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.

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


Prakrit term

Sanskrit term




kṛṣṇa – ‘black’




nīla – ‘blue’




kāpota – ‘pigeon-colour’




tejas – ‘fiery’

red or yellow


  • 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





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.

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’.


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.

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



Leśyā colour


cut down the tree from the root



cut off the boughs

dark (blue)


cut off the branches



cut off the bunches of fruit



pluck the fruit



gather the fruit that has fallen on the ground


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



Leśyā colour


kill all beings, quadrupeds and bipeds



kill all human beings

dark (blue)


kill all men



kill all armed men



kill all armed men who fight



steal valuables, but not murder anybody


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


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


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


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


  • 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.

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.

Ascetics and leśyās

At the peak of the universe, the crescent-shaped siddha-śilā is where liberated souls – siddhas – exist in neverending bliss.

Image by Anishshah19 © CC-BY-3.0

Independently of the guṇa-sthānas, the colour of the soul is one of the criteria used to distinguish the different types of asceticsnirgranthas. Details of the categories vary according to sect.

This topic is discussed in the Tattvārtha-sūtra (9. 49) and its commentaries. As with other subjects, the versions of the text used by the various sects reflect their teachings on leśyās.

Leśyās and the five types of ascetics

Ascetic category


pulāka – faith in the scriptures but less than full proficiency in the virtues of a monk

only the meritorious types of yellow, red and white

bakuśa – moral defects, failure of conduct, liking of an easy life

all the six types


  1. pratisevanā-kuśīla – inclined to violations of monastic conduct
  2. kaṣāya-kuśīla– passions in mild degree

  1. all the six types
  2. Śvetāmbara – yellow, red and white according to purity of conduct
    Digambara – grey, yellow, red and white, the last only if he has reached the purest state

nirgrantha – not yet omniscient but will acquire omniscience soon


snātaka – omniscient

white or no leśyā if he has reached the 14th guṇa-sthāna


  • Six colours of the soul The parable of the tree is illustrated in this manuscript painting. Six hungry men suggest various ways to reach the fruit, ranging from cutting down the jambū tree to collecting fallen fruit. The methods involve different levels of violence, which reflect the state of the men's souls. The men represent the six colours – leśyās – of the soul. The soul takes on colour according to the karma that has bound to it.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Jyotiṣka gods 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, one of the three worlds in Jain cosmology. They constantly move around, so their light is always changing.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Attributes of the leśyās Details of the five attributes of each of the six colours of the soul – leśyās. These attributes are colour, taste, smell, touch and psychic characteristic. This illustration is from the 2005 'Illustrated Shri Bhagwati Sutra' and is based on the tenth lesson of the fourth chapter of the fifth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures. This picture is a 20th-century attempt to translate abstract concepts into art characteristic of the Illustrated Agam Series, overseen by the Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin leader Pravartak Shri Amar Muni.. Image by Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan © Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan
  • Parable of the tree 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 indicate the spiritual state of their souls. The soul takes on one of six colours – leśyās – according to the karma that has bound to it.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Parable of the tree The parable of the tree is the subject of this manuscript painting. Six hungry men propose ways of reaching the fruit, ranging from felling the jambū tree to picking up windfalls. The colours of the men reflect their spiritual condition. The soul takes on one of six colours – leśyās – according to the karma that has bound to it.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Six colours of the soul This painting from a manuscript of the Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna depicts the parable of the tree. Six men propose different ways of getting the fruit, ranging from cutting down the jambū tree to picking up the windfalls. The colours of the men in the main panel represent the spiritual condition of their souls. The six leśyās – soul colours – are also shown in the figures at the bottom.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Mural of the parable of the tree The parable of the tree is illustrated in this 18th-century mural painting in the Digambara Jain Math of Shravana Belgola, Karnataka. Six men commit varying levels of violence on the tree from which they wish to gather fruit. The colours of the men represent the six leśyās. The soul takes on colour – leśyā – according to the karma bound to it.. Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
  • Siddha-śilā At the peak of the universe, the crescent-shaped siddha-śilā is where liberated souls – siddhas – exist in neverending bliss.. Image by Anishshah19 © CC-BY-3.0

