Article: Jain universe

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The three worlds

This manuscript painting of the cosmic man – loka-puruṣa – shows the triple worlds as a human figure. The cosmic man's bottom half is made up of the lower world of the hells while the upper world of the heavens forms his upper body.

Cosmic man
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The world space where all the souls live is divided into three worlds, frequently represented as the cosmic man. Karma is closely connected with cosmology in the Jain tradition, so being familiar with the complex nature of the Jain universe is essential to fully understand Jain belief.

The souls move through the three worlds in a cycle of rebirth which only ends when a perfect spiritual state is reached. When a soul has progressed spiritually far enough to reach omniscience or perfect knowledge, it has no karma and can break free of the cycle of births, becoming a liberated soul or siddha. In the meantime, the cycle of birth takes place throughout the three worlds.

Within world space, the three worlds are:

  • the lower world, labelled adho-loka – formed of seven hells
  • the middle world, called madhya-loka – the only place where human beings live
  • the upper world, known as ūrdhva-loka – comprising the heavens.

There is also an area at the top of the worlds where the liberated souls live in neverending bliss, called the siddha-śilā.

Cycle of rebirth, karma and four types of being

The Western game of snakes and ladders is probably based on a Jain visualisation of the unsteady progress of the soul through the cycle of rebirth. This 19th-century chart shows the uncertain path of spiritual development, involving many ups and downs.

Snakes and ladders
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

All souls move around the worlds through the cycle of birth, in which they are born in different states in the various areas of the three worlds. Souls are born into one of four states. Which state and which world depends on their spiritual condition.

The spiritual state of a soul stems from its karma, which derives from actions in its previous life and, to some degree, on karma from lives before that one. Therefore a soul may be born into very different conditions in successive lives. For example, a soul born in a heaven in one life may behave so badly that it gains huge amounts of very negative karma and is then reborn in a hell in its next life. There it will suffer great torments and find it extremely hard to get enough positive karma to rise to a higher body in a better world.

However, just as spiritual progress is not simple, so the soul’s movement around the different worlds is not straightforward. Spiritual improvement is a very gradual, difficult process and involves many births in many different areas of the worlds in a sequence that is neither all forward progress nor all downward spiral.

The soul is born in one of the following states – gati:

  • a human being – manuṣya-gati
  • a heavenly being, living in the heavens – deva-gati
  • an infernal being, living in the hells – naraka-gati
  • an animal or plant – tiryag-gati.

Souls that have a greater level of spiritual development are born into higher worlds. Even so, being born into a heaven is worse than being born into the middle world as a human being. Only souls born as humans can reach omniscience and thus liberation of the soul, and humans are born only in the middle world.

Although the beings in the upper world are heavenly beings or gods, not all gods and goddesses live in the upper world. Deities live in all of the worlds, and also in a space between the highest hell and the surface of the earth, just below the middle world of humans.

Cosmic Man

The three worlds are usually depicted in a diagram known as the Cosmic Man – loka-puruṣa. The stylised body of a human figure is divided into three parts, each standing for the one of the three worlds. His bottom half symbolises the lower world, his waist represents the middle world and his torso is equivalent to the upper world. The siddha-śilā is represented by a crescent moon on his forehead.

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