In Jainism, leśyā has been described as ‘colour of the soul’, ‘soul-complexion’ or ‘spiritual colouring’ due to its association with karmic matter. The soul – jīva – is sentient and when it is pure does not have material properties of colour, odour, form and taste. However, souls bound with karma and trapped within the cycle of rebirth take on the colour of the leśyā that is characteristic of their spiritual level.
When the soul takes birth – when it is born into a new body in the cycle of rebirth – it is impure and embodied. Certain aspects of the new body are influenced by karma attached to the soul, such as the length of life and physical abilities. Resulting from actions in past births, karma is non-sentient and material in nature. When the soul is embodied, it assumes the colour of the leśyā particles, which are mirrored in the soul, like a crystal reflecting the colour of a nearby object. As the pure and emancipated soul – siddha – has no leśyā, the concept is often understood as meaning ‘karmic stain’.
The six leśyās graduate from black to white, from dark to light, and colour the souls of beings that are subject to karma. They are connected to the past deeds of an individual and indicate his current moral state. The aim of Jain soteriology is for the soul to be purified from contamination by karma, which is necessary to reach final liberation.
Of great significance to the doctrine of Jain karma, leśyā is recognised as crucial by both the Digambara and the Śvetāmbara traditions. This important idea has become familiar to many through the famous ‘parable of the tree’.
Origin of the concept
It is difficult to trace the origin of leśyā in Jainism, as allegorical use of colour has also been made in other South Asian traditions. Modern scholarship compares it with similar concepts in other religions.
A common comparison is with the abhijāti concept of the Ājīvikas. In this ascetic religion led by Makkhali Gośāla, a rival of Mahāvīra, the colours correspond to ‘social classes’. The colours are deterministic, in that ‘a man’s social status is determined by the inborn coloration of the molecules composing his body’ (Tsuchihashi 1983: 202).
In the Brahmanical tradition, as expressed in the Mokṣa-dharma section of the Mahābhārata, there is the similar concept of jīva-varṇa – ‘soul colour’ linked to hierarchically ordered social category (Bedekar 1968: 335ff.).
The six leśyās of Jainism have been compared with the three guṇas, the natural qualities of matter – prakr̥ti – in the Sāṃkhya philosophy of Hinduism (Zimmer 1969 : 229–230). Establishing a gradation from clear to dark, from pure to very impure, in a way comparable to the leśyās, these three qualities are:
- clear, pure – sattva
- fiery – rajas
- dark – tamas.
The question of whether it was imported into Jainism does not detract from the importance of leśyā in Jain beliefs.
Meaning of the term
The traditional etymology connects the word leśyā with the root liś or śliṣ, both meaning to ‘adhere’. This agrees with what the word has come to mean in the classical doctrine. For example the 11th-century Śvetāmbara commentator Abhayadeva-sūri explains that ‘leśyā is that by which a living being [soul] is connected with or burned with karma’ in his commentary to the Sthānāṅga-sūtra (Wiley 2000: 351f.). Similar explanations are given by Digambara authors (Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa volume 3: 422).
The idea of something that ‘adheres’, ‘sticks’ or ‘smears’ is also conveyed through another traditional explanation. This connects leśyā and the Sanskrit root limp-, which means ‘to smear’ (Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa volume 3: 422).
It has been shown, however, that the Prakrit word lesā originally meant ‘light’ (Tsuchihashi 1983: 197ff.). Outside doctrinal contexts where it is connected to the karma concept, the word is applied to heavenly bodies such as the sun or moon. It occurs with verbs meaning ‘to shine’ or ‘to radiate’ in various Śvetāmbara canonical works. More precisely, it means ‘substance-like lustre’ or ‘lustre inherent in and concomitant with something solid and concrete’, namely the leśa ‘particle, molecule’ (Tsuchihashi 1983: 201).
Extensive discussions of the leśyās are found in both Śvetāmbara and Digambara canonical and post-canonical texts and commentaries. Many chapters and passages focus on the leśyās while others that examine karma theory discuss them as part of this key Jain doctrine.
Of the Śvetāmbara canonical works, the 34th chapter of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra and the 17th chapter of the Prajñāpanā-sūtra are specifically devoted to leśyā (Wiley 2000: 348; Shah 1971: 350–354). These passages deal with all the aspects of the concept.
The Uttarādhyayana chapter contains various poetical metres (Alsdorf 1968: 214–220). It has a minority of ślokas and a majority of āryās. This suggests two stages in its composition. It has been demonstrated that the chapter has a nucleus concerned with leśyā, specifically the:
- names of the six colours
- description of the six colours
- types of activities that cause the various types.
- taste – rasa
- smell – gandha
- touch – sparśa
- degree of intensity – pariṇāma
- symptom – lakṣaṇa
- variety – sthāna
- duration – sthiti
- result – gati
- lifespan – āyuḥ.
Other canonical texts with material on leśyā are the:
- third Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, the Sthānāṅga-sūtra
- fifth Aṅga, the Viyāha-pannatti, also called the Bhagavatī or Vyākhyā-prajñapti (Schubring 1962 :196–7; Banthiya 1966).
Śvetāmbara works specifically dedicated to the karma doctrine are another source for the understanding of the concept. They are:
- the six karma-granthas in Prakrit verse, written in particular by Devendra-sūri in the 13th century
- the Pañca-saṃgraha, in Prakrit verses, by Candrarṣi Mahattara
- the Karma-prakṛti, also in Prakrit verses, by Śivaśarma-sūri.
