In conversation with Varun S Bhatta (Assistant Professor, HSS, IISER Bhopal)
Jinesh Sheth (jineshsheth[AT]philosophy.mu.ac.in), after completing his graduation in Sanskrit and Jainism, pursued an MA degree in Philosophy. He is currently pursuing PhD as a UGC-JRF fellow at the University of Mumbai. His thesis focuses on a critical study of the Jaina theory of anekāntavāda. It engages with some of the foundations of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics.
Varun: Hello Jinesh! Thanks for taking time and being part of this conversation. From the IPN members’ sheet, I gather that you are currently doing PhD at University of Mumbai. Can you tell us more about it? Jinesh: Hello Varun! Glad to be having this conversation with you. Yeah, I started my PhD in 2018 and I am working on anekāntavāda (non-one-sidedness) under the supervision of Prof. Meenal Katarnikar. Given the centrality of this theory to Jaina philosophy, a lot has been worked upon and yet, as I can now see, a lot remains to be uncovered. The central argument of my thesis is to make a case for different senses of the doctrine - methodological, metaphysical, epistemological - to name a few - and then deal with some of the issues that I think requires further investigation. It has been a nice journey so far reading Prakrit and Sanskrit Jaina texts, engaging with the contemporary scholarship, and along with it, trying to situate anekāntavāda in a larger philosophical discourse. Jaina’s theory of anekāntavāda has always fascinated me. However, till now, I had not had an opportunity to go beyond a superficial understanding of it. So, I am planning to make the best use of this conversation to know a bit more about it! First of all, what caught my attention is your translation of anekāntavāda as “non-onesidedness”. Why is this preferable compared to “many-sidedness”? The other question pertains to any notion of pluralism (in epistemology, metaphysics, etc.): how to make the stance more appealing without also accepting the trivial (and troubling?) dictum that “everything and anything is OK”? I am sure there would be at least one Nyaya philosopher who would have thrown this allegation at Jaina system. Would like to know your thoughts on these. I would be happy to discuss more on anekāntavāda. With respect to translation, the term non-one-sidedness is closer to the original Sanskrit as compared to any other translation. The emphasis in “non-onesidedness” is on the denial of a one-sided nature of reality, as captured by “an” (=denial), “ekānta” (=one-sided), and vāda (theory); therefore non-onesidedness. It is also possible to look at the term as “aneka” (not one, many) and “anta” (sided) but this interpretation appears to restrict the term to just ontology and is not a literal translation (the word 'anta' stands for 'dharma', which, in this context, means properties / characteristics). Some scholars translate it as ‘the doctrine of multiplexity of reality’. Non-onesidedness, on the other hand, can be taken as a theory which represents the Jaina view not only on reality, but also on thought (nayavāda, epistemic perspectives) and language (syādvāda, the theory of qualified assertion). As regards to pluralism and a kind of relativist approach towards everything, I find that these two can be differentiated to a certain extent. The interpretation of anekāntavāda along the lines of relativism is a very recent development. To say that ‘everyone can have a perspective’ is one thing, to say that ‘everyone is right from their own perspective’ is another thing and to call the latter as anekāntavāda lacks textual validation. (In the Jaina context, there is something like pseudo-nayas (false standpoints / false perspectives). Their falsity might consist in either the denial of their counterparts altogether or in seeing one part as the whole (like in the case of blind men and the elephant) or when they do not correspond to reality)). So far, I haven’t found any Jain text that would support such a view (=everyone is right from their own perspective). It is kind of self-refuting. To give an illustration from an altogether different context, Paul Feyerabend, who was greatly influenced by Thomas Kuhn as you too would probably be aware, while arguing for epistemological anarchism and for his own relativist understanding of science, builds upon Kuhn’s arguments but Kuhn never advocated such a relativist view and he even went on to categorically reject those relativist ideas while replying to his critics. So most of the criticisms of anekāntavāda - whether by Vedāntins (like Śaṅkara) or the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas (like Bhāsarvajña) or the Buddhists (like Dharmakīrti) - are more often than not directed