A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of the doctrine of syadvada: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the ninth part in the series called the “the jaina philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 9 - The Doctrine of Syādvāda

The doctrine of Syādvāda holds that since the most contrary characteristics of infinite variety may be associated with a thing, affirmation made from whatever standpoint (noya) cannot be regarded as absolute.

All affirmations are true (in some syādasti or “may be it is” sense);
all affirmations are false in some sense;
all affirmations are indefinite or inconceivable in some sense (syādavaktavya);
all affirmations are true as well as false in some sense (syādasti syānnāsti);
all affirmations are true as well as indefinite (syādasti cāvaktavyaśca);
all affirmations are false as well as indefinite;
all affirmations are true and false and indefinite in some sense (syādasti syānnāsti syādavaktavyaśca).

Thus we may say “the jug is” or the jug has being, but it is more correct to say explicitly that “may be (syāt) that the jug is,” otherwise if “being” here is taken absolutely of any and every kind of being, it might also mean that there is a lump of clay or a pillar, or a cloth or any other thing. The existence here is limited and defined by the form of the jug. “The jug is” does not mean absolute existence but a limited kind of existence as determined by the form of the jug, “The jug is” thus means that a limited kind of existence, namely the jug-existence is affirmed and not existence in general in the absolute or unlimited sense, for then the sentence “the jug is” might as well mean “the clay is,” “the tree is,” “the cloth is,” etc.

Again the existence of the jug is determined by the negation of all other things in the world; each quality or characteristic (such as red colour) of the jug is apprehended and defined by the negation of all the infinite varieties (such as black, blue, golden), etc., of its class, and it is by the combined negation of all the infinite number of characteristics or qualities other than those constituting the jug that a jug may be apprehended or defined.

What we call the being of the jug is thus the non-being of all the rest except itself. Thus though looked at from one point of view the judgment “the jug is” may mean affirmation of being, looked at from another point of view it means an affirmation of non-being (of all other objects). Thus of the judgment “the jug is” one may say, may be it is an affirmation of being (syādasti), may be it is a negation of being (syānnāsti)', or I may proceed in quite another way and say that “the jug is” means “this jug is here,” which naturally indicates that “this jug is not there” and thus the judgment “the jug is” (i.e. is here) also means that “the jug is not there,” and so we see that the affirmation of the being of the jug is true only of this place and false of another, and this justifies us in saying that “may be that in some sense the jug is,” and “may be in some sense that the jug is not.” Combining these two aspects we may say that in some sense “may be that the jug is,” and in some sense “may be that the jug is not.”

We understood here that if we put emphasis on the side of the characteristics constituting being, we may say “the jug is,” but if we put emphasis on the other side, we may as well say “the jug is not.” Both the affirmations hold good of the jug according as the emphasis is put on either side. But if without emphasis on either side we try to comprehend the two opposite and contradictory judgments regarding the jug, we see that the nature of the jug or of the existence of the jug is indefinite, unspeakable and inconceivable— avaktavya, for how can we affirm both being and non-being of the same thing, and yet such is the nature of things that we cannot but do it. Thus all affirmations are true, are not true, are both true and untrue, and are thus unspeakable, inconceivable, and indefinite.

Combining these four again we derive another three,

  1. that in some sense it may be that the jug is,
  2. and is yet unspeakable,
    1. or that the jug is not and is unspeakable, or finally that the jug is, is not, and is unspeakable.

Thus the Jains hold that no affirmation, or judgment, is absolute in its nature, each is true in its own limited sense only, and for each one of them any of the above seven alternatives (technically called saptabhañgī) holds good[1]. The Jains say that other Indian systems each from its own point of view asserts itself to be the absolute and the only point of view. They do not perceive that the nature of reality is such that the truth of any assertion is merely conditional, and holds good only in certain conditions, circumstances, or senses (upādhi). It is thus impossible to make any affirmation which is universally and absolutely valid. For a contrary or contradictory affirmation will always be found to hold good of any judgment in some sense or other. As all reality is partly permanent and partly exposed to change of the form of losing and gaining old and new qualities, and is thus relatively permanent and changeful, so all our affirmations regarding truth are also only relatively valid and invalid.

Being, non-being and indefinite, the three categories of logic, are all equally available in some sense or other in all their permutations for any and every kind of judgment. There is no universal and absolute position or negation, and all judgments are valid only conditionally. The relation of the naya doctrine with the syādvāda doctrine is therefore this, that for any judgment according to any and every naya there are as many alternatives as are indicated by syādvāda. The validity of such a judgment is therefore only conditional. If this is borne in mind when making any judgment according to any naya, the naya is rightly used. If, however, the judgments are made absolutely according to any particular naya without any reference to other nayas as required by the syādvāda doctrine the nayas are wrongly used as in the case of other systems, and then such judgments are false and should therefore be called false nayas (nayābhāsa)[2].

Footnotes and references:


See Syādvādamañjarī, with Hemacandra’s commentary, pp. 166, etc.


The earliest mention of the doctrine of syādvāda and saptabhañgī probably occurs in Bhadrabāhu’s (433-357 B.C.) commentary Sūtrakṛtāṅganiryukti.

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