Article: Types of bodies

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

In Jain belief the soul or self – jīva – travels through the endless cycle of rebirth during which it is born into various bodies, which are classified into types of:

  • being or body
  • sense-being.

These bodies live in the world space of the Jain universeloka. The soul’s journey ends when it has reached such a level of spiritual progress that it becomes enlightened and is liberated from the cycle of birth – saṃsāra. For Jains, the purpose of living is to advance spiritually so that one’s soul travels a little nearer to liberation – mokṣa.

Unliberated souls are born into a succession of various bodies in different parts of the Three Worlds that make up world space. There are four states – gatis – into which they can be born. The world into which they are born and the body they have in that birth or lifetime depend on their spiritual condition. This is largely determined by the karma that has become attached to the soul over the course of the previous life and also, to some extent, the karma from previous lives. A soul may therefore be born in a hell in one rebirth and in a heaven in the next – it may not move among the different worlds in a straightforward way, going either all up in succession or all down in succession.

The more advanced a soul’s spirituality, the higher the world into which it is born. However, being born a human being in the Middle World is better than being born a god into one of the heavens of the Upper World. This is because only human beings can reach omniscience – kevala-jñāna – which is a late, necessary stage on the way to liberation, and human beings can live only in the Middle World.

Four types of beings

In this manuscript painting, beings in hell are tortured by animals, demons and other infernal beings. Suffering is the hallmark of the seven hells that make up the lower world of three in the Jain universe.

Tortures in the hells
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The unliberated, imperfect soul is reborn in the four types of conditions in each of the three worlds throughout its time in the cycle of rebirth – saṃsāra. The soul can be born in one of the following conditions – gatis:

  1. a human being – manuṣya-gati
  2. a heavenly being, living in the heavens – deva-gati
  3. an infernal being, living in the hells – nāraka-gati
  4. an animal or plant – tiryag-gati.

The cause of the soul's birth in a certain condition is its karma. Activities and thoughts during a lifetime create karmas, which may be positive or negative. In summary, positive karmas arise from 'good' conduct while negative karmas are produced by 'bad' activities. Behaviour, including thoughts, is judged by the principles laid down in the Jain scriptures.

Positive karmas may result in a birth as a god or human being. Negative karmas lead to birth as an animal or even an insect, plant or creature in hell. A soul reborn in the two worse gatis finds it more difficult to follow Jain teachings and progress spiritually.

However, even a soul born as a deity is trapped within the cycle of births. The best condition to be born into is that of a human, because it is the only one in which the soul can be liberated from the cycle, which usually lasts thousands of lifetimes.


In Jain cosmology all living beings are also classified into groups according to their number of sense-organs, from one to five. The following hierarchy is a summary of the extremely detailed sub-classifications and lists found in Jain writings.

Classes of sense-beings

Number of senses




  • touch
  • the most basic form of life known as nigodas
  • plants
  • bodies made of earth, water, fire and air, some of them extremely minute and invisible to the human eye


  • touch
  • taste
  • worms
  • shells
  • conches
  • leeches


  • touch
  • taste
  • smell
  • various insects
  • ants


  • touch
  • taste
  • smell
  • sight
  • flies
  • mosquitoes
  • bees
  • moths


  • touch
  • taste
  • smell
  • sight
  • hearing

The more advanced a soul’s spirituality the more senses its body has in this birth. However, acting in such a way that karma becomes stuck to the soul means that in the next life the soul is likely to be born in a lower type of body, with fewer senses. The soul’s possibility of spiritual progress is more limited in such a condition – gati.


  • Tortures in the hells In this manuscript painting, beings in hell are tortured by animals, demons and other infernal beings. Suffering is the hallmark of the seven hells that make up the lower world of three in the Jain universe. Souls who have been born into bodies in the hells suffer according to their karma, which is mainly decided by bad behaviour in previous lives. . Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Further Reading

Narrating Karma and Rebirth: Buddhist and Jain Multi-Life Stories
Naomi Appleton
Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK and New York, USA; 2014

Full details

Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Tradition
Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty
University of California Press; Berkeley, California, USA; 1980

Full details

The Jains
Paul Dundas
Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series; series editor John Hinnels and Ninian Smart; volume 14
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2002

Full details

‘Indian Perspectives on the Spirituality of Animals’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
Collected Papers on Jaina Studies
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 2000

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details



A belief system about the universe that covers its origin, structure and parts, and natural laws and characteristics such as space, time, causality and freedom.


A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.


Type of destiny, mode of rebirth in the cycle of rebirth. There are four:

  • god
  • human being
  • animal
  • infernal being.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.


Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.


Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:

  • negative – deriving from harmful acts
  • positive – arising from beneficial actions.

Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.


The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.


Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.

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