Article: Cycles of time

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The Jain concept of time is one of the most distinctive elements of Jain cosmological thought. It also demonstrates the repetitive and mathematical nature of Jain cosmology.

Time is endless and only exists in certain parts of 'world space' in Jain belief. In some areas it is a repeating cycle while in others it is not cyclical.

The current age is the fifth or unhappy stage – duṣamā – of a regressive cycle.

Lands of Action

Cyclical time is found only in some areas of the central continent of Jambū-dvīpa of Jain cosmology.

Jambū-dvīpa has several regions. In the Lands of Enjoyment people do not need to make any effort and can enjoy life. Here there is no cycle of time. However, in the Lands of Action, where human beings live and where they suffer and must work to live, time forms a repeating cycle.

Here a single cycle or kalpa is made up of two equal phases. Each phase or half-cycle has six periods of time, which vary in length. Each phase follows another without a break.

Cycle of time

In the part of the universe where human beings live, time moves in cycles. Each cycle has 12 parts of different length, moving through half-cycles where things gradually get worse – avasarpiṇi – and then gradually get better – utsarpiṇi. Then the cycle be

Cycle of time
Image by Anishshah19 © public domain

The cycle of time is traditionally represented as a wheel with 12 spokes, known as the Kālacakra. In the first phase – of six half-cycles – the quality of life gradually deteriorates while in the second one it slowly improves over the six periods.

In traditional Jain cosmology, time is endless and for humans is an unbroken sequence of cycles of time. Each cycle or kalpa is made up of two half-cycles or phases. Each half-cycle has six periods, lasting different lengths of time. Each of these periods of time is enormously long, far longer than a human lifetime, but has a fixed length.

In the first phase – of six half-cycles – the quality of life slowly worsens while in the second one it gradually gets better over the six periods. A full cycle of time therefore has 12 periods of time in total, half of them deteriorating, half of them improving.

The 'Descending Phase'

The Sanskrit term for 'descending phase' is avasarpiṇi. Also called the 'regressive half-cycle', it sees the gradual worsening of conditions over the six eras. Life gradually declines in terms of knowledge, lifespan, stature, pleasure, morality and spirituality. In this phase, the conditions begin at 'extremely happy' and get worse over the course of the epochs until they end at 'extremely unhappy'.

Descending cycle of time

English description

Sanskrit

Duration

extremely happy

suṣamā-suṣamā

4 crore of crore of sāgaropama

happy

suṣamā

3 crore of crore of sāgaropama

more happy than unhappy

suṣamā-duṣamā

2 crore of crore of sāgaropama

more unhappy than happy

duṣamā-suṣamā

1 crore of crore of sāgaropama

unhappy

duṣamā

21,000 years

extremely unhappy

duṣamā-duṣamā

21,000 years

In traditional Jain cosmology, time is endless and for humans is an unbroken sequence of cycles of time. Each cycle or kalpa is made up of two half-cycles or phases. Each half-cycle has six periods, lasting different lengths of time. Each of these periods of time is enormously long, far longer than a human lifetime, but has a fixed length.

In the first phase – of six half-cycles – the quality of life gradually declines while in the second one conditions steadily rise over the six periods. A full cycle of time therefore has 12 periods of time in total, half of them deteriorating, half of them improving.

The 'Ascending Phase'

The Sanskrit term for 'ascending phase' is utsarpiṇi. Also called the 'progressive half-cycle', it sees the gradual improvement of conditions over the six epochs. Life gradually gets better in terms of knowledge, lifespan, stature, pleasure, morality and spirituality. In this phase, the conditions begin at 'extremely unhappy' and are enhanced over the course of the eras until they end at 'extremely happy'.

Ascending cycle of time

English description

Sanskrit term

Duration

extremely unhappy

duṣamā-duṣamā

21,000 years

unhappy

duṣamā

21,000 years

more unhappy than happy

duṣamā-suṣamā

1 crore of crore of sāgaropama

more happy than unhappy

suṣamā-duṣamā

2 crore of crore of sāgaropama

happy

suṣamā

3 crore of crore of sāgaropama

extremely happy

suṣamā-suṣamā

4 crore of crore of sāgaropama

Each kalpa or cycle of time has two halves, each of six periods. One half-cycle is the 'ascending phase' – utsarpiṇi – while the other half is avarsarpiṇi or the 'descending phase'.

