Blog Post

Existence and Non-Existence of Truth and Knowledge

The Jain theory of standpoints

You know that you exist, but for those who do not know you, who have never met you, you do not exist. There was a time when the two American contnents did not exist for the world. There was also a time when the earth itself did not exist. At least 60% of the people in the world today were non-existent just a few decades ago and a vast majority of them will be non-existent again after a few decades. Life is a short drama between the two vanishing points of existence and non-existence. When you watch historical movies and see how people struggled and fought among themselves to preserve their power and position, you would wonder what it all led to eventually. Life is a revolving door. In a brief span of time it draws you in from one end and spits you out into another, leaving no trace of your existence for the posterity to know about you. The world in which you exit today would not exist tomorrow. Those who passed away would never know how it would shape up eventually and those who are yet to come would not know clearly how it existed.

Things exist in this objective world of ours only in relation to other things. When things disappear, the world that contains them also disappears. Although we live in the same world, individually we live in a multitude of worlds. We experience the same life, the same relationships, the same pleasures and pains in numerous ways. We marvel at the fact that zillions of stars and planets exist in the material universe. In truth, each moment, infinite worlds arise and subside in our own world. The theory of relativity is not only about time and space but also about the life that we lead and the awareness that we cultivate. Time travel may be a scientific possibility, but it is doubtful whether it will ever be able to recreate the conditions and circumstances that are peculiar to each person's consciousness in the time and space in which they lived. There are certain variables within ourselves, such as our desires, thoughts, impulses and worldviews, which science cannot measure accurately and incorporate them into whatever algorithm it may eventually workout to recreate the past.

There are no absolute truths in this world, but only relative truths. You cannot stretch your logic eternally and consistently in support of the truths in which you believe. At some of pont of time, every belief and opinion of ours would crack under the weight of its own fallacies. While we may develop attachment to them, unfortunately, they would not stand the test of time. We may hold on to our religious scriptures dearly and reverently as inviolable, without realizing that our understanding of them and our interpretation of them keep changing eternally. The same book, the same words and the same events, often lead to conflicting opinions and deep fissures within society and communities. Despite the inconsistencies and imperfections in our thinking, perceptions and understanding, we live and act with the certainty of the seer, as if somehow, with our ignorance, prejudices and delusions, we are privy to the secrets of life and we have a right to be wrong, if not delusional.

We cannot know the truth of any truth entirely. If we want to use our daily experiences as opportunities to learn and progress, we have to live with the humility and the awareness that what we know may be a viewpoint rather than the sum total of it. If we cultivate this understanding, then we develop the wisdom and the vision of tolerance and receptivity to ideas and the ideals with which we do not agree. Today, the world is a difficult place to live because a vast number of people obstinately hold their ignorance as knowledge and their prejudices as facts. In this regard, I am reminded of the theory of standpoints (syadavada), which is summed up by a Jain philosopher, Samantabhadra (600 C.E.) in the following words.

“A thing is existent – from a certain point of view. It is non-existent – from another point of view. It is both existent and non-existent in turn – from a third point of view. It is indescribable (simultaneously existent and non-existent)- from a fourth point of view. It is existent and indescribable – from a fifth point of view. It is non-existent and indescribable – from a sixth point of view. It is both existent and non-existent and indescribable – from a seventh point of view. “ Similar opinions about the imponderability of existence and non-existence were voiced by ancient Greek philosophers such as the sophists and Plato.

The Kena Upanishad (1.4) speaks about Brahman, the Eternal Reality, in the following words, “Indeed, it is other than the known and also it is above the unknown. Thus we heard from the ancient seers who explained it to us.” In the next section of the same Upanishad (2.3), we find the following verse, “To whomever it is not known, to him it is known; to whomever it is known, he does not know. It is not understood by those who understand it; it is understood by those who do not understand it.”

In conclusion, if we develop the humility that we may not have all the answers to all the problems and questions, the world will be a better place to live. The animals have a right to live with certainty because they do not have the discriminating intelligence (buddhi) or the higher mind. We are endowed with intelligence so that we can grow the light of wisdom within ourselves and transcend our animal and human limitations. The twice born are those who acknowledge their ignorance and transcend it with humility and right effort.