The Non-Unus and the Est-Non-Est Epistemology of Jain Philosophy

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.                                                                                                              -Marcus Aurelius

Jainism is one of the four major Indic religious. It dates back to the fifth century BCE, but its followers hold that aside from its historical founder Vardhamana Mahavira, the system owes its existence to twenty-four founders, known as Thirthankaras, and that Mahavira was  the last of these. The first Thirthankara is known as  Rishabha to whom the vision of Non-violence first arose. The 23rd was Parsva,  born two centuries before Mahavira. The Thirthankaras are referred to as Jainas: Victorious Ones, for they had conquered the bondage of life.

Jainism is very relevant in today’s world because of its value-system and philosophy. Perhaps the most important tenet of Jainism is ahimsa: non injury. Its first meaning is the non-hurting of fellow humans. There is perhaps no simpler and more precious nugget of ethical principle than this, for it embodies the quintessence of all moral injunctions. This should be a necessary and foundational principle in all ethical systems. Any system that permits or fosters the hurting of fellow humans is not worthy of being considered a civilized system. Extensions of this principle include non-injury to, and respect for, all creatures great and small. In no other culture in the history of humanity has this principle been so explicitly enunciated. Caring for one’s family and compassion for others is already a major step forward. But to apply this to every living being is as major an ethical leap forward as the jump from planet earth to walking on moon is on the physical plane.  Whether practicable or not, this is a mind and heart expanding vision of human goodness, as yet beyond the mind’s reach of the vast majority of people.  

Classical Jaina writings include philosophical and scientific speculations about the nature of matter and mind. In this context Jaina thinkers propounded what is called anekánta-váda or Not-One thesis. To make it sound metaphysically technical it may be called (coining a Latin word) the non-unus thesis. It states that any issue can be considered from a variety of perspectives, each leading to a different understanding. The idea was illustrated in Godfrey Saxe’s poem about the blind men and the elephant:

      It was six men of Indostan

      To learning much inclined.

      Wanted to see an elephant

      Though all of them were blind

      That each at least by observation

      Might satisfy this mind….

On the basis of their own observations they variously thought that the elephant was like a wall, spear, snake, rope, tree, and fan. Recognizing that multiple understandings of fundamental issues arise because of our limited scopes is a profound insight in the context of ideological and religious conflicts.

Related to this is the tenet known as  asti-násti-váda: This may be called the est-non-est doctrine by which a statement and its opposite might both be correct, depending on the context. Thus, the following contradictory pairs of propositions are all true, depending on one’s appraisal of a situation: (a) There is a God; (b) There is no God. (a) Humans are intrinsically good; (b) humans are intrinsically bad. (a) An electron is a particle; (b) an electron is a wave. (a) Religions are benign; (b) religions are evil.

What this implies is that there are many fundamental questions on which one can’t make absolute statements. The same sky can be dazzlingly bright and also pitch dark. Binary logic is not universally applicable. Moreover, each such statement, though challengeable, can still have contextual value and significance. Adopting a particular position on a complex issue is often useful and necessary in many contexts, but this should never be done at the expense of the first ethical principle of not hurting others in our actions.

January 25, 2016


Consider our form and features now. They have changed since we were  babies, but they are not newly formed: We have grown with the eyes and ears, limbs and heart with which we were born.

But what about our prenatal state? Were we with arms and legs, eyes and ears since the day of our conception? Of course not, is what most informed people would say today.

But there was a time, not too many centuries ago,  when people spoke of homunculi: little human beings. These were  microscopic creatures in the mother’s womb: all fully formed. They   slowly grew and grew and became so big they were ejected from the mother’s womb. The word embryo originally meant a young swelling animal (in the womb). It was derived from a Greek word which means to swell or be full. This was the scientific equivalent of the idea that God created man: face, body, limbs and all, as a fully-formed creature.

Today most people brush off the idea of a miniature man or woman in the uterus, gradually enlarging in size, expanding like a three-dimensional photograph which becomes bigger to visible dimensions from a tiny film. 

