Cosmology: Jain Cosmology

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Jainism, a renunciatory tradition that emerged in the Ganges basin of India around the seventh and sixth centuries bce, produced a model of the universe virtually unrivalled in complexity among ancient cosmologies. Without beginning or end, this vast system is not controlled by any overseeing deity and is one in which human beings are restricted to an extremely delimited location. As such, it serves to remind Jains of the rarity of human birth, which alone can bring about liberation.

The rich textual sources for Jain cosmology span almost two millennia. It is possible to trace the early development of Jain cosmological ideas in scriptural texts like the Vyākhyāprajñapti and Sthānāga Sūtra (c. first century bcethird century ce) and detailed descriptions are found in the various subsidiary (upāga ) scriptures of the canon such as the Jambūdvīpaprajñapti Sūtra which date from around the fourth century ce. Umāsvāti''s Tattvārtha Sūtra (c. fourth century ce) provides an authoritative systematization of ancient trends. Since medieval times knowledge of traditional cosmology has been mediated to ascetic and lay Śvetāmbara Jains through a genre of texts called Sagrahaī. The earliest recension is the Bhatsagrahanī of Jinabhadra Ganin (sixth century ce), while the Laghusagrahaī, compiled by Candra Sūri in 1136, proved the most influential throughout the late medieval period and after. Manuscripts of these texts are usually lavishly illustrated.


The Jain term for the universe, loka, is a Sanskrit word found in the gveda (c. twelfth to tenth centuries bce), where it has the sense of "open space" (cf. Latin lucus, "sacred space"). However, descriptions of the loka in the form of a detailed cosmology developed only gradually in the course of the Jain canonical period (between c. 400 bce and 400 ce) and it is uncertain to what extent Mahāvīra, the twenty-fourth tīrthakara (or teacher), was responsible for communicating anything beyond the bare rudiments of the system. Early Jain texts simply contrast the loka with the non-loka without any explanation, and unquestionably there are aspects of developed Jain cosmology, such as the structure of the continents of the Middle World, which derive from Hindu models that emerged near the beginning of the common era.

The Vyākhyāprajñapti Sūtra contains a passage (5:9) in which Mahāvīra concedes that the basic structure of the loka had been taught by the twenty-third tīrthakara, Pārśva, who supposedly flourished around the seventh century bce. Since the Vyākhyāprajñapti most likely does not antedate the first century bce, this may be an anachronistic attempt to confirm the existence of a linkage between Pārśva and Mahāvīra. Nonetheless, the description given of the loka as broad at the top and bottom like a bed and an upturned drum respectively and narrow in the middle like the god Indra's thunderbolt weapon is one that was not substantially altered thereafter. Only after the beginning of the second millennium ce did Jain artists start to represent the loka in the form of a (male or female) cosmic giant.

The Sūtraktāga Sūtra (1:5) and the Uttarādhyayana Sūtra (chapter 19), ancient texts of the Śvetāmbara canon, describe a variety of hells that were probably essential to early Jain teachings about the perils of violence and the consequent fall from human state, although there is no attempt to provide either the elaborate systematization found at a later date or any linkage of them to a larger cosmic structure. These hells are presented as places of torment of various kinds, encompassed simultaneously by darkness, blazing fire, and cold, where demonic torturers and tortured alike experience the consequences of their previous violent actions. Mention is made of a hellish river called Vaitaraī, whose waves are like razor blades, and also of a huge mountain that looms over the suffering.

The Structure of the Loka

What follows represents the standardized picture of the Jain universe, although there are many differences concerning detail between the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects. To pious Jains the vast complexity and detail recorded by monastic cosmologists reflect the omniscient and all-encompassing perception of the tīrthakaras, the saving teachers.

The loka is envisaged as being a finite tripartite structure set in the non-loka, like a boat in water, consisting of an upper tier of heavens, at the summit of which lies the realm of the liberated souls, a lower tier of hells, and, in between, a narrow band wherein is located a system of island-continents and oceans. Immediately outside the loka are atmospheric layers of various types of air. Beyond these is nothing, empty space in which no entity exists.

The basic unit of cosmological measurement given in the scriptural texts is the yojana, loosely speaking, "a league." Later Jain cosmologists employ the rajju, or "rope," to measure the dimensions of the loka. This represents the distance traversed by a god flying in a straight line for six months at a speed of 2,057,152 yojanas an instant. Overall, the loka is estimated as being fourteen rajjus in height from top to bottom, seven rajjus wide at top and bottom, in its middle section a mere one rajju wide, and seven rajjus thick throughout.

