(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;


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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.

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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.