Up until the 18th century the notion of completed minuscule creatures bulging to become babies was widespread. This was known as  the theory of preformation. The term evolution meant in those days the gradual enlargement of preexisting organs of the embryo: something  very different from what it connotes today.

In 1759, a young medical student at the University of Halle by the name of Caspar Friedrich Wolff (born: 18 January 1734) published a dissertation entitled Theoria Generationis. In this, he rejected the preformation idea held by most scientists of the day, incurring their displeasure. He wasn’t allowed to lecture at the University of Berlin. Rather than be intimidated, Wolff went ahead and published a book in 1764, entitled Theoria Generations, expanding further on his original idea. His work gave scientific credibility to the notion of epigenesis: development from a homogeneous state to a very heterogeneous one.

Wolff’s work brought him fame beyond his Germany, and he was invited to the newly established scientific academy in St. Petersburg. The Russian Empress Catherine II who founded this institution used to import scientists from Western Europe at that time, somewhat as the U.S. started doing in the 20th century from all over the world. Wolff felt so satisfied in St. Petersburg that he became a Russian citizen.

Wolff’s view that there is a gradual development of the organism, plant or animal, from its initial creation, was based on careful studies of plants and unhatched chicks. It took several decades and translations before his insight came to be universally recognized. Now he is now regarded as the founder of  scientific embryology. Students of anatomy read about the Wolffian body. Needless to say, his original explanations on how this development occurs involved ideas that are no longer acceptable.

Such is the progress of science: not always smooth or easy for those who bring about major shifts in our views about how the world behaves. Authority, be it of individuals or of institutions, can be quite powerful even in the march of science whose avowed goal is to understand how the world functions. But that quest is carried out in well defined frameworks, under clear cut parameters in different fields. Making breakthroughs and discoveries within the existing framework in terms of the generally accepted parameters is fine. But if and when one tries to change these, the task becomes horrendously difficult. Yet, and this is strength of science: Sooner or later, as a Hindu maxim declares, satyameva jayate: Truth alone will win.

January 18, 2016



Never forget your indebtedness to ancestors                                  – A Shinto teaching.

At a time when the actions and utterances  of a growing number of people affiliated to various religions tend to degrade the vision of religion in the minds of many thoughtful people, it may be of some interest to reflect occasionally on the more interesting and beautiful aspects of religions. This should not be difficult because though every historical religion has its dark sides, all of them have more than a few positive elements also.

 Hinduism is an integral part of India, Judaism of Israel, and Islam of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, etc. The West is distancing itself more and more from Christianity: for the better because this has led to its intellectual and spiritual emancipation; and for the worse in that some see as its path to cultural suicide. 

In this context, consider Shinto which is part of the religious framework of  Japan. Shinto is an ancient religion whose etymology has been traced to Chinese words meaning ‘The Way of the Spirits’. Since the 8th century CE, Shinto and Buddhism have been the integrated religion of the Japanese people.

Shinto recognizes the existence of many Kamis (神: spirits, deities) which manifest themselves in Nature, sometimes even as human beings. So it encourages the worship of rivers and mountains and all of Nature. There are  Shinto shrines all over Japan, many adorned with origami (paper of the spirits) which people visit regularly during their life.

I recall visiting the Meiji Jingu (shrine)  in Tokyo in 1961 with my friend Professor Takahiko Takabayashi of Kyoto University. He explained to me that the Shrine, dedicated to the late Japanese Emperor Meiji and his Empress Shoken had been renovated recently, after it suffered bombardment during the War. It is located smack in the middle of a huge forest with more than a hundred thousand sturdy trees and countless plants.

Coming to the theology, the chief of the Kamis is Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess. I was surprised that it was a goddess since from own cultural upbringing, Súrya was a male deity. Only some years later did I discover that though many cultures regard the Sun as Divine not all consider it to be masculine. Sekhmet and Hathor of ancient Egypt, Saulé of ancient Latvians, Söl of Norse mythology, to name a few,  were all Sun-Goddesses. Some twenty years ago I came across a book by Patricia Monaghan which argues that there were more goddesses than god representing the Sun.

