Article: Images of the universe

The traditional Jain conception of the universe is extremely important in religious terms. It is a substantial focus of meditation, one of the 12 topics for reflection for Jains. These topics vary for members of the main Jain sects, with Digambaras counting it as the sixth topic while for Śvetāmbaras it is the fourth. For all Jain sects, however, meditating on the structure of the universe and the passage of souls through it in the cycle of births is a key part of spiritual development.

This religious significance means that information about the universe must be conveyed accurately. Cosmological details have been covered in many types of Jain writings through the centuries, such as specialised texts on cosmology, scripture and popular stories. Visual representations of the universe have also played a considerable role in communicating cosmological ideas. For example, Jain story literature of the eighth century onwards proves that portable paintings of the universe were used to help teach cosmology (Cort in Granoff 2009: 43).

For the viewers, these paintings and the explanations that accompany them are the starting points of a spiritual commotion – saṃvega – that leads them to change their lives, for instance by renouncing the world and deciding to become ascetics.

The two chief visual forms for depictions of the universe are paintings in manuscripts and large, distinctively Jain pictures called paṭas. Favourite paṭa subjects include the:

More lately, illustrations in book editions of cosmological works have continued the first tradition. A newer development of creating three-dimensional models has become popular over recent decades, including temples with cosmological themes.

Manuscript illustrations

The paintings on this manuscript page feature the central continent of Jambū-dvīpa and the three peaks of Mount Meru. Jambū-dvīpa is the first continent of the Two and A Half Continents that make up the only areas human beings can live in the three worlds

Mount Meru, Jambū-dvīpa and Lavaṇa-samudra
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Paintings in manuscripts are a traditional way of showing the universe in visual form. Just as printed volumes have replaced handwritten and hand-painted manuscripts, so illustrations in book editions have become perhaps the main contemporary visual representation of the Jain universe.

Visual aids in manuscripts discussing cosmology have probably always been a big part of teaching. Small paintings of the universe were used to help teach cosmology as far back as the eighth century but no images survive that are earlier than the 12th to 14th centuries. This is because the vast majority of available Jain manuscripts date back to this period or later. No illustrated palm-leaf manuscript of any cosmological treatise seems to have been preserved. But there are numerous illustrated paper manuscripts, which appear to have been produced in large numbers in the 17th century.

Here illustration means a wide range of representations that may cover the corner of a page, part of a page or a full page, such as:

  • simple charts repeating or enhancing the text
  • diagrams
  • coloured maps
  • painting of scenes
  • symbols occupying the corner of a page or a full page.

A lot of these manuscripts are aesthetically remarkable, although there are also some manuscripts of cosmological treatises that have no painting or have only charts drawn in black ink.

The written works that are most frequently illustrated are the:

  • Laghu-kṣetra-samāsa
  • Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna
  • Loka-prakāśa
  • Trailokyadīpikā by Indravāma-deva.

Large cosmological paintings

Presenting the universe visually has another strong tradition in the form of the dedicated cosmological picture. Large cosmological paintings of approximately 100 x 100 cm square on cloth or paper, known as paṭas, are distinctively Jain. Often ornate and attractive, they illustrate the following subjects, in order of frequency, the:

  • Jambū-dvīpa – ‘Rose-Apple Continent
  • larger series of successive continents.

Other cosmological elements or illustrations of different areas of the Jain universe may also be themes of these characteristically Jain paintings. The most famous is the cosmic manloka-puruṣa. Another familiar visualisation is the Jain equivalent of the board game now known as snakes and ladders.

Paintings of the universe

This example of a large cosmological painting on cloth – paṭa – depicts the Aḍhāī-dvīpa – Two and A Half Continents – of the Jain universe. Dating from the 18th to 19th centuries, this paṭa is an important way of sharing information about Jain cosmology.

