Science and Spirituality - A Jaina Perspective

Science  and spirituality occupy mutually exclusive domains at the apparent  observation. This exclusiveness is existent in multiple aspects such  as object, method, foundations, application and so on. As is known,  science is related to the empirical world while spirituality is  related to something transcendent, something ‘beyond’ this  material world.

Science  acquires the knowledge of the external world through empirical,  scientific method whereas there is no fixed method of spirituality.  Evidence is the foundation of scientific knowledge whereas personal  intuitive experience is the foundation of spirituality. Application  of science is universal while it can hardly be claimed in the context  of spirituality can it be said, on this basis, science and  spirituality are opposite to each other? There is no categorically  negative answer to this question. There are diverse claims and  diverse explanations about the enigmatic relation between science and  spirituality.

One  of the specimen views is that of Jaina tradition which claims that  the highest knowledge acquired by the spiritual masters supreme is  scientific. Unlike other religious traditions, Jainism does not  assume a life between science and spirituality nor does it hold that  spiritual is superior and scientific is inferior (which is the most  widely held approach), but to a certain extent, it equals spiritual  with scientific.

Present  paper proposes to examine the Jaina perspective towards the relation  between science and spirituality and is divided in  three  sections. Section 1 deals with enigma and problems arising out of the  complex relationship between science and spirituality. Section 2  gives exposition of the Jaina perspective. Section 3 offers the  examination of the Jaina view and also states the problems emerging  out of the Jaina view.


In  introduction, the relation between science and spirituality is said  to be enigmatic because the claims of these two refer to two  exclusive realms of reality. As known by everyone, science claims to  know the external, empirical world. It tries to give causal  explanation of the event in the external world. The knowledge of the  external world gained by science is claimed to be objective and  verifiable. As against this, the claim of spirituality is related to  some transcendent realm which is said to be beyond the external,  empirical world. Spiritual knowledge is demonstrative of the  ‘Ultimate Reality’, not the causal or any other explanation of  that reality. The claims of spiritual masters about the nature of  ultimate reality are so diverse that it can hardly e said that there  is any objectivity or universality in spiritual knowledge. And that  the spiritual knowledge is not empirically verifiable will be  emphasized by the spiritual masters themselves.

Moreover,  the strengths and weakness of both of them bang upon each other in  revertive manner. That is to say, the strength of science is the  weakness of spirituality while the weakness of science is the  strength of spirituality. To give an example, objectivity is the  strength of science, which spirituality lacks and limit of knowledge  is the weakness of science which is overcome by spirituality which  claims to know the highest truth in an infallible manner.

On  the background of this diversity of these two realms/disciplines, it  can be justifiably asked about the propriety or reasonability in  finding out any relation between the two. A very strong answer to  this question is hidden in the pursuits of both these disciplines.  Science and spirituality aim to know ‘Reality’, whatsoever and by  whatever relevant method. And in order to find out the relation  between the nature of reality as found by science and as found by  spirituality, the above mentioned question plays very important role.

Another  strong answer to this question lies in multidimensional nature of  human being. Science is the product of reasoning enterprise of human  being while spirituality is the product of trans-worldly nature of  human being. To use Karl Poppers world, science belongs to the second  world, i.e. the world of objectivity and rationality, while  spirituality belongs to the third world, i.e. the world of ideals,  attitudes. P. F. Strawson uses the terms ‘r’ predicate for  science and‘s’ predicate to indicate spirituality. However, even  though  the  two levels are shown to be distinguishable, they are not shown to be  entirely separable, as they are outcome of human endeavours. And the  knower himself is curious to find out the justifiable relation  between the two dimensions of his personality.

What  is that relation? There can be a minimum three responses to this  question.

Scientific  is true, spiritual is imaginary the response of the advocate of  science.

Scientific  is inferior, spiritual is superior, the response of the advocate of  spirituality.

Scientific  and spiritual are two sides of the same coin – the response of  those who seem to recognize the importance and relevance of both. To  decide or discuss whether these responses encompass all the views  about the relation of science and spirituality is the issue beyond  the scope of this paper. Let’s examine the Jaina view about this  relation.


Jainism  is a religion from sramana tradition which holds that ascetic way of  life is  ideal path for spiritual liberation. As a religion, it is identified  with Ahimsa and as a philosophy, it is identified with Anekantavada.  Ahimsa, Anekantavada, Aparigraha and Tapas are the four pillars of  the Jaina religio - philosophical tradition. The main teachings /  basic principles of Jainism are based on the intuitions / and  experience of the spiritual masters, i.e. Tirthankaras in the  tradition, who are known as Omniscient’s in the tradition.

Being  an ascetic tradition the life of renunciation is regarded as the  ideal one while the mundane life is of secondary importance. The  supreme goal of human being is the spiritual liberation and only an  ascetic is worthy of it. The others, i.e. the householders are  expected to walk on the lines that are set by the masters and make  their lives pure. The ideals and the path are indicated in the  teachings of Tirthankaras that are included in the scriptures, i.e.  Aayamas of the Jaina tradition. Aqamas are known to be the infallible  word in the Jaina tradition. However the extent of infallibility and  the applicability of omniscience are some crucial issues which the  tradition faces in the age of advanced science and technology.