Connecting the three realms of the loka is a vertical channel called the trasanāī, in which all moving creatures are located.

In recent years, noteworthy large-scale models of the loka and the central island-continent of Jambūdvīpa (see below) have been erected at Pālitānā and Hāstinapur respectively.

The Middle World

The configuration of the Middle World (madhyaloka) takes the form of a horizontal disk containing a system of circular oceans, each of which abuts onto a circular island-continent (dvīpa). The water of all the oceans is not uniformly salty; some taste of wine, milk, or sugarcane. Although the constituents of this system are technically regarded as being beyond normal calculation (asakhyātaā), in actuality Jain cosmology is concerned only with the central sixteen oceans and sixteen island-continents.

At the center of the Middle World are the "Two-and-a-Half Island-continents" (Ahāīdvīpa) that constitute the world of human beings, namely the island-continent of Jambūdvīpa, spatially a disc of 100,000 yojanas in width (as opposed to the ring shape of the other continents), the island-continent of Dhātakīkhaa, which is 400,000 yojanas in width, and half of the island-continent of Pukara, which is 800,000 yojanas in width. Jambūdvīpa, which is located at the very center of the Middle World, is separated from Dhātakīkhaa by the Salt Ocean (Lavaasamudra), while Dhātakīkhaa is separated from Pukara by the Black Water (Kālodadhi) Ocean. At the center of Pukara is a range of mountains beyond which, that is to say as far as the outermost island-continent of the Middle World called Svayambhūramaa, no human beings live, only animals which are reborn in the heavenly realms after death. Furthermore, the normal operations of time cease at Pukara's central mountain range.

Jambūdvīpa, "The Island of the Rose-apple Tree," is the most precisely described area of the loka. It is named after the rose-apple (jambū) tree that stands beside Mount Meru, which is 100,000 yojanas in height and constitutes the central axis of the island-continent. On the perimeter of Jambūdvīpa is an encircling adamantine wall of eight yojanas height in which four huge doors are set at the cardinal direction points and through which the rivers of the island-continent flow into the Salt Ocean.

Jambūdvīpa is divided into seven regions (vara), separated from each other by six mountain ranges that extend outwards from Mount Meru from east to west. These regions are called Bhārata, Haimavata, Ramyaka, Videha (sometimes Mahāvideha), Hari, Hairayaka, and Airāvata. Of these regions, Bhārata, Airāvata, and half of Videha are karmabhūmis, where religious actions are fully efficacious in terms of possible rebirth and ultimate salvation, whereas the remaining regions are bhogabhūmis, where human beings can flourish in worldly comfort but cannot advance seriously on the path to liberation. Five karmabhūmis are also found on both the island-continents of Dhātakīkhaa and Pukara.

The region of Bhārata is located at the south of Jambūdvīpa and is effectively the equivalent of the contemporary geographical entity called South Asia, as can be seen by its two rivers, the Sindhu (Indus) and the Gagā (Ganges), both of which flow in the west and east into the Salt Ocean, and the presence to the north of the Himavat range, or the Himalayas. The influence of terrestrial geography can also be seen from the fact that the capital city of Bhārata called Ayodhyā, the name of the hero-god Rāma's capital and from the third century ce the capital of the Gupta Empire that dominated north India.

To the south of the Himavat range is a further range of mountains called Vaitāhya, which contains cities inhabited by vidyādharas, semi-divine beings with the power of flight who can traverse the whole continent, but lack the ability to gain deliverance. The Vaitāhya mountains, in conjunction with the Sindhu and Gagā, divide Bhārata into six parts. Five of these are barbarian (mleccha) regions where inclination to follow Jain teachings is weak and the possibility of deliverance absent, while only one is "aryan," inhabited by people who are naturally susceptible to Jainism and the birthplace of all twenty-four tīrthakaras of this age. The region of Airāvata in the north of Jambūdvīpa evinces exactly the same structure and constituents as Bhārata, with its two rivers being called the Raktodā and the Raktā. More broadly, the continents of Dhātakīkhaa and Pukara mirror the geographical structure of Jambūdvīpa.

