The Theory of Knowledge in Jainism

Jina - A Jain Saint

by Jayaram V

All substances are non-different from the substantial view-point, but again they are different from the modificational view-point, because of the individual modifications pervading it for the time being. Kundakunda (2nd Century AD).

The most significant and intriguing Jaina contribution to Indian philosophical heritage is beyond doubt the theory of the multiplexity of reality (anekanta-vada), that trifurcates into the method of four standpoints (niksepa-vada, nyasa-vada), the method of the seven-fold modal description (saptabhangi, syad-vada) and the doctrine of viewpoints (naya-vada) or the (usually) sevenfold method of conditionally valid predications. At the same time, no other Jaina concept bred so much controversy as the idea that one and the same sentence can be either true or false, which seems implied by the admission of multiplexity. Piotr Balcerowicz

According to Jainism consciousness or awareness is the essential quality of each individual soul. By itself a soul does not require any external means to gain knowledge because knowledge is inherent in its essential nature and by that it has omniscience or the all knowing awareness without the need to depend upon perception or cognition.

Knowledge does not arise because of perception or mental activity. It exists in itself, whether we know or not and whether we perceive things or not. In other words the world is real, not an illusion.

However, in a state of bondage such knowledge becomes covered by the impurity of karma and remains inaccessible to the souls. Thereby the souls lose their omniscience temporarily and rely upon limited means and intermediate sources such as the mind and the senses to gain knowledge and make sense of their experiences and existence.

In this condition beings gain the knowledge of the world sequentially first through perceptions and then through intelligence. Perceptions help them to acquire the generalities of the objects perceived, while intelligence helps then to gain specific details of each of them. These methods are not foolproof since they are prone to errors.

In beings this process of knowing happens in five different ways. Of them the first three are imperfect and prone to error, while the last two are perfect and convey the truth without error. These five means or instruments of knowledge are explained below.

Means of Knowledge

1. Mati: Mati is mind. Mati jnana is the knowledge of the mind, usually gained through your senses, memory, remembrance, cognition, and deductive reasoning. It is something which you know with the help of your mind and its various faculties. From a soul's perspective, this is indirect knowledge derived through the agency of the mind and its faculties (senses).

2. Sruthi: When you learn something from other sources, other people or beings, through your observation of signs, symbols or words, we call it sruthignana or the knowledge of sruthi or hearing. This type of knowledge is gained through association (labdhi), attention (bhavana), understanding (upayoga) and naya or varied interpretations of the meaning of things (naya). This is indirect knowledge obtained through description, authority, study, hearing and listening.

3. Avadhi: You gain this type of knowledge not through physical means such as the senses or the mind, but through your psychic abilities, or through clairvoyance and intuitive awareness, by overcoming the limitations of time and space. It is beyond the boundaries of your ordinary awareness and faculties and not generally available to everyone. This is direct knowledge.

4. Mahaparyaya: This knowledge is gained by reading the minds and thoughts of others. It is also direct knowledge obtained from others through extra sensory perception such as telepathy or mind reading. Mahaprayaya is facilitated when an individual attains or nears the state of perfection. In that state his own ego becomes silent and dormant. Thereby he is able to enter into any consciousness at will and experience oneness with it.

5. Kevala: It is the highest knowledge gained when you transcend your ordinary self and attain perfection or aloneness (kaivalya). Hence only a Jina or Kevalin has access to it, and through him others may learn it as shruti. By itself this knowledge does not require any outward agency for its transmission because it is always there, in the consciousness of the soul which flowers full in an enlightened Jina, unattached, unlimited and without any constraint of time and space, duality and objectivity. Since it is transcendental, it cannot be conveyed or expressed adequately to the satisfaction of others. However, it can be obtained omnisciently in a state of perfection, when the soul becomes liberated from the bondage to the cycle of births and deaths.

Direct and indirect knowledge

As we stated already, the first two are indirect means of knowledge (paroksha) since we have to depend upon an external and intermediate source such as the senses or the mind to know it, while the other three are direct, where you do not have to depend upon an external or intermediate source in the field of objectivity to know it. You gain it directly (pratyaksha) and immediately by coming into contact with it and hence more reliable and useful in liberation. The knowledge gained through the senses is also considered in some classifications as direct (pratyaksha). However, the senses are vulnerable to desires and delusion, we cannot entirely depend upon it. Perceptual knowledge also arises in four different ways, through visual sensations, non-visual sensations, extra-sensory perception and through unified perception without duality by becoming absorbed in the knowledge itself.

Of the three, the first three are not considered valid knowledge because they are prone to errors and create doubt (samsaya), confusion and delusion, while the last two are valid and error free. Their source is from the higher realms inhabited by perfect beings who personify wisdom and can never be wrong. Invalid knowledge arising from the first three is also prone to faulty logic, mistaken notions (viparayana) and wrong knowledge (anadhyavasaya) arising from carelessness or indifference.

Perception and discerning knowledge

The essential nature of jiva is consciousness or chaitanya, which is made up of both perception (darsana) and discerning knowledge (jnana). The former is more general (samanya) and superficial and the latter more specific and detailed (visesa) in providing the souls with knowledge. From perception arises simple apprehension or grasping of the generalities (samanya) of the objects perceived without their particularities (visesa), while from intelligence comes discerning wisdom in which there is the grasping of both particularities and generalities, with the ability to discriminate between one object and another. Jain philosophers identify five stages to perception (darsana).

Vyanjanagraha in which a stimulus activates the senses and brings them into primary contact with the object.

Arthavagraha in which the mind becomes involved with the senses and cognition is activated whereby one becomes vaguely aware of the object.

Iha in which the mind is brought to here and now and begins to pay attention to the particularities of the object whereby a distinct idea of the object is formed in the mind.