Liberation

This manuscript painting shows perfect beings that have been liberated from the cycle of birth and some of the ways of reaching liberation. The exalted status of the liberated souls in the crescent-shaped siddha-śilā is stressed by their ornate parasols.

Perfect beings and paths to liberation
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Liberation from the cycle of rebirth is only possible in the third and fourth epochs of each phase.

Liberation in these periods of each phase

English description

Sanskrit term

more unhappy than happy

duṣamā-suṣamā

more happy than unhappy

suṣamā-duṣamā

The current age is the fifth or unhappy stage – duṣamā – of a regressive cycle. It began soon after the death of Māhavīra, the 24th and final Jina of this era. Therefore human beings born in this stage cannot reach liberation.

Images

  • Cycle of time In the part of the universe where human beings live, time moves in cycles. Each cycle has 12 parts of different length, moving through half-cycles where things gradually get worse – avasarpiṇi – and then gradually get better – utsarpiṇi. Then the cycle begins again.. Image by Anishshah19 © public domain
  • Perfect beings and paths to liberation This manuscript painting shows perfect beings that have been liberated from the cycle of birth and some of the ways of reaching liberation. The exalted status of the liberated souls – siddha – in the crescent-shaped siddha-śilā is stressed by their ornate parasols, which symbolise royalty. Below, on earth, Śvetāmbara monks demonstrate some methods of progressing spiritually to enlightenment and then liberation, such as meditation and learning the scriptures.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Further Reading

Commentary on Tattvārtha Sūtra of Vācaka Umāsvāti
Pandit Sukhlalji
translated by K. K. Dixit
L. D. series; volume 44
L. D. Institute of Indology; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 1974

Full details

Steps to Liberation: 2500 Years of Jain Art and Religion
Jan van Alphen
Etnografisch Museum Antwerpen; Antwerp, Belgium; 2000

Full details

‘Une peinture cosmologique jaina déposée au Musée Guimet: texte et traduction’
Nalini Balbir
Bulletin d’Études Indiennes
volume 24–25
Association Française pour les Études Indiennes; Paris, France; 2006 to 2007

Full details

‘Le monde médian: une peinture cosmologique jaina sur tissu déposée au Musée Guimet’
Nalini Balbir
Arts Asiatiques
volume 64
École Française d’Extrême-Orient; Paris, France; 2009

Full details

Elements of Jaina Geography: The Jambūdvīpasaṃgrahaṇī of Haribhadra Sūri
Haribhadra
translated and edited by Frank van den Bossche
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 2007

Full details

Jain Cosmology
Colette Caillat
and Ravi Kumar
translated by R. Norman
Bookwise (India) Pct. Ltd; New Delhi, India; 2004

Full details

Essays on Jaina Art
Anand K. Coomaraswamy
edited by Richard J. Cohen
Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Manohar; New Delhi, India; 2003

Full details

Victorious Ones: Jain Images of Perfection
Phyllis Granoff
Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd and Rubin Museum of Art, New York; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India and New York, USA; 2009

Full details

‘Oceans, Islands and Sacred Mountains: Representations of Cosmic Geography in Jaina Art and Architecture’
Julia A. B. Hegewald
Cosmos: the Journal of the Traditional Cosmological Society
volume 16
Traditional Cosmological Society; 2000

Full details

‘Meru, Samavasaraṇa and Siṃhāsana: The Recurrence of Three-Tiered Structures in Jaina Cosmology, Mythology and Ritual’
Julia A. B. Hegewald
Kalhar (White Water-Lily): Studies in Art, Iconography and Archaeology of India and Bangladesh – Professor Enamul Haque Felicitation Volume
edited by Gerd R. Mevissen, Gourishwar Bhattacharya, Mallar Mitra and Sutapa Sinha
Kaveri Books; New Delhi, India; 2007

