Article: Images of the universe

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:

  • cosmic man
  • Two and A Half Continents – Aḍhāī-dvīpa
  • the first continent, Jambū-dvīpa.

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.

Manuscript illustrations

The paintings on this manuscript page feature the central continent of Jambū-dvīpa and the three peaks of Mount Meru. Jambū-dvīpa is the first continent of the Two and A Half Continents that make up the only areas human beings can live in the three worlds

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:

  • simple charts repeating or enhancing the text
  • diagrams
  • coloured maps
  • painting of scenes
  • symbols occupying the corner of a page or a full page.

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:

  • Laghu-kṣetra-samāsa
  • Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna
  • Loka-prakāśa
  • Trailokyadīpikā by Indravāma-deva.

Large cosmological paintings

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:

  • larger series of successive continents.

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 manloka-puruṣa. Another familiar visualisation is the Jain equivalent of the board game now known as snakes and ladders.

Paintings of the universe

This example of a large cosmological painting on cloth – paṭa – depicts the Aḍhāī-dvīpa – Two and A Half Continents – of the Jain universe. Dating from the 18th to 19th centuries, this paṭa is an important way of sharing information about Jain cosmology.

World of mortals
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

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.

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.

Illustrated books

Illustrated editions of Jain cosmological texts are the direct continuation of the older manuscript tradition. They contain the text along with charts, diagrams and paintings.

It could be expected that old manuscript paintings are simply reproduced in these new editions but mostly these paintings have been done anew with bright colours in accordance with contemporary Indian taste. An instance is the edition of the Śvetāmbara canonical treatise, Jambū-dvīpa-prajñapti, produced by the Jain monk Pravarttak Shri Amar Muniji Maharaj in 2006.

Architectural models

A model of Mount Meru in the temple of Pārśvanātha at Mount Girnar in Gujarat. The cosmic axis, three-tiered Meru is the centre of the triple world of Jain cosmology. Three-dimensional models of parts of the Jain universe are frequently found in temples.

Temple model of Mount Meru
Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kimiya

Three-dimensional models that represent the main parts of the Jain universe or the universe as a whole are often found either as small- or middle-size models inside temples or large independent structures.

These smaller models often show the most common elements or depictions of the universe, namely:

Large models

This 35-metre-high model of Mount Meru is found in the Jain Triple World Research Institute in Hastinapur. It sits in the centre of the first continent of Jambū-dvīpa, some 60 metres across, with small structures representing the mountain ranges.

Three-dimensional Mount Meru and Jambū-dvīpa
Image by Vaibhav Jain / Jainvaibhav1307 © CC BY 3.0

Since the 1980s large-scale independent structures of Jain cosmology have been built in India. These focus chiefly on three-dimensional models of Jambū-dvīpa.

Under the leadership of the Digambara nun Āryikā Jñānamati, a large model of the Jambū-dvīpa is an innovation in the Jain pilgrimage place of Hastinapur in Haryana. It is part of the Jain Trilok Shodh Samsthan or 'Jain Triple World Research Institute', which is housed on a large campus on the edge of the small town. It was started in the 1980s and was supported by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who participated in several of the launch events.

This Jambū-dvīpa is an interactive structure around which the visitor can walk.

There one sees the central continent of Jambūdvīpa in the form of a large disc of about 60 metres in diameter. It is filled with small stone structures representing mountains and other components. It is surrounded by the Lavaṇasamudra in the form of actual water, where one can ride a boat. At the centre is Mount Meru represented as a tower about 35 metres high, which one can climb up.

Hegewald 2009: 38

In Palitana in Gujarat, the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka monk Abhaya-sāgara has overseen the recent establishment of a place called Jambūdvīpa eṭle Samyagdarśan tīrth or 'Jambū-dvīpa, Which is the Sacred Place of Right Faith'. The aim of the project is to teach visitors more about Jain cosmology.