either towards denying the possibility of two contradictory characteristics existing together in one thing or towards the problem of self-reference (is anekāntavāda absolutely true?) or some other issues. If you don't mind, may I also take the opportunity to know more about you, your philosophical interests and any current areas on which you might be working? Also, even though it has been a long time, I am curious about how did the transition happen from engineering to philosophy. Thanks for the clarifications on anekāntavāda! Have a better understanding of them now. Coming to your question, there are a few factors for the late transition -- from engineering to philosophy -- in my case. Of course, due to the parochial state education system, while growing up I was largely ignorant of the discipline. It is only during the first year of bachelors, I realised my interest for a few topics. It took some meandering and trial/error to realise that what I am interested in is called "philosophy" and another couple of years to find the conviction to change the lanes. So, the transition from engineering to philosophy happened gradually at various stages (from the interest to read a few books when I am free to pursue it "professionally"). What is your story? How did you end up pursuing research in philosophy? I see. That’s quite an interesting journey. I was primarily interested in Jaina philosophy and literature from a very young age and, for which, I went to Jaipur for five years to study at an institute (kind of a gurukul). Along with it, I completed my graduation with Sanskrit as the major subject from a college (SDJA Sanskrit college) affiliated to JRRSU, Jaipur. It was during that time that my teacher suggested me to see if philosophy might interest me. Since then, it has been a great adventure and I am amazed how it has played a role in shaping my understanding of almost everything. Jinesh, fascinating story! I want to know more about all of these “phases”. To begin with, I am jealous to know that you were interested in philosophy and literature from a young age! How did this happen? And what was your impression/understanding of philosophy in this phase (if you can recollect :) )? I am glad to know that you find it fascinating! I was fortunate to get that environment and culture where I was introduced to Jain principles from early childhood. There are paathshalas for various age groups run by the Jain community where children can get acquainted with basic ideas. My parents always motivated me to spend time going to paathshalas and some summer camps as well. My interests kept on advancing and I started listening to discourses by (non-academic) scholars which would, more often than not, involve texts. By the time I finished high school (10th grade), I can say that I might have covered basic Jaina philosophical concepts pertaining to metaphysics, epistemology and ethics that a one year diploma course in Jainology might offer. I was introduced to arguments that would deny the concept of creation of the universe by a supreme entity. I assumed I had gained some understanding of the doctrine of karma, suffering, the causes thereof, liberation, spirituality; and dualism (soul-body), consciousness, metaphysical pluralism, universals and particulars, substance, qualities, modifications etc. Of course, I had no idea about other philosophical traditions whether Indian or Western. I was also not aware of what exactly would constitute philosophy. Neither had I read any of the Jaina texts entirely. Just that now when I look back, I can locate what I had studied within a larger philosophical discourse. So it was during that time that I was given this opportunity, by my teacher as well by my parents, if I would want to study Jainism further and I eventually decided to go to Jaipur. Before we catch the thread of your story at Jaipur, I want to know more about the community paathshalas. I have heard about them, but know very little. The list of topics you mentioned does give an idea of the topics being discussed. Can you shed some light on other aspects of these communal educational practices? How were these nuanced topics taught by the instructors? And since most of the audience are young, how were these philosophical ideas made relevant to them? Given that you have studied in both traditional and university educational spaces, thought you might be in a good position to shed some light on the differences in pedagogic styles and methods. Yeah, sure. I am glad to revisit all those days because I don't recollect talking about them with great detail. If I remember correctly, I might have started going to paathshala when I was just 7 or 8. And as I reflect now, I am able to see many things which otherwise