Contributed by Nalini Balbir
The Jain conception of the universe is very complex, composed of symmetrical, repeating patterns based on mathematical principles. Central religious concepts such as the soul, karma, the cycle of birth and spiritual progression are tied into the structure of the universe and the cycle of time, so understanding cosmology is a key element of the Jain tradition.
The Jain universe is made up of two kinds of space. World space – loka-ākāśa – is limited, though enormous, and is where the three worlds of life are. Outside it stretches the infinite expanse of non-world space – aloka-ākāśa.
The universe is filled with three worlds, which are divided into lower, middle and upper.
'Sermon on the Universe' in the Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacarita
translated by Johnson, page 104
The three worlds within world space are where all the souls are. They move through the lower, middle and upper worlds on their spiritual journey and at the end dwell above the worlds in eternal bliss in the siddha-śilā. This transmigration is called the cycle of birth. Where the souls are born and their condition in that birth depends on their karma, which comes from behaviour in earlier lives. Jains hope to advance spiritually to omniscience and then liberation from the cycle of birth so their souls can reach the siddha-śilā.
Understanding and meditating upon Jain cosmological theories are necessary parts of spiritual development. As essential elements of the religion, these complex notions have been passed down since the earliest times in oral, literary and visual art forms. The best-known diagram of world space is the cosmic man. This phrase is often used instead of the term ‘the three worlds’.
Souls are born into a succession of various bodies in different parts of the worlds. There are four states – gati – into which they can be born. The world into which they are born and the body they have in that birth or lifetime depend on their spiritual condition. This is largely determined by the karma that has become attached to the soul over the course of the previous life and also, to some extent, the karma from previous lives. A soul may therefore be born in a hell in one rebirth and in a heaven in the next – it may not move among the different worlds in a straightforward way, going either all up in succession or all down in succession.
The more advanced a soul’s spirituality, the higher the world into which it is born. However, being born a human being in the middle world is better than being born into one of the heavens of the upper world. This is because only human beings can reach omniscience, which is a late, necessary stage on the way to liberation, and human beings can live only in the middle world.
Living beings can be classified in various ways, based on their state and on the number of senses they have. Certain types of beings are also categorised into different groups.
The soul can be born in one of the following ways – gati – namely as:
All beings are also classified into groups according to their number of sense-organs, from one to five. The following hierarchy is a summary of extremely detailed sub-classifications and lists, based on Lecture 36, 'On Living Beings and Things Without Life' in the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra.
Number of senses
The Hindi phrase for 'Two and A Half Continents' describes the only part of the universe where human beings live in the Middle World of Jain cosmology. It is made up of the central continent, Jambū-dvīpa, the second continent, Dhātakīkhaṇḍa, and Lavaṇa-samudra, the circular ocean that separates them. Kālodadhi is the ring of ocean around Dhātakīkhaṇḍa, dividing it from the 'half' continent, which is the inner part of the Puṣkara continent.
Sanskrit term meaning 'destroyer of enemies'. The enemies are the inner desires and passions. It is also a synonym for Jina. An Arhat is a liberated soul who has not yet left his fleshly body, but, as an omniscient being, is 'worthy of worship'.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.
Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future.
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.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
The second continent in the Middle World of Jain cosmology. Dhātakīkhaṇḍa forms part of the Two and A Half Continents where human beings live.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
Island or, by extension, continent, for instance Jambū-dvīpa, 'Rose-Apple Tree Continent'.
Quality, positive point.
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.
Sanskrit word for 'king' and the name of the king of the gods in the Saudharma heaven. Called Śakra by Śvetāmbaras and known as Saudharma to Digambaras, this deity is involved in all five auspicious moments – kalyāṇakas – in a Jina's life.
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.
The third class of gods, who are the astral or luminous bodies, such as the sun, moons, planets and stars. They live in the middle of the three worlds.
An auspicious moment in a Jina's life. There are five pañca-kalyāṇakas:
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.
To Jains the universe is composed of two types of space. A Sanskrit term meaning 'world space', loka-ākāśa is a vast but limited area, where all humans, deities and all other forms of life live. Here the souls live and travel through the cycle of rebirths. Outside it is 'non-world space' – aloka-ākāśa.
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.
A plant noted for its beautiful flowers, which has symbolic significance in many cultures. In Indian culture, the lotus is a water lily signifying spiritual purity and detachment from the material world. Lotuses frequently feature in artwork of Jinas, deities, Buddha and other holy figures.
In Jain cosmology, one of the Lands of Action or karma-bhūmi in the first continent, Jambū-dvīpa, in the middle world of humans. Mahā-videha consists of 32 provinces between the Niṣadha and the Nīla mountain ranges. Thanks to the repetitive nature of Jain cosmology, there are also two Mahā-videhas on each of the continents of Dhātakīkhaṇḍa and Puṣkara-dvīpa.
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.
The 15th continent in the Middle World of Jain cosmology. It is religiously important as the place where gods come together to celebrate festivities in its 52 temples. The Nandīśvara-dvīpa is often carved in stone models or slabs found in Jain temples, where they are worshipped. This is especially common among Digambaras.
Hell. There are seven levels of hells in the lower world of Jain cosmology.
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
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:
The most sacred area of a temple, church or religious building, often where the image of a deity is housed and worshipped. An outdoor space that is associated with a deity may also be considered a sanctuary.
An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.
An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.
The realm of liberated souls, at the apex of the universe. All the liberated souls – siddha – dwell there in eternal bliss.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
Extremely famous Jain holy text written in Sanskrit in perhaps the fifth century CE. Śvetāmbaras call the author Umāsvāti while Digambaras know him as Umāsvāmin. Going into the principles of karma in ten chapters, it discusses the principles and the reality of existence in a concise style – sūtra. The Tattvārtha-sūtra is a key text, fundamental to all Jain sects. Its title is often translated into English as That Which Is.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.
A measure of distance equal to about 14 kilometres.
British Library. Or. 2137 ms. B. Śrīcandra
With commentary by Pārśva-candra. British Library. Add. 26374. Ratnaśekhara. 1769