(un-ake-AHN-tuh-VAH-duh) / non-one-sidedness

by Anil Mundra

Conceptual definition

Anekāntavāda, literally the “theory of non-one-sidedness” in Sanskrit, is a characteristically Jain metaphysical and semantic doctrine according to which any real and determinate thing admits of contrary predications. For example, a thing is classically said to be both existent and nonexistent; permanent and impermanent; universal and particular; and denotable and undenotable. The contradiction that would prima facie result from the application of such contrary pairs is averted by parameterizing each term so that it and its negation are not applied in the same way; for example, a thing is existent at one time and place, and nonexistent at another. The resultant propositions issue neither in contradiction nor in equivocation on the terms under discussion: “existent” and “nonexistent” remain genuine contraries, but the scope of their truthful application to a thing is now appropriately specified.

Philosophical significance

Anekāntavāda is thus a way to disambiguate language and fully determine the objects of discourse. Philosophers of non-one-sidedness take exception to the sweeping claims of universal scope that religious doctrines tend to promote about the fundamental nature of reality. They point out the ways in which such absolutist propositions fly in the face of common sense and undermine themselves. Take one of the most pressing examples of such claims in the context of South Asian religions: if one’s true self is said to be absolutely eternal, there would seem to be no way to account for its apparent change and (most importantly) progress toward the summum bonum; while if it is said to be absolutely transient and always in flux, there is no way to account for its continuation along such a progressive path. The self must thus be conceived as both permanent (qua substratum of change) and impermanent (in the progressive development of its states).

Historical context

The first intimations of the doctrine are found in the oldest Jain scriptures written in Prakrit. The founding figure of all current Jain traditions, the Jina Mahāvīra, tells questioners that the soul is permanent insofar as it continues, but impermanent insofar as it takes different forms in successive incarnations. Mahāvīra sometimes prefaces each of such contrary pronouncements with the qualification “in some way” (siyā in the original Prakrit). This hedge makes it clear why contrary predications can apply to the same thing consistently: they apply in different ways, and so do not contradict each other. These ways of applying predicates are often systematized in terms of a canonical group of parameters (called nikṣepas), such as place, time, substance, and state. While a predicate may be truly applied to an object at some values of these parameters, its contrary may be applied with equal truth at other values. In the scholastic period, this approach will come to be called syādvāda, the “in-some-way theory” (syāt being the Sanskrit equivalent of the hedge siyā).

The most authoritative Jain doctrinal handbook—the Sanskrit That Which Is (Tattvārthasūtra) of Umāsvāti/Umāsvāmi around the middle of the first millennium C.E.—encapsulates the basic ontological insight of non-one-sidedness in its pronouncement that all existents are marked by arising, perdurance, and passing away. It also broaches a new way of parameterizing propositions: viewpoints (naya), i.e., contexts or methods through which propositions are to be interpreted. These viewpoints are said to complement the reliable means of awareness (pramāṇa) that are at the center of Indian epistemology. Siddhasena’s Introduction to Logic (Nyāyavatāra) elaborates this relationship by suggesting that reliable means of awareness serve to remove ignorance, while viewpoints provide access to partial truths that do not exclude contrary alternative views of the many-sided reality; but these various one-sided viewpoints can together fully determine an object through the use of syādvāda. The Essay on the Dialectic of Proper Thinking (Sanmatitarkaprakaraṇa, which may or may not be by the same Siddhasena) undertakes to systematize the various viewpoints, proclaiming each one is correct in its own sphere and only there: non-one-sidedness thus demands that none of them be regarded as either absolutely right or absolutely wrong.

As scholastic Jain discourse develops in conversation with other religions in the lingua franca of Sanskrit in the latter half of the first millennium, anekāntavāda is increasingly applied to a range of philosophical dilemmas. Samantabhadra’s Investigation of Authorities (Āptamīmāṃsā) formatively tackles not only existence vs. nonexistence and permanence vs. impermanence, but also unity vs. diversity, identity vs. difference (particularly between cause and effect, substance vs. property, etc.), reason vs. scripture, and even the crucial ethical and soteriological issues of violence vs. nonviolence and the status of knowledge and ignorance vis-à-vis bondage and liberation. Haribhadra’s Victory-Flag of Non-One-Sidedness (Anekāntajayapatākā) and the works of Akalaṅka set the terms for the ensuing tradition by integrating Samantabhadra’s approach into the reigning idiom of Buddhist logic and metaphysics, turning anekāntavāda back against the Buddhist idealism that challenges the realism of rigoristic Jain asceticism.

By the time of Prabhācandra and the great polymath Hemacandra in the first half of the second millennium, both the nayavāda and syādvāda are accepted components of anekāntavāda.  The syādvāda, moreover, is now standardly considered not only to involve both affirmation and negation but also a third operator of inexpressibility (avaktavyatva/avācyatā), which is sometimes explained as encoding a fusion (per impossibile) of affirmation and negation. Later thinkers elaborate the formula (mentioned briefly in Siddhasena and Samantabhadra) of conjoining these three operators in every mathematical combination, so that syādvāda is now considered to involve a seven-fold (saptabhaṅgī) predication of contraries. And the nayavāda, for its part, is increasingly depicted as mapping extant philosophical schools, such that each is seen as affording its own partial view of reality.