Avaya in which the mind compares the present experience with the previous experiences of similar kind stored in the mind and integrates it into the memories retaining its distinction such as time, place and context.

Dharana in which the memory or the impression of the experience is firmly held in the mind whereby it may be recalled and retrieved later.

Knowing and Knowledge

Jainas hold that while through perception one becomes aware of the objects present in the perceptual world, the objects in themselves are extra mental realities and exist in their own space and time. In other words, the world and its objects are not mere mental illusions or constructs created by our thoughts, desires and perceptions but are real in themselves. They do not change by our knowing or not knowing, and they exist by themselves. So also the knowledge of the object. It exists whether we know it or not. Knowledge is thus independent of perceptions and in itself an absolute reality. While ordinary beings may access it through perceptions and sense organs, it can be accessed without these intermediaries by overcoming the obstacles that interfere with the awareness of such knowledge.

Since the knowledge of the object is not dependent upon perceptions alone, a jiva does not have to depend upon his senses or perception to know it. In an ordinary being, perception (darsana) precedes knowledge (jnana)while in a perfect being, knowledge arises without perception because knowledge is inherent in the being, but remains covered by the impurities of karma. These impurities are of two kinds, those that clog the perception (darsanavaraniya karmas) and those that clog the conceptual knowledge (jnanavaraniya karmas). Because of them we become selective in our perceptions, knowledge and understanding, choosing what is immediately useful and necessary and ignoring the rest. When they are removed, knowledge reveals itself to the being and the being develops omniscience or all knowing awareness encompassing the knowledge of all things, past, present and future. The knowledge of the perfect being is free not only from the impurities we have mentioned before but also from the three mental errors, namely doubt (samsaya), delusion (vimoha) and perversion (vibrahama).

Knowledge and perspective

Another peculiarity of Jainism with regard to perception and knowledge is the theory of standpoints. It recognizes two types of knowledge: standard knowledge (pramana) and relative knowledge (naya). Standard knowledge is the knowledge of the thing in itself without the involvement of perceptions and relationships. Relative knowledge is the knowledge arising in relationship to the object when it is viewed from a particular standpoint. Relative knowledge depends upon the way we perceive an object and conceptualize it. It is a limited view of the object. Hence from that particular view it may hold good, but not necessarily from others. To say that a particular viewpoint is correct does not mean that other viewpoints are wrong. These different viewpoints may represent a particular aspect of the object, but not the totality of the object. At times they may be contradictory and confusing. One cannot know an object truly by solely relying upon a few standpoints. To know the truth of anything one has to consider all the possible standpoints. This is known as the theory of standpoints.


The nayas are classified in various ways. Their number also varies from one to seven A well-known system identifies seven nayas, which are listed below. When considered independently each of them leads to fallacies (abhasas). Of them four are related to the objects and the meaning and three to words.

1. Naigamanaya relates to the end purpose or general purpose of a thing or activity. For example the end of purpose of the sun is to sustain life and provide energy. According to another interpretation nigamanaya relates to a general and non-distinguishing reference to an object without calling attention to its particulars, in such statement as "people live here," without specifying who or what.

2. Samgrahanaya relates to the common features or the specific class or category features of an object. The class by itself does not represent the object but it helps us to distinguish it for a specific purpose rather than its general purpose.

3. Vyavaharanaya relates to the empirical knowledge or practical exposure to the object whereby we become experientially familiar with it as a whole and in specific detail.

4. Rjusutranaya relate to the empirical knowledge in relation to a specific point of time or the present moment without any reference to its identity or continuity as if you have perceived it never before and never after.

5. Sabdanaya relates to the verbal viewpoint or the knowledge arising from the specific name, or names by which the object is known. An object may be known by different names or synonyms. Each name evokes in us specific knowledge and the relation between a name and its specific meaning may often give rise to fallacies about the object.

6. Samabhirudhanaya relates to the knowledge arising from the root words that gives rise to names

7. Evambhutanaya relates to the specific functional aspect of an object in a specific condition. An object many have many aspects in different conditions and each may refer to a specific functional state of the same object.

Syadavada or Saptabhangi

Closely related to or rather a derivative of the nayavada is the theory of standpoints known Syadavada, which is often referred to as Saptabhangi,  or the doctrine of "May be" according to which one may either affirm or negate a proposition in seven ways. Each approach is called a bhanga (mode, strand or predication) or vada (argument or opinion). This is based upon the profound realization that there is no absolute or universal position on any truth but only conditional and relative possibilities of affirmation or negation. There are many alternatives to understand the indeterminate and many-sided reality and it can be grasped fully only when we consider these various approaches or possibilities that represent it in its totality, and examine each standpoint in detail together with the various strands of truth that go into its making. Thus, "in a certain sense," we can either affirm or negate a thing or its attributes at least in seven different ways or points of view, namely is (asti), is not (nasti), is and is not, is inexpressible (avyaktaya, is and is inexpressible, is not and is inexpressible, is not and is inexpressible. We are not stating the Syadavada theory in further detail here as we have explained it elsewhere. Readers may please refer to the same.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Indian Philosoph Volume 1 by S.Radhakrishnan, published several times between 1923 and 1999.

2. A Comparative Study of the Jaina Theories of Reality and Knowledge By Y. J. Padmarajiah. This books is available in the Google Books for study and reference.

3. Essays in Jaina Philosophy and Religion edited by Piotr Balcerowicz.

4. Studies in Jainism containing three articles by H. Jacobi, Jaina Sahitya Samsodhaka Studies, 1946.

5. Studies in Jaina Philosophy by Nathmal Tatia, published by Jaina Cultural Research Society, Benares, 1951.

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