Be that as it may, the imperial family of Japan is said to be descended from Amaterasu Omikami. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, the emperors of his lineage were of the solar dynasty also. According to the Shinto sacred history, the first emperor of Japan was Jimu Tenno. Ametesaru gave a round mirror  called mochi to  his grandson, to be included in the royal treasures.

In modern Shinto calendar, 11 January is a celebratory day. It is known as Kagami-Biraki. The term has been roughly translated as  the ‘breaking of (the New Year) rice cake’.

When steamed rice is pounded hard, it becomes what is called mochi in Japanese. It is made to set in the form of a small circular mirror. When this is warmed, it becomes hard gluten which cannot be easily broken. The word kagami means a mirror, and bikari refers to its breaking or opening.

This is also a festival for celebrating martial arts, which are part of the Samurai tradition in Japan. Jujutsu is an ancient Japanese martial art. It is said that as early as in the third century BCE, there used to be combative competitions between unarmed participants. These were known as hikara-karube. Over the centuries various schools and systems of the marital art emerged. Like Yoga from India Judo has spread all over the world in recent years.

Cultural diversity is wonderful as long as cultures don’t become intrusive and demand to be integrated into other cultures. This is one of the challenges the world is facing today: the transformation of the melting-pot ideal to the salad-bowl ideal in modern multicultural societies. This transformation can further enrich or completely dilute the original culture of nations that foster multiculturalism. It is too early to tell what will happen in the long run.

January 11, 2016


Kinds of Original Thought

It is curious how we hit on the same idea.                        – Charles Darwin

There are and have been  more original thinkers in the world than are recorded in history. Original thinking is of there kinds or orders:

First order originality is when a person not only gets an idea for the first time, but also publishes it one way or another and gets full credit for it.

Second order originality is when although it be original to a person, someone else had the same idea and had published it earlier. But, thanks to historians, eventually one acquires some credit for it.

Third order originality is when the original  idea comes too late for being recognized by the world.

Consider the following example of first order originality. If we are asked  what name comes to mind when we hear the words natural selection and evolution, chances are most people would say Darwin.

But there is another name that deserves to be mentioned here: Alfred Russell Wallace (born: 8 January 1823) who famously wrote. “In my solitude I have pondered much on the incomprehensible subjects of space, eternity, life and death.”

In the early 1850s Wallace formulated the principle of natural selection. He wrote about a struggle for existence “in which the weakest and the least perfectly organized must always succumb.” In 1858, he sent his essay On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type to Charles Darwin. It was received and read with great admiration and some shock. “If Wallace had my manuscript sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract!” Darwin exclaimed.

When he was eighteen, he bought a book on botany to guide him in making a herbarium. The book drew him to a deeper study of nature. In order to explore plants and animals in distant lands he set sail for the Amazon in Brazil with his friend Henry Bates. He was overwhelmed by the plush richness of the rain forests; he followed remote rivers, encountered indigenous peoples, marveled at the variety and abundance of plants, trees and flowers, birds, reptiles and monkeys.

He became to reject the idea that species were fully formed when they first came to be. He was convinced that they arose as a result of physical laws, that they changed under external influences. He jotted down the details of whatever he saw and reflected upon. But he lost his notes in an accident on his way back home. In fact, he barely escaped when his ship caught fire.

The calamity at sea did not deter him from taking another long voyage, this time to the Indonesian archipelago, thousands of miles away. He was away once again from his native England, for eight years this time, studying the land and the people, the rocks and the life forms of those regions. He amassed information on  thousands of specimens: enough material for many scientific papers.

When Russell was exploring the Amazon little did he suspect that in less than a hundred and fifty years later, it would be in great peril, thanks largely to cattle and leather trade. Nor could he have known that the alarming deforestation will have grave consequences for humanity at large. And yet, already in the 1860s, Wallace was concerned about species extinction. He urged governments to do something for the preservation of various plants, trees and animals, warning that, if that were not done, “future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations.” How true even today! One shudders to think of what our current collective behavior will have on future generations.

