Article: Jain universe

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Siddha-śilā

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

Siddha-śilā
Image by Anishshah19 © CC-BY-3.0

The liberated souls or siddha live in the siddha-śilā – 'crystal rock' – at the very top of the three worlds.

Freed from the cycle of birth, the liberated souls float up to the siddha-śilā, where they have absolute knowledge and live in perfect rapture.

Passing on cosmological theories

Children in an orphanage in Bhuj, Gujarat, listen to Sadhvi Shilapiji. The nun sits on a platform so they can all see and hear her. Traditionally, a senior mendicant sits on a low platform to pass on the teachings to lay people or junior ascetics.

Children listening to a nun
Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta

Grasping traditional notions about the universe is so central to understanding the main religious principles of the Jain faith that there has always been a strong history of passing on these ideas in art and writing. This falls into two main categories – artwork and written texts.

Images of the universe are especially important as a means of spreading knowledge of cosmology. These illustrate cosmological concepts such as the Two and A Half Continents in highly detailed, frequently beautiful diagrams. The repetitive structure of the universe is very noticeable in such maps.

Written sources of Jain cosmology may be divided into various types. The most important is the scriptural source, the second is popular stories and finally there are copious references to cosmology in various works. The scriptural writings may be dedicated cosmological texts that go into the subject in exhaustive detail or feature elements of cosmology as important parts of the work.

The various Jain sects broadly agree on theories of cosmology but the two main groupings of Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras differ in certain areas. Though they have developed separate textual traditions, both sects support the religious authority of the Tattvārtha-sūtra, which is a key Jain text with a long section on cosmology. This underscores the crucial part of cosmological theory in the basic tenets of Jain belief.

Jain cosmology and modern science

Most contemporary Jains hold one of the following attitudes towards resolving traditional cosmological beliefs with modern science. They may:

  • believe that some later scientific discoveries can be found in traditional teachings
  • ignore scientific theories, holding that only the Jain tradition is right
  • continue to learn and teach Jain cosmology for its own sake without rejecting modern science.

The majority of Jains probably takes the last position.

As a minority living in a non-Jain environment, Jain followers have always been open to innovations and new techniques to give their faith a higher profile. Thus it has been suggested that the interest in cosmographical literature that can be detected in the 17th century 'may have been a response to new geographical and astronomical knowledge, which had been brought to India by Muslims and Christians, who were present at the Mughal courts' (Granoff 2009: 52, following Dundas). This is highly likely as prominent Jain religious leaders were at the courts of the Mughal emperors Akbar and Jahangir and were thus exposed to new knowledge and fresh ways of sharing it.

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Related Manuscripts

Related Manuscript Images

  • Table and text

    Table and text

    With Gujarati commentary. Victoria and Albert Museum. IS. 35-1971. Śrīcandra. 18th century

  • Parable of the tree

    Parable of the tree

    British Library. Or. 13454. Śrīcandra. 1644

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