even I could not notice. And maybe I might fail to mention some other things which I don't remember now. Anyway, thanks for all the questions! Usually, most of the paathshalas are conducted in a temple. There are scholars who have written books specifically for the students at paathshalas. Along with the core topics related to Jaina philosophy, these books include poems, stories etc. as well. The books that I studied from had a conversational style (like Plato's Dialogues - the similarity being just of the style and not the content) which began with a question. Over a period of time, these have now become standard textbooks that are used almost all over India and perhaps abroad as well. Of course, this works within a community and other versions of something similar are not uncommon. The teachers are most of the time alumnis of the same paathshala or some other paathshala (if they have relocated). There were many co-curricular activities like plays, quizzes, art and craft etc. - all focused on making a particular topic easy to understand. And, of course, there were prizes. Nowadays, I also see quite a few inter-paathshala competitions taking place. Regarding how these topics were taught, I think the curiosity of the students, with respect to both knowing-how and knowing-that, was a major driving force. I too take a class once a week at the local paathshala and I am sometimes amazed at the kind of questions they ask - whether it's on ahimsa, or God, or karma or on the functioning of the universe. Sometimes, they come up with their own versions of the trolley car problem (what's the right thing to do?). Apart from that, the focus is also on memorizing the key concepts and much of the evaluation was based on that. Paathshalas used to prepare one for reading the texts (of course, the translations and not the original Prakrit or Sanskrit) and listening to discourses for further understanding. I hope I was able to answer the question. Adding here the cover page and the TOC of a few of them:
The links to PDFs: Balbodh Pathmala, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and then it continues to intermediate (1, 2, 3) and advance levels (1, 2). As mentioned earlier, I am sure there are many other books written by other authors and which are also used at various places. This is just one representation and from which I had studied. After reading your description, I would definitely want to visit one of these paathshala. No wonder you were convinced to pick up philosophy by class X. Can you tell us about the Jaipur institute that you went to subsequently? What did you learn there? And, do not mind me asking again, how was the pedagogy in this institute? Yeah! I started reading philosophical works, and from a philosophical perspective (!), only after I got enrolled into the Masters program at the University of Mumbai. But I was surely interested in reading and learning more about Jain philosophy at that time. And whatever I learnt about Indian philosophy in my undergrad years was via Jaina philosophical texts. I must say that I could not have taken that decision on my own. It was because my teacher suggested so and then my parents always encouraged me to pursue it. So this institute at Jaipur (ptst.in) is named in the memory of an 18th century Jain scholar, Paṇḍit Ṭoḍarmal. It has been running since almost five decades and students come over there to study Jainism for five years, and simultaneously, they continue their studies in Sanskrit from another academic institute - thereby graduating with a degree of Śāstrī (शास्त्री) which is equivalent to B.A. The graduate course in Sanskrit also offered several papers on Jaina philosophical texts as electives and we opted for them as well. Here are the links for the syllabus - first year (for electives on philosophy, see p. 23ff), second year (p. 18ff) and third year (p. 16ff) - for the B.A. program at JRRSU, Jaipur. And the syllabus for the course on Jainism can be found here. Starting from basic concepts to advanced texts on Jaina metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, narratives, and spirituality, I had a really good time learning from all the teachers. There used to be weekly seminars throughout the year; the experts would give their critical comments and I think we learnt more from each other than on our own. We also received training on how to teach and deliver discourses. That shaped our learning as well. One starts thinking not just as a learner, but also as a teacher. Of course, there is a downside that the focus might shift, but with some caution, it added to the overall development. Another key element was memorizing the texts in their original language - Tattvārtha Sūtra being the most commonly memorized