Further Reading

The Āryā Stanzas of the Uttarajjhāyā: Contributions to the Text History and Interpretation of a Canonical Jaina Text
Ludwig Alsdorf
Abhandlungen der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse series; volume 2
Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur Mainz; Wiesbaden, Hesse, Germany; 1966

Full details

Leśyā Kośa: Cyclopaedia of leśyā
Mohanlāla Bāṇṭhiyā and Śricanda Coraṛiyā
Jaina Vishaya-Kośa granthamālā series
Mohanlāla Bāṇṭhiyā; Calcutta, West Bengal, India; 1966

Full details

History and doctrines of the Ājīvikas: a vanished Indian religion
Arthur L. Basham
Luzac; London, UK; 1951

Full details

‘The Doctrine of the Colours of Souls in the Mahābhārata: Its Characteristics and Implications’
V. M. Bedekar
Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute
volume 48–49
Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute; 1968

Full details

‘The Colours of the Soul and the Origin of Karmic Eschatology’
Erik Af Edholm
On the Meaning of Death: Essays on Mortuary Rituals and Eschatological Beliefs
edited by Sven Cederroth, Claes Corlin and Jan Lindström
Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology series; volume 8
Upsaliensis Academiae; Uppsala and Stockholm, Sweden; 1988

Full details

Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy
Helmuth von Glasenapp
translated by G. Barry Gifford
edited by Hiralal R. Kapadia
Asian Humanities Press; Fremont, California, USA; 2003

Full details

Gommaṭsāra: Jīvakāṇḍa
Nemicandra Siddhantacakravartin
translated and edited by J. L. Jaini assisted by Sital Prasada
Sacred Books of the Jains series; volume 5
Today and Tomorrow's Printers; New Delhi, India; 1927

Full details

Illustrated Uttarādhyayana Sutra
edited by Pravarttak Shri Mamar Muniji Maharaj, Amar Muni and Srichand Surana 'Saras'
Illustrated Agam series; volume 1
Padma Prakashan and Shree Diwakar Prakashan; New Delhi, India; 1993

Full details

Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa
Jinendra Varṇi
volume 38
Bhāratīya Jñānapītha Publication; New Delhi, India; 2003

Full details

The Jaina Path of Purification
Padmanabh S. Jaini
University of California Press; Berkeley, California USA; 1979

Full details

Die Kosmographie der Inder: nach den Quellen dargestellt
Willibald Kirfel
Georg Olms; Hildesheim, Lower Saxony, Germany; 1967

Full details

Samayasāra of Śrī Kundakunda
translated by Appaswami Chakravarti
edited by A. N. Upadhye
Bhāratīya Jñānapītha Mūrtidevī Jaina granthamālā: English series; volume 1
Bhāratīya Jñānapīṭha; Banaras, Uttar Pradesh, India; 1971

Full details

‘The Concept of Leśyā in Jaina Literature’
Shruti Malde
Jaina Studies: Newsletter of the Centre of Jaina Studies
edited by Peter Flügel
Centre of Jaina Studies, SOAS; London, UK; March 2011

Full details

‘Karma and Rebirth in Early Buddhism’
James P. McDermott
Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Tradition
edited by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty
University of California Press; Berkeley, California, USA; 1980

Full details

Manuscript Illustrations of the Uttarādhyayana Sūtra
W. Norman Brown
American Oriental series; volume 21
American Oriental Society; New Haven, Connecticut USA; 1941

Full details

‘Evolution of the Jaina Theory of Leśyā’
Suzuko Ohira
Jain Journal
volume 13–14

Full details

edited by Muni Puṇyavijaya, Dalsukh Mālvaṇiā and Amritlāl Mohanlāl Bhojak
Jaina Agamas series; volume 9: 1 and 9: 2
Mahāvīra Jaina Vidyālaya; Bombay, Maharashtra, India; 1971–1972

Full details

The Doctrine of the Jainas: Described after the Old Sources
Walther Schubring
translated by Wolfgang Bühlen
edited by Satya Ranjan Banerjee
Lala Sunder Lal Jain Research series; volume 15
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 2000

