lead into a discussion of what I take to be one of the most important points of compatibility between Jainism and Vedānta: and specifically, the Vedānta of Sri Ramakrishna.
I am often asked how I came to have such a deep interest in these traditions. First, in regard to Vedānta, I have frequently told the story of how the loss of my father when I was a child led to an interest in, eventually culminating in a lifelong commitment to, Vedānta. I was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition of Christianity. My family and I lived in a small town in Missouri called Montgomery City. I was my parents’ only child, but our extended family was quite large: aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on. When I was ten years old, my father was in a terrible accident that left him unable to live a normal life. Over the course of a year and a half, he was moved from hospital to hospital, and to various rehabilitation centers, and eventually came home to live with us. Our living room became a hospital room, dedicated to his care, and my mother’s full time job became looking after his health and well-being. When I was twelve, his despondency over what had happened to him led him to take his own life.
In the months that followed, I began to think deeply about philosophical questions such as the nature of the afterlife and the meaning of suffering. Why does God allow so much suffering in the world? Is there even a God? What, if anything, happens to us after we die? Is there such a thing as cosmic justice? Is it possible for us to know the answers to questions like this, and if so, how might we do so?
In the course of my questioning, I became inspired by a number of sources. I found a great deal of inspiration, and much wisdom, in the teachings of my Catholic faith. There were also some things, though, that did not entirely make sense to me. I especially began to question traditional Christian teaching about the afterlife. It seemed that, if there were such a thing as cosmic justice, then both heaven and hell, eternal joy and eternal suffering, were rather extreme options. It seemed more likely to me that our next life would be something like this one: a mix of joy and suffering, a set of experiences that would teach us and help us to evolve toward greater perfection.
I was convinced by my father’s experiences that we are not only this physical body. My father’s body had become a prison to him. If our body can be a prison to us, if it can turn against us, then it must be something distinct from the self. I believed that when my father took his own life, he had freed himself from this prison. I also, however, did not believe that he had attained to any kind of cosmic perfection. It seemed to me more likely that his journey would continue on in another form. I began to believe, essentially, in the idea of karma and rebirth.
I also began to get clues from popular culture. I know that my good friend, Phil Goldberg, spoke here last week on the influence of Vedānta on popular culture. In his book American Veda, he talks about the music of George Harrison, of the Beatles, and how Harrison’s journey continues to inspire many even today. Indeed, he mentions me in his book as a person not from the generation of the nineteen sixties who was inspired by Harrison. (I will also mention that, if you look in the acknowledgements page of American Veda, you will see the names of seven of my former students whom Phil hired to transcribe interviews for him as he was writing this book.) I was fascinated by the philosophy that Harrison expressed in his music and in the cover art of his albums: by his references to Krishna and to the Bhagavad Gītā. I also saw the film Gandhiat this time, and was similarly fascinated by Gandhi, and read everything I could find about him. In Gandhi’s writings, too, I found references to the Bhagavad Gītā. Finally, I came upon the Gītāitself at a flea market held in the parking lot of the local Methodist Church. Upon opening it, I came upon its teaching, mentioned earlier, of the immortality of the soul, and the reality of rebirth. In the Gītā, I found a philosophy that made perfect sense to me: that had answers to my questions that were both rational and intuitively appealing. Like many Westerners, I found in the philosophy of Vedānta a ‘middle path’ between Western religion, which makes appeals to faith, but is not always satisfying on the rational level, and Western science, which is rational, but does not always satisfy our need for a deeper meaning behind our experiences: our spiritual aspirations.
One of the teachings of the Gītāthat I found appealing was its teaching that no person is condemned forever based on their religious practice. Lord Krishna says to Arjuna, “In whatsoever way living beings approach me, thus do I receive them. All paths lead to me.” (BG 4:11) This is, of course, a verse quoted by Swami Vivekananda in his famous ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’ speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Another book that I read early on in my search was Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man, which is where I first read about Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna’s teaching that all paths lead to God was deeply appealing to me: that the various names by which ultimate reality is known in the world’s traditions are but many different names for the same infinite One. As Ramakrishna teaches, just as people call water by many names, in their various languages, and draw it from many different sources, and it is nevertheless the same water, in the same way, people approach the Infinite from different perspectives, based on their cultural and religious backgrounds and prior philosophical assumptions, and call It by different names and conceive of it in different ways. Ramakrishna also cites the ancient Indian story, used by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists alike, of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate this point. If we all seem to be talking about different things in our various traditions and systems of philosophy, it is not necessarily because only one of us is right and the rest are wrong, but that each of us has only one small piece of the total reality in our grasp, just as each blind man grasps only a portion of the elephant. To cite Pravrajika Vrajaprana, each religion is like a piece of a puzzle. Each piece is different from the rest, but each can fit together to form a larger vision of reality.
