Article: Scales of Perfection

Contributed by Jérôme Petit

Classes of karma

The Western game of snakes and ladders is probably based on a Jain visualisation of the unsteady progress of the soul through the cycle of rebirth. This 19th-century chart shows the uncertain path of spiritual development, involving many ups and downs.

Snakes and ladders
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 148 categories of karma are classified into eight main groups – the mūla-prakṛtis. These are divided into several secondary sets – the uttara-prakṛtis. Each category is defined by elements, such as duration, intensity and quantity, and presents different aspects. Among those aspects, three are particularly important for the guṇa-sthānas:

  • bandha – bondage – the period after the karma has entered the soul and during which it remains dormant before producing its effect
  • udaya – maturity – when the karma comes into effect
  • sattā – existence – the total length of time the karma is bound to the soul.

Karma and the guṇa-sthānas

Three stages of karma during the 14 guṇa-sthānas
Image by Jérôme Petit © Jérôme Petit

At every stage of the guṇa-sthāna, certain categories of karma do not bind the soul any longer and others do not come to maturity or fruition any more. The existence of all the categories of karma is attested all along the scale. Some categories disappear in the 12th guṇa-sthāna.

The 11th stage is an important step as only one category of karma can bind the soul – the sāta-vedanīya-karman, which causes the feeling of what has been obtained. However, 59 categories of karma can still come to maturity. At the 14th and final stage, none of the categories bind the soul, but 12 categories come to maturity and 85 categories are still in existence.

Based on information given in Glasenapp 1915, this table presents details of the categories of karma – the prakṛtis – involved at every stage of the guṇa-sthāna.

Numbers of karmic bondage, maturity and existence at guṇa-sthāna stages

Guṇa-sthāna level

Karmic bondage

Karmic maturity

Karmic existence

1

117

117

148

2

101

111

147

3

74

100

147

4

77

104

148

5

67

87

148

6

63

81

148

7

58

76

148

8

58

72

148

9

22

66

148

10

17

60

148

11

1

59

148

12

1

57

101

13

1

41

85

14

0

12

85

The graph shows at a glance how progression through the scale provokes the fall of the karmic bondage.

Duration of karma

The types of human lives are shown in this painting from a manuscript. The length of life and many of the experiences of a lifetime are determined by karma, which comes mainly from behaviour in previous lives.

Kinds of human lives
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The theory of karma gives also an idea of the time taken by the karma to fall or mature. This is the duration – sthiti – calculated with a minimum and a maximum.

The minimum a karmic category binds the pure soul is one muhūrta – approximately 48 minutes. The maximum can total 70 koṭakoṭi sāgaropama – 7 x 10225 years. If the maximum is followed, it could be a very long path through the scale of perfection!

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Related Manuscripts

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