Significant references/uses by contemporary scholars

Modern scholars have interpreted anekāntavāda in sundry ways: from “non-absolutism” (Mookerjee) and “non-extremism” (Sanghvi) to “relativity” (Balcerowicz) and “synthesis” (Matilal) or “syncretism” (Ganeri). Matilal’s influential reading rightly rejects Padmarajiah’s “indetermination” and Thomas’s idiosyncratic “non-unequivocality”; but Matilal’s own interpretation of Jain epistemology as “non-radicalism” or especially “intellectual ahiṃsā [nonviolence]” (following Dhruva) and “toleration” (following Kapadia) are not much better (Cort). We might say, in good non-one-sided fashion, that each of these glosses is applicable to anekāntavāda in some way but fails to unambiguously capture the thing itself in its full determinacy.

Related terms


syādvāda, nayavāda, nikṣepa, nyāsa, saptabhaṅgī, pramāṇa, syāt,


compossibility of contraries; determinate negation; non-absolutism; perspectivism; relativism; viewpoints;


Balcerowicz, Piotr. “Some Remarks on the Opening Sections in Jaina Epistemological Treatises.” In Śāstrārambha: Inquiries into the Preamble in Sanskrit, edited by W. Slaje. Abhandlungen Für Die Kunde Des Morgenlandes, Bd. 62. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008.

Cort, John E. “‘Intellectual Ahiṃsā’ Revisited: Jain Tolerance and Intolerance of Others.” Philosophy East and West 50, no. 3 (2000): 324–47.

Dhruva, A. B. “Introduction.” In Syādvādamañjarī of Malliṣeṇa with the Anyayoga-Vyavaccheda-Dvātriṃśikā of Hemacandra, xiii-cxxv. Bombay Sanskrit and Prakrit Series 83. Bombay: Department of Public Instruction, 1933.

Dixit, K. K. Jaina Ontology. Lālabhāī Dalapatabhāī Granthamālā 31. Ahmedabad: LD Institute of Indology, 1971.

Ganeri, Jonardon. “Rationality, Harmony, and Perspective.” In Philosophy in Classical India: The Proper Work of Reason. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Kapadia, H. R. “Introduction.” In Anekāntajayapatākā by Haribhadra Sūri, with His Own Commentary and Municandra Sūri’s Supercommentary, ix-cxxviii. Gaekwad’s Oriental Series 88/105. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1940.

Matilal, Bimal Krishna. The Central Philosophy of Jainism (Anekānta-Vāda). Ahmedabad: LD Institute of Indology, 1981.

Mookerjee, Satkari. The Jaina Philosophy of Non-Absolutism: A Critical Study of Anekāntavāda. 2nd ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978.

Padmarajiah, Y. J. A Comparative Study of the Jaina Theories of Reality and Knowledge. Bombay: Jain Sahitya Vikas Mandal, 1963.

Sanghavi, Sukhlalji. “Anekāntavāda: The Principal Jaina Contribution to Logic.” In Advanced Studies in Indian Logic & Metaphysics, 15–28. Calcutta: R. K. Maitra; distributors: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyaya, 1961.

Thomas, F. W. The Flower-Spray of the Quodammodo Doctrine: Syād-Vāda-Mañjarī. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1968.


by Herbert Moyo

Pronunciation – [úḿ̩séɓéⁿd̥zi̤]/ /úm̩seɓêːnzi/

This is a word that the Nguni, especially the Zulu and the Ndebele use to refer to specific rituals. The performance of a ritual is umsebenzi. In direct translation the word of umsebenzi means work. Ukwenza (doing/performing) umsebenzi (work) in this context means performing a ritual. The Nguni perform rituals for both the living and the living dead as contextual needs. The concept of umsebenzi has been overshadowed by the use of English words such as worship and veneration.

Of course, the little about the umsebenzi that is written was authored by church/Christian theologians from a Christian western frame of reference hence the distortion of umsebenzi to worship. The most criticised aspect of umsebenzi is the rituals performed for the living dead. Christians use their won term, worship, to define umsebenzi. Translation is problematic as we do not k now for sure how the words as meaning the same practice. The ideal example is the umsebenzi of ukubuyisa (the bringing home of the spirit of a deceased person).[1] This ritual has been recorded academics as worshipping the ancestors.[2] Some Nguni scholars and other African sympathisers have argued that Africans do not worship ancestors, but they venerate them. The problem is that the word veneration is a synonym of worship. The two words belong together.

This is related to the concept created by missionaries which they named African Traditional Religion (ATR). ATR is viewed as the religion of people who believe and worship ancestors. Their belief system is visible when they perform worship services. It is that which the outsider views as worship services which is umsebenzi. Offering a service to ancestors in as much as the ancestors also offer a service to the living by protecting them from witches. The process is reciprocal. Ancestors are in the spiritual realm and therefore can offer a service to the living living who are in the physical realm and therefore cannot operate in the spiritual realm. Ancestors then protect the living from spiritualities and bless the living living. Similarly, the living dead cannot brew beer or slaughter for themselves in the physical realm. The living living then offer a service to them by doing umsebenzi at the physical sphere.  

The word believe is an import brought by missionaries to the Nguni. In the Nguni way of life, there is no believing. Isintu is a way of life made up of taboos, rituals and observances performed in community.  The word belief is translated to kholwa. It is the same word that is used when people drink water, and they are satisfied they also Kholwa. The word kholwa means being satisfied. The believers are called ama-kholwa (those who believe). People who go to church are ama-kholwa. Religion is called inkolo (the belief). This fits well in Christianity because there is need to believe. However, in isintu there is no conversion and no believing, therefore isintu is not inkolo (religion) as there is nothing to believe in. It is in inkolo where there is worshipping when relating to the deity. In isintu there is no worshiping as there is no deity instead there are people with mutual respect who live in community. The community is composed of the living living, the living dead and the yet to be born. The living do umsebenzi of a physical nature for the living dead while the living dead also do umsebenzi of a spiritual nature for the living living. When the Nguni perform rituals to appease the living dead or during ukubuyisa, is doing umsebenzi.