This made much more sense to me than the attitude that I encountered among many in my small Missouri town, where even being Roman Catholic was considered by some to be practicing a ‘wrong’ form of Christianity. In the heavily evangelical environment where I lived, I was told more than once that I was going to hell for being Catholic. And when my conversation partners found out that I was not only Catholic, but a Catholic who believed in reincarnation and read books about Hinduism and other religions, then they knewI was going to hell.
This whole idea of going to hell, though, especially for following the religion in which one had been brought up, and which one had as much reason to trust as the evangelicals had for trusting in their religion, seemed to me to be terribly unfair, and certainly unworthy of a God, in whom the evangelicals also claimed to believe, who was said to be a being of infinite love. It made much more sense, if God is a God of love, if the divine truths that one needed to know in order to draw nearer to God were distributed around the world, throughout time and space, and not dependent on the activity of missionaries to spread them. This would mean that sacred truths could be found in all religions and cultures. And this, indeed, was the thesis I discovered in the work of another Western Vedāntin, Aldous Huxley, in his class work, The Perennial Philosophy.
This also made sense, I felt, from what one might call a scientific perspective. If there is such a thing as objective reality–if the universe is a certain way–then it would make sense if smart people from around the world had all been able to perceive some of its central features, just as we can all agree, more or less, on the nature of the physical reality that we together inhabit. And, sure enough, one does find–even though there are significant differences among them, to be sure–that certain shared insights about the nature of reality, of mind, of self, and of morality, can be found in a variety of religions, philosophies, and cultures from around the world and throughout history.
As I grew older, I chose to pursue a career as a scholar of religion, precisely because these kinds of questions are so fascinating to me. Most scholars of religion are more interested in social and historical issues than metaphysical ones. While I have of course needed to learn–and have enjoyed learning–about these things as well, my primary interest has been in philosophy, and my primary training in graduate school was in the philosophy of religion.
The particular view that I came to hold regarding the presence of truth in many religions and philosophies is known in scholarly circles as pluralism. As I finished college and began my graduate studies in the early nineteen nineties, I found that pluralism had some strong advocates, such as John Hick, Paul F. Knitter, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Raimundo Panikkar (on whose work I wrote my undergraduate thesis). But I also found that it was a position under siege. On the one hand, conservative Christian theologians took exception to the pluralistic view that there was nothing unique, in any ultimate sense, about Christianity: that it was one more path to ultimate truth among many. On the other hand, philosophy and theology were themselves viewed, and are still viewed, with a good deal of suspicion by secular scholars. People such as Huston Smith, who affirmed a thread of truth running through many religious traditions were derided as ignoring the important differences among traditions, and the academy as a whole seemed to be moving in the direction of affirming difference over similarity, and viewing claims of similarity and sameness, again, with suspicion; for it is often the case that we project our own experience and understanding of reality onto the materials that we study, and it is certainly true that we need to be constantly on guard against engaging in projection of this kind. Of course, pluralism does not teach that religions are all the same. Puzzle pieces are not identical to one another. But they are mutually coherent.
I thus took arguing for this position as my chief mission as a philosopher of religion. At an early point in my graduate studies, I began an in-depth study of Indian philosophy. I had already read a good deal about Vedānta, and about Hinduism more broadly, as well as Buddhism and other religious and philosophical traditions. But this was largely private study, while my formal training in college had mainly been in the Western tradition (having pursued a double major in theology and the great books program, or Program of Libera Studies, at the University of Notre Dame). It was while reading a book by the late Bimal Krishna Matilal, Logic, Language, and Reality, that I came upon an account of Jain philosophy. And there, I believed I had found the secret to arguing for a logically rigorous philosophy of pluralism.