one. Now that I have spent another 6-7 years studying philosophy and Jainism in an academic atmosphere, I can say that the time spent in studying Jainism and Sanskrit was a kind of perfect beginning for me and philosophy has played a major role since then. There are several interesting aspects in what you described: importance of language training, weekly seminars, focus on teaching! Before we move further, I have one last question about traditional learning spaces that you have experience of (paathshalas and Jaipur institute). Your responses give a vivid picture of what happens in classrooms about reading/writing/teaching philosophy. Apart from discussions about “texts”, were there any other practices/activities/rituals that were taught or emphasised, either in the class or outside of the class? I am asking this for two reasons. First, I have heard that Buddhisht monastery pedagogy also emphasises on certain rituals and bodily practices (like meditation, dietary customs, etc.). Want to know whether you have experienced something similar in these places. The second reason pertains to the subsequent junction in your journey --- modern academic spaces, where “practice of philosophy” is largely understood as a mental activity and practice (writing papers, etc.), with no rituals, bodily practices being prescribed. I see. Among dietary customs, eating before sunset was an invariable practice. Students would gather in the temple (within the institute) and sing devotional hymns in the morning as well as evening. Outdoor sports like cricket, volleyball, badminton etc. were played almost throughout the year. One thing which worked in our favour during those days was not having access to the internet except while in the library. Smartphones were not allowed. All of this helped in gaining more focus and utilising time more efficiently. Of course, it seems impossible in the post-Covid world. Other activities like meditation etc. were not that much emphasized. Needless to say, all that I have mentioned so far is about one institute in which I studied and it is very much possible that other institutes might have different practices. I am sure the community living would have been quite an experience. How was your transition from this kind of place to a university system for your MA? Where did you do it and how was it? Did you find any noticeable difference in how philosophy, specifically Indian philosophy, is being taught in the university? True. It was a great experience. Having stayed away from home for five years, I wanted to come back to Mumbai. My teacher (the one who suggested me to go to Jaipur), who also happens to have a Masters degree in Philosophy, again helped me in deciding the career ahead. By the time I graduated, I had developed a further interest to pursue a career in academics. That is when I found the Master’s program at the University of Mumbai quite interesting. Besides, there is one faculty who specializes in Jain philosophy as well (my current PhD guide!). So I was thinking about spending another 7-8 years (MA + PhD) at the Department. I had not studied any of the Western philosophers until graduation. And hence I struggled a bit in my first semester, especially with contemporary analytic and continental philosophy. However, I received a lot of help from my friends as well as from a few senior members (who were pursuing PhD at that time) whenever I approached them. There is a wonderful departmental library as well. The faculty have always been kind and supportive. Also, events like seminars, guest lectures, conferences, workshops helped me in generating further interest into a diverse range of topics. I still vividly remember faculty members encouraging us (students) to ask questions and engage with resource persons! With respect to Indian philosophy, I think one of the major differences, in the modern space, is that the primary texts are not read that widely - unless the entire paper is on one text (=electives). While I read very little of (academic) secondary literature when I was at Jaipur and had no idea about contemporary developments in the field of Jaina studies, here the discourse (syllabus, suggested reading, lectures, events etc.) was more prominent on the secondary literature. Besides, as you might also be aware, students who come from a BA (Philosophy) program probably never get any exposure to Sanskrit. So that might also be a reason why a majority of students end up reading more on Western philosophical thought in comparison to Indian philosophy. The scholars who do have a strong background in Sanskrit and Indian philosophy are trained in the traditional way and are more comfortable in teaching in the same way. I hope I am responding to your questions!
