Article: The 'Three Worlds'

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
Hemacandra
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’.

Cycle of birth and types of beings

This painting from a manuscript depicts examples of plants and two-sensed beings. Throughout the cycle of birth, a soul takes birth in different types of body according to the karma that has stuck to it. Beings can be classed according to their senses.

Plants and two-sensed beings
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The intertwined relationship of karma and cosmology in Jainism is clear in the notion of the    three worlds and how souls move among these worlds over their cycles of births.

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.

Four types of beings

The soul can be reborn in four types of conditions in each of the three worlds. The state of birth depends on the karma that has become attached to the soul in previous lives.

The soul can be born in one of the following ways – gati – namely as:

  1. a human being – manuṣya-gati
  2. a heavenly being, living in the heavens – deva-gati
  3. an infernal being, living in the hells – naraka-gati
  4. an animal or plant – tiryag-gati.

Sense-beings

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.

This table is based on Śvetāmbara sources. Details of the Digambara tradition can be found in Jainendra Siddhānta-kośa. A comprehensive scholarly survey of both sects' sources is Kirfel 1920.

Sense-beings

Number of senses

Sense

Examples

1

  • touch
  • the most basic form of life – nigoda
  • plants
  • bodies made of earth, air, fire and water, some of them extremely minute and invisible to the human eye

2

  • touch
  • taste
  • worms
  • shells
  • conches
  • leeches

3

  • touch
  • taste
  • smell
  • various insects
  • ants

4

  • touch
  • taste
  • smell
  • sight
  • flies
  • mosquitoes
  • bees
  • moths

5

  • touch
  • taste
  • smell
  • sight
  • hearing
  • inhabitants of the hells
  • higher animals
  • human beings
  • gods
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