Contributed by Nalini Balbir
The traditional Jain conception of the universe is extremely important in religious terms. It is a substantial focus of meditation, one of the 12 topics for reflection for Jains. These topics vary for members of the main Jain sects, with Digambaras counting it as the sixth topic while for Śvetāmbaras it is the fourth. For all Jain sects, however, meditating on the structure of the universe and the passage of souls through it in the cycle of births is a key part of spiritual development.
This religious significance means that information about the universe must be conveyed accurately. Cosmological details have been covered in many types of Jain writings through the centuries, such as specialised texts on cosmology, scripture and popular stories. Visual representations of the universe have also played a considerable role in communicating cosmological ideas. For example, Jain story literature of the eighth century onwards proves that portable paintings of the universe were used to help teach cosmology (Cort in Granoff 2009: 43).
For the viewers, these paintings and the explanations that accompany them are the starting points of a spiritual commotion – saṃvega – that leads them to change their lives, for instance by renouncing the world and deciding to become ascetics.
The two chief visual forms for depictions of the universe are paintings in manuscripts and large, distinctively Jain pictures called paṭas. Favourite paṭa subjects include the:
More lately, illustrations in book editions of cosmological works have continued the first tradition. A newer development of creating three-dimensional models has become popular over recent decades, including temples with cosmological themes.
Mount Meru, Jambū-dvīpa and Lavaṇa-samudra
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
Paintings in manuscripts are a traditional way of showing the universe in visual form. Just as printed volumes have replaced handwritten and hand-painted manuscripts, so illustrations in book editions have become perhaps the main contemporary visual representation of the Jain universe.
Visual aids in manuscripts discussing cosmology have probably always been a big part of teaching. Small paintings of the universe were used to help teach cosmology as far back as the eighth century but no images survive that are earlier than the 12th to 14th centuries. This is because the vast majority of available Jain manuscripts date back to this period or later. No illustrated palm-leaf manuscript of any cosmological treatise seems to have been preserved. But there are numerous illustrated paper manuscripts, which appear to have been produced in large numbers in the 17th century.
Here illustration means a wide range of representations that may cover the corner of a page, part of a page or a full page, such as:
A lot of these manuscripts are aesthetically remarkable, although there are also some manuscripts of cosmological treatises that have no painting or have only charts drawn in black ink.
The written works that are most frequently illustrated are the:
Presenting the universe visually has another strong tradition in the form of the dedicated cosmological picture. Large cosmological paintings of approximately 100 x 100 cm square on cloth or paper, known as paṭas, are distinctively Jain. Often ornate and attractive, they illustrate the following subjects, in order of frequency, the:
Other cosmological elements or illustrations of different areas of the Jain universe may also be themes of these characteristically Jain paintings. The most famous is the cosmic man – loka-puruṣa. Another familiar visualisation is the Jain equivalent of the board game now known as snakes and ladders.
A paṭa is a large cloth painting of part of the Jain universe or a pilgrimage centre. These illustrations of the Jain universe portray striking and detailed patterns of concentric circles. These were often not correctly identified or even recognised as relating to Jain cosmology when they first reached the Western art market in the early 1980s. They were often called maṇḍalas, as Tibetan paintings are. Examples of this confusion are still widespread on the web.
The paṭas were produced mainly in western India, in Gujarat and Rajasthan. This area is one of the strongholds of Śvetāmbara Jainism. The paintings sometimes have a colophon containing information about the place and date of composition. The earliest surviving paintings date back to the 15th century but they are few, with the majority having been created in the 18th to 20th centuries. It is likely that the fashion for sizeable religious paintings among Hindu communities in western India influenced Jains to create works of art on a large scale.
The universe paintings all have the same structure. They are like maps, which represent in picture form the long tradition of knowledge explained in the cosmological writings. Each painting aims to show the Jain universe accurately yet each is an individual piece. The artists demonstrate their creativity in the human, animal or divine figures that live in the areas depicted or in the floral ornamentation on the outer parts of the maps. The immense variety of beings in the Jain universe also accounts for the wealth of fantastic or semi-fantastic creatures found in the paintings.