The  classical texts of Jainism such as scriptures or philosophical texts  hardly record any categorical statement about how science matters to  the tradition. But, in the later period, the followers and champions  of Jainism have made emphatic claims about the scientificity of their  tradition. Following are examples of some such claims:

The  sages, omniscient beings of the ancient times knew all the  discoveries and inventions of the modern science by their superhuman  knowledge, but they, without disclosing them, only delineated the  beautiful path of the advancement of soul. The reason was that they  definitely knew that by the new inventions of the science of matter,  there will be terrible destruction, degeneration of the soul, wanton  annihilation of innocent life, waste of money and loss of precious  time.

In  the Jaina scriptures, there were references to aeroplanes (vimanas)  flying in the air. When these things were ready by us, we considered  them to be idle talks. But when actually the aeroplanes started  flying, we came to know that the statements in our scriptures were  entirely true.

When  Dr. Jagadischandra Bose proved to the western world, with the help of  scientific apparatus that trees, plants, creepers have life and  experience pleasure and plain, the modern world began to believe that  there was life in the vegetable kingdom. But in the ancient Jaina  scriptures, these truths have been explained in detail.

With  the help of a very powerful microscope Captain Scorsby proved that  there are 36,450 living organisms in one drop of water. The Jaina  masters have taught that in addition to the moving organisms there  are innumerable immobile organisms also in a single drop of water.  Modern doctors have been propounding that in a small space of the  size of a pea, there are innumerable T.B. germs. The omniscientists  had declared that there are an infinite number of lives in the tip of  a needle.

That  there was life in water, that vegetables had life, potency of sound,  radio, atom bomb, photography and many such other things which  existed in the Jaina scriptures, are now put before the world by  means of science. Modern scientific research is still carried on  everyday and the scientists have to change their views on and often.  On the other hand, omniscientists had no need of any instrument or  apparatus to know the reality. There was no necessity for them to  resort to speculative thing or to do any material research. By means  of their perfect knowledge and perception, the omniscient saints have  spoken about the mobile and the immobile world.

All  these claims which proclaim superiority of spiritual, intuitive  knowledge and incompleteness of scientific knowledge lead to one  conclusion and that is, spiritual experience brings in all the  perfect knowledge and it cannot be even dreamt of by scientific  inquiries. If observed carefully, above mentioned claims apart from  being one-sided, give rise to many conceptual and practical issues.  It is quite possible to make a counter-claim to each of these claims.  But instead of doing so, the issues are mentioned –

1. If every scientific invention, discovery were known spiritually, why was not it made open to all? Secrecy is justified in spiritual matters, not scientific ones, because science itself uncovers the secrets of nature. So, the claim that everything was known to spiritual masters is unconvincing. It may be regarded as the glorification of spiritual powers on the basis of faith.
2. If there is contradiction between a scientific claim and a spiritualist’s claim about the same matter, how will that be      resolved by a tradition?
3. Scientific truth is subject to evidence and hence, can change as per the available conditions, but spiritual truth is matter of conviction and hence unchanging. But if considered carefully, the two truths belong to two different planes. Conflating the demarcating line      between them to put them under one umbrella is highly irrational.
4. Lastly, the tradition regards material world, ordinary life worth discarding for the attainment of spiritual salvation. If this is so, why the tradition is insistent in showing that the spiritual masters knew everything about that world which they are supposed to renounce? Is this the connotation of the word ‘Omniscience’? Does it consist in the complete knowledge of the external world? If that is the case, there is internal inconsistency in the above claims. Spirituality assumes transcending of the external world, and the      above claims proclaim the accurate knowledge of the external world. So, instead of strengthening the case of spirituality, these claims    create problem for it.


This  is the view expressed by the contemporary scholars, followers and  advocates of Jainism, not the one expressed in classical literature  of the tradition. The extremeness  and  dogmatism with which the above examples are filled are quite unusual  in the classical Jaina tradition. It is not the case that the Jaina  masters were unaware of the problem of the relation between materials  and spiritual of course, they were unfamiliar with scientific  developments which were not existent in their time. But, they were  well aware of the situation that what is known empirically and what  is known spiritually is not one and same. This was indicated in the  epistemological theory of Jainism.

Jaina  tradition talks of five varieties of knowledge, viz. Empirical  (Mati), Verbal (Sruta), Clairvoyance (Avadhi), Tetepathy  (Manahparyaye) and Omniscience (Kevalajnana). Of these five, the  former two are classified as indirect, i.e. Paroksa and the later  three are classified as direct, i.e. Pratyoksa. Paroksa means that knowledge which is acquired through some instrumentality  (such as sense organs, mind and intellect) and which depends on some  other knowledge for origin as well as authenticity. As against this, Pratyaksa is that knowledge which is acquired without any instrumentality and  which doesn’t assume any other knowledge for its origin and  authenticity. Through to these meanings of the terms Pratyaksa and  Paroksa, the Jaina epistemologists have recognized all varieties of  cognitions, ordinary and extra-ordinary.