There is so much of umsebenzi I have observed among the Ndebele. The most common one or the publicised one is ukubuyisa. In preparation for ukubuyisa there I umsebenzi which involves informing the ancestors about ukubuyisa. Usually, a goat is slaughtered to communicate with the ancestors. Another umsebenzi is the informing of the one to be brought home. The burial of a dead person is also called umsebenzi. The performance all forms of rites of passage according to isintu is umsebenzi.  Umsebenzi is the mirror of what amakholwa have called ukukholwa.

[1] See the work of Edwards, Steve. “Some southern African views on interconnectedness with special reference to indigenous knowledge.” Indilinga African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems 14, no. 2 (2015): 272-283.

[2] See Hammond‐Tooke, W. David. “Who worships whom: Agnates and ancestors among Nguni.” African Studies 44, no. 1 (1985): 47-64. See also Wanamaker, Charles A. “Jesus the ancestor: Reading the story of Jesus from an African Christian perspective.” Scriptura: Journal for Biblical, Theological and Contextual Hermeneutics 62 (1997): 281-298.


by Herbert Moyo

Pronounced – ùù -bú -ntúúú

Ubuntu is the acceptable normative character of umuntu in isintu. Ubuntu is character, umuntu (human being) and isintu (way of life). It is a word found among the Nguni. It is also found in translations across several other tribal groupings in Africa. Mqhayi found it safe to argue that ubuntu is for the “black people throughout Africa south of the Sahara.”[1] The ubuntu in one community may vary from the ubuntu from the next community in the many villages of Africa. However, if one behaves in a normative manner as per the values and principles that make ubuntu in that community then there is ubuntu in that context. A more focused argument comes from scholars that say ubuntu is an ethic for all bantu people.[2] In other words, African groups that are not part of the bantu may not subscribe to the ethic of ubuntu as they may not even such a word. John Hailey says the ubuntu comes “…from the root word ntu, from Bantu languages in Africa. Ntu meaning human, bantu meaning people, and ubuntu meaning humanity. Since it became popular…”[3] In the study of the philosophy of religion, theology, sociology and anthropology in African humanities the use of the term ubuntu is very popular from studies across AFRUCA. Interestingly scholars find it safe to use the word ubuntu even if they come from a language group that does not have that word, instead of translating they use ubuntu. Ubuntu has emerged as a term that is understood across African scholarship in the humanities. This includes scholars that are affirming the ubuntu ethic[4] and those that are critiquing ubuntu.[5]  I always find the critiques of ubuntu failing to consider that this is the ideal person. It one that society desires to produce as opposed to its anti-thesis. The critiques do not talk about the anti-thesis of ubuntu yet their criticism of ubuntu raises the characteristics of the opposite of the desired. The anti-thesis of ubuntu is ubulwane.

In Zulu and Ndebele languages, ubulwane (animal like) is a person that has the character of an animal, a wild one for that matter. Ubuntu is the opposite of ubulwane. In society you find both, people with ubuntu and those with ubulwane. Nonetheless, there is an ongoing philosophical debate from a variety of academic fields based on the ethic of ubuntu. On google scholar I have counted over 200 articles that talk about ubuntu. The basic is that if one is living their life according to the principles and values of isintu then such has ubuntu.[6] This African ethic of Ubuntu was made popular in the academic world by John Mbiti.[7] Ubuntu is an ethical concept or ideal behaviour that shows adherence to Isintu principles and values which manifests itself through communitarianism, using the humanness of individuals who constitute a community. An individual with ubuntu respects and practices the basics of isintu such as adherence to customs and traditions which revolves around communitarian relationships premised on respect for the self, the living dead, the living and the yet to be born. In a way, ubuntu is everyday normative behaviour by individuals in Isintuism. In fact, Ubuntu is an expression of Isintu through the behaviour of individuals in community to human beings and to other realities[8] such as animals, land, water, mountains and rivers. One who has ubuntu is one who is viewed as well behaved as per the Nguni worldview.

Even though ubuntu centres on the individual, the communitarian nature of the Nguni comes into the picture as the ubuntu cannot be practiced in isolation from other human beings. As already noted, that isintu requires other human beings, hence communitarianism. Ubuntu then becomes the ethic that drives the consciousness of the communally shared life-giving values such as relatedness, respect, communitarianism, hospitality and interdependency. These communitarian ubuntu values are passed on through generations for the well-being of the individual, the wider community and the environment. The definition of ubuntu is an ideal expression of the Isintu worldview.

The ubuntu of an individual becomes visible in relation to others. Michael Battle cites Desmond Tutu saying, ‘…a person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good…’[9] Ubuntu is a moral ethic of interdependence which contributes to social cohesion. The interesting aspect is that in ubuntu even strangers are treated with ubuntu and as such in the development of globalized communities the Nguni have no problem of accommodating others through the ethic of ubuntu. This takes us back to the principle that umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Anyone who is individualistic is described as without ubuntu (akanabuntu) instead has ubulwane.


Ubuntu is a moral theory for interdependence and solidarity. It is an ethic based on self-respect and the respect of others in community. The individual finds meaning in serving others and therefore it builds love and care for others. Ubuntu demonstrates the rootedness of an individual in isintu and therefore from those who study the philosophy of religions it can be seen as the praxis of isintu. The individual is very important in community. the self can be meaningful through contributing to the wellbeing of others. The heroes of ubuntu sacrifice their well being for the sake of others, especial for the vulnerable.