Full details

Jaina Temple Architecture in India: The Development of a Distinct Language in Space and Ritual
Julia A. B. Hegewald
Monographien zur Indischen Archäologie, Kunst und Philologie series; volume 19
Stiftung Ernst Waldschmidt, G+H Verlag; Berlin, Germany; 2009

Full details

Cosmology Old & New: Being a modern commentary on the fifth chapter of Tattvārthādhigama Sūtra
G. R. Jain
Jñānapīṭha Mūrtidevī granthamālā: English series; volume 5
Bhāratīya Jñānapīṭh Publication; New Delhi, India; 1991

Full details

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

Full details

‘Lokākāśa and Lokadhātu: A Comparison of Jain and Buddhist Cosmology’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
The Clever Adulteress and Other Stories: A Treasury of Jain Literature
edited by Phyllis Granoff
Mosaic Press; Oakville, Ontario, Canada; New York, USA; London, UK; 1990

Full details

Triṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra: Lives of the Sixty-three Illustrious Persons
Hemacandra
translated by Helen M. Johnson
Gaekwad's Oriental series; volume 2
Oriental Institute; Baroda, Gujarat, India; 1937

Full details

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

Full details

The Scientific Foundations of Jainism
K. V. Mardia
edited by Dayanand Bhargava
Lala Sunder Lal Jain Research series; volume 5
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 1996

Full details

Die Erlösungslehre der Jaina: Legenden, Parabeln, Erzählungen
translated and edited by Adelheid Mette
Insel Verlag; Berlin, Germany; 2010

Full details

The Peaceful Liberators
Pratapaditya Pal
Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Thames and Hudson; Los Angeles, California, New York USA and London, UK; 1994

Full details

Illustrated Jambudveep Prajnapti Sūtra
edited by Pravarttak Shri Mamar Muniji Maharaj, Amar Muni and Srichand Surana 'Saras'
Illustrated Agam series; volume 20
Padma Prakashan and Shree Diwakar Prakashan; New Delhi, India; 2006

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

Treasures of Jaina Bhandāras
Umakant Premanand Shah
L. D. series; volume 69
L. D. Institute of Indology; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 1978

Full details

Tiloyapannatti: Teaching on the Three Worlds
Yativṛṣabha
translated by Pandit Balchandra Shastri
edited by A. N. Upadhye and Hiralal Jain
Jaina Saṃskṛti Saṃrakshaka Sangha series
Jīvarāja Jaina Granthamālā; Solapur, Maharashtra, India; 2008

Full details

Glossary

Bhoga-bhūmi

'Lands of Enjoyment' in Sanskrit, where people do not need to make any effort because all their needs are met by wish-fulfilment trees. The Lands of Enjoyment are in Jambū-dvīpa, in the Middle World where humans live.

Jambū-dvīpa

The innermost island-continent in the Middle World, in Jain cosmology. It is divided into seven continents separated by six mountain ranges. It takes its name - 'Rose-Apple Continent' - from a rock formation that resembles a rose-apple tree, which is found on Mount Meru in the centre of the island.

Jñāna

'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:

  • mind-based and sensory knowledge – mati-jñāna
  • scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna
  • extra-sensory knowledge or clairvoyance – avadhi-jñāna
  • knowledge of others’ minds or telepathy – manaḥparyaya-jñāna
  • omniscience or absolute knowledge – kevala-jñāna.

With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.

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

Kāla

Time. One of the five insentient non-material substances that make up the universe along with the sentient substance, called jīvastikaya.

Karma-bhūmi

'Realm of action', used in Jain cosmology for the lands in the Middle World where people must work to live. However, here they can progress on the path of salvation. These lands are Bharata-kṣetra, Airāvata-kṣetra and Mahā-videha. However, Uttara-kuru and Deva-kuru in Mahā-videha are Lands of Pleasure or bhoga-bhūmi.

Mokṣa

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.

Saṃsāra

Cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth caused by karma binding to the soul as a result of activities. Only by destroying all karma can this perpetual cycle finish in mokṣa – liberation. The karma gained in life affects the next life, and even future lives, for example:

  • in which of the three worlds the life is lived out
  • which of four conditions – gati – the body takes, namely human, divine, hellish or as a plant or animal.

Sanskrit

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.

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