Anekāntavāda: The Convergence of Jainism and the Vedānta of Sri Ramakrishna
The central metaphysical doctrine of Jainism is a teaching called anekāntavāda: that is, the teaching of the complexity of existence. Reality, according to Jainism, is multi-faceted. There is that in reality which is permanent and stable. There is that in reality which is impermanent and is constantly changing. Vedānta and other systems of Hindu philosophy tend to emphasize the first aspect. Buddhism tends to emphasize the second. A complete understanding of reality, however, must be able to comprehend both. Differences in religious belief systems and philosophical world views arise based on which facet of reality one perceives to be fundamental–which part of the body of the elephant the blind man grasps, so to speak. In fact, however, reality encompasses a variety of aspects, each of which has its place in the larger cosmic picture. On the basis of this view, the Jain tradition develops syādvāda, which is an approach to truth based on the idea that all claims are, in one sense, true, in another sense, false, in another sense, both true and false, and in another sense, neither true nor false (or indescribable), and so on. The truth of our claims depends upon the perspective from which they are made: the facet of reality which serves as their basis. So the claim of Buddhists that ‘all is impermanent’ (sarvam anityam) is true. It describes one dimension of the nature of existence. But the Advaita claim that all that exists is one eternal entity, beyond the realm of time, space, and causation, is also true, describing, as it does, yet another dimension of existence.
In classical Indian philosophy, of course, adherents of Advaita Vedānta strongly rejected the Jain claim of the multi-faceted nature of existence, claiming that Brahman alone was real, and the world an illusion: jagan mithya. Other sysems of Vedānta, however, were much closer to the Jain perspective, affirming the reality, for example, of the distinction between God, or Īśvara, and the individual soul, or jīva, and amongst the jīvas themselves. The Dvaita, or dualistic system of Vedānta, indeed affirms difference, rather than non-duality, as its fundamental principle for the interpretation of the Vedic scriptures: the Upaniṣads,Bhagavad Gītā, and Brahmā Sūtras.
As another good friend of mine, Ayon Maharaj, however, has recently argued in his book Infinite Paths to Infinite Reality, and as I have similarly argued at various points, the approach of Sri Ramakrishna to these issues is distinct from those of earlier interpreters of Vedānta, and bears important similarities to the Jain approach of anekāntavāda and syādvāda. Ramakrishna takes a non-dogmatic approach to diverse paths, seeing the way each path conceives of reality as a function of which aspect of reality that path takes as fundamental, those he mentions most often being the impersonal Brahman, the Self within, or Bhagavān, the divine beloved.
Rather than seeing one of these as solely real and the others as false, or lesser, Ramakrishna sees each as simply different, and each as appropriate to those who practice a path to realization based upon it. For Ramakrishna, what is important is realization itself: following one’s path with complete and single-minded dedication. It is perhaps such dedication that can sometimes sound like dogmatic absolutism. If I am single-mindedly focused on realizing the impersonal Brahman, then perhaps I have no time for the personal God. Or if I am absorbed in bhakti, perhaps I have no time for an impersonal anything, or for any deity other than my own (hence the attitude of many evangelical Christians). But Sri Ramakrishna’s distinctive teaching–his message as the Yugāvatar, the divine teacher for our era–is that, even as we pursue our own path with complete devotion, we ought not to disrespect the paths of others. As Thakur himself said, we each think our own watch tells the correct time.
Much more can be, and should be, said on this topic. Time does not permit me to go into much greater depth in regard to the various dimensions of Jainism and Vedānta, or such topics as the thought of the Digambara Jain sage, Kundakunda, whose view of the role of consciousness in liberation is quite close to that of Advaita Vedānta. But the shared insight of these two traditions–and specifically, of the Jain teaching of anekāntaand the Vedānta of Ramakrishna–is that reality can be approached in many ways, that there is truth to be found in many perspectives, and that it is essential to human advancement that all of these ways be respected, and that we learn to draw insight from one another through dialogue. Only then will our shared picture of the whole elephant–that is, all of reality–become more complete.