The Jain conception of the universe is very complex, composed of symmetrical, repeating patterns based on mathematical principles. Central religious concepts such as the soul, karma, the cycle of birth and spiritual progression are tied into the structure of the universe and the cycle of time, so understanding cosmology is a key element of the Jain tradition.
The Jain universe is made up of two kinds of space. World space – loka-ākāśa – is limited, though enormous, and is where the three worlds of life are. Outside it stretches the infinite expanse of non-world space – aloka-ākāśa.
The universe is filled with three worlds, which are divided into lower, middle and upper.
The three worlds within world space are where all the souls are. They move through the lower, middle and upper worlds on their spiritual journey and at the end dwell above the worlds in eternal bliss in the siddha-śilā. This transmigration is called the cycle of birth. Where the souls are born and their condition in that birth depends on their karma, which comes from behaviour in earlier lives. Jains hope to advance spiritually to omniscience and then liberation from the cycle of birth so their souls can reach the siddha-śilā.
Understanding and meditating upon Jain cosmological theories are necessary parts of spiritual development. As essential elements of the religion, these complex notions have been passed down since the earliest times in oral, literary and visual art forms. The best-known diagram of world space is the cosmic man. This phrase is often used instead of the term ‘the three worlds’.
Cycle of birth and types of beings
Plants and two-sensed beings
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
Souls are born into a succession of various bodies in different parts of the worlds. There are four states – gati – into which they can be born. The world into which they are born and the body they have in that birth or lifetime depend on their spiritual condition. This is largely determined by the karma that has become attached to the soul over the course of the previous life and also, to some extent, the karma from previous lives. A soul may therefore be born in a hell in one rebirth and in a heaven in the next – it may not move among the different worlds in a straightforward way, going either all up in succession or all down in succession.
The more advanced a soul’s spirituality, the higher the world into which it is born. However, being born a human being in the middle world is better than being born into one of the heavens of the upper world. This is because only human beings can reach omniscience, which is a late, necessary stage on the way to liberation, and human beings can live only in the middle world.
Living beings can be classified in various ways, based on their state and on the number of senses they have. Certain types of beings are also categorised into different groups.
Four types of beings
The soul can be born in one of the following ways – gati – namely as:
- a human being – manuṣya-gati
- a heavenly being, living in the heavens – deva-gati
- an infernal being, living in the hells – naraka-gati
- an animal or plant – tiryag-gati.
All beings are also classified into groups according to their number of sense-organs, from one to five. The following hierarchy is a summary of extremely detailed sub-classifications and lists, based on Lecture 36, ‘On Living Beings and Things Without Life’ in the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra.
Number of senses
Classes of gods
It is important to note that not all heavenly beings, who can also be called gods or deities, live in the upper world. It would be wrong to automatically connect the concept of ‘god’ with that of heaven.
The connection between the four classes of gods and their dwelling place is provided in the table.
Type of god
Bhavanavāsin or Bhavanapati
under the earth, in palaces in the first hell
under the earth, in palaces and cities in the space between the first hell and the surface of the earth
Jyotiṣka or astral bodies, such as the sun and moon
middle world, between earth and sky
upper world, in the various heavens
The different elements of the world space in the Jain universe are very frequently drawn as parts of a stylised figure of a man. Called the cosmic man, this diagram is probably the most widely known representation of the Jain universe. The name is often used in place of the term ‘the three worlds’.
A statement found in the fifth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures describes the shape of the world – loka – as broad at the bottom, narrowing towards the middle and gradually broadening again towards the top. The world is measured in length, breadth and height, in the unit known as ‘rope’ or rajju. The total height is 14 rajjus.
A good diagram of the cosmic dimensions and the representation of the three worlds is figure 7 in That Which Is.
In the early medieval period, the standard representation of the three worlds is the cosmic man – loka-puruṣa. He comprises the:
- lower pyramid, representing the lower world – adho-loka – which is divided into seven levels, corresponding to as many hells
- middle world – madhya-loka – at his waist
- upside-down pyramid that is his torso, symbolising the upper world – ūrdhva-loka – which is divided into various levels that indicate the heavens.
The worlds are usually portrayed from a frontal view of the cosmic man, which emphasises that the middle world is the smallest of the three worlds. However, it is the most important from the spiritual point of view because it is the only part of the worlds where human beings can live.
Three worlds and the worlds in between
Each one of the three worlds is made up of several elements, all featuring noticeable repetition and symmetry.
