IN THE JAIN tradition of India there is a folk tale about a group of blind men who approach an elephant in the forest. One of them touches the animal’s ears and perceives a flat, fan-like creature. Another man touches the leg and finds a thick, round post, and yet another finds the trunk and thinks the elephant is like a long, hairy rope. Finally the owner of the elephant says to them: “All of you are correct, but you are also wrong because each of you has touched only one side of the

elephant. Each of you is right from your individual standpoint, but the truth is something different altogether.”

The story provides a simple explanation of the Jain doctrine of anekant. This means ‘many-sidedness’, an awareness that there are many paths towards the same ultimate truth. For Jains, whose spiritual practice is

difficult and austere, anekant provides a useful inoculation against fundamentalist rigidity. It has also, like many of the best ideals, proved highly pragmatic. The tolerant, flexible approach enjoined by anekant has enabled the Jains to survive as a perpetual minority tradition. For millennia, they have avoided absorption into the larger Hindu culture whilst maintaining a close relationship with Hinduism and influencing it in creative ways. In

recent centuries, the gentle, principled Jains have won the respect of Islamic rulers and Christian colonialists alike, and they play a dynamic role in modern, secular India. Jains do not regard other faiths – or secular doctrines, for that matter – as any less true than their own teachings. Instead, they see them as aspects of humanity’s spiritual quest.

Unlike fashionable postmodern relativism, however, anekant does not deny the existence of objective truth. On the contrary, truth is regarded as such a powerful force that it should be approached with humility and care. For in Jainism all humans – and, just as importantly, non-humans – are on the same spiritual journey towards truth, and it is likely to take us many lifetimes to grasp it. The more dogmatically certain someone is, the further he or she is likely to be from enlightenment. Doctrinaire certainty, be it religious, political or moral, is a symptom of ekant, or one-sidedness, a barrier to understanding. One of the most destructive karmic influences in Jainism is mohaniya, the state of self-delusion that leads to a warped and narrow understanding of the world. This position leads in turn to violence, for it relies ultimately on force, be it the so-called ‘force of argument’ (a form of intellectual violence) or overt forms of physical coercion.

Jainism is an ancient spiritual

tradition, but its seers had a concept of sub-atomic particles or anu, mirrored by modern physics. Indeed the emphasis on reasoned, open-minded inquiry resembles scientific method at its best. Kanti Mardia, a Jain scientist at Leeds University, has likened the spiritual seeker to the researcher in the laboratory. Jainism has always understood that the universe is teeming with life,

including invisible life. This explains why many of its ascetics cover their mouths with white cloth and sweep the ground before them with a small brush, lest they do unwitting harm to the tiniest creatures. The belief in ahimsa (nonviolence or non-injury) that is so central to Jain teachings is based on the idea that all life forms are interconnected, and that they depend on each other in subtle, often unexpected ways. This spiritual intuition has been confirmed by the science of ecosystems and underlies our present green consciousness. We realise, along with the Jain ‘Pathfinder’ Mahavira (599–527 BCE), that “Nonviolence to all living beings is kindness to oneself.”

Anekant is the nonviolence of the mind, an intellectual counterpart to the physical practice of iryasamiti, or careful action that avoids harm to others. Although it is a profoundly simple idea, it has revolutionary implications for the way we formulate and present our thoughts and the way we ‘do’ politics. It is radical in the original sense of the word. It invites us to question, at the root, the assumptions about politics, spirituality and society that can still bind us even as we seek humane, holistic solutions to the problems of humanity and the planet.

The most revolutionary aspect of anekant is that it replaces ‘either/or’ with ‘both/and’. Either/or reasoning, which has long dominated Western thought, divides ideas into competitive opposites, between which we are compelled to ‘choose’. Proponents of one idea are tasked with making it ‘win’, thus ‘defeating’ other ideas, which are deemed inferior. This mode of thought is expressed overtly in the politics of ‘left’ and ‘right’, as well as a democratic process where ‘tactics’ override principle and ‘victory’ is prized over consensus, which is derided as weak. But the either/or mentality is also reflected in the preference for competition over co-operation and the belief that we must choose between tradition and ‘progress’, continuity and change, reason and feeling, science and the spirit. Either/or creates a culture of separation that affects everything from gender relations to humanity’s relationship with ‘the rest’ of nature. Human separatism from nature is the root of our ecological crisis and comes from the culture of either/or.

Anekant, by contrast, regards such separations as illusory. This is why, in Jainism, there is no conflict between science and spirituality; indeed, they are seen as indivisible. Jains use a method of discussion known as syadvada (‘maybe-ism’) where, in contrast to Western-style debate, all possibilities are consciously explored and certainties dispelled. Such an approach is well-suited to a world of multifaceted problems, where conflict resolution matters more than ever.

At a recent Resurgence gathering, one speaker claimed that environmentalists are “too nice”. He favoured an adversarial approach, a renewed commitment to the politics of conflict and ‘struggle’. Yet it is that very attachment to adversarialism that most limits the ecological movement’s scope. Too many of us seem to believe, like President Bush, that “either you’re with us or against us” – although we are witnessing the tragic but logical results of this mindset.

We would be better, therefore, to plant trees or start alternative schools than chant provocative slogans or ritually denounce those with whom we disagree. Reducing our impact on the Earth should be worth more to us than polemics, for we cannot ‘save the planet’ without making our own inward, spiritual journey. Nor can we heal the wounds of global injustice if we are consumed with anger rather than compassion.

Far from being too nice, environmentalists are not yet nice enough, if ‘nice’ in this context means free from partisan bitterness. This is the lesson for the modern green movement from the ancient wisdom of the Jains.

Aidan Rankin’s book The Jain Path: Ancient Wisdom for the West is published by O Books (Winchester/Washington DC, 2006).