Article: Leśyā

Contributed by Shruti Malde

In Jainism, leśyā has been described as ‘colour of the soul’, ‘soul-complexion’ or ‘spiritual colouring’ due to its association with karmic matter. The soul – jīva – is sentient and when it is pure does not have material properties of colour, odour, form and taste. However, souls bound with karma and trapped within the cycle of rebirth take on the colour of the leśyā that is characteristic of their spiritual level.

When the soul takes birth – when it is born into a new body in the cycle of rebirth – it is impure and embodied. Certain aspects of the new body are influenced by karma attached to the soul, such as the length of life and physical abilities. Resulting from actions in past births, karma is non-sentient and material in nature. When the soul is embodied, it assumes the colour of the leśyā particles, which are mirrored in the soul, like a crystal reflecting the colour of a nearby object. As the pure and emancipated soul – siddha – has no leśyā, the concept is often understood as meaning ‘karmic stain’.

The six leśyās graduate from black to white, from dark to light, and colour the souls of beings that are subject to karma. They are connected to the past deeds of an individual and indicate his current moral state. The aim of Jain soteriology is for the soul to be purified from contamination by karma, which is necessary to reach final liberation.

Of great significance to the doctrine of Jain karma, leśyā is recognised as crucial by both the Digambara and the Śvetāmbara traditions. This important idea has become familiar to many through the famous ‘parable of the tree’.

Origin of the concept

This manuscript painting illustrates the parable of the tree. Six hungry men suggest various ways to reach the fruit. Involving different levels of violence, the methods reflect the men's souls. The men represent the six colours – leśyās – of the soul.

Six colours of the soul
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

It is difficult to trace the origin of leśyā in Jainism, as allegorical use of colour has also been made in other South Asian traditions. Modern scholarship compares it with similar concepts in other religions.

A common comparison is with the abhijāti concept of the Ājīvikas. In this ascetic religion led by Makkhali Gośāla, a rival of Mahāvīra, the colours correspond to ‘social classes’. The colours are deterministic, in that ‘a man’s social status is determined by the inborn coloration of the molecules composing his body’ (Tsuchihashi 1983: 202).

In the Brahmanical tradition, as expressed in the Mokṣa-dharma section of the Mahābhārata, there is the similar concept of jīva-varṇa – ‘soul colour’ linked to hierarchically ordered social category (Bedekar 1968: 335ff.).

The six leśyās of Jainism have been compared with the three guṇas, the natural qualities of matter – prakr̥ti – in the Sāṃkhya philosophy of Hinduism (Zimmer 1969 [1990]: 229–230). Establishing a gradation from clear to dark, from pure to very impure, in a way comparable to the leśyās, these three qualities are:

  • clear, pure – sattva
  • fiery – rajas
  • dark – tamas.

In Buddhism there are also colours of deeds – kamma – and the application of colour to the spiritual classification of monks (McDermott 1999: 180–190).

Hence, some scholars argue that it is a concept that has been borrowed and adapted in the Jain doctrine, while others regard this borrowing as ‘well-known’ (Tsuchihashi 1983: 195).

The question of whether it was imported into Jainism does not detract from the importance of leśyā in Jain beliefs.

Meaning of the term

This painting from a manuscript shows the Jyotiṣka gods. Astral bodies such as the suns – sūrya – and moons – candra – make up the third class of gods. These luminous bodies cast light over the middle world of humans.

Jyotiṣka gods
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The traditional etymology connects the word leśyā with the root liś or śliṣ, both meaning to ‘adhere’. This agrees with what the word has come to mean in the classical doctrine. For example the 11th-century Śvetāmbara commentator Abhayadeva-sūri explains that ‘leśyā is that by which a living being [soul] is connected with or burned with karma’ in his commentary to the Sthānāṅga-sūtra (Wiley 2000: 351f.). Similar explanations are given by Digambara authors (Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa volume 3: 422).

The idea of something that ‘adheres’, ‘sticks’ or ‘smears’ is also conveyed through another traditional explanation. This connects leśyā and the Sanskrit root limp-, which means ‘to smear’ (Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa volume 3: 422).

It has been shown, however, that the Prakrit word lesā originally meant ‘light’ (Tsuchihashi 1983: 197ff.). Outside doctrinal contexts where it is connected to the karma concept, the word is applied to heavenly bodies such as the sun or moon. It occurs with verbs meaning ‘to shine’ or ‘to radiate’ in various Śvetāmbara canonical works. More precisely, it means ‘substance-like lustre’ or ‘lustre inherent in and concomitant with something solid and concrete’, namely the leśa ‘particle, molecule’ (Tsuchihashi 1983: 201).


Extensive discussions of the leśyās are found in both Śvetāmbara and Digambara canonical and post-canonical texts and commentaries. Many chapters and passages focus on the leśyās while others that examine karma theory discuss them as part of this key Jain doctrine.

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