Cosmological treatises, such as the kṣetra-samāsas or the saṃgrahaṇīs, also discuss leśyās. Since leśyās are connected to karma, they are instrumental in the forms of rebirths. Hence they are crucial in the place which various beings have in the Jain universe.
The Digambara authoritative scriptures – the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama and the Kaṣāya-prābhṛta – are important sources that discuss the concept extensively (Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa volume 3: 422–428). The accompanying commentaries are also essential to understand the Digambara idea of leśyā.
The number of leśyās is fixed as six. The association between the concept and the number is so strong that the word leśyā means the number 6 in the numerical system when words are used instead of digits.
Each of the leśyās is designated by an adjective referring to a colour in a scale going from black to white, from dark to light. But there are variations in the way intermediate colours are understood, and hence in the way they may be represented in paintings, for instance.
Three and three
It is common to draw a clear line separating the leśyās into two groups of three.
The first three are considered non-meritorious because they signal high degrees of:
- passion – kaṣāya
- harmful actions
For instance, here is the behaviour of a man who is characterised by the black leśyā:
A man who acts on the impulse of the five āsravas, does not possess the three guptis, has not ceased to injure the six kinds of living beings, commits cruel acts, is wicked and violent, is afraid of no consequences, is mischievous and does not subdue his senses – a man of such habits develops the black leśyā
Jacobi’s translation 1895: 199
The last three are meritorious because they imply:
- a lower degree of passions
- actions that are as harmless as possible
- true inclination towards good practices.
White signals the highest degree of purity:
A man who abstains from constant thinking about his misery and about sinful deeds, but engages in meditation on the Law and truth only, whose mind is at ease, who controls himself, who practices the samitis and the guptis, whether he be still subject to passion or free from passion, is calm, and subdues his senses – a man of such habits develops the white leśyā
Jacobi’s translation 1895: 200
This is summed up in the following manner:
The black, blue and grey leśyās are the lowest leśyās; through them the soul is brought into miserable courses of life. The red, yellow, and white leśyās are the good leśyās; through them the soul is brought into happy courses of life
Jacobi’s translation 1895: 203
Karma and leśyās
Parable of the tree
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
It can be demonstrated (Malde 2011) that the concept of leśyā plays an important role in Jain karma theory. This goes against Schubring’s contention that ‘…the concept is of secondary nature, and can stay out of the system without leaving a gap in its composition’ (Schubring 1962/2000: 196; see also Wiley 2011: 21).
The concept of leśyā in Jainism has two applications, which may be related to different stages in the development of karma theories.
Firstly, it is used allegorically to grade the purity of the soul. It is thus a useful tool in pedagogical understanding and the transmission of doctrine. The idea itself may have started when the karma doctrine was not fully developed and colour was used to symbolise the quality of soul or deed in early Jain thought. This use is illustrated in parables and links to the classes of deities.
Secondly, the concept gained a technical, ontological application. Once karma was interpreted in terms of the theory of atoms, the allegorical notion of colours’ association with certain actions was explained as a material property of karmic matter. Hence as the karma doctrine became more sophisticated, so did the concept of leśyā (Tatia 1966: 22). Jain ontology accepts dual reality, that of soul and matter. It is their union that gives colour to the soul. This joining together of soul and karmic particles is the cause of samsāra – the cycle of rebirths. When karmic matter becomes stuck to the soul, it changes it in various ways. One of these changes is an alteration in colour, which is its leśyā. Hence the frequent definition of leśyā as ‘karmic stain’.
Two parables demonstrate the allegorical application of the concept of leśyā. As the basis of Jain philosophy is to avoid all kinds of sinful activity, these stories use colour to grade sinful activity. Found in the karma-granthas, they have been transmitted down the centuries in cosmological works and wider literature, oral tradition and manuscript paintings. They are a common heritage for all Jain sects.
Parable of the tree
Parable of the tree
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
Six men see a jambū or rose-apple tree, full of ripe fruit. They want to eat the fruit but climbing the tall tree is dangerous. They think about how they can fetch the rose-apples. Their ideas are linked to the six colours of the leśyās.
kill all beings, quadrupeds and bipeds
kill all human beings
kill all men
kill all armed men
kill all armed men who fight
steal valuables, but not murder anybody
Groups of gods and leśyās
Chapter 4 of the Tattvārtha-sūtra also shows how colours of leśyās are explicitly used as shorthand for moral conditions. In this chapter (4.2, 4.7, 4.21, 4.23) the leśyās are connected with each of the four classes – nikāyas – of gods – devas. With darker leśyās assigned to gods in the lower regions of the upper world, the leśyās get progressively purer for divinities in the higher regions of the upper world.
The Śvetāmbara text reads: ‘the third [class of gods] is of yellow colour’ – tṛtīyaḥ pīta-leśya iti.
The Digambara version reads: ‘in the three [classes of gods] from the beginning, the colours up to yellow’ – āditas triṣu pītānta-leśyāḥ.
Class of gods
The same point is discussed in the cosmological works known as saṃgrahaṇīs, namely which leśyā(s) do the different groups of gods have? The list of six colours is given on this occasion, and it is in this context that the concept is illustrated through paintings of the parable of the tree.
More generally, the exposition on leśyā implies discussing which and how many types are possible in which form of existence (Prajñāpanā: table in Shah 1971: 351). Souls of beings born in hells have black, blue or grey colours. Inferior varieties of animals are treated like the Vyantara gods.
The full range of leśyās is found among human beings. This is why it is connected with the human destiny – manuṣya-gati. It is also found in animals born from a womb.
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