तदेजति तन्नैजति तद्दूरे तद्वन्तिके ।
तदन्तरस्य सर्वस्य तदु सर्वस्यास्य बाह्यतः ॥ ५ ॥
It moves, it doesn’t move. It’s far, it’s near.
It’s inside all, yet it’s outside everything.
– Īśā Upaniṣad, verse 5
If one theme could be found in common from the large variety of Dharmic and other Eastern traditions, it is the acceptance and embrace of contradiction. The Upaniṣads use contradictory terms to indicate the universal principle Brahman, the Jain concept anekāntavāda describes reality through contradictory viewpoints, and the Taoist work “Zhuangzi” commends both the acceptance and transcendence of contradictions.
Yet too often, contradiction can be a source of profound discomfort. Modern systems of logic are centered on the law of non-contradiction, which states that two contradictory statements (“p and not-p”) cannot both be true. But in real life, nothing is truly black and white; it is unrealistic to try to reduce our world to a logical system that is perfectly free from contradiction.
The word “contradiction” comes from the Latin “contra dicere,” or “to speak against,” indicating how the concept is tied to the ability to respect and consider opposing viewpoints. By accepting contradiction, we express humility in judgment. Since each viewpoint is contingent on the circumstances and experiences of a particular individual, we admit that one particular viewpoint — and one individual’s view of reality — may not capture the entire truth. Such humility frees us to have a glimpse at a greater truth that transcends all viewpoints.
In fact, even modern science has benefited from accepting contradiction. Until the early 20th century, physicists used to have two competing theories of light: the wave theory and particle theory. When various experiments proved both theories correct, scientists began to understand that light — and in fact all matter — is both a wave and a particle. In short, accepting the contradiction between both theories freed scientists from the restrictions of both, leading to the development of quantum mechanics.
Today, I believe we need to be more accepting of contradiction in order to advance both interreligious and interideological understandings. Assuming that one side is correct and the other is wrong misses the nuance and insight gained from considering and respecting alternative viewpoints. To be clear, accepting contradiction does not entail drawing a superficial, false equivalence between oppositional beliefs. Rather, we should understand that each viewpoint has a person who holds it, and that person has a reason why they hold it: the values, circumstances and experiences unique to each of us. Only by understanding the values that drive them can we even attempt to bring people together.
Consider the Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action case, SFFA v. Harvard, which questions whether race-conscious admissions decisions unconstitutionally penalize Asian American applicants or are an acceptable means of ensuring diversity. Yet the case is much more complex than these two diametrically opposed opinions. The variety of perspectives that gave rise to both sides in this case — Asian American exclusion, the model minority myth and American immigration policy, the deep-seated roots of racism and attempts for redress, and longstanding social and distributional inequities — illuminate potential areas of common ground. One such area is the elimination of legacy admissions, which disproportionately benefit white students, a proposal that appears to have potential support on both the right and the left.
Perhaps more difficult, but just as important, are debates engulfing my own religious and ethnic communities. In 2021, the conference Dismantling Global Hindutva ostensibly divided many South Asian Americans into two oppositional camps: those who believe the conference led to anti-Hindu bias and those who believe it solely critiqued a political ideology of Hindutva. But again, peoples’ viewpoints paint a more complex and nuanced picture — one shaped by caste-based and racial discrimination, the legacy of colonialism in defining concepts such as “Hindu” and “caste,” India’s history with liberalism and democracy and the varied experiences of the South Asian diaspora. Admittedly, such issues are deeply rooted and may seem intractable. But acknowledging the core values behind peoples’ perspectives is the first step needed to reach the shared values of humanity behind all sides.
Ultimately, accepting contradiction in the spirit of the Dharmic and other Eastern traditions does seem to make judgment incredibly difficult. It may seem shortsighted, even wrong, to impose our viewpoints on others. Modern life, though, demands judgment, whether in arguing a court case, making a policy or advocacy decision, or even making each of our everyday choices. When we make decisions, accepting contradiction reminds us that we are all ultimately imperfect. This attitude can help us shape and reformulate our decisions to better take into account the lived experiences of others. Contradiction is not a societal obstacle to overcome, but rather a feature of society to be embraced. It keeps us humble, thoughtful, understanding and more just.
Ashwin Ramaswami is a law student at the Georgetown University Law Center.