The largest region of Jambūdvīpa is the central strip called Videha (sometimes Mahāvideha, "Great Videha," because of its importance), which divides the island-continent and at whose center is Mount Meru, while two rivers, the Sitā and Sitodā, flow through it to the east and west. Videha, which is divided into thirty-two parts mirroring Bhārata and Airāvata, is immune from any sort of disaster and its inhabitants, Jain laypeople and ascetics, live morally responsible lives. Cycles of time do not hold sway there as elsewhere and tīrthakaras appear continually, from four to thirty-two simultaneously. Of the four currently preaching in Videha at present, Sīmandhara is a significant object of devotion to Jains in India. Videha and its tīrthakaras are not directly accessible to human beings in other regions of Jambūdvīpa. One must either be reborn there or, exceptionally, be transported there by supernatural means, as in the case of the Digambara teacher Kundakunda (early common era), whose hagiographies claim that he was able to visit Sīmandhara and hear the doctrine being preached by him.

Highly significant in Jain cosmology is the eighth island-continent from Jambūdvīpa, which is known as Nandīśvara. Inaccessible to human beings, this island-continent contains fifty-two mountains, each of which has on its peak a Jina temple of great magnificence. The gods visit Nandīśvara on regular festival days to worship the images in these temples. It is common for Jain temples today to contain representations of the shrines at Nandīśvara.

Around nine hundred yojanas above Jambūdvīpa are the celestial bodies: the planets and stars and their stations, conceived of as the chariots of the gods of light (jyotia). In keeping with the mirroring structure of the north and south parts of Jambūdvīpa, the Jain cosmologists assert that two moons and two suns hold sway over the periods of darkness and light.

The Lower World

Around one thousand yojanas beneath the Middle World is the Lower World (adholoka), seven rajjus high, which consists of seven tiers (bhūmi) constructed of an earth-like material substance. Each tier has within it a number of hells, with the highest containing three million and the lowest only five. These seven realms are called Ratnaprabhā ("Jewel-colored"), Śarkaraprabhā ("Gravel-colored"), Vālukāprabhā ("Sand-colored"), Pakaprabhā ("Mud-colored"), Dhūmaprabhā ("Smoke-colored"), Tamaprabhā ("Darkness-colored"), and Tamastama-prabhā ("Most Intense Darkness-colored"). The bottom of each tier of the Lower World fits into the top of the one below, with the whole structure being supported upon space.

Ratnaprabhā, the highest tier of the Lower World, is relatively bright, but darkness increases at each successively lower level, as does the amount of suffering endured by those who are spontaneously born and live there. Such beings are commensurately greater physically and more long-lived the further they descend. Animals can be reborn in most of the hells. Female human beings cannot be reborn below the sixth hell, while only male human beings and species of water-dwelling creatures can be reborn in the seventh hell.

The hells of the Lower World represent a terrifying extension of the basic Jain principle that negative karma, the result of evildoing in previous existences, has to be eliminated by the practice of austerities. In Jainism the Lower World has no central ruler equivalent to the Hindu god Yama. Rather, a superficial chaos seems to prevail, though in actuality the suffering inflicted by hell-beings on themselves and each other is in precise accord with evil previously committed, so that when the karmic penalty has run its course, the hell being dies and is then reborn in the Middle World as animal or human. While Jainism does posit the possibility of eternal rebirth for some unfortunate predestined beings, unceasing residence in any one of the hells is not a possibility.

In the space between the Middle World and Ratnaprabhā, the first hellish realm of the Lower World, live varieties of (sometimes) antinomian deities. The "Palace-dwelling" (Bhavanavāsin) gods experience lives of princely luxury similar to their terrestrial counterparts. The "Interstitial" (Vyantara) gods are often found in rock clefts or within trees. Both categories of god frequently visit the world of humans and they might best be classified as demiurges, similar to the tutelary deities who form part of the Jain pantheon.

The Upper World

Above the Middle World and the gods of light is located the Upper World (ūrdhvaloka), which is seven rajjus high (including the negligible height of the Middle World). This consists of a series of tiered heavens (kalpa) inhabited by the Vaimānika gods, so called because of the celestial chariots (vimāna), effectively palaces, in which they ride. According to the Śvetāmbara sect, the first, second, seventh, and eighth heavens are divided into northern and southern halves, thus constituting separate heavenly regions, while for the Digambaras the first eight heavens are divided in this way. Further divisions are also found within the higher heavenly tiers. Thus for the Śvetāmbaras there are twenty-six heavens in total, for the Digambaras thirty-nine.

