Article: Jain universe

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The universe for Jains is an elaborate system that shares features with other Indian traditions. For instance, the repetition of identical structures is also a characteristic of Buddhist cosmology.

But, on the whole, Jain cosmology is very distinctive. Its chief distinguishing principles are:

  • the absence of a creator god
  • the everlasting and non-originating nature of the universe
  • two types of space – 'world space' and 'non-world space'
  • a perfect, orderly structure characterised by symmetry and repetition

The Jain conception of the universe has been handed down over the centuries and is a good example of a scholarly teaching that is widespread among lay believers. Grasping Jain cosmology is vital to understanding the Jain religion because it shows several key concepts working together, including the:

  • notion of a physical soul moving through the cycle of rebirth to eventual omniscience
  • cyclical nature of time
  • interconnectedness of the universe
  • importance of symmetry, repetition and balance.

Progressing spiritually requires understanding and meditating upon these cosmological theories.

World space – loka-ākāśa – has three worlds, through which souls move on their spiritual journey. The lower world, the middle world and the upper world are crowned by a realm where the liberated souls are together in everlasting bliss. Souls move through the worlds according to their karma, which derives from behaviour. Jains hope to develop spiritually to finally reach omniscience, then attain liberation and live in the siddha-śilā.

Passing on accurate understanding of the complexities of traditional cosmology is therefore very important to Jains. The main way of communicating these has been through various kinds of writings on the universe, including scriptures, cosmological treatises and popular tales. However, a solid tradition of visual art developed from the earliest times and images of the universe still form a significant part of Jains' artistic heritage and religious understanding today. A common cosmological theme in art is the three worlds and the siddha-śilā of liberated souls, which are frequently pictured as parts of the figure of a human being, known as the 'cosmic man'.

The two main sects of Jain belief, the Śvetāmbara and Digambara, agree on the structure of the universe and its elements but differ on many names and numbers. Perhaps a bigger potential area of difficulty is reconciling traditional theories with modern science. It is likely that the majority of contemporary Jains takes a practical approach and accepts scientific developments while continuing to study traditional cosmological theories for religious reasons.

General principles

Jain cosmology has several distinguishing features that mark it out from other Indian notions of the universe, time and the human place within it. The first is the timeless nature of the universe. Second, there are two kinds of space within the Jain universe – world space and non-world space. Next, repetition and symmetry are crucial elements to the patterns of the universe. Perhaps underlining this factor, mathematics offers an important method of understanding and categorising the complexities of the universe and time.

No beginning and no end

The universe is without beginning and without end, it is without the characteristics of permanence, origination, and perishing. It was made by no one and is supported by no one. It is self-produced and, moreover, remains in space without support

Translation by Helen M. Johnson, 1937, pages 104 to 127

Thus the scholar-monk Hemacandra describes the universe in the 12th century. One of the most important points is that there is no creator who is involved at any stage in producing or running the world. This is a significant difference from Hindu belief, in which Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva have roles in creation, protection and destruction respectively.

World space and non-world space

Some types of living beings are illustrated in this manuscript painting. Over the course of the cycle of birth, a soul is born into various types of body according to the karma that has become attached to it. This painting shows examples of these beings.

Examples of types of living beings
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

To Jains the universe is composed of two types of space. World space – loka-ākāśa – is a vast but limited area, which is the focus of cosmology as covered in this article. Here all the souls live in the different body-forms they take according to their rebirths in the various worlds. Outside world space is the non‑world space – aloka-ākāśa – which is endless.

World space contains only insentient and sentient substances. There are three types of substances – dravyas – in world space.

The first type is the sentient substance – soul or jīva – while the second is an insentient substance, known as matter or pudgala.

The third group is composed of the insentient, non-material substances of:

  • motion – dharma
  • rest – adharma
  • space – ākāśa.

Some authorities include the substance of time – kāla.

Beings with one senseekendriya – can live anywhere in world space and are mobile but beings with more than one sense must live only in the three worlds of the trasa-nāḍī. Beings with more than one sense include humans, animals, hellish beings and heavenly beings.

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