Article: The ‘Three Worlds’

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.

Sermon on the Universe’ in the Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacarita
translated by Johnson, page 104

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

This painting from a manuscript depicts examples of plants and two-sensed beings. Throughout the cycle of birth, a soul takes birth in different types of body according to the karma that has stuck to it. Beings can be classed according to their senses.

Plants and two-sensed beings
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The intertwined relationship of karma and cosmology in Jainism is clear in the notion of the    three worlds and how souls move among these worlds over their cycles of births.

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 reborn in four types of conditions in each of the three worlds. The state of birth depends on the karma that has become attached to the soul in previous lives.

The soul can be born in one of the following ways – gati – namely as:

  1. a human being – manuṣya-gati
  2. a heavenly being, living in the heavens – deva-gati
  3. an infernal being, living in the hellsnaraka-gati
  4. 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.

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.


Number of senses




  • touch
  • the most basic form of life – nigoda
  • plants
  • bodies made of earth, air, fire and water, some of them extremely minute and invisible to the human eye


  • touch
  • taste
  • worms
  • shells
  • conches
  • leeches


  • touch
  • taste
  • smell
  • various insects
  • ants


  • touch
  • taste
  • smell
  • sight
  • flies
  • mosquitoes
  • bees
  • moths


  • touch
  • taste
  • smell
  • sight
  • hearing
  • inhabitants of the hells
  • higher animals
  • human beings
  • gods

Classes of gods

The eight groups of Vyantara gods are shown in this painting from a manuscript. The Vyantara – Vyantaravāsīn – are semi-deities who live between the highest hell and the surface of the earth in traditional Jain cosmology.

Eight groups of Vyantara gods
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

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.

Types of deities and their dwelling places

Type of god

Dwelling place

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

Cosmic man

Possibly dating back to the 16th century, this manuscript painting of the 'cosmic man' shows an elaborately dressed and jewelled human figure. The cosmic man – loka-puruṣa – represents the three worlds of the Jain universe. The lower world of the hells is

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

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.

Finally, liberated souls – siddha – live at the top of all the worlds in the siddha-śilā, signified by the white crescent moon on the cosmic man’s forehead.

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

In this manuscript painting, beings in hell are tortured by animals, demons and other infernal beings. Suffering is the hallmark of the seven hells that make up the lower world of three in the Jain universe.

Tortures in the hells
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

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.

Details of the seven hells




Depth – yojanas

Number of layers































extreme darkness



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.

Details of the Bhavana-vāsin deities


Names of princes



Names of kings – indras



fiendish youths


Camara and Bali



serpentine youths


Dharaṇa and Bhūtānanda



lightning youths


Hari and Harisaha



vulpine youths


Veṇudeva and Veṇudārin



fiery youths

jar of plenty

Agniśikha and Agnimāṇava



stormy youths


Velamba and Prabhañjana



thundering youths

symbol of prosperity – vardhamāna

Sughoṣa and Mahāghoṣa



oceanic youths

dolphin – makara

Jalakānta and Jalaprabha



island youths


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.

Animals born in the seven levels of hells

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


legless reptiles


female humans


male humans and aquatic animals, such as fish, sharks and crocodiles

If they do not gain enough good karma to be reborn in a higher world, they are born in a lower hell in their next birth.

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 knowledgevibhaṅga – 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

The eight types of Vyantara gods and their tree emblems are depicted in this manuscript painting. The Vyantaras are not liberated souls – they are trapped in the cycle of births – and can therefore be worshipped for worldly gains.

Vyantara gods and their emblems
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

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.

Details of the Vyantara gods





Names of the two kings




kadamba tree

Kāla and Mahākāla




sulasa tree

Surūpa and Apratirūpa



treasure keeper

banyan tree

Pūrṇabhadra and Maṇibhadra




khaṭvānga tree

Bhīma and Mahābhīma



deformed humans

aśoka tree

Kinnara and Kimpuruṣa



deformed persons

campaka tree

Satpuruṣa and Mahāpuruṣa



great serpents

nāgadru tree

Atikāya and Mahākāya



celestial musicians

tumburu tree

Gītarati and Gītayaśas

Middle world – the world of humans

This 19th-century aḍhāī-dvīpa demonstrates the importance of symmetry and repetition in traditional Jain ideas of the universe. An aḍhāī-dvīpa is a colourful, detailed diagram of the Two and A Half Continents where human beings live

Two and A Half Continents
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

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.