Though not religious in a traditional sense, Wallace was attracted to spiritualism. He published a small book on the Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural. This shocked some of the naturalists like Charles Darwin and Darwin’s ardent supporter Thomas Huxley. They didn’t understand how this apostle of evolution could speak of the spirit. But then Faraday, Maxwell and many other outstanding creative contributors to science, were also deeply religious.

Wallace lived to the ripe old age of ninety, arguing for socialism and women’s rights in his later years.

When we talk about biological evolution and our role in affecting the ecosystem it is good to remember Alfred Wallace as well.

January 8, 2016


Him whom but just before they beheld transfigured in a glorious epiphany upon the mount…”                                                                 Jeremy Taylor

A physicist friend of mine, working on an abstruse problem, told me the other day that he had had an epiphany. What he meant was that all of a sudden he became aware of some unknown aspect of a problem. Not being a religious person he did not know the theological connotation of the word.

As per Christian sacred history when Christ came from Nazareth to Galilee he was baptized in the River Jordan. At this moment the heavens opened, and the Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon him, and there was a voice from above which said: “Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” [Mark:1: 9-11]

The Baptism of Christ was an event in which the Divine became manifest. Hence it was called Epiphany (display or manifestation).  It is reckoned to have occurred on a day corresponding to our January 6: twelve days after Christmas. In the 4th century the Feast of Epiphany was declared by the Eastern Church to be  “the most honored festival.” Its main feature is the Solemn Blessing of Water in accordance with prescribed rules.

Associated with it is the story of the Three Wise Men: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, who, guided by a moving star, came to Bethlehem with gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts for New-born Jesus. The Greeks called them magoi (magi in Latin), derived from the Persian word magu (priest in Zoroastrianism). The English word magic is cognate to it.

In some traditions, the wise men are said to have been kings: In Spanish countries Epiphany is celebrated as el día de los tres reyes (the day of the three kings).

We read in the John (2: 1 – 11) that Christ performed his first miracle at a wedding in a place called Canaa. When there wasn’t enough wine left for the guests, Jesus ordered pots to be filled with water to the brim, and transformed it all into good wine. This too is remembered on the day of Epiphany.

In the collective memory of cultures and traditions, sacred history is no less important than monuments for kings and presidents, poets and soldiers. Sacred history recalls events with inner meaning and inspiration. Christ’s baptism is an affirmation of his spiritual glory, the three wise men represent the rejoicing and gratitude of humanity for the redemption he brought, and the miracle is to remind us of the extraordinary powers of the divine.

I recall seeing Verrochio’s The Baptism of Christ and Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence: two magnificent masterpieces that commemorate Epiphany episodes.

 Epiphany was celebrated with great fanfare in Shakespeare’s time. But the celebration was anything but religious: licentious parties, binge drinking, and loose language were the norm, not unlike how Christmas has been commercialized into an orgy of buying and packing gifts in our own times. Because the play What you Will was first performed in an Inn on the 6 of January (Twelve days after Christmas),  the bard renamed his play, as The Twelfth Night.

January 7, 2016


On the Map of the Moon: Wilhelm Beer


We know more about the surface of the moon  than about floor of the ocean.                                                                                          -Paul Snelgrove

All of us have seen the moon. We may have noticed the shadows of tall mountains and huge craters on the lunar surface.

It is fun to see forms, like a human face, a rabbit, or a chunk of Swiss cheese on the moon. But one can also calculate the moon’s distance and mass, and predict its phases. The knowledge thus acquired need not corrupt our experiential appreciation of moon’s beauty. Science need not diminish poetry.

    Continents and countries, oceans and mountains on earth have names. So do regions on the Moon.  Yes indeed, all the ups and downs and plains and peaks on our side of the Moon have been named. What is remarkable is that much of this was done already in the nineteenth century.

    Wilhelm Beer (born: 4 January 1797) was a Berlin Banker with a passion for astronomy. He had a special fondness for the Moon. He could well have exclaimed like the poet Keats:

        What is there in thee, Moon!