The main structure represents the continent of Jambū-dvīpa, with a high tower at the centre symbolising Mount Meru. The ocean Lavaṇa-samudra is filled with scattered sculptures of aquatic animals. All around this structure the walls are covered with posters in Hindi that explain details of the Jain universe, such as the measurements and shapes of the various components.

Images

  • Mount Meru, Jambū-dvīpa and Lavaṇa-samudra The paintings on this manuscript page feature the central continent of Jambū-dvīpa and the three peaks of Mount Meru. Jambū-dvīpa is the first continent of the Two and A Half Continents that make up the only areas human beings can live in the three worlds. It has various regions, mountains, lakes and rivers, marked out by symmetrical coloured lines. The cosmic axis of Mount Meru is the yellow ciricle in the middle. Around Jambū-dvīpa is the circular ocean, Lavaṇa-samudra. The eight tusk-shaped promontories jutting into the ocean and the sets of pots in the four cardinal directions can be clearly seen.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • World of mortals This example of a large cosmological painting on cloth – paṭa – depicts the Aḍhāī-dvīpa – Two and A Half Continents – of the Jain universe. Human beings can live only in this part of the vast universe. Dating from the 18th to 19th centuries, this paṭa is an important way of passing on information about Jain cosmology, which is vital for spiritual development.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • 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. The middle world of humans at his waist is represented by Jambū-dvīpa, the ‘Rose-Apple Continent’. The crescent moon of the siddha-śilā, home of liberated souls, is on the cosmic man's forehead.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • 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. Depending on its karma, the soul takes birth in different states in any one of the three worlds. This 19th-century chart clearly shows that the path of spiritual development is uncertain and difficult, and may involve many ups and downs.. Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Temple model of Mount Meru A model of Mount Meru in the temple of Pārśvanātha at Mount Girnar in Gujarat. The cosmic axis, three-tiered Meru is the centre of the triple world of Jain cosmology. Three-dimensional models of parts of the Jain universe are frequently found in temples.. Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kimiya
  • Three-dimensional Mount Meru and Jambū-dvīpa This 35-metre-high model of Mount Meru is found in the Jain Triple World Research Institute in Hastinapur. It sits in the centre of the first continent of Jambū-dvīpa, with small structures representing the mountain ranges. Some 60 metres across, Jambū-dvīpa is surrounded by the ocean of Lavaṇa-samudra, on which visitors can take a boat trip. Three-dimensional structures of parts of the Jain universe offer a popular way of passing on traditional cosmology. . Image by Vaibhav Jain / Jainvaibhav1307 © CC BY 3.0

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

‘The Indian Game of Snakes and Ladders’
Andrew Topsfield
Artibus Asiae
volume 46: 3
Museum Rietberg Zürich; Zürich, Switzerland; 1985

Full details

‘Snakes and Ladders in India: Some Further Discoveries’
Andrew Topsfield
Artibus Asiae
volume 66: 1
Museum Rietberg Zürich; Zürich, Switzerland; 2006

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

Clergy

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.

Colophon

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.

Cosmology

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.

Gujarāt

The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.

Gujarati

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.

Hindi

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.

Hindu

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.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

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.

Jīva

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.

Karma

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:

  • negative – deriving from harmful acts
  • positive – arising from beneficial actions.

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.

Kevala-jñāna

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.

Lavaṇa-samudra

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.

Loka

The universe in Jain cosmology, composed of the upper, middle and lower worlds. Human beings can live only in part of the Middle World.

Loka-puruṣa

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.

Maṇḍala

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.

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.

Mount Meru

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.

Naraka

Hell. There are seven levels of hells in the lower world of Jain cosmology.

Paṭa

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.

Prākrit

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.

Rajasthan

The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.

Rajasthani

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.

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.

Siddha

An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.

Three worlds

In Jain cosmology three worlds make up world space, where life exists:

  • ūrdhva-loka – upper world
  • madhya-loka– middle world
  • adho-loka – lower world.

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.

Ūrdhva-loka

The highest of the three worlds in Jain cosmology, the home of the various types of gods.

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