Article: Jain universe

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Symmetrical, repetitive structure

This manuscript painting of the temples and trees on the three terraces of Mount Meru emphasises the symmetry and repetition that are hallmarks of Jain cosmology. Mount Meru is the cosmic axis, centre of the three worlds of the Jain universe

Temples and trees on Mount Meru
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The Jain universe is perfectly structured and ordered. One of its governing principles is symmetry and repetition, so that "To know one part is to know the whole" (Granoff 2009: 55). This universe is "a self-replicating composite" (Granoff 2009: 56). Examples of this recurring, symmetrical structure include:

  • how the various categories of deities are organised socially along the same principles as human societies, in which the ideal form of government is kingship, and so the gods and asuras are governed by kings – indras
  • how Airāvata, the northern region of the Jambū-dvīpa, is an exact replica of Bharata, the southern region

Mathematics and units of time and space

This detail of a manuscript page gives information about the distances between the suns and moons in the Jain triple world. Numbers and mathematics underlie the symmetry and repetition that are noticeable in traditional Jain cosmology.

Distances separating the suns and moons
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Jain cosmology is based on mathematics, both calculations and geometry formulae. Mathematics is an area of knowledge where the Jain contribution has been very substantial.

The Jain universe is thought of in terms of dimensions and quantities of units. The mathematics of the universe are discussed at length in philosophical and sacred literature, starting with definitions of time and space units. Jain thinkers have produced a vast vocabulary to describe and understand units of time and space, going from the smallest to the largest, beyond what can be imagined.

Components of Jain cosmology are classified in one of the following ways:

  • numerable – saṃkhyeya
  • innumerable – asaṃkhyeya
  • infinite – ananta.

The smallest unit of physical matter is the atom. Infinite combinations of atoms make up the smallest unit of measurement that can be counted. This is called the 'extremely fine'.

Similarly, the Jains have gone into great detail in analysing the extremely large or highly numerous (Plofker in Granoff 2009: 65ff.).

Religious purpose

Teaching cosmology is a specialist task, which mendicants mostly carry out. But learning is meant for all. Meditating on the universe and understanding how it is built and works are crucial steps to progressing spiritually on the way to salvation.

Part of the doctrinal idea of meditation, contemplating the universe is one of the 12 topics for reflection – anuprekṣā. Jains meditate on the structure of the universe as much as on transmigration, the circulation of the soul through the universe.

Souls move among different parts of the world depending on how they act when they are in a body. Karma and cosmology are therefore closely connected in Jain belief. Human beings are lucky enough to be born in a part of the world where their spiritual development is in their own hands. Truly understanding what the material universe is and realising that it is something different from the soul or one's spiritual essence is one of the main purposes of the study of cosmology.

The multitude of descriptions and classifications and the extremely large numbers found in Jain cosmology provoke a kind of dizziness. Their purpose is to underline the good fortune in being born a human being, a chance that should not be wasted. It is a rare opportunity because humans live in an extremely small fraction of the vast universe.

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