Jinesh, I think you are raising very important questions relevant to the teaching of philosophy, especially, how Western and Indian philosophies should be taught? And I think your experience can inform and guide these questions. Therefore, would like to know your views about some of the hurdles you mention above. Let us focus on the last point: the way Indian philosophy is taught in university compared to traditional learning places. I completely agree with you that university curricula should also teach the required languages while teaching Indian and other philosophies (like Chinese and Islam philosophies). With no emphasis on language, as you mention, university education does not empower the students in pursuing these topics. With regard to the other point – primary vs secondary texts – one of the arguments for using non-primary sources (secondary sources) for teaching (either at BA/MA level) is that these texts provide an overview and presents a wider picture of a field/topic; primary texts become relevant only when focused research needs to be carried out. Thought of mentioning this argument to know your opinion. Since you have experienced both kinds of training – through primary texts (in Jaipur institute) and reading secondary texts (in the university) – what would be your suggestions for designing a philosophy curriculum? Do you think it is important to use and teach primary texts rather than secondary ones at BA/MA level? This response assumes that classical texts at the BA/MA level in the modern education space are more or less not introduced. If there are philosophy curriculums which offer a BA/MA degree in Philosophy and do involve the students into reading primary sources with respect to Indian philosophy, please let me / us know. I understand that there are always issues regarding what to include and what not to - even with reference to core philosophical topics. So further introducing primary texts would add the burden of learning a new language. Maybe summer programs/workshops can help the students to learn Sanskrit or maybe they are encouraged to take up a one-year certificate course during the BA program. Besides, the use of primary texts in the classroom at the undergraduate level need not be that rigorous (critical editions, going into the nuances of translations, manuscripts and variant readings, intensive grammar etc. can be ignored). I see quite a few students abroad who are in BA/MA programs, whether Indology or Religious Studies or Philosophy, and who are working on classical Indian texts, spending some time learning the primary language(s). Another issue that I think is that in the context of Indian philosophy, there are very few secondary sources which are completely objective and do justice to the text/tradition. I do not mean to say that being critical is not worth but that kind of critical scholarship is not helpful for an undergraduate student - especially when that student is getting introduced for the first time to a text/philosopher/tradition. I don’t think there is such a series of “Companion to” or a “very short introduction to” with reference to Indian philosophies and philosophers. Neither do we find good articles on each topic of Indian philosophy on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) or Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) (although they both cover a few topics) as we see with respect to Western philosophy. Lastly, from what I have observed, I also think that translating Sanskrit/Prakrit/Pali to English is not the same as translating Greek/German/French to English (though I hardly know anything about the latter three). So one can easily read “Republic” or “Critique of Pure Reason” (in English) without worrying to check the primary source at every instance but not so in the case of Sanskrit texts, and when there are very few good translations. So I think some access to the primary texts starting from the undergraduate level would go a long way in, as you rightly said, empowering the students in pursuing these topics. And maybe when the students pursue a Masters degree, they are equipped with skills for conducting further philosophical-textual research. Jinesh, thanks for these interesting points. I agree with your observations about the lack of academic works (like SEP, various Companions, etc.). I too miss this kind of ecosystem when exploring Indian Philosophy. However, I have a divergent opinion about Greek/Latin having a direct connection with the English language/tradition and this not being the case in the relation between Sanskrit and English. A lot of historical, social and political efforts have gone into establishing the seemingly no-gap between Greek and European traditions. Because of these efforts, it gives an impression that Aristotle and Kant are accessible in English. Also, another important query your response raises is the politics of language in the Indian context. Even though there are several classical languages relevant for studying Indian philosophies (Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit), it's usually Sanskrit that is emphasised. So we need to discuss how to tackle this issue in our graduate courses. Probably, we can continue this conversation at a later point. Moving on, I want to know how you relate/work with different traditions of Philosophy like Analytic, Continental and even the various schools in the Indian context? Given that your current work is situated within one tradition (Jaina tradition), how do you think your work (at present and in the near future) will be? Do you want to situate yourself in a specific tradition? Or are you interested in working on specific threads that spawn across various traditions? Interested to know your views on these questions as you have straddled between different spheres of philosophical practices (traditional and