As maps, these paintings also contain the names of rivers, mountains, towns and regions. In many cases, there are also numbers referring to the quantity or the dimensions of the elements shown. All this is generally written in small script so can be rather difficult to read.
Several of these paintings also contain separate texts in the four corners. These are descriptions with lists and measurements. They are written in the local languages, which are predominantly Gujarati, Rajasthani and Hindi, or in a mixture of them. The texts may include quotations from specialised treatises in Prakrit or Sanskrit.
Finally, descriptive texts may be supplemented by charts or diagrams found at the side of the main painting. These usually focus on certain aspects of the map.
Formally recognised leaders within a religion. The clergy often perform rituals, lead worship and instruct believers in religious principles. Lay men and women usually complete formal study before being initiated into the clergy. Clerics are active among lay believers, often living in society. They may have specific roles or ranks and may progress through a hierarchy to become top leaders of the religious organisation.
Found at the end of a Jain manuscript, a colophon is similar to the publication information at the beginning of modern books. It usually contains the title and sometimes details of the author, scribe and sponsor. The colophons of Jain manuscripts may also include the names of owners, readers and libraries where they have been stored. They frequently have decorative elements and very commonly contain a wish for good fortune for any readers. Written mainly by the scribes who copy texts, Jain colophons are often written in Sanskrit.
A belief system about the universe that covers its origin, structure and parts, and natural laws and characteristics such as space, time, causality and freedom.
The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.
The language that developed in Gujarat, in western India. It is also spoken in neighbouring states. Also a term for someone or something associated with or coming from Gujarat.
The most widely spoken group of languages in India, originating in the northern part of the subcontinent. Local dialects and Hindi languages are spoken all over northern India and in surrounding countries. Standard Hindi is used in administration by the central government of India, along with English.
Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
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.
Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.
Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:
Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.
Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge, where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.
The Lavaṇa-samudra or 'Salt Ocean' in Sanskrit is the first ocean in the Two and A Half Continents of the Middle World in Jain cosmology. It encircles the central continent, Jambū-dvīpa.
The universe in Jain cosmology, composed of the upper, middle and lower worlds. Human beings can live only in part of the Middle World.
The ‘cosmic man’ whose standing form represents the upper, middle and lower worlds in Jain cosmology. The middle world of human beings is found at his waist.
From the Sanskrit for 'circle', a maṇḍala is a geometric design that symbolises the spiritual universe. It is used in religious rituals and to help meditation.
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.
The cosmic axis of the Jain universe. Located in the middle of Jambū-dvīpa, the innermost continent of Jain cosmology, Mount Meru consists of three forested terraces, each smaller than the one below. When a Jina is born, the gods visit the earth, take him away and wash him in the standard birth ritual on the mountain. Jain temples often have a tower symbolising Mount Meru. Mount Meru is also the centre of the universe in traditional Buddhist and Hindu belief.
Hell. There are seven levels of hells in the lower world of Jain cosmology.
Decorative map of a holy site. A paṭa is used for 'mental pilgrimage' – bhāva-yātrā – during which devotees contemplate the paṭa and complete a pilgrimage by moving around the temples in their minds.
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.
The language spoken in Rajasthan, in north-western India, and surrounding states. It is also spoken in some parts of neighbouring Pakistan. Also the adjective describing people, things or places in or associated with the state of Rajasthan.
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:
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.
An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.
In Jain cosmology three worlds make up world space, where life exists:
These are frequently represented in art as the Cosmic Man, a human figure whose legs stand for the lower world, whose waist symbolises the middle world and whose torso represents the upper world.
British Library. Or. 2116 ms. C. Śrīcandra. Perhaps 16th century
Victoria and Albert Museum. IS 6565. Unknown author. 1844