[1] Mqhayi, S. E. K. Ityala Lamawele. Loved ale: Loved Ale Press. 1931: 134

[2] Ramose, Mogobe B. “Ubuntu.” In Degrowth, pp. 240-242. Routledge, 2014.

[3] Hailey, John. “Ubuntu: A literature review.” Document. London: Tutu Foundation (2008), pg. 14.

[4] See Letseka, Moeketsi. “In defence of Ubuntu.” Studies in philosophy and education 31, no. 1 (2012): 47-60.

[5] For example, See Matolino, Bernard, and Wenceslaus Kwindingwi. “The end of ubuntu.” South African Journal of Philosophy 32, no. 2 (2013): 197-205. See also

[6] Moyo, Herbert. “The Death of Isintu in Contemporary Technological Era: The Ethics of Sex Robots Among the Ndebele of Matabo.” In African Values, Ethics, and Technology, pp. 123-135. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2021.

[7] Mbiti, J. S. (1971). African traditional religions and philosophy. New York: Doubleday.

[8] I would have said other creation, but the word creation came with the missionaries. The Nguni (Ndebele/Zulu) word is izidalwa. In the Nguni worldview people came from emhlangeni and in talking about that genesis of humans there is no use of the word creation or created.

[9] Battle, Michael. Ubuntu: I in you and you in me. Church Publishing, Inc., 2009.


by Herbert Moyo

Pronunciation – isíːntu/e—see-ntuu

Isintu is the totality of socio-economic, political and religio-cultural self-identity by the Nguni of Southern Africa (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Swaziland). There are traces of the Nguni in Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. The Nguni speak mainly four languages, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swati. The distribution of the languages is largely as follows: South Africa (Zulu; Xhosa; Ndebele; Swati), Zimbabwe (Zulu/Ndebele; Xhosa) and Swaziland/Eswatini (Swati). Since context transforms cultural patterns, there are some minor isintu variations amongst these Nguni. To avoid unsafe generalizations, I use examples mainly from the Ndebele of Zimbabwe[1], but also give some examples from the Zulu of South Africa and the Nguni in general. I do this because there is a tendency by people from other continents to treat Africans as culturally and linguistically monolithic yet there are over 1000 major languages and cultures in Africa.

As a philosophy of life, I refer to isintu as Isintuism. That which is normative is Isintu. Isintu also refers to that which the Nguni people have not lost despite the onslaught by imperial religions such as Christianity and Islam. Isintu has been affected by civilisation and globalization. Isintu has been affected ever since the colonial and missionary ‘globalization’ era. Therefore, those who continue to practice some Nguni rituals (Ndebele), speak isiNdebele language (use idioms and proverbs), observe some taboos and respect the Ndebele way of doing things are said to be doing Isintu. In fact, in everyday life if one does things according to the traditional way, then it is said “Uyenza Isintu sakithi (doing/living our isintu).”[2] This may be a ritual or being dressed in what is viewed as traditional attire (unxibe/ugqoke Isintu). Sticking to what is viewed as customs and traditions is Isintu. This is the same as what the Shona people of Zimbabwe, especially the Karanga would call Chivanhu (Isintu) chedu (sethu). The word Chivanhu is a direct translation of Isintu and the word chedu translates to the word ours. In the Shona worldview people who practice what is viewed as traditional are doing Chivanhu. What is of note is that in situations of sickness or difficulties in life, people who turn to traditional ways to solve such are said to be turning to Chivanhu. This is a philosophy that can be referred to as chivanhuism. The Chivanhuism just like isintuism is a worldview that embraces the indigenous way of life of the Shona.

In addition to the above understanding of isintu, the Zulu refer to all people, all Zulu people as Isintu or the human race as isintu. This is comprehensive us of the word as it means that all people in their being, their totality are Isintu. If understood this way, then isintu means the identity of the Zulu. This identity captures the socio-economic, cultural and political being of the Zulu.

Isintu is a normative Nguni way of life. Isintu is the living out of one’s life as a continuous practice of beliefs, customs and culture. Isintu involves the economy, dressing, respect for the living and the dead, socialization, growing up, taboos, marriage, death, building homes, celebrations, language and food. As per the Zulu understanding of isintu, it means the totality of being, religio-cultural realities, cosmology/worldviews. Isintu is life lived through a variety of rituals, observances and behavioural patterns that can be referred to as customs, tradition, culture or “religion”.

Isintu and or as a religion

In Isintuism, ideally, everyday life must always be pleasing to the living and to the living dead. This is a way of life through actions, relationships and words. It is this way of life that the Christian missionaries referred to as African Traditional Religion (ATR).[3] My development of isintuism is a response to this reference to isintu as ATR. The Nguni never claimed to have a religion until the advent of Christianity and Islam. ATR was invented by missionaries for Africans that had not converted to Christianity.[4] The Nguni lived their lives practicing all the above as they saw fit as per contextual needs. If others see this fitting the definition of what is called a religion, then that is fine. However, naming it in general terms as ATR has connotations of despising the practices as backward hence the onslaught on isintu by missionaries. The word ‘traditional’ in Africa connotes lack of civilisation. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism[5]are also traditional religions yet they have specific names and not named as Traditional Religions. Because of the history of colonialism, it becomes offensive to refer to the lifestyle of the Nguni as ‘traditional religion’ hence the preferred use of Isintu. In Isintu there is no conversion, believing or worshipping (veneration), people are born into the system and live in the system. Others then decided to define this ATR. We debate on the use of veneration for what the Nguni do for ancestors. The synonyms for veneration are reverence, worship, respect, honour and adoration. The problem is the translation of these terms to Nguni languages and vice-versa, which dilutes the life practices of the Nguni with the mindset of the Christian which is full of these words in relation to God. The Nguni do umsebenzi[6] for their ancestors.