World of mortals
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

A paṭa is a large cloth painting of part of the Jain universe or a pilgrimage centre. These illustrations of the Jain universe portray striking and detailed patterns of concentric circles. These were often not correctly identified or even recognised as relating to Jain cosmology when they first reached the Western art market in the early 1980s. They were often called maṇḍalas, as Tibetan paintings are. Examples of this confusion are still widespread on the web.

The paṭas were produced mainly in western India, in Gujarat and Rajasthan. This area is one of the strongholds of Śvetāmbara Jainism. The paintings sometimes have a colophon containing information about the place and date of composition. The earliest surviving paintings date back to the 15th century but they are few, with the majority having been created in the 18th to 20th centuries. It is likely that the fashion for sizeable religious paintings among Hindu communities in western India influenced Jains to create works of art on a large scale.

The universe paintings all have the same structure. They are like maps, which represent in picture form the long tradition of knowledge explained in the cosmological writings. Each painting aims to show the Jain universe accurately yet each is an individual piece. The artists demonstrate their creativity in the human, animal or divine figures that live in the areas depicted or in the floral ornamentation on the outer parts of the maps. The immense variety of beings in the Jain universe also accounts for the wealth of fantastic or semi-fantastic creatures found in the paintings.

As maps, these paintings also contain the names of rivers, mountains, towns and regions. In many cases, there are also numbers referring to the quantity or the dimensions of the elements shown. All this is generally written in small script so can be rather difficult to read.

Several of these paintings also contain separate texts in the four corners. These are descriptions with lists and measurements. They are written in the local languages, which are predominantly Gujarati, Rajasthani and Hindi, or in a mixture of them. The texts may include quotations from specialised treatises in Prakrit or Sanskrit.

Finally, descriptive texts may be supplemented by charts or diagrams found at the side of the main painting. These usually focus on certain aspects of the map.

Cosmic man

This manuscript painting shows the three worlds of the Jain universe in the form of a human figure. The lower world of the hells is the lower half of the cosmic man – loka-puruṣa – while the upper world of the heavens forms his upper body.

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

The best-known image of Jain cosmology is probably the cosmic man – loka-puruṣa. This shows the three worlds of the Jain universe in a convention dating back to the early medieval period.

The three worlds of the Jain universe is the area where souls travel on their spiritual journey to omniscience and salvation. The journey is in the form of a continuous cycle of rebirth, in which souls are born in various conditions and in different worlds according to the karma they have collected over previous lives.

The cosmic man is a stylised human figure divided into three parts, each standing for one of the three worlds. Always presented from the front, the cosmic man’s three elements represent the three worlds as follows:

  • the lower pyramid of the area below his waist represents the lower world – adho-loka – which has seven levels, indicating the seven hells
  • his waist symbolises the middle worldmadhya-loka
  • the upside-down pyramid that is his torso denotes the upper world – ūrdhva-loka – with the various levels standing for the different heavens.

There is a white crescent moon on the cosmic man’s forehead. This is the symbol of the siddha-śilā, where liberated souls or siddhas live at the peak of all the worlds in eternal joy.

The middle world at the cosmic man’s waist is the smallest world. Even so, it is the most significant place during the spiritual development of the soul because it is the only spot where human beings can live. Indeed, humans can be born only in a small area in the middle world, called the Two and A Half Continents. Only souls born in the human condition can be liberated from the cycle of birth.

Snakes and ladders

The Western game of snakes and ladders is probably based on a Jain visualisation of the unsteady progress of the soul through the cycle of rebirth. This 19th-century chart shows the uncertain path of spiritual development, involving many ups and downs.

Snakes and ladders
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Understanding the three worlds of the Jain universe is a crucial part of grasping Jain religious beliefs such as the soul, karma, the cycle of birth, omniscience and liberation. A clear way to show how the souls move around the three worlds during their spiritual development is an early version of the snakes and ladders board game, which children play in the West.

The Western game is full up of ups and downs for the competing players, controlled by chance in the form of rolls of dice. The Jain version of snakes and ladders captures the uncertain progress of spiritual development in a similar way. Souls climb up or slide down from one world to another according to their behaviour.