Full details

That Which Is: Tattvārtha Sūtra
Umāsvāti / Umāsvāmi
translated by Nathmal Tatia
Sacred Literature series
International Sacred Literature Trust in association with Harper Collins; London, UK; 1994

Full details

‘On the literal meaning of leśyā’
Kyōshu Tsuchihashi
Indologica Taurinensia
edited by Nalini Balbir and Colette Caillat
volume 11
International Association of Sanskrit Studies; 1983

Full details

'Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra'
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Jaina Sutras Part II: Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra and Sûtrakritâṅga
Sacred Books of the East series; series editor F. Max Müller; volume 45
Clarendon Press; Oxford, England UK; 1895

Full details

‘Colours of the Soul: By-Products of Activity or Passions?’
Kristi L. Wiley
Philosophy East and West
edited by Kim Skoog
volume 50: 3
University of Hawai'i Press; 2000

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details

‘The Significance of adhyavasāya in Jain Karma Theory’
Kristi L. Wiley
International Journal of Jaina Studies (Online)
edited by Peter Flügel
volume 7: 3
Centre of Jaina Studies, SOAS; London, UK; 2011

Full details

Philosophies of India
Heinrich Zimmer
edited by Joseph Campbell
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 1990

Full details



The ‘absence of soul’ in non-living things. There are five types of ajīva:

  • the medium of motion – dharma-stikaya
  • the medium of rest – adharma-stikaya
  • space – ākāśa-tikaya
  • visible matter – pudgala-stikaya
  • time – kāla.

The last is not always counted. Together with jīva or 'substance with soul', ajīva forms the universe.


Literally 'limb' in Sanskrit, Aṅga is a term for the first category of 11 texts that form the Śvetāmbara scriptures. There were originally 12 but the last has been lost for centuries.


Sanskrit term meaning 'destroyer of enemies'. The enemies are the inner desires and passions. It is also a synonym for Jina. An Arhat is a liberated soul who has not yet left his fleshly body, but, as an omniscient being, is 'worthy of worship'.


Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.

Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.


Karmic influx. Karma is a very subtle matter that is attracted to the soul by actions. Āsrava refers to the beginning of the process, when karma enters into the soul and becomes bound with it.


'Karmic bondage'. This refers to the period when the karma has entered the soul and lies dormant before producing its effect or coming to fruition.


The religion founded by Buddha, often called the 'Middle Way' between the self-indulgence of worldly life and the self-mortification of a very ascetic way of life. Buddhism has similarities to Jain belief but some significant differences. For example, Buddhists hold that the world around us is a short-lived illusion and do not believe in individual, everlasting souls.


An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:

  • bālāvabodha
  • bhāṣya
  • cūrṇi
  • niryukti
  • ṭīkā.


A belief system about the universe that covers its origin, structure and parts, and natural laws and characteristics such as space, time, causality and freedom.


A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.


Sanskrit for 'meditation', one of the six internal austerities or tapas that help purify the soul of karma. Meditation is deep thought about religious doctrine or mental focus on spiritual matters over a period of time. An important part of many religions, meditation is especially important in Jain belief because it forms key elements of religious practice and spiritual development.


'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.


A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.


Substance. There are two main types of substances in the universe in Jain belief:

  • jīva – non-material, sentient substance
  • ajīva – substance without soul.

The second type is divided into pudgala – non-sentient matter – and the non-material substances of:

  • ākāśa – space
  • dharma-dravya – principle of motion
  • adharma-dravya – principle of rest
  • kāla – time.

The last is not always included in this category.


Type of destiny, mode of rebirth in the cycle of rebirth. There are four:

  • god
  • human being
  • animal
  • infernal being.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.


Quality, positive point.


The 14 stages of spiritual development the soul passes through to gain liberation from the cycle of birth. The stages go from the state of delusion to the state of omniscience without activity, which is reached just before death of the body. When the body dies after the soul has attained the 14th stage, the soul instantly becomes liberated – a siddha.


'Self control'. There are three types of restraint relating to this:

  • mind - manas
  • speech - vacas
  • body - kāya.

The guptis are intended to minimise using the mind, body or speech for spiritually unimportant purposes or even aimlessly.