The individual in isintuism

In Isintuism, the individual ‘is’ because there are others. “I am because you are.”[7] Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.[8] This means a person is person because of other persons. A human is fully human in relation to others in the community of the living, the living dead and the yet to be born. One cannot be human alone. The concept of individual derives meaning from the community. In isintuism the individual is very important as we cannot have a community without individuals that make up the community.


If the way of life of the Nguni has characteristics of a religion, then those who want to talk of the religion of the Nguni must talk about isintu. The Nguni religion is isintu and not ATR.

[1] The Ndebele people of Zimbabwe are Zulus from South Africa that travelled to Zimbabwe in the late 19th century because of conflicts.

[2] Moyo, Herbert. “The Death of Isintu in Contemporary Technological Era: The Ethics of Sex Robots Among the Ndebele of Matabo.” In African Values, Ethics, and Technology, pp. 123-135. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2021.

[3] Ushe, Ushe Mike. “God, Divinities and Ancestors in African Traditional Religious Thought.” African Cultural Personalities in a World of Change: Monolithic Cultural Purity and the Emergence of New Values (2018): 1942.

[4] Shaw, Rosalind. “The invention of ‘African traditional religion’.” Religion 20, no. 4 (1990): 339-353.

[5] Yao, Xinzhong, and Hsin-chung Yao. An introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[6] This is my 3rd word for the purposes of this presentation.

[7] Idoniboye-Obu, Sakiemi, and Ayo Whetho. “Ubuntu: ‘You are because I am’ or ‘I am because you are’?.” inform 69 (2008): 70.

[8] Mbiti, J. S. (1971). African traditional religions and philosophy. New York: Doubleday. See also Shutte, Augustine. “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu: an African conception of humanity.” Philosophy and Theology 5, no. 1 (1990): 39-54.


Literally “character”, but also a nominal form of the verb meaning to exist/be located in time/space. One of the main goals or purposes of life from a traditional Yoruba perspective is to cultivate ìwàpẹlẹ (good/gentle character) that orders one’s life and the world around one well. The various ritual processes and dictates of ancestral, cultural, and sacred traditions (including those of orí and the òrìṣà) help to refine, shape, or cultivate this character. While a person can have bad character (ìwà búburú), this is understood as a type of deficiency or a literal tending towards nothingness as ìwà is linked to existence itself, and the substance of ìwà is assumed to be positive/good. Ìwà as moral substance or character engages in a reciprocal relationship with orí as ìwàpẹlẹ has a positive effect on one’s orí and a good orí can help in the cultivation of ìwàpẹlẹ. Alternatively, a lack of ìwà has a negative effect on one’s orí and vice versa.

Philosophical significance

The concept of ìwà is of critical importance because it demonstrates the malleability of human nature as its positive expression improves human nature, but its lack erodes that very same nature regardless of the quality of one’s orí. Thus, it adds another dynamic layer of complexity to the Yoruba notion of “destiny”. It also dictates the quality and length of one’s life as excellent character (ìwàpẹlẹ) is not only believed to result in long life but can be invoked in artistic representations of ìwà in effigies created to commemorate and immortalize the deceased of high moral substance by localizing their spirit within them. However, those of poor moral substance tend toward nothingness, tend not to be memorialized, and consequently may be unable to become reincarnated. Hence, ìwà not only points to the self’s potential and contingent continuation after earthly death, it is the very means by which each outcome is affected.

Historical Context1

Unlike orí and ẹmí, ìwà has no mythology around it being given to or chosen in heaven. Instead, it is generally anthropomorphized as a woman with whom people may and should cultivate a relationship. In Odù Ogbé-Alárá, Ọrúnmìlà marries Ìwà—sometimes identified as the daughter of Sùúrù (Patience)—and although she is very beautiful, living in such intimacy with her is incredibly trying for him, and he either becomes critical of her or annoyed with her bad behavior. Ìwà then leaves Ọrúnmìlà, and his life becomes even harder without her presence, which prompts him to go to the ends of the earth searching for her. In one version he wins her back by singing a song about how it is impossible to acquire the good things in life without Ìwà. In another she chooses to stay with her father Sùúrù in heaven but promises to aid Ọrúnmìlà invisibly if he exhibits good character toward all people (Abimbola 1975, 395-416).

There are also several well-known proverbs (òwe) related to ìwà that demonstrate its use in Yoruba religion and philosophy. One related to the above narrative is ìwà lẹwà which literally means “(good) character is beauty”. “Beauty” does not necessarily mean something is pleasing or enjoyable, but rather it is the proper and effective expression of the invisible nature, ìwà. Both come from the same root verb “wà”, and the proverb suggests that true character is always “beautiful” or effective/beneficial even if it is not pleasing, just like Ọrúnmìlà’s mythical wife. Another proverb that alludes to the Ifá narrative is sùúrù ni bàbá ìwà (patience is the father/source of character). This proverb clearly indicates that patience is ontologically anterior to and a necessary condition for ìwà and that the presence of patience naturally gives rise to good character. Sùúrù is also mythologized as the first-born of Olódùmarè, which causes this proverb to conceptualize ìwà as a procession from God like ẹmí but less directly.

