Article: Leśyā

Contributed by Shruti Malde

Transformation of the soul

This manuscript painting shows the parable of the tree. Six men propose ways of getting fruit that range from cutting down the jambū tree to picking up windfalls. The colours of the men represent their souls' spiritual condition – leśyās or soul colours.

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

The second application of the concept of leśyās is more technical, being concerned with Jain karma doctrine. The notion of leśyā helps to classify the change in a soul that results from the influx of karma that bind to it. The colour the soul takes on indicates its moral purity or its spiritual stage.

Jainism believes in the duality of nature. There are two ‘reals’:

  • jīva – the soul – which is sentient and not made up of atoms or molecules
  • ajīva – non-sentient or physical matter – which has the material properties of touch, taste, smell and colour.

The interaction of these two entities is the cause of transmigration and the basis of Jain karma doctrine, which is the most sophisticated karma theory of all the Indian religions.

The pure soul – siddha – has boundless energy – vīrya. In its impure and embodied state, the soul causes vibrations called yoga, which is the activity of mind, speech and body. Vibrations alone, however, do not produce bondage with karma particles. Jaini explains that if the soul is ‘moistened’ with passions – kaṣāyas – the karma sticks or binds – bandha – to the soul. These passions are attraction – rāga – and hatred or aversion – dveṣa. (1979 [1998]: 112–113).

The combination of yoga and kaṣāya results in an influx and consequent bondage of karma to the soul. Leśyās are a transformation of the soul. They are regarded as ‘specific types of mental effort’ in the commentaries on Uttarādhyayana-sūtra 34. 1 (Jacobi 1895 [2004]: 196 number 2, analysis in Wiley 2011: 12). However, this is not the case in other Śvetāmbara sources and in Digambara sources (Wiley 2011: 13). The energy that accompanies colouration is called sa-leśya. This is not the same as the colour-free activity that is characteristic of the threshold of emancipation, which is called a-leśya. The exact nature of the relationship between karmic matter and the non-material soul is difficult to describe.

From the conventional point of view – vyavahāra-naya – karmic bondage is explained in terms of a physical association between the soul and karmic particles – dravya. However, there is no actual contact between them. Rather, they occupy the same locus – ekakṣetrāvagāha (Jaini 1979 [1998]: 113–114).

Leśyās are among the 21 factors that define the state of the soul. Known as audayika-bhāva, these distinguish the soul’s condition according to the rising of the eight types of karmas (Tattvārtha-sūtra 2.6).

Karma doctrine

Discussion of the notion of leśyā demonstrates its close connections with other important parts of classical Jain karma doctrine, namely:

The kaṣāyas are ‘passions’ or emotions in the form of either attachment – rāga – or aversion – dveṣa. They are:

  • anger – krodha
  • pride – māna
  • deceit – māyā
  • greed – lobha.

Kaṣāyas or passions are not the natural state of the soul, and they cause the influx and bondage of karmic matter to the soul. Kaṣāyas are one of the five causes of karmic bondage (Tattvārtha-sūtra 8.1). Karma particles stick or bind to a soul that is ‘moistened’ with kaṣāya (Tattvārtha-sūtra 8.2). The material nature of the karma particles bound to the soul gives rise to leśyā or karmic stain.

Early Jain texts provide little information on meditation due to its esoteric nature. What few references that exist classify it into four types:

  • sorrowful concentration – ārta-dhyāna
  • cruel concentration – raudra-dhyāna
  • virtuous concentration – dharma-dhyāna
  • pure concentration – śukla-dhyāna (Jaini 1979 [1998]: 251f).

Because the first two types of meditation – the sorrowful and cruel concentration – involve passions, they are causes of:

  • karmic bondage
  • the three non-meritorious leśyās.

The last two types of meditation are ‘spiritual’ and help with stoppage of karmic influx or bondage. In effect these types of meditation promote the pure state of the soul and are hence associated with the three meritorious leśyās.

The last two types of meditation thus lead to liberation. Tattvārtha-sūtra 9. 29 to 9. 46 elaborates on the four types of meditation and states that there are four stages in each of the last two types. The first pure meditation – śukla-dhyāna – starts at the eighth guṇa-sthāna (Jaini 1927/1990: 42). The transition between the final two guṇa-sthānas occurs when the kevalin performs the third and fourth śukla-dhyāna meditations (Wiley 2000: 350).

Mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest' is a method of classifying a bound soul or condition of existence. In the technical texts on karma the soul-quest has 14 perspectives or 'gateways of investigation'. These 'gateways' are categories in which this search can be undertaken. Leśyā is one of the 14 categories or gateways of mārgaṇā.

This table is based on information on page 96 of J. L. Jaini 1927 [1990].

Fourteen types of mārgaṇā


Sanskrit term

English meaning



four realms of existence



five senses



types of physical bodies



vibratory activities















understanding reality or categories of truth



thought-paints or soul-colour



soul worthy of liberation






beings that have a mind and intelligence



type of nourishment or intake of karmic molecules that is absorbed for the formation of different types of bodies

Body soul, body colour

An 18th-century mural of the parable of the tree in a Digambara Jain Math. The colours of the six men committing varying levels of violence on the fruit tree represent their soul colours – leśyās.

Mural of the parable of the tree
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The colour of the physical body does not reflect the colour of the soul. Jain leśyās are not visible to human beings. The leśyā of the soul has two aspects:

  • dravya-leśyā – attachment of karma to the soul, which produces an alteration
  • bhāva-leśyā– psychic conditions affecting the soul.

The colour of the body is controlled by dravya-leśyā. This is determined by karma in the sub-category śarīra-nāma karman, the type that determines one’s own individual physical properties.

The soul of the omniscient person with vibratory activity – sayogi-kevalin – can only be the colour white – śukla-leśyā – which is the highest degree of purity. The body of a sayogi-kevalin may be a colour other than white. For instance, the colour of the body of the 22nd Jina, Neminātha or Lord Nemi, is black (Wiley 2000: 357).

The body complexion does not change throughout the life, whereas the soul complexion keeps on changing according to inclinations of the soul. That is why a man with a black complexion can have [a] white soul-complexion and that with [a] fair complexion can have [a] black soul-complexion

Illustrated Uttarādhyayana Sūtra
page 479

The purity of the soul is determined by bhāva-leśyā. The degree to which the soul is purified is described in terms of the guṇa-sthānas – 14 spiritual stages. These classify believers into 14 groups, based on the gradual disappearance of the causes of karmic bondage. The final three guṇasthānas are most relevant to the discussion of leśyās. These stages are the:

  • 12th – kṣīṇa-moha
  • 13th – sayogi-kevalin
  • 14th – ayogi-kevalin.

The 12th stage – the kṣīṇa-moha – is attained when all passions are overcome through the destruction of all conduct-deluding karmas, the cāritra-mohanīyas. After this stage there are two successive types of omniscience, which then leads to final liberation. Once this 12th step has been achieved, śukla-leśyā is irreversible.

At the 13th stage the omniscient being – sayogi-kevalin – has subtle vibratory activities in the soul due to the presence of the karma that determines one’s physical properties – śarīra-nāma karman. ‘This is the state of the embodied soul of the Arhat, Kevalin, Jina, or Tīrthaṃkara’ (Wiley 2004: 244).

The final stage before salvation is that of ayogi-kevalin. In this 14th stage the omniscient being is without vibrations. This is a momentary state just before death, when all the karma connected with the life-duration – āyuṣ-karman – is exhausted and leśyā is absent – a-leśya. Thus leśyā is present as long as there is activity of the body, speech or mind.

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