Article: Writings on the universe

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Other writings

This manuscript painting from the 'Jasahara-cariu' depicts the violent deaths of King Yaśodhara and his mother Candramatī at the hands of Queen Amṛtamati. She poisons them and then attacks her dying husband like a wild beast. The tale illustrates karma.

Amṛtamati kills Yaśodhara and Candramatī
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Although the primary textual sources on Jain cosmology are the scriptures, story literature contains plentiful examples of how these cosmological concepts work in practice.

As well as shorter writings, there are instances of fairly long texts, similar to novels, with narratives embedded in one another, in which cosmology plays an important role. These tales are like theatres where human beings play one life after the other, travelling back and forth among the middle, lower and upper worlds in continuous rebirths until they are spiritually mature enough to reach liberation. A good example is a popular tale known as the story of Yaśodhara, which offers rich scope for illustrations of the workings of karma. One manuscript of the story is one of the highlights of JAINpedia.

Finally, there is the evident familiarity of Jain authors, mainly mendicants, with the details of cosmology. There are frequent precise references or looser allusions in literary works, for example in comparisons.

Śvetāmbara tradition

Three principal types of Śvetāmbara writings describe Jain cosmology. The first type is scriptural, with several scriptures going into immense detail about Jain cosmological concepts, with associated commentaries in various languages.

A huge body of literature in Prakrit focuses on cosmological matters. This can be classified into those texts known as kṣetra-samāsas – 'condensed exposition of the regions' – and those known as saṃgrahaṇīs – 'résumés'. The most influential of other Prakrit-language works on cosmology is the 16th‑century Vicāraṣaṭṭriṃśikā, and also its Sanskrit commentary.

The final type of Śvetāmbara writing to deal with cosmology is Vinaya-vijaya’s Loka-prakāśa. Composed in Sanskrit verse in the 17th century, it is a kind of compendium of cosmology, which quotes extensively from earlier works and was widely copied.

Canonical scriptures

This manuscript painting shows perfect beings that have been liberated from the cycle of birth and some of the ways of reaching liberation. The exalted status of the liberated souls in the crescent-shaped siddha-śilā is stressed by their ornate parasols.

Perfect beings and paths to liberation
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Written in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit, the Vyākhyāprajñapti Exposition of Explanations – is the fifth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures. It is a massive book containing virtually everything related to the teachings of Jain doctrine so, although it is not a specialised treatise on cosmology, it holds a lot of cosmological material. Information is also available in other Aṅgas such as the Sthānānga and the Samavāyānga – Aṅgas number three and four.

The JīvājīvābhigamaApproach to the Animate and Inanimate – belongs to the category known as Upāṅgas. These form the second category of Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures, in which there are 12 texts written in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit. The Jīvājīvābhigama is the third text, in prose. Its third chapter contains a description of continents and oceans but is considered by some to be a later insertion.

The Jambū-dvīpa-prajñaptiExposition of the Jambū-dvīpa – is the fifth or sixth of the Upāṅgas. Devoted to Jain cosmology, it is in seven prose sections. The Jambū-dvīpa-prajñapti is an exhaustive description of the 'Rose-apple continent' in an elaborate canonical style. It details all the components of Jambū-dvīpa – encircling wall, mountains, shrines, gardens, ponds, astral bodies, rivers, the surrounding Lavaṇa-samudra. It emphasises its repetitive structure, with microcosmos and macrocosmos replicas of each other. The atmosphere is opulent – gems, gold and silver are the usual materials described – and the depiction often recalls those of royal palaces and gardens or those of holy places and pilgrimage sites. The third section is an account of the region of Bhārata and deals with the legends connected with King Bharata.

The Sūrya-prajñaptiExposition of the Sun – and the Candra-prajñaptiExposition of the Moon – are also Upāṅgas. The Sūrya-prajñapti is the sixth and the Candra-prajñapti the seventh. They are works of astronomy, dealing with activities and effects of the sun and the moon (Schubring 2000: 100–103 for details).

All these treatises have been the starting point of a long tradition of commentaries in Sanskrit and in vernacular languages, especially Gujarati.

Śvetāmbara cosmological works and Sanskrit commentaries


Sanskrit commentary


  • Malaya-giri in the 12th century


  • Hīravjijaya-sūri in the 17th century
  • Śānticandra in the 17th century
  • earlier commentary by Malaya-giri, said to be lost

Sūrya-prajñapti and Candra-prajñapti

  • Malaya-giri in the 12th century
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