Article: Writings on the universe

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The religious importance of understanding the traditional conception of the universe means that scholars and devotees have made strong efforts to pass on Jain cosmology. This is usually in written texts on cosmology but visual art has also been an important way to spread knowledge.

There are three main areas of Jain literature that are sources for details of cosmology. The scriptural source is the most significant, followed by popular stories and then numerous references in a variety of works.

On the whole, the diverse Jain religious groups agree on cosmology. Both main sects support the religious authority of the Tattvārtha-sūtra, which is a key Jain text with a long section on cosmology. This underscores the crucial part of cosmological theory in the basic tenets of Jain belief. There are some differences, however, between the beliefs of Śvetāmbara and Digambara Jains, which can be spotted in the textual traditions of each group.

Tattvārtha-sūtra

One of the most concise, comprehensive and earliest accounts of Jain cosmology is the Tattvārtha-sūtra. Written in Sanskrit in the first centuries of the Common Era and the only text considered an authoritative scripture by Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras alike, the Tattvārtha-sūtra summarises the main principles of Jain belief.

After describing the nature of the soul in chapter two, the Tattvārtha-sūtra gives the various places where it can take rebirth in chapters three and four.

Chapter three

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 third chapter of the Tattvārtha-sūtra goes into great detail about the lower and middle worlds of the Jain universe.

These areas are two of the regions of world space where souls move through the cycle of birth over many lifetimes. The souls are born into different bodies and lives throughout various parts of the Jain triple worlds according to the karma their behaviour has created in previous births.

The following table summarises the headings in chapter three.

The lower and middle worlds

The lower region: the seven infernal lands

The middle region

Dimensions and topography

Concentric islands and oceans

Strata and dwelling places for the infernal beings

Jambū Island’s geography

Physical make-up of the infernal beings

The seven continents of Jambū:

  • the mountains, lakes, lotuses and rivers
  • dimensions of continents and mountains
  • time cycles and conditions.

Sufferings of the infernal beings

Dhātakīkhaṇḍa Island

Lifespans of the infernal beings

Puṣkara Island

 

Islands of human habitation

 

The two classes of humans

 

Continents where spiritual effort is possible

 

Lifespans of humans

 

Lifespans of animals and lower organisms

Chapter four

This painting from a manuscript shows gods enjoying luxury and amusements in the heavens, the highest of the three worlds of traditional Jain cosmology. Though the souls born as gods in the upper world have pleasurable lives, they are still bound in the c

Gods enjoy life in the heavens
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The fourth chapter provides an immense amount of detail about the upper world of the Jain universe. The upper world is where many deities reside, although gods and goddesses are also found in other parts of the three worlds. The lives of the gods are characterised by pleasure and lack of effort, unlike the lives of human beings in the Lands of Action. The gods are in a higher spiritual condition than human beings but are not liberated souls. Only human beings can reach omniscience and liberation so it is better to be born as a human being in the middle world than a god in the upper world.

The following table summarises the headings in chapter four of the Tattvārtha-sūtra.

Four classes of gods – mansion, forest, luminous and empyrean

Colouring of the gods

Types of gods within each class

Chiefs and other grades of gods

Sexual pleasures of the gods

1. The ten types of mansion-dwelling gods

2. The eight types of forest gods

3. The five types of luminous gods

  • Space vehicles of the luminous gods

4. The empyrean gods

  • Graded and non-graded gods
  • Empyrean heavens
  • Qualities of the empyrean gods
  • Terminal empyrean gods
  • Highest heavens

Subhumans (animals, plants, micro-organisms)

Lifespans of the gods

  • Maximum lifespans of mansion gods
  • Maximum lifespans of empyrean gods
  • Minimum lifespans of empyrean gods

Lifespans of infernal beings

  • Minimum lifespans of mansion gods
  • Minimum lifespans of forest gods
  • Maximum lifespans of forest gods
  • Maximum lifespans of luminous gods
  • Maximum lifespans of planets
  • Maximum lifespans of constellations
  • Maximum lifespans of stars
  • Minimum lifespans of stars
  • Minimum lifespans of luminous gods (excluding stars)
  • Lifespans of terminal gods
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