Article: Leśyā

Contributed by Shruti Malde

Parable of the tree

The parable of the tree is shown in this manuscript painting. Six hungry men propose reaching the fruit in ways ranging from felling the jambū tree to picking up windfalls. The colours of the men reflect their souls' colours – leśyās – or spiritual state.

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

Six men see a jambū or rose-apple tree, full of ripe fruit. They want to eat the fruit but climbing the tall tree is dangerous. They think about how they can fetch the rose-apples. Their ideas are linked to the six colours of the leśyās.

Six leśyās in the parable of the tree

Man

Idea

Leśyā colour

1

cut down the tree from the root

black

2

cut off the boughs

dark (blue)

3

cut off the branches

grey

4

cut off the bunches of fruit

fiery

5

pluck the fruit

lotus-pink

6

gather the fruit that has fallen on the ground

white

This parable is very widely known and is found in all types of contexts. There is hardly a book on Jain art that does not contain a painting of this scene, which has become emblematic of Jainism.

JAINpedia has four examples of illustrations of this story, which can be viewed in great detail. It is a favourite artists’ subject in saṃgrahaṇī-ratna cosmological works, where it often occupies a full page and demonstrates very lively execution. As Chapter 34 of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra deals with this topic, the story is also found in illustrated manuscripts of the text. (See also Norman Brown 1941: 48, figures 138–140.)

Parable of the robbers

The second parable, which is less widespread than the first, tells of six robbers who want to surprise a village. They each have different notions of what to do (Glasenapp 1942 [1991]: 48), which again indicate their individual moral condition and can be linked to leśyā colours.

Six leśyās in the parable of the robbers

Robber

Idea

Leśyā colour

1

kill all beings, quadrupeds and bipeds

black

2

kill all human beings

dark (blue)

3

kill all men

grey

4

kill all armed men

fiery

5

kill all armed men who fight

lotus-pink

6

steal valuables, but not murder anybody

white

Groups of gods and leśyās

Chapter 4 of the Tattvārtha-sūtra also shows how colours of leśyās are explicitly used as shorthand for moral conditions. In this chapter (4.2, 4.7, 4.21, 4.23) the leśyās are connected with each of the four classes – nikāyas – of gods – devas. With darker leśyās assigned to gods in the lower regions of the upper world, the leśyās get progressively purer for divinities in the higher regions of the upper world.

There are differences between Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras in the understanding of this point and therefore in the sectarian versions of the Tattvārtha-sūtra.

The Śvetāmbara text reads: ‘the third [class of gods] is of yellow colour’ – tṛtīyaḥ pīta-leśya iti.

The Digambara version reads: ‘in the three [classes of gods] from the beginning, the colours up to yellow’ – āditas triṣu pītānta-leśyāḥ.

Leśyās and classes of gods

Class of gods

Śvetāmbara leśyās

Digambara leśyās

Bhavanavāsins

  • black
  • blue
  • grey
  • yellow – pīta (= tejas)
  • black
  • blue
  • grey
  • yellow – pīta (= tejas)

Vyantaras

  • black
  • blue
  • grey
  • yellow – pīta
  • black
  • blue
  • grey
  • yellow – pīta

Jyotiṣkas

  • ‘fiery’ – sometimes understood as red
  • black
  • blue
  • grey
  • yellow

Vaimānikas

  • yellow – pīta – in heavens 1 and 2
  • padma in heavens 3 to 5
  • white from heaven 6 upwards (see also Kirfel 1920: 311–312)
  • yellow in heaven 1
  • yellow and padma – ‘lotus colour’ – in heaven 2
  • padma in heavens 3 and 4
  • padma and white in heavens 5 and 6
  • white from heaven 7 upwards

The same point is discussed in the cosmological works known as saṃgrahaṇīs, namely which leśyā(s) do the different groups of gods have? The list of six colours is given on this occasion, and it is in this context that the concept is illustrated through paintings of the parable of the tree.

More generally, the exposition on leśyā implies discussing which and how many types are possible in which form of existence (Prajñāpanā: table in Shah 1971: 351). Souls of beings born in hells have black, blue or grey colours. Inferior varieties of animals are treated like the Vyantara gods.

The full range of leśyās is found among human beings. This is why it is connected with the human destiny – manuṣya-gati. It is also found in animals born from a womb.

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