        That thou shoulds’t move my heart so potently?

After spending daylight hours  keeping accounts at the bank, Beer used to go to his little observatory at night. There, he and his friend Johann Maedler carefully observed the moon night after night through their telescope for eight long years during which they noted every shadow and shape of every nook and niche of the whole visible face of the Moon. Little by little, they  collected with meticulous care an enormous amount of data. In 1836 they published their mappa selenographica, the most detailed map of the Moon the world had every seen. It had measurements of the diameters of 148 craters and the heights of 830 mountains. Whether as Selene of the Greeks or as Shashi of the Hindus, every spot on the rotund face of the Moon-Goddess has been pictured and photographed today.  Wilhelm Beer’s work was pioneering in this regard.

     Since the expanses looked like oceans many regions bear such names as Mare Frigoris,  Oceanus Procellarum, and Mare Crisium. Mare is Latin for sea.

    When I am distressed by news brimming with hateful words and hurtful acts I let my mind wander  to  deeds of kindness and compassion in which vast numbers of people are engaged every day, and to works of art and philosophy that are the legacy of humanity. I also recall humanity’s scientific achievements. Not all science is done to serve technology, for the betterment of humanity, or to make better weapons for warfare. Often science is  also like music and mathematics, prayer and poetry: engaged for the refinement and uplifting of the human spirit. 

Progress of science is effected by many whose efforts complement and reinforce the overall structure that emerges. As with the focused persistence of a sculptor or pianist, the participating scientist spends countless hours immersed in the subject of the study. In former centuries this could be done on a part-time basis, as with Wilhelm Beer.  In our own times, it is not that easy.

June 4, 2016


Reflected Glory: Lilavati et al.

Though only reflecting sunlight, the Moon still shines

      Bhaskara was an eminent Indian astronomer-mathematician  of the 12th century. One of his works is  entitled Lilavati.   An interesting story tells us how it got this name.

  Bhaskara calculated from his daughter Lilavati’s  horoscope a precise moment for  her auspicious wedding.  In this context he  constructed a device consisting of a cup with a hole, which was left floating in a bucket of water. Water gradually began to enter the cup. The instant when enough water seeped to sink the cup would indicate the auspicious instant for the formal step for Lilavati’s wedding. 

    Curious Lilavati was so fascinated by the device that she bent over to gaze at the gradual trickling of the water into the cup. While she was in wonderment, a little gem broke loose from her garment and fell into the cup. It blocked the hole, obstructing the flow of water. The carefully computed instant of good omen was missed. Lilavati was not to marry!

    Bhaskara became as dejected as his daughter. To cheer her up, he decided to name a  work on mathematics after her. He told her that marital thrills would pass away, but she would be remembered for ever by that work. The name of  Lilavati’s name has indeed lasted centuries.

    The book called Lilavati has a dozen chapters, dealing with various aspects of ancient mathematics.. It is one of the earliest works to introduce the decimal system of numeration. It prescribes rules for multiplication and division by zero: sophisticated concepts. Here is a problem from that book: “Lovely and dear Lilavati with Fawn’s eyes, tell me what are the numbers resulting from the multiplication of 135 and 12.”

    ​Here is a case where fame came to Lilavati without her doing anything herself to acquire it. 

    But she was not the only one who is remembered because of what someone else did. In the sixteenth century poet Pierre de Ronsard , wrote a sonnet to his beloved Hélène who had rejected him, making her immortal in the world of (French) literature.

“When you are old, at evening candle-lit
beside the fire bending to your wool,
read out my verse and murmur, “Ronsard writ
this praise for me when I was beautiful.”

Or again, Anna Bolena, the most famous wife of Henry VIII of England is remembered to this day, not for anything great she did,  but because the wife-prone monarch beheaded her in one his amorous furies.

Ultimately, this is true of all national glory. The common people of any nation or culture take pride not for their personal  achievements, but for what others of their group had done. Most of us are like the Moon, shining in reflected brightness.

January 3, 2016