modern university spaces) and also encounter doing philosophy in different languages (working on Sanskrit texts, but writing a dissertation in English). It was indeed an interesting discussion and would be happy to discuss it further on some other day. And thank you for these questions! Regarding my work, I see quite a few domains in which I can extend my current research on anekāntavāda further or maybe take up another project (within the Jain tradition) with some other fundamental topic. Some of the core areas in which I think I can work in the near future in the wider philosophical context vis-à-vis anekāntavāda are related to epistemology, ethics and logic. It is all still tentative and I too am unsure in which direction I would progress. Nevertheless, my time spent so far while doing research on anekāntavāda has certainly helped me in many ways. Given its meta-philosophical framework (this can be debated), I sometimes try to approach philosophical problems and arguments - whether emerging from continental or analytic tradition - in a non-one-sided way. Doing philosophy in different languages certainly has its own merits and demerits. On one hand, a wide variety of literature opens up for me and, on the other, writing in English was not easy in the beginning. Things have improved to a certain extent but there is a lot to learn! Translation is another issue that I constantly face. I haven’t yet published on areas central to my thesis though have been presenting them at conferences and looking forward to publishing a couple of papers by the end of my PhD. Some of the other papers that I have presented and/or published but are not directly connected to my ongoing work can be found here (researchgate) and here (academia) - not all are public but I can share via mail. I haven’t spent much time with Indian philosophy (in a comparative spirit) in the last few years such that it would result in some good output but I would like to revisit it in future. Moving forward, I would still want to continue specializing in a field related to Jain philosophy. Some of the other areas in contemporary philosophy which are of interest to me include consciousness studies, philosophy of science and hermeneutics. Comparative philosophy is another area which I would like to explore in future. So, coming to the final stages of this exciting conversation, I (and the readers as well) would like to know a little more about you, about your ongoing and upcoming research. And if possible, I would particularly be also interested in knowing how philosophy has shaped your research in natural science(s) and/or the other way round. Jinesh, thanks for your interest in my views. For me, most of the "philosophy of ___" enterprises (like philosophy of language, art, film, law, etc.) are important exercises and interventions where core philosophical tools are used to understand something else. So, the philosophy of science has primarily taught me how to apply philosophy in addressing other disciplines questions. At present, some of my works are situated in the area of philosophy of physics. I am currently developing on a topic that I could briefly cover in my PhD research: the philosophical analysis of interference phenomena in classical and quantum optics. After this, I would probably want to spend some time with specific questions of metaphysics (individuation and compositionality of objects) that have always excited me. I want to end this conversation by seeking your opinion on one last thing. According to you, what initiatives and activities would be helpful/useful for the academic philosophy community in India? How do you think we -- philosophers in India -- should organise such that it not only supports us but also creates a vibrant ecosystem for philosophy in India? Your suggestions and ideas might resonate with other readers and this could mobilise into something concrete. Not to mention, these suggestions of yours would play a crucial role in the shaping of IPN. It is fascinating to know about your current and future research. I would like to know more, hopefully, when we shall meet someday in-person! As a student and a young researcher, I think a few initiatives that might help in the long run would include:
Undergraduate and / or Graduate Peer reviewed Journal (I don’t know if there exist any)
Conferences specific for graduate students (which could then also result into a publication into the above journal)
Writing workshops / sessions (for PhD students) - I think writing sessions are a must for postgraduate students (I can volunteer for this if someone may guide).
Database of submitted theses (and linking them with those which are available on shodhganga) - I think if we do not know or if we do not have access to the PhDs submitted earlier, there is always a fear of reproducing what has already been done.
Once in a quarter or six months, an online meet of IPN members - it could be informal as well: sharing experiences and problems that one faces in their respective areas (research, teaching etc.). Sometimes, this meet may also take shape of an academic event where a guest speaker might address the IPN community.
I am not sure whether these suggestions or ideas are realistic. I am also not aware if something is already being planned. That being said, I am really grateful to all the moderators and founding members of IPN. The Telegram and WhatsApp groups have helped me. Once, I had a chance to listen to David Chalmers live! It would not have been possible if not for Phil-India Telegram / WhatsApp groups. The Google group too is great. I am indeed grateful to you for all the wonderful questions and your generosity that allowed me to express myself freely throughout the conversation. The errors are still mine and I am always happy to revisit my views. Lastly, thanks to the readers for their patient reading!