Article: Leśyā

Contributed by Shruti Malde

Śvetāmbara works

Details of the five attributes of the six colours of the soul – leśyās. These attributes are colour, taste, smell, touch and psychic characteristic. From the 'Illustrated Shri Bhagwati Sutra' in the 20th-century series overseen by Pravartak Shri Amar Muni

Attributes of the leśyās
Image by Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan © Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan

Of the Śvetāmbara canonical works, the 34th chapter of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra and the 17th chapter of the Prajñāpanā-sūtra are specifically devoted to leśyā (Wiley 2000: 348; Shah 1971: 350–354). These passages deal with all the aspects of the concept.

The Uttarādhyayana chapter contains various poetical metres (Alsdorf 1968: 214–220). It has a minority of ślokas and a majority of āryās. This suggests two stages in its composition. It has been demonstrated that the chapter has a nucleus concerned with leśyā, specifically the:

  • names of the six colours
  • description of the six colours
  • types of activities that cause the various types.

All other information on the attributes of leśyās represents an amplification reflecting ‘a later development of Jaina doctrine’ (Alsdorf 1968: 219). These attributes are:

  • taste – rasa
  • smell – gandha
  • touch – sparśa
  • degree of intensity – pariṇāma
  • symptom – lakṣaṇa
  • variety – sthāna
  • duration – sthiti
  • result – gati
  • lifespan – āyuḥ.

Other canonical texts with material on leśyā are the:

  • third Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, the Sthānāṅga-sūtra
  • fifth Aṅga, the Viyāha-pannatti, also called the Bhagavatī or Vyākhyā-prajñapti (Schubring 1962 [2000]:196–7; Banthiya 1966).

Śvetāmbara works specifically dedicated to the karma doctrine are another source for the understanding of the concept. They are:

  • the six karma-granthas in Prakrit verse, written in particular by Devendra-sūri in the 13th century
  • the Pañca-saṃgraha, in Prakrit verses, by Candrarṣi Mahattara
  • the Karma-prakṛti, also in Prakrit verses, by Śivaśarma-sūri.

Their main Sanskrit commentaries, written by Malayagiri in the 12th century, are indispensable in understanding them.

Cosmological treatises, such as the kṣetra-samāsas or the saṃgrahaṇīs, also discuss leśyās. Since leśyās are connected to karma, they are instrumental in the forms of rebirths. Hence they are crucial in the place which various beings have in the Jain universe.

The Leśyā Kośa is a 20th-century Hindi encyclopaedia of leśyā that claims to be a comprehensive catalogue of material to date. It is based on Śvetāmbara writings.

Digambara works

The Digambara authoritative scriptures – the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama and the Kaṣāya-prābhṛta – are important sources that discuss the concept extensively (Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa volume 3: 422–428). The accompanying commentaries are also essential to understand the Digambara idea of leśyā.

Six colours

The number of leśyās is fixed as six. The association between the concept and the number is so strong that the word leśyā means the number 6 in the numerical system when words are used instead of digits.

Each of the leśyās is designated by an adjective referring to a colour in a scale going from black to white, from dark to light. But there are variations in the way intermediate colours are understood, and hence in the way they may be represented in paintings, for instance.

The six leśyās

Number

Prakrit term

Sanskrit term

Colour(s)

1

kiṇha

kṛṣṇa – ‘black’

black

2

nīla

nīla – ‘blue’

blue

3

kāu

kāpota – ‘pigeon-colour’

grey

4

teu

tejas – ‘fiery’

red or yellow

5

  • pamha, literally ‘filament’
  • pamma in Jaina Śaurasenī, the Prakrit used in Digambara sources

rendered as padma – ‘lotus colour’

yellow or pink – the translations of ‘red’ are not correct

6

sukka

śukla

white

In the 34th chapter of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, for instance, each colour is defined in an individual verse. The writer uses analogies with things common in the Indian environment that have a similar colour. For instance:

The black leśyā has the colour of a rain-cloud, a buffalo’s horn...
The blue leśyā has the colour of the blue aśoka... or of lapis-lazuli.
The grey leśyā has the colour of... the feathers of the cuckoo or the collar of pigeons.
The red leśyā has the colour of vermilion, the rising sun, or the bill of a parrot.
The yellow leśyā has the colour of orpiment, turmeric...
The white leśyā has the colour of a conch-shell..., jasmine flowers, flowing milk, silver, or a necklace of pearls

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra 34. 5–9
Jacobi’s translation 1895: 197

Similar types of definitions of the six colours are provided in the fifth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, the Viyāha-pannatti (Banthiya 1966: 20–24), or in the Digambara sources, for instance verses 495 to 498 in the Gommaṭasāra Jīva-kāṇḍa.

There seem to be hesitations and confusions in the literature between the fourth and fifth colours, partly because their designations are not as clear as those of other terms. The fourth colour is described by the Prakrit word teu and its Sanskrit equivalent tejas, which both mean ‘fiery’. Also ambiguous are the terms for the fifth colour. The Prakrit word pamha is always rendered into Sanskrit as padma, which goes against phonetic developments. The analogies used to describe the ‘fiery’ colour in the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures clearly show that it means red. It is the colour of blood, in particular. And the comparisons used for pamha clearly refer to yellow. Yet chapter 4 of the Tattvārtha-sūtra uses the word pīta – yellow – in a context and ranking in the list that suggest it is the fourth colour, not the fifth.

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