Article: Leśyā

Contributed by Shruti Malde

Three and three

It is common to draw a clear line separating the leśyās into two groups of three.

The first three are considered non-meritorious because they signal high degrees of:

  • passionkaṣāya
  • harmful actions
  • deceitfulness.

For instance, here is the behaviour of a man who is characterised by the black leśyā:

A man who acts on the impulse of the five āsravas, does not possess the three guptis, has not ceased to injure the six kinds of living beings, commits cruel acts, is wicked and violent, is afraid of no consequences, is mischievous and does not subdue his senses – a man of such habits develops the black leśyā

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra 34.21–22

Jacobi’s translation 1895: 199

The last three are meritorious because they imply:

  • a lower degree of passions
  • actions that are as harmless as possible
  • true inclination towards good practices.

White signals the highest degree of purity:

A man who abstains from constant thinking about his misery and about sinful deeds, but engages in meditation on the Law and truth only, whose mind is at ease, who controls himself, who practices the samitis and the guptis, whether he be still subject to passion or free from passion, is calm, and subdues his senses – a man of such habits develops the white leśyā

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra 34.31–32

Jacobi’s translation 1895: 200

This is summed up in the following manner:

The black, blue and grey leśyās are the lowest leśyās; through them the soul is brought into miserable courses of life. The red, yellow, and white leśyās are the good leśyās; through them the soul is brought into happy courses of life

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra 34.56–57

Jacobi’s translation 1895: 203

Karma and leśyās

This 19th-century manuscript painting shows the parable of the tree. Six hungry men suggest ways of reaching the fruit, ranging from chopping down the jambū tree to picking up windfalls. The colours of the men reflect their souls' colours – leśyās.

Parable of the tree
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

It can be demonstrated (Malde 2011) that the concept of leśyā plays an important role in Jain karma theory. This goes against Schubring’s contention that ‘...the concept is of secondary nature, and can stay out of the system without leaving a gap in its composition’ (Schubring 1962/2000: 196; see also Wiley 2011: 21).

The concept of leśyā in Jainism has two applications, which may be related to different stages in the development of karma theories.

Firstly, it is used allegorically to grade the purity of the soul. It is thus a useful tool in pedagogical understanding and the transmission of doctrine. The idea itself may have started when the karma doctrine was not fully developed and colour was used to symbolise the quality of soul or deed in early Jain thought. This use is illustrated in parables and links to the classes of deities.

Secondly, the concept gained a technical, ontological application. Once karma was interpreted in terms of the theory of atoms, the allegorical notion of colours’ association with certain actions was explained as a material property of karmic matter. Hence as the karma doctrine became more sophisticated, so did the concept of leśyā (Tatia 1966: 22). Jain ontology accepts dual reality, that of soul and matter. It is their union that gives colour to the soul. This joining together of soul and karmic particles is the cause of samsāra – the cycle of rebirths. When karmic matter becomes stuck to the soul, it changes it in various ways. One of these changes is an alteration in colour, which is its leśyā. Hence the frequent definition of leśyā as ‘karmic stain’.

Parables

Two parables demonstrate the allegorical application of the concept of leśyā. As the basis of Jain philosophy is to avoid all kinds of sinful activity, these stories use colour to grade sinful activity. Found in the karma-granthas, they have been transmitted down the centuries in cosmological works and wider literature, oral tradition and manuscript paintings. They are a common heritage for all Jain sects.

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