Article: Images of the universe

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Cosmic man

This manuscript painting shows the three worlds of the Jain universe in the form of a human figure. The lower world of the hells is the lower half of the cosmic man – loka-puruṣa – 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 best-known image of Jain cosmology is probably the cosmic man – loka-puruṣa. This shows the three worlds of the Jain universe in a convention dating back to the early medieval period.

The three worlds of the Jain universe is the area where souls travel on their spiritual journey to omniscience and salvation. The journey is in the form of a continuous cycle of rebirth, in which souls are born in various conditions and in different worlds according to the karma they have collected over previous lives.

The cosmic man is a stylised human figure divided into three parts, each standing for one of the three worlds. Always presented from the front, the cosmic man's three elements represent the three worlds as follows:

  • the lower pyramid of the area below his waist represents the lower world – adho-loka – which has seven levels, indicating the seven hells
  • his waist symbolises the middle world – madhya-loka
  • the upside-down pyramid that is his torso denotes the upper world – ūrdhva-loka – with the various levels standing for the different heavens.

There is a white crescent moon on the cosmic man’s forehead. This is the symbol of the siddha-śilā, where liberated souls or siddhas live at the peak of all the worlds in eternal joy.

The middle world at the cosmic man’s waist is the smallest world. Even so, it is the most significant place during the spiritual development of the soul because it is the only spot where human beings can live. Indeed, humans can be born only in a small area in the middle world, called the Two and A Half Continents. Only souls born in the human condition can be liberated from the cycle of birth.

Snakes and ladders

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

Understanding the three worlds of the Jain universe is a crucial part of grasping Jain religious beliefs such as the soul, karma, the cycle of birth, omniscience and liberation. A clear way to show how the souls move around the three worlds during their spiritual development is an early version of the snakes and ladders board game, which children play in the West.

The Western game is full up of ups and downs for the competing players, controlled by chance in the form of rolls of dice. The Jain version of snakes and ladders captures the uncertain progress of spiritual development in a similar way. Souls climb up or slide down from one world to another according to their behaviour.

The game echoes the spiritual journey of each soul on the way to eventual liberation from the cycle of birth. The soul is born in different conditions in one of the three worlds depending on its balance of karma. The karma is gathered according to behaviour in earlier lives. More positive karma than negative karma results in a birth in a good condition in a higher world or even, ideally, as a human being in the middle world. Only human beings have the chance to gain perfect knowledge and then to attain liberation. Spiritual development is long and difficult and the soul will probably experience births in all of the four conditions in all areas of the three worlds over its journey (Topsfield 1985 and 2006).

Modern visualisations of the universe

New ways of presenting the Jain idea of the universe confirm the contemporary importance of this distinctive conception in the Jain faith. The continuing desire to translate cosmological theories into forms that will be more widely understood than lengthy, often technical writings has led to more recent developments such as illustrated editions and architectural models.

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