Article: The 'Three Worlds'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Other important continents

Kuṇḍala, the 12th continent in the middle world, is illustrated in this manuscript painting. It clearly demonstrates the importance of symmetry and repetition in Jain cosmology. The ring of mountains called Kuṇḍala in its centre is marked in yellow.

Continent of Kuṇḍala
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The Nandīśvara-dvīpa is the 15th continent and is significant from the religious angle. It is the place where the gods come together to celebrate festivities. It contains 52 main sanctuaries, 13 in each of the four directions. The temples are described at length in various treatises on cosmology. At the four cardinal points of the continent stand the four ‘Antimony Mountains’ – Añjanagiri – which are crowned by sanctuaries of the siddhas. There are also four lakes called Nandā to the north, south, east and west of each of these mountains, making a total of 16 lakes. Between these lakes rise four pairs of mountains, known as the 32 Ratikara Mountains.

Stone models or slabs depicting the Nandīśvara-dvīpa are often found in Jain temples and are worshipped. This is common especially among Digambaras.

The Kuṇḍala-dvīpa, the 12th continent from the centre, has a ring of mountains called Kuṇḍala in its centre. Therefore the island consists of an internal and an external ring and is often called ‘Ring’ – Kuṇḍala.

Gods in the middle world

This painting from a manuscript shows the Jyotiṣka gods. Astral bodies such as the suns – sūrya – and moons – candra – make up the third class of gods. These luminous bodies cast light over the middle world of humans.

Jyotiṣka gods
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The third class of gods, the Jyotiṣkas – astral or luminous bodies – is present in the middle world. They live in a space that extends in width over the immeasurable expanses of the continents – dvīpas – and oceans – samudras – and in height from 110 yojanas to the highest limit of the middle world, between 790 and 900 yojanas above the foot of Mount Meru.

These luminous bodies are, from the lowest to the highest:

  • the suns – sūryas
  • the moons – candras
  • the planets – grahas
  • the constellations – nakṣatras
  • the stars – tārās.

The Jyotiṣkas in the Two and A Half Continents that form the world of humans are always on the move, so the light they cast changes all the time. They move around Mount Meru. Their palaces move on their own, but there are certain gods who touch them from below and raise them as if to support them and move them about. These gods have animal forms.

The Jyotiṣkas that are outside the world of humans, however, are static. Therefore the strength of their light never changes and their colour is always yellow.

Upper world – the heavens

This manuscript painting depicts the gods' lives of enjoyment in the heavens. The costly furnishings, jewels and rich clothing of the beautiful gods underline the pleasures of the topmost of the three worlds of Jain cosmology.

Heavenly pleasures
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Those who live in the various heavenly realms have no suffering, instead leading lives of pleasures and happiness. But it is important to remember that these people are in the world of rebirths and transmigration. Even though they are gods – as opposed to humans or animals, because they live in the heavens – they are not liberated souls. Therefore rebirth as a god cannot be an ideal for Jains.

Deities in the upper world are divided into various categories. Those in the higher categories are progressively more spiritually advanced. There are three main groups, known as the:

  • gods of the paradises
  • gods of the neck
  • unsurpassables.

The last two groups are called the gods of ‘beyond heavens’ or ‘beyond ranks’ – kalpātīta – and are also beyond any sexual desire, which is a form of attachment.

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