Article: The 'Three Worlds'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Classes of gods

The eight groups of Vyantara gods are shown in this painting from a manuscript. The Vyantara – Vyantaravāsīn – are semi-deities who live between the highest hell and the surface of the earth in traditional Jain cosmology.

Eight groups of Vyantara gods
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

It is important to note that not all heavenly beings, who can also be called gods or deities, live in the upper world. It would be wrong to automatically connect the concept of 'god' with that of heaven.

The connection between the four classes of gods and their dwelling place is provided in the table.

Types of deities and their dwelling places

Type of god

Dwelling place

Bhavanavāsin or Bhavanapati

under the earth, in palaces in the first hell

Vyantara

under the earth, in palaces and cities in the space between the first hell and the surface of the earth

Jyotiṣka or astral bodies, such as the sun and moon

middle world, between earth and sky

Vaimānika

upper world, in the various heavens

Cosmic man

Possibly dating back to the 16th century, this manuscript painting of the 'cosmic man' shows an elaborately dressed and jewelled human figure. The cosmic man – loka-puruṣa – represents the three worlds of the Jain universe. The lower world of the hells is

Cosmic man
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The different elements of the world space in the Jain universe are very frequently drawn as parts of a stylised figure of a man. Called the cosmic man, this diagram is probably the most widely known representation of the Jain universe. The name is often used in place of the term ‘the three worlds’.

A statement found in the fifth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures describes the shape of the world – loka – as broad at the bottom, narrowing towards the middle and gradually broadening again towards the top. The world is measured in length, breadth and height, in the unit known as ‘rope’ or rajju. The total height is 14 rajjus.

A good diagram of the cosmic dimensions and the representation of the three worlds is figure 7 in That Which Is.

In the early medieval period, the standard representation of the three worlds is the cosmic man – loka-puruṣa. He comprises the:

  • lower pyramid, representing the lower world – adho-loka – which is divided into seven levels, corresponding to as many hells
  • middle world – madhya-loka – at his waist
  • upside-down pyramid that is his torso, symbolising the upper world – ūrdhva-loka – which is divided into various levels that indicate the heavens.

Finally, liberated souls – siddha – live at the top of all the worlds in the siddha-śilā, signified by the white crescent moon on the cosmic man’s forehead.

The worlds are usually portrayed from a frontal view of the cosmic man, which emphasises that the middle world is the smallest of the three worlds. However, it is the most important from the spiritual point of view because it is the only part of the worlds where human beings can live.

Three worlds and the worlds in between

Each one of the three worlds is made up of several elements, all featuring noticeable repetition and symmetry.

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Related Manuscripts

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