The 90 continents and oceans of the middle world



1. Jambū-dvīpa

2. Lavaṇa-samudra

3. Dhātakīkhaṇḍa

4. Kālodadhi

5. Puṣkara-dvīpa

6. Puṣkaroda

7. Vāruṇīvara

8. Vāruṇoda

9. Kṣīravara

10. Kṣīroda

11. Ghṛtavara

12. Ghṛtoda

13. Kṣodavara

14. Kṣododa

15. Nandīśvara-dvīpa

16. Nandīśvaroda

17. Aruṇa-dvīpa

18. Aruṇa ocean

19. Aruṇavara

20. Aruṇavarāvabhāsa ocean

21. Kuṇḍala-dvīpa

22. Kuṇḍala ocean

23. Kuṇḍalavara-dvīpa

24. Kuṇḍalavara ocean

25. Kuṇḍalavarāvabhāsa-dvīpa

26. Kuṇḍalavarāvabhāsa ocean

27. Śaṅkha

28. Śaṅkha ocean

29. Śaṅkhavara

30. Śaṅkhavara ocean

31. Śaṅkhavarāvabhāsa

32. Śaṅkhavarāvabhāsa

33. Rucaka

34. Rucaka ocean

35. Rucakavara

36. Rucakavara ocean

37. Rucakavarāvabhāsa

38. Rucakavarāvabhāsa ocean

39. Hāra

40. Hāra ocean

41. Hāravara

42. Hāravara ocean

43. Hāravarāvabhāsa

44. Hāravarāvabhāsa ocean

45. Ardhahāra

46. Ardhahāra ocean

47. Ardhahāravara

48. Ardhahāravara ocean

49. Ardhahārāvabhāsa

50. Ardhahārāvabhāsa ocean

51. Kanakāvali

52. Kanakāvali ocean

53. Kanakāvalivara

54. Kanakāvalivara ocean

55. Kanakāvalivarāvabhāsa

56. Kanakāvalivarāvabhāsa ocean

57. Ratnāvali

58. Ratnāvali ocean

59. Ratnāvalivara

60. Ratnāvalivara ocean

61. Ratnāvalivarāvabhāsa

62. Ratnāvalivarāvabhāsa ocean

63. Muktāvali

64. Muktāvali ocean

65. Muktāvalivara

66. Muktāvalivara ocean

67. Muktāvalivarāvabhāsa

68. Muktāvalivarāvabhāsa ocean

69. Ājina

70. Ājina ocean

71. Ājinavara

72. Ājinavara ocean

73. Ājinavarāvabhāsa

74. Ājinavarāvabhāsa ocean

75. Sūrya

76. Sūrya ocean

77. Sūryavara

78. Sūryavara ocean

79. Sūryavarāvabhāsa

80. Sūryavarāvabhāsa ocean

81. Deva

82. Deva ocean

83. Nāga

84. Nāga ocean

85. Yakṣa

86. Yakṣa ocean

87. Bhūta

88. Bhūta ocean

89. Svayambhūramaṇa

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.

Jambū-dvīpa is the centrepiece of Aḍhāī-dvīpa, which means ‘Two and A Half Continents’ in Hindi. It is the only part of the universe where human beings live.

The Two and A Half Continents is comprised of:

  • Jambū-dvīpa
  • 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
This manuscript painting shows the three beautiful garden terraces of Mount Meru and the temple at its peak. Mount Meru is the cosmic axis, centre of the three worlds of the Jain universe, and is usually yellow in paintings

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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Anand K. Coomaraswamy
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Julia A. B. Hegewald
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volume 16
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