The game echoes the spiritual journey of each soul on the way to eventual liberation from the cycle of birth. The soul is born in different conditions in one of the three worlds depending on its balance of karma. The karma is gathered according to behaviour in earlier lives. More positive karma than negative karma results in a birth in a good condition in a higher world or even, ideally, as a human being in the middle world. Only human beings have the chance to gain perfect knowledge and then to attain liberation. Spiritual development is long and difficult and the soul will probably experience births in all of the four conditions in all areas of the three worlds over its journey (Topsfield 1985 and 2006).

Modern visualisations of the universe

New ways of presenting the Jain idea of the universe confirm the contemporary importance of this distinctive conception in the Jain faith. The continuing desire to translate cosmological theories into forms that will be more widely understood than lengthy, often technical writings has led to more recent developments such as illustrated editions and architectural models.

Illustrated books

Illustrated editions of Jain cosmological texts are the direct continuation of the older manuscript tradition. They contain the text along with charts, diagrams and paintings.

It could be expected that old manuscript paintings are simply reproduced in these new editions but mostly these paintings have been done anew with bright colours in accordance with contemporary Indian taste. An instance is the edition of the Śvetāmbara canonical treatise, Jambū-dvīpa-prajñapti, produced by the Jain monk Pravarttak Shri Amar Muniji Maharaj in 2006.

Architectural models

A model of Mount Meru in the temple of Pārśvanātha at Mount Girnar in Gujarat. The cosmic axis, three-tiered Meru is the centre of the triple world of Jain cosmology. Three-dimensional models of parts of the Jain universe are frequently found in temples.

Temple model of Mount Meru
Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kimiya

Three-dimensional models that represent the main parts of the Jain universe or the universe as a whole are often found either as small- or middle-size models inside temples or large independent structures.

These smaller models often show the most common elements or depictions of the universe, namely:

Large models

This 35-metre-high model of Mount Meru is found in the Jain Triple World Research Institute in Hastinapur. It sits in the centre of the first continent of Jambū-dvīpa, some 60 metres across, with small structures representing the mountain ranges.

Three-dimensional Mount Meru and Jambū-dvīpa
Image by Vaibhav Jain / Jainvaibhav1307 © CC BY 3.0

Since the 1980s large-scale independent structures of Jain cosmology have been built in India. These focus chiefly on three-dimensional models of Jambū-dvīpa.

Under the leadership of the Digambara nun Āryikā Jñānamati, a large model of the Jambū-dvīpa is an innovation in the Jain pilgrimage place of Hastinapur in Haryana. It is part of the Jain Trilok Shodh Samsthan or ‘Jain Triple World Research Institute’, which is housed on a large campus on the edge of the small town. It was started in the 1980s and was supported by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who participated in several of the launch events.

This Jambū-dvīpa is an interactive structure around which the visitor can walk.

There one sees the central continent of Jambūdvīpa in the form of a large disc of about 60 metres in diameter. It is filled with small stone structures representing mountains and other components. It is surrounded by the Lavaṇasamudra in the form of actual water, where one can ride a boat. At the centre is Mount Meru represented as a tower about 35 metres high, which one can climb up.

Hegewald 2009: 38

In Palitana in Gujarat, the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka monk Abhaya-sāgara has overseen the recent establishment of a place called Jambūdvīpa eṭle Samyagdarśan tīrth or ‘Jambū-dvīpa, Which is the Sacred Place of Right Faith’. The aim of the project is to teach visitors more about Jain cosmology.

The main structure represents the continent of Jambū-dvīpa, with a high tower at the centre symbolising Mount Meru. The ocean Lavaṇa-samudra is filled with scattered sculptures of aquatic animals. All around this structure the walls are covered with posters in Hindi that explain details of the Jain universe, such as the measurements and shapes of the various components.


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