Lower world – the seven hells
The lower world is the world of suffering. The lower one lives, the more one suffers. Depictions of life there and the varieties of tortures one can suffer there are among artists’ favourite topics, producing very lively paintings.
There are seven hells in the lower world, with several formed of layers of hells. The following table presents information about the hells. This table is based on Śvetāmbara sources. Details of the Digambara tradition can be found in Jainendra Siddhānta-kośa. A comprehensive scholarly survey of both sects‘ sources is Kirfel 1920.
Depth – yojanas
Number of layers
The lower a hell is, the wider its base is. But the thickness of the hells decreases the lower it is. For example the seventh hell has one layer whereas the third hell has nine layers. These characteristics can be seen in the cosmic man.
The first hell from the top is where the ten groups of beings live that comprise the category Bhavana-pati or Bhavana-vāsin – ‘Residents of Dwellings’. They are princes – kumāras – and form the lowest group of deities that can be found in the triple world.
Names of princes
Names of kings – indras
Camara and Bali
Dharaṇa and Bhūtānanda
Hari and Harisaha
Veṇudeva and Veṇudārin
jar of plenty
Agniśikha and Agnimāṇava
Velamba and Prabhañjana
symbol of prosperity – vardhamāna
Sughoṣa and Mahāghoṣa
dolphin – makara
Jalakānta and Jalaprabha
Pūrṇa and Avaśiṣṭa
youths ruling the cardinal points
Amita and Amitavāhana
The three highest hells are where the semi-divine beings live, who are known as the Paramādharmika – ‘Extremely Unjust’.
All these beings live in palaces – vimānas – that are round, triangular or square. They are grouped around a circular palace where their respective kings live.
Rebirth in the lower world
Rebirth in the hells results from violent behaviour and extreme possessiveness.
The types of infernal beings are born in different hells, as shown in the following table, which is based on page 76 of Jaini in Granoff 2009. The hells are numbered according to how deep they are, with number one at the highest level.
Level of hell
Type of animal born there
only five-sensed animals without the faculty of mind
reptiles with legs
land animals, such as lions
male humans and aquatic animals, such as fish, sharks and crocodiles
Apart from those born in the top hell, infernal beings are reborn with five senses and the faculty of mind. They have a sort of negative capacity of knowledge – vibhaṅga – through which they can remember their earlier enemies and carry on holding feelings of hostility. They can change their appearance and form to frighten other beings.
Between the first hell and the middle world
Above the first hell live the semi-divine beings called Vyantaras. There are eight categories of Vyantara. They are the second class of gods and are recognisable by their different emblems. Each of the eight groups is governed by two kings – indras – with full courts and retinues.
The following table gives key details of the Vyantara deities. The table is based on Śvetāmbara sources. Details of the Digambara tradition can be found in Jainendra Siddhānta-kośa. A comprehensive scholarly survey of both sects‘ sources is Kirfel 1920.
Names of the two kings
Kāla and Mahākāla
Surūpa and Apratirūpa
Pūrṇabhadra and Maṇibhadra
Bhīma and Mahābhīma
Kinnara and Kimpuruṣa
Satpuruṣa and Mahāpuruṣa
Atikāya and Mahākāya
Gītarati and Gītayaśas
Middle world – the world of humans
The mathematics of the universe is complicated and highly detailed, making descriptions and images of the universe very intricate, but mathematical principles are closely observed. Repetition is a major trait of the Jain universe, which is very clear in the middle world in particular. The middle world is circular and is constituted of concentric rings of continents separated by rings of oceans. Each continent is a duplicate of the central one, Jambū-dvīpa, which itself is a complex of mathematical proportions. Each landmass and ocean increases by a factor of two going outwards from the middle, although this is not always obvious from illustrations.
There are 90 continents and oceans in the middle world but many are merely names, with very few details in cosmological texts. There are some significant continents, however. Jambū-dvīpa, the first or central continent, is the most important and is at the heart of the area known as the ‘Two and A Half Continents‘. The 15th continent, Nandīśvara-dvīpa, is important since it is where the gods gather to celebrate. It is often described elaborately. Finally, Kuṇḍala-dvīpa, the 12th continent from the centre, is often called ‘Ring’ or Kuṇḍala after its geography.
This chart gives the names of the continents and oceans of the middle world, starting from the centre. It is based on Śvetāmbara sources. Details of the Digambara tradition can be found in Jainendra Siddhānta-kośa. A comprehensive scholarly survey of both sects‘ sources is Kirfel 1920.
