Many Sided Wisdom book cover

Many-Sided Wisdom: A New Politics of the Spirit (O Books, 2010)

This book is the second of Aidan’s books about Jainism, first published in 2010 by O Books. Its focus is the concept of Anekantavada, usually shortened to Anekant. Anekant means ‘Many-Sidedness’, literally the absence of Ekant, or one-sided partial dogma. The terms Anekant and Many-Sidedness are used interchangeably throughout the book.

Anekant is far more than a principle of ‘tolerance’ or ‘acceptance’, although these can serve as good starting points. Anekant should instead be considered as an intellectual and spiritual discipline, a form of mental meditation in which layers of prejudice and preconception are peeled away. Aidan describes Many-Sidedness as ‘the non-violence of the mind’, linking Anekant to another key Jain concept, Ahimsa, non-violence or ‘non-injury’. Ahimsa influenced Mahatma Gandhi in formulating his philosophy of Satyagraha (truth-struggle) and practice of ‘non-violent non-cooperation’ directed against British colonial rule. Gandhi’s strategy in turn influenced Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement in the United States. Ahimsa cannot work effectively without Many-Sidedness. This is because doctrinaire ideologies and prejudices lay the foundations for violent acts and from a Jain standpoint are violent actions in themselves.

Jainism is rooted in the individual consciousness and is based on the idea that each of us is on a spiritual journey that can last for many lifetimes. ‘Immortality’ in Jainism does not mean ‘living for ever’ in a literal sense, but acquiring omniscience and equanimity. Only a limited number of individuals achieve this. They are known as Jinas (conquerors), Kevalins (all-knowing ones) or in exceptional cases Tirthankaras (Ford-Makers or Path-Finders). There are twenty-four Tirthankaras, the last of whom, Mahavira (599 – 527 BCE) was a contemporary of the Buddha and is the founder of all the existing varieties of Jainism.

In Many-Sided Wisdom, Aidan likens the Jain view of the spiritual journey to the many paths leading to the top of a mountain or hill. Some are longer than others, some are straight, others winding, but the direction of travel is the same. Jains often use the image of a cut diamond to describe Anekant. The same clear light can be viewed through many different facets. Anekant means recognising that all beings, human and non-human, have their own ‘naya’ or partial viewpoint that is worthy of respect even where the premises behind it appear ‘wrong’ or conflict with our ‘own’. Knowledge, whether scientific or spiritual, should be approached with humility. Those who believe or insist that they have grasped ‘the truth’ are usually those who are furthest from it.

From a Many-Sided perspective, human-centredness or human supremacy becomes untenable. Animals and plants have their own perspectives which are of equal or sometimes superior value to our own. All beings should therefore be treated with respect and care. All forms of life are interdependent and human knowledge confers responsibilities to conserve and protect the natural world rather than attempt to dominate it. In other words, human supremacy is a delusion, leading to ecological destruction, the oppression of other species and the exploitation of human by human.

Jain ideas about nature and interconnectedness arose many centuries before the emergence of the science of ecology or ‘modern’ understanding of the high intelligence of many animal species. Many-Sided Wisdom explores the implications of Anekant for political thought and the political process. It evokes the founding principle of Green politics, ‘Neither left nor right but ahead’ and looks beyond adversarial and sterile ‘debate’ to holistic approaches to the problems affecting humanity and the planet. One of these is swadeshi, a model of ‘self-sufficiency’ pioneered by Gandhi based on co-operatives and local production for local needs, rather than the two extremes of centralised planning and neo-liberal submission to ‘market forces’. Another example cited is the Seventh Generation Principle championed by Native American elders and activists, including former Vice-Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke. This involves taking a long-term view of our use of resources because we recognise that past, present and future generations are interconnected and that this allows us to reorder our priorities.

Anekant is, in many ways, a more coherent founding principle for the green movement or ecological consciousness than the ‘one-sided’ approach of the political left. It is radical in the original sense because it challenges human assumptions from the roots upwards, but it also enjoins us to act with care, compassion and consideration for all forms of life. Above all, Anekant emphasises the need to question ourselves continuously rather than arrive at inflexible ‘answers’.

Praise for Many-Sided Wisdom

‘Essential reading for all who care about creating a better world.’
Rev. Lynne Sedgmore, CBE, Interfaith Minister and UK Government Advisor on Community Cohesion

 

‘An exceptional book – timely and lucidly written. A unique and wise philosophy of healing for an age of intolerance. … Aidan’s work hugely enriches the Jain faith and philosophy, as he places it into a context of modern life. He gives hope to our youth, a language to connect their inner and outer experiences and ways of expanding their horizons through Anekant.’
Dr Atul K. Shah, CEO Diverse Ethics and author of Celebrating Diversity

 

‘This book challenges the prevailing mentality which defines the modern world as comprehensible only through rational, linear, binary and mechanistic methods. Rankin reminds thinking members of this earth of the duty to live in ways that are as harmless as possible.’
Professor Werner Menski, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London

 

‘This lucid commentary on Indic wisdom, especially the concept of Anekant, goes a long way in emphasizing the interconnectedness of life as the foundation for an integral environmental ethic.’
Dr Swarnalatha Rangarajan, Editor, Indian Journal of Ecocriticism