      Ìwà’s close, dynamic connection with orí is demonstrated by the following proverbs:

Bí orí ba fẹ ìwà            If orí marries ìwà

Bí ìwà ba fẹ orí            If ìwà marries orí

Aiye a gún régé           Life/the world will be well ordered/pleasant

Eni l’orí rere                The owner of a good orí

Ti ò níwà                      Who does not have ìwà

Lo ma borí rẹ jẹ           Will ruin her orí.

Together, these proverbs demonstrate that even with a good orí, one’s character (ìwà) is needed as a consort to ensure that it brings about all the potential good in one’s being or nature. Ìwà’s absence metaphysically degrades one’s destiny (orí) and lessens one’s existence. This perspective is further supported by other common sayings such as kìí ṣènìyàn (he/she/it is not a real person), ènìyàn lásán (barely a human being), or ẹranko ni (he/she/it is an animal) if a person does not exhibit sufficient ìwà to qualify as a full member of society and thus a person.

The goal of life in the traditional Yoruba world is to perfect one’s ìwà or existence and thus become as fully a person as possible, as demonstrated by the proverb Aìkú parí ìwà (immortality is perfect existence/character). The perfect expression of one’s primordial nature (ẹwà) and character (ìwà) in this world naturally shares in ìwà’s timelessness, ensuring a long existence on earth and the perpetuation of the self in the memory of those left behind as a result of the quality of one’s character and actions.

      People who demonstrate excellent ìwàpẹlẹ are known as Ọmọlúwàbí, which is generally translated as ọmọ-ti-Oní-ìwà-bí (child begotten by the Lord of existence/character [Olódùmarè]). This common phrase again ontologically links the central element of ìwà to Olódùmarè and suggests that the more directly the person manifests that character, the better exemplar of existence and humanity she is.

Significant References

Despite its central importance in the translation of a person’s celestial nature and orí into existence in the world, ìwà as a concept has attracted less attention in academic literature than it does in Yoruba tradition. However, Abimbola (1975) analyzes the place of ìwà in Ifá narratives to stress the high moral standards of traditional Yoruba life and religion, and Abiodun (1983 & 2014) analyzes how Yoruba aesthetics convey and materialize a person’s ìwà. O. Ogunnaike (2020) goes the farthest in theorizing the complex reciprocal relationship between orí and ìwà, harmonizing apparently contradicting articulations.

Related Terms:


  • Àṣẹ– Effective existential power or authority. Àṣẹ is the ability to bring and keep anything into existence and is rooted in/given by Olódùmarè and mediated by the òrìṣà Èṣù. Everything that exists has its own particular àṣẹ according to its nature, and those with the knowledge of how to work with àṣẹ in its many forms are able to produce effective change on various levels of existence through speech, art, ritual, medicine, etc.
  • Ara-human body, primarily, but not exclusively, the physical body. It houses and allows the other elements of a person to become manifest and operate dynamically in the world. The term—like ènìyàn—can also be used to stand in for “person”, and much like its constituent parts have metaphysical natures as well, it resists strict body/spirit dualism despite being more rooted in the physical than most other terms.
  • Ẹnìkejì-A person’s heavenly double akin to a guardian angel or spirit. Some differentiate it from the orí while others treat it as a merely another name for the same entity.
  • Ẹs`ẹ-“Foot/leg” in physical terms but also the effort/work done to make one’s orí/destiny realized on earth. Even the best orí will never be expressed without proper effort to carry it out well, making ẹsẹ an essential companion to orí.
  • Òrìṣà-Deity/intermediary between people and Olódùmarè, there is usually one who “owns a person’s head” and functions much like a patron saint. There is usually a strong resemblance between the devotees ideal or celestial character (ìwà) and that of the tutelary òrìṣà, and those who have refined their ìwà along these lines to the highest degree are often identified directly with the òrìṣà or called by the òrìṣà’s name.
  • Òjìjì-“Shadow.” Although conceptions vary depending on region and tradition, it is commonly understood as a type of “soul”, but one with an essential although far less active role in the sustenance of the self. Rituals are generally not performed for it, but some believe it travels through dreams while people are asleep. It can remain on earth and possibly even take material form after the death of the body (ara) but requires the continued presence of ẹmí in order to talk. Some say it merely marks the presence of ẹmí in ara.
  • Ọkàn-“Heart” or organ primarily responsible for a type of intuitive cogitation very similar to the English term “will”. Much like the physical function of pumping blood, it coordinates and motivates the various parts of the body, directing them towards a purpose and enduring in the face of resistance. Given this function it is closely associated with ẹmí and similar to ọpọlọ (literally “brain”) which is linked more closely with intelligence, the application of wisdom, or creativity.
  • Ènìyàn-“Person” refers to the totality of a human being, but in a moralistic and normative sense. A person of highly refined character may be called ènìyàn gidi (intensely/very much a person). As soon as any of the constituent parts of the person is absent or degraded to a great extent (such as ìwà or orí), one ceases to be alive in the physical but also moral sense as demonstrated by the phrase kìí ṣenìyàn (she/he/it is not a “person”) which is applied to anyone who does not meet the ethical/existential standards required to be a member of Yoruba society.