18. Aruṇa ocean
20. Aruṇavarāvabhāsa ocean
22. Kuṇḍala ocean
24. Kuṇḍalavara ocean
26. Kuṇḍalavarāvabhāsa ocean
28. Śaṅkha ocean
30. Śaṅkhavara ocean
34. Rucaka ocean
36. Rucakavara ocean
38. Rucakavarāvabhāsa ocean
40. Hāra ocean
42. Hāravara ocean
44. Hāravarāvabhāsa ocean
46. Ardhahāra ocean
48. Ardhahāravara ocean
50. Ardhahārāvabhāsa ocean
52. Kanakāvali ocean
54. Kanakāvalivara ocean
56. Kanakāvalivarāvabhāsa ocean
58. Ratnāvali ocean
60. Ratnāvalivara ocean
62. Ratnāvalivarāvabhāsa ocean
64. Muktāvali ocean
66. Muktāvalivara ocean
68. Muktāvalivarāvabhāsa ocean
70. Ājina ocean
72. Ājinavara ocean
74. Ājinavarāvabhāsa ocean
76. Sūrya ocean
78. Sūryavara ocean
80. Sūryavarāvabhāsa ocean
82. Deva ocean
84. Nāga ocean
86. Yakṣa ocean
88. Bhūta ocean
90. Svayambhūramaṇa ocean
Two and A Half Continents
The first continent, Jambū-dvīpa, is the model for the other continents, which are its duplicates. Its name means ‘Rose-apple continent’, from a rose-apple tree in the Uttara-kuru region, at the north of Mount Meru. This ‘tree’ is in fact a rock formation that looks like a tree (Jaini in Granoff 2009: 83). At its centre is Mount Meru, the cosmic axis.
The Two and A Half Continents is comprised of:
- Lavaṇa-samudra, the ocean around it
- the second continent, Dhātakīkhaṇḍa
- the ocean around that, called Kālodadhi
- the inner half of the Puṣkara continent.
Jambū-dvīpa – the first continent
Temple and terraces of Mount Meru
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
The first continent, Jambū-dvīpa, plainly demonstrates the mathematical nature of the Jain universe. The original template for the other continents, which replicate it, the ‘Rose-apple Continent’ is formed of repetitive, often symmetrical, mathematical ratios of mountains, regions, lakes, rivers and so on.
Jambū-dvīpa is set within a rampart of diamonds, which is surrounded by a fence of jewels crowned by a high garland of lotuses made of gems.
In the centre of Jambū-dvīpa, normally yellow in pictures, is Mount Meru, the cosmic axis. It has three terraces, each smaller than the one below, all planted with parks and forests. A temple dedicated to the Jinas is at the top. Models of Mount Meru are often found in Jain temples and are objects of worship.
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- aAdvaita Vedānta
- aAhimsa Day
- aAkbar the Great
- aAlauddin Khalji
- aAlbert Einstein
- aAmbikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī
- aArdhamāgadhī Prākrit
- aĀryikā Jñānamati
- bBraj Bhāṣā
- bBright fortnight
- bBritish Raj
- dDark fortnight
- dDelhi Sultanate
- eEast India Company
- eEightfold Path
- eEtc up to
- fFatehpur Sikri
- fFiruz Shah
- fFour Noble Truths
- gGhiyasuddin Tughlaq
- iIndian Independence
- iIndrabhūti Gautama
- jJaina Devanāgarī
- jJaina Śaurasenī
- jJames Burgess
- lLands of Action
- lLotus lake
- mMāhārāṣṭrī Prākrit
- mMahattarā Yākinī
- mMahāvīr Jayantī
- mMakkhali Gośāla
- mMendicant lineage
- mMohandas Gandhi
- mMonastic order
- mMount Meru
- mMount Sammeta
- mMuhammad bin Tughlaq
- mMurad Bakhsh
- nNāgapurīya Tapā-gaccha
- nniggaṃthāṇa vā 2
- nniggaṃtho vā 2
- oOcean of milk
- pPandit Dalsukh D. Malvania
- pPandit Sukhlalji
- rRainy season
- sSaciyā Mātā
- sSeven fields of donation
- sShah Jahan
- sShantidas Jhaveri
- sSiddhacakra or Navadevatā
- sSuyam me ausam! Tenam bhagavaya evamakkhayam
- sŚvetāmbara Terāpanthin
- tTāraṇ Svāmī Panth
- tThe Enlightenment
- tThree worlds
- tTti bemi
- uUniversal History
- vVirji Vora