The most widely spoken group of languages in India, originating in the northern part of the subcontinent. Local dialects and Hindi languages are spoken all over northern India and in surrounding countries. Standard Hindi is used in administration by the central government of India, along with English.


The majority faith in India, often called Sanātana Dharma or Eternal Law. With no single named founder, Hinduism has a pantheon of gods and a range of different beliefs. Most Hindu traditions revere the Veda literature but there is no single system of salvation or belief, although many Hindus believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Large Hindu communities exist in southern Asia, with smaller groups across the world.


Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.


A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.


Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.


Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:

  • negative – deriving from harmful acts
  • positive – arising from beneficial actions.

Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.


Set of specialised treatises in Prākrit dealing with the doctrine, process and categories of karma. Their style is concise and mnemonic and they have given birth to many commentaries.


'Passion' that causes activity, which results in new karma binding to the soul. It must be eliminated by restraints or austerities so the soul can be liberated. Passion may be attraction – rāga – or aversion – dveṣa – and has degrees of intensity. There are traditionally four passions:

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

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā – 'soul-quest'.


Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge, where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.


One who has attained omniscience. A kevalin is different from a Jina in that he does not teach the path of liberation to others.


Karmic stain, the colour of which indicates a soul’s degree of purity. There are traditionally six colours:

  • kṛṣṇa – black
  • nīla – blue
  • kāpota – ‘pigeon-colour’, usually grey
  • tejas – ‘fiery’, usually red or yellow
  • padma – ‘lotus colour, usually yellow or pink
  • śukla – white.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.


One of the major works of Indian literature, this epic poem revolves around a legendary battle between two camps within the same family, the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas. Fusing Jain values into the story, Jain versions of the Mahābhārata also include biographies of the 22nd Jina Neminātha or Lord Nemi and his cousin Kṛṣṇa, who is identified with the Hindu god. The Jain Mahābhāratas cast the leading figure of Kṛṣṇa and other characters in the tale as some of the 'great men' of Jain Universal History.

Makkhali Gośāla

An enemy of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. The Śvetāmbaras claim Gośāla was Mahāvīra's disciple, who later joined the Ājīvka mendicants and battled with Mahāvīra. The Digambaras say he was a follower of Pārśva, the 23rd Jina, who wanted to become Mahāvīra's chief disciple. When he was rejected he set up his own mendicant community spreading the teachings of the Ājīvka movement.


A method of classifying an embodied 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.


The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.


A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.


Hell. There are seven levels of hells in the lower world of Jain cosmology.


A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.


Matter. One of the five insentient material substances of dravya that make up the universe along with the sentient substance, jivastikaya.


Sanskrit for a 'right or good action'. Similar to a merit in Buddhism, it helps to reduce karma.


Carefulness, which has five aspects. Ascetics can reduce accidental violence by being careful and observing rules in these five areas:

  • motion – īryā
  • speech – bhāṣā
  • cooking, eating and begging for food – eṣaṇā
  • lifting and placing items, moving things – ādānanikśepaṇa
  • disposing of bodily waste – pariṣṭhāpana.


A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.


Reality or truth. This is very important to Jains and the satya-vrata is the second of the mendicant's Five Great Vows and the lay person's Five Lesser Vows.


Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.


An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.


An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.


Duration, especially of karman.


A title for the leader of a religious order among the Śvetāmbaras. It is a higher position than ācārya.


'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.


Extremely famous Jain holy text written in Sanskrit in perhaps the fifth century CE. Śvetāmbaras call the author Umāsvāti while Digambaras know him as Umāsvāmin. Going into the principles of karma in ten chapters, it discusses the principles and the reality of existence in a concise style – sūtra. The Tattvārtha-sūtra is a key text, fundamental to all Jain sects. Its title is often translated into English as That Which Is.


The highest of the three worlds in Jain cosmology, the home of the various types of gods.


An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.




A category of deities that lives between the first hell and the earth. There are eight types of Vyantara. They are the second type of gods and are recognisable by their various symbols.


Spiritual discipline. But Jains also use it to mean an ‘activity’ that produces vibrations.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.

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