The Vaimānika gods, whose period of existence and mental attainments are governed by karma, are divided into two main categories. The lower category does not invariably possess correct faith (samyagdi) in Jain principles and inhabit the twelve lower heavens. The higher category lives above the lower heavens and possesses the necessary faith that will eventually lead to the attainment of deliverance. The higher the level a god inhabits, the greater his psychic and spiritual attainments. The lower heavens are variously colored (black, blue, red, yellow, and white), but the higher heavenly realms are increasingly white in token of their purity and distance from the passions. This reflects a doctrine of Jain karma theory that holds that the life-monad (jīva) assumes colors (leśyā) according to the influence of the types of karma it has accrued.

The Vaimānika gods live in conformity to a hierarchical structure replicating that of the cities, courts, and kingdoms of the human world. Many of their heavens are ruled by a category of gods called Indra, whose name derives from that of the Vedic warrior-god. Another category of god called kilbiaka functions in a serving capacity, effectively the equivalent of human untouchables. Jain narratives frequently refer to Vaimānika gods who are able to travel to the Middle and Lower Worlds to visit and counsel former relatives and acquaintances living there.

The goddesses of the Upper World cannot inhabit a heaven beyond the second level, although they are capable of reaching as high as the eighth level on a temporary basis. The gods and goddesses conduct sexual relations in the two lowest heavenly levels in the same manner as human beings. However, sexual activity becomes progressively more refined amongst the higher Vaimānika deities and passion plays no part in the upper heavenly levels where the deities are very close to that final human birth which will bring about deliverance.

A noteworthy feature of the Upper World is the Black Fields (Karājī). Located within the fifth heaven, they constitute a dark heavenly region consisting of eight masses of water and coagulated vegetable matter, portrayed in Jain cosmological art as triangular, oblong, hexagonal and circular in shape, which flow up from the Aruavara ocean of the Middle World. Rain and thunder are produced in the Black Fields and they serve as an inevitable and repeated staging post for all living beings in the beginningless rebirth process.

The Realm of the Liberated

Twelve leagues above Pañcānuttara, the highest heavenly level of the Upper World, is Īatprāgbhāra, the "Slightly Curving Place," so called because it has the shape of a parasol. This is the permanent abode of those who have achieved liberation (siddha) and freedom from rebirth.

Jain cosmology depicts Īatprāgbhāra in concrete terms, although its inhabitants are without physicality. The whole of this realm is made of white gold. It is eight yojanas high at its middle point and (according to Śvetāmbara cosmology) 4,500,000 yojanas wide. In the middle of Īatprāgbhāra there is a circular rock, eight yojanas in height and width. One yojana above this rock is the very edge and end of the loka and it is in this area that the liberated dwell, in number beyond calculation.


For Jainism, the universe has no beginning or end. As a consequence, the tradition evinces a major preoccupation with time. Although Jainism subscribes to the basic system of time-units found in Brahmanic tradition and on occasion utilizes the model of time as divided into epochs (yuga) elaborated in Purāic Hinduism, it evolved its own system of cosmic reckoning in which huge periods of duration were enumerated.

The central unit of time for Jainism is envisaged as being equivalent to the turning of a wheel continually repeated throughout eternity and providing a totalizing explanation of human progress and decline. This is divided into two half-motions, a "down-moving" (avasarpiī) succeeded by an "up-moving" (utsarpiī) to be followed by a "down-moving" and an "up-moving," and so on ad perpetuum. These movements of time, sometimes also defined as six "spokes of a wheel" (ara) hold sway in the various karmabhūmi, but not in the five Videha regions of the innermost two-and-a half continents of the Middle World.

Each downward motion commences with an "extremely happy" (suamā-suamā) period that lasts 4 × 1014 sāgaropama years (one sāgaropama, literally "ocean-like" period of time, is equal to 8,400,000 × 1019 years). This is succeeded by the "happy" (suamā) period that lasts for 3 × 1014 sāgaropama years. During this period human beings, who are of massive physical dimensions and live for vast periods of time, exist in a sexually undifferentiated state and have all their physical needs satisfied by wishing trees.

The third stage of a downward movement, the "more happy than unhappy" (suamā-duamā), lasts for 2 × 1014 sāgaropama years. The fourth stage, "more unhappy than happy" (duamā-suamā), lasts 1 × 1014 sāgaropama years, less 42,000 calendrical years. During these stages, decline sets in and human beings progressively diminish in size, lifespan, and intellectual attainment, becoming sexually differentiated and without any practical abilities. The first of twenty-