The  mati and sruta varieties of knowledge are ordinary cogritions, i.e.  they are related to empirical world and/or acquired by ordinary ways.  The remaining three are extra-ordinary cognitions, i.e. they are  acquired by extra-ordinary ways. Out of these, avadhi and  manahparyaya are the cognitions related to the ordinary objects while  omniscience is related to extra-ordinary, transcendent object.

On  the basis of this epistemological theory, the relation between  material and spiritual can be delineated as follows:-

1. The Jainas assumes hierarchical relation among these five cognitions.  Empirical cognition, i.e. matijnana is the lowest, most primary form  of cognition which is available to all living beings. Omniscience is  the highest form of cognition  which  is available to only ‘qualified’ human beings. In the case of  empirical cognition, eligibility consists in cognitive apparatus  available to the concerned being, while in the case of omniscience  eligibility consists in the moral, spiritual calibre of a concerned  person.

2. The hierarchy that is assumed in the five cognitions is not linear or  straight one. That is to say, Sruta Jnana is a logical extension over  empirical knowledge, but clairvoyance, the lowest form of intuition,  is not such extension over verbal knowledge. So, hierarchy is  conceptual, not substantive. Moreover, it is asserted that a person  can have maximum four varieties of knowledge at a time, either first  four or omniscience. Thus, in order to have highest spiritual  knowledge, the person is supposed to forgo the empirical or this  worldly knowledge. The conceptual hierarchy represents the relation  of broken continuity.

3. The broken continuity among five varieties of knowledge reminds of  the similar relation among the Purusarthas. Dharma, Artha, Kama and  Moksa constitute entire human endeavour towards perfection. However,  Dharma, Artha and Kama form one group and Moksa lies outside that  group as the supreme god. The passage from the triad to Moksa is not  automatic. Similarly the five cognitions asserted in the Jaina  tradition encompass the human cognitive field in totality, but the  passage from basic to perfect or from ordinary to extra-ordinary is  not automatic for that one has to cross the border of one plane to  enter into another one.

4. Does that mean that we are back to the square one position where it  is held that there is no connection between science and spirituality  or material and spiritual? At least from the Jaina position, it  cannot be said so. There is an attempt to show that, howsoever  enigmatic, there is a relation between material and spiritual as both  are human pursuits. But then, this is a standard Indian position to  recognize the existence of both. What is the uniqueness of Jaina  perspective?

5. Uniqueness of the Jaina position emerges from Anekantavada, i.e.  non-absolutism. Anekantavada holds that every pursuit towards reality  possesses relative truth, without denying or condemning the equally  relative truth of the other pursuit. Thus, on this view, science  contains partial truth which will have to recognize the partial truth  of spirituality and vice versa.

This  is not merely saying that ‘all paths are equal ones leading to the  same reality’ because in this contention, there is a possibility of  all paths forming ‘windowless monads’. Anekantavada goes beyond  this contention and prevents the paths from becoming ‘windowless  monads’; on the contrary, it allows them to be interactive  theories. Thus, science is a meaningful pursuit towards truth by  respecting and recognizing the existence and meaningfulness of  spirituality. And spirituality is a meaningful human attempt to know  reality by recognizing and respecting the attempt of science. This is  a view of mutual respect among all paths, rather than equality of all  paths.

6. This  paper ends by quoting two examples in the contemporary world which  exhibit this view of mutual respect, one of a spiritualist and  another of a scientist.

Gurudev  Ranade, while delineating the pathway to God, very beautifully  analysed the steps towards the highest state. But while doing so,  along with the spiritualist’s vigour, he also shown the scientific  concern by stating that intuitive experience possesses universality  and objectivity. His concern was definitely not sprung out of the  pride in supremacy of spirituality; his modern education had  convinced him the necessity of analysing the intuitive experience  through rational, systematic method rather than proclaiming it to be  mystical. In the absence of such rational analysis, intuitive  experience would have been discarded to be something like  superstitious or that of a lunatic by rapidly developing modern  science. Thus, Gurudev Ranade, by his prudent outlook, endeavoured to  show the link between rational and spiritual – this is a  spiritualist’s act of recognizing the significance of science.

Dr.  Zang, a Chinese scientist in a Nuclear Physics the contemporary time,  has expressed his concern for spirituality in a similar manner. He  says scientists and spiritualists are climbing different mountains  for their pursuit of truth. However, from the high attitudes they are  appealing to each other and the need is to reduce the distance  between them. It is because rationality is not the only dimension of  human personality, but spirituality, intuitive potentiality is also  significant dimension, which a scientist, same or other time in a  life receives a glimpse of. Thus, a prudent scientist cannot afford  to ignore spirituality.

This  temper of mutual recognition and respect will bring in reconciliation  between science and spirituality amidst of their enigmatic relation.

The  Author is Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University  of Mumbai. The  author presented paper at International Conference on ‘Science and  Spirituality’ organised by Gurudeo Ranade Research Forum, Pune in  June 2009.