  • Body
  • Mind
  • Soul
  • Spirit
  • Personality
  • Destiny
  • Fate
  • Consciousness


by Ayodeji Ogunnaike

Literally “breath,” it carries connotations of a “spirit” or “life force” that animates a body and gives it agency. Ẹmí is given directly to each person from Olódùmarè after the body (ara) is formed out of clay by the deity Òrìṣàńlá. Upon death, ẹmí leaves the body and returns to its celestial pre-existence, and a body is not a person without the presence of ẹmí. As it participates in the nature of Olódùmarè, ẹmí cannot be destroyed or die. Consequently, it is the basis of life itself, but not sufficient to constitute a person. Not only humans have this common quality of agential life, and as it is shared amongst and beyond all humankind, other elements such as orí are required for human personality. Ẹmí also need not necessarily be the literal breath of a human being, but more so the agent that causes a person to breathe ( in Yoruba).

Philosophical significance

The most significant implication of ẹmí is its existential link with Olódùmarè, which renders practically all life divine in a certain sense. While ẹmí does not constitute the full self, this link and ẹmí’s return to Olódùmarè after death indicates the immortality of at least part of a person. In addition, as it is placed within the body after creation, it pre-exists the purely physical part of a person. However, because ẹmí can assume physical form, its ability to exist outside of a body opens up the possibility for a “spirit” to leave the body and perhaps enter other beings or take on other forms. Ẹmí’s agential power constitutes the ability to choose one’s path or lot in life through its role in the selection of orí, which like the body is dependent upon ẹmí for its association with each person.

Historical Context1

Depending on the perspective of individual practitioners, the òrìṣà Òrìṣàńlá is believed to form the human body (ara) out of clay only on earth, or on earth and in heaven. On Earth, Olódùmarè deputized Òrìṣàńlá with the task of molding people’s bodies and said that he would come back to breathe ẹmí into the bodies when they were finished. Òrìṣàńlá began molding human bodies responsibly, but because he worked for so long under the hot sun, he got thirsty and drank a great deal of palm wine. As a result, he got drunk and started forming irregularly shaped bodies. He also left some bodies out in the sun too long, making them very dark, and left others in the shade, making them lighter. Òrìṣàńlá eventually passed out, and before he could wake up and adjust the bodies, Olódùmarè came and gave each one ẹmí, fixing their form for good. Òrìṣàńlá felt remorse and responsibility for the shape of the bodies he molded when drunk, so those with such bodies enjoy his protection and benevolence as his special children, although all people share the same nature by virtue of being given the same ẹmí. In heaven (or alternatively in the mother’s womb), Òrìṣàńlá forms the body of each person, and once completed, Olódùmarè gives the body ẹmí, which enables it to travel to the house of Àjàlá to select its orí before descending to life on earth.

In the Odù Ifá “Ọbàrà Òtúrúpọn,” the òrìṣà Èṣù, Òrìṣàńlá, and Ogún were all destitute and in desperate need of money. Èṣù—as the clever deity of chaos, morality, and communication—devised a plan to trick an unsuspecting man out of his money. Ogún carved a statue in the shape of a beautiful woman, Òrìṣàńlá gave it the ability to speak, and Èṣù promised to take the statue to the market to find a husband for her. However, the figure could not be a real person since only Olódùmarè could give it ẹmí. Once they finished crafting the fake woman, Èṣù brought her to the market. That same day Ọrúnmìlà performed divination because he wanted help finding a wife. Ifá told him that if he performed a sacrifice, he would find the woman of his dreams in the market. Ọrúnmìlà was so excited he rushed off to the market and forgot about the sacrifice. Once he arrived, he fell in love with the woman Èṣù, Òrìṣàńlá, and Ogún had made and asked to meet her father so he could pay the dowry and make her his wife. Ọrúnmìlà paid a large sum to a man he did not realize was Èṣù in disguise but was later surprised when after only two days his wife lost her color, could no longer move, and ceased to speak! He returned to the market to find her father, but Èṣù was long gone.

Ẹmí is most closely associated with Olódùmarè, which is significant because Olódùmarè is not the focus of ritual devotion or much philosophical thought. Ẹmí is also closely linked to the complementary term ara and thus Òrìṣàńlá as its creator. However, it would be a mistake to consider ara to be purely material and ẹmí purely immaterial as one can perceive breath in the physical world and the parts of the physical body (such as orí and ẹsẹ) also have strong immaterial connotations as well. Ẹmí is also frequently invoked as tied to ọkàn (heart) as what gives ọkàn its character and vitality. Some also consider ẹmí to be each person’s specific type of àṣẹ.

Significant References

All scholars writing on traditional Yoruba notions of the self reference ẹmí as one of if not the most fundamental elements (See Idowu 1994, Hallen 2000, Gbdegesin 2003). However, Bascom (1960) provides a unique analysis by presenting the diversity of views on the concept across several Yoruba communities. He demonstrates the complications with translating it as the “soul” although it is a close approximation. Oladipo (1992b) for his part cautions against applying Cartesian duality to the concept of ẹmí as spiritual rather than physical, and highlights differences between ẹmí and the similar English term “mind”.


by Ayodeji Ogunnaike

Conceptual Definition

Literally translates as “head” but carries a transcendent meaning akin to a person’s destiny/fate, though not in a fatalistic or deterministic sense. It constitutes the cosmic potential of each human being and their purposes for existence. There is both an orí òde (outer/physical/visible head) and an orí inú (inner/metaphysical/invisible head), but in philosophical discourse, the term orí refers to the orí inú. However, the physical parts of the body are not fully divorced from their metaphysical counterparts. Orí is also the most powerful spiritual force in a person’s life—a deity itself and more powerful than the many others—and success in all aspects of life is contingent upon a positive relationship with it and mediated through ritual. Knowledge of one’s orí is an important goal in Yoruba life and the deepest information on oneself. Orí can also be understood as a type of celestial spirit double or guardian angel not dissimilar to a Neoplatonic daimon.

Philosophical significance

The concept of orí provides a context in which to understand and debate issues such as free will and destiny or how cosmic order interacts with personal effort. It constitutes a field in which thinkers can adopt different perspectives, as some place more of an emphasis on the ability to alter or affect one’s orí through propitiation and action on earth, while others consider the choice of orí as more final and fixed. It also strongly suggests a celestial pre- or supra-temporal existence of each individual or the existence of a primordial archetype of what or who a person truly is or should aspire to become. The greater focus on orí inú over orí òde demonstrates the ontological priority of the inner, immaterial nature of a person over the external, although they are linked. The ritual processes and paraphernalia associated with orí demonstrate the practical and lived nature of this central aspect of Yoruba philosophy and religion.

Historical Context1

Before coming to earth from heaven, all people must go to the house of Àjàlá, the celestial potter, to select their orí. Àjàlá forms each orí out of clay, but he is an unreliable craftsman, so not all orí are created equal. Some are good and durable, while others are poorly crafted and will not serve their owners well, but it is very difficult to determine the nature of each orí. After selecting an orí, and crossing the boundary between heaven and earth, people forget the content of their orí and need to consult the òrìṣà Ọrúnmìlà (deity of wisdom and divination) to find out the nature of their orí and what it would have them do at important junctures. This is because Ọrúnmìlà witnesses each person’s selection of orí and can reveal the necessary information through his system of divination.

In a chapter (Odù) called “Ogbè-Yọnú” of the Ifá oral corpus (a vast body of myths, proverbs, and poems used in divination), one of Ọrúnmìlà’s sons named Afùwàpẹ is going to Àjàlá’s house with two friends before coming down to earth. His friends proceed directly to Àjàlá’s house, but he stops at his father’s house first to greet him and ask him to perform Ifa divination about his impending decision. Ọrúnmìlà tells Afùwàpẹ that he must make a sacrifice of salt and a great deal of money to ensure success. Afùwàpẹ does as his father instructed and carries the sacrifice along with him. Before reaching Àjàlá’s house, he encounters a gatekeeper who is seasoning his food with ash, and Afùwàpẹ recommends the man try some of his salt instead. The man is so happy with the taste of salt, he tells Afùwàpẹ that he will not find Àjàlá at home because his creditors are looking for him and he has gone into hiding. However, if he can get the creditors to leave, he could talk to Àjàlá and get help selecting a good orí. When Afùwàpẹ arrives at the house, he uses his large sum of money to pay off Àjàlá’s debt, and Àjàlá jumps down from the rafters as soon as the creditors are gone. He too is so pleased with Afùwàpẹ that he points out an excellent orí that will bring him success in life. When Afùwàpẹ comes down to earth, he prospers, but his two friends who had chosen their orí without Àjàlá’s help end up with bad ones. They struggle and struggle but cannot make much of themselves due to the bad choice they unknowingly made (Abimbola, 1975b, 178-207).

In another Odú Ifá called “Ògúndá-Méjì,” Ọrúnmìlà asks all the òrìṣà who can travel the farthest with their devotees. Each one, except for orí, admits that they would have to stop to eat their favorite foods and perform their rituals at their ancestral homes and cities. That orí is the only one who never needs to stop and will accompany a devotee to the ends of the world demonstrates its superior importance to the life of the individual.

In philosophical discourse, orí is often paired with ẹsẹ (leg/foot) as its compliment. While people would often carry heavy loads on their heads and a head/orí determines where the body will go, ẹsẹ are necessary to carry the person and anything they have acquired to the desired location. Thus, ẹsẹ represents the hard work necessary to bring the benefits of a good orí to pass. The deity Èṣù is commonly believed to be able to tempt people to leave the path of their orí, and good character (ìwàpẹlẹ) is closely associated with orí as well. It is also connected with ẹmí (breath), which is received from Olódùmarè (Almighty God) just before choosing an orí.

Significant References

Orí is likely the most common term used in literature on Yoruba philosophy and is analyzed by practically all scholars of Yoruba thought and cosmology (See Abimbola 1993, Gbadegesin 1994, Makinde 1984, Oduwole 1996, Balogun 2007). This literature often takes the form of analysis of Yoruba perspectives on destiny (such as soft-determinism or fatalism), but a great deal of insightful work has also been done in the realm of art and art history by scholars such as Abiodun (2014), Lawal (1985, 2001), and Ademuleya (2007) because the paraphernalia associated with the ritual propitiation of orí and their aesthetic attributes are both rich and deeply embedded in understandings of its philosophical significance.

Keywords for cross-cultural studies of self and persistence

Our project engages philosophical perspectives originating on the continents of Africa, South Asia, and East Asia. Our scholarship spans a wide range of historical periods. We each chose three keywords that may give insights on “self and persistence” from our unique perspectives.


Ayodeji Ogunnaike – Ori, `Ẹmí, Ìwà.

Herbert Moyo – Isintu, Ubuntu, Umsebenzi.

Oludamini Ogunnaike – Qalb(قلب ), ‘Aql (عقل), Nafs ( نفس ).

South Asia:

Anil Mundra – Anekāntavāda, Identity, Mokṣa.

Marie-Helene Gorisse – Upayoga, Parityāga, Bandha.

East Asia:

Yuko Ishihara – Twofold-being-in-the-world,”Jikaku, Basho.

Louis Komjathy – Anthropology, Pneumatology, Shēn, Somatology.

Maki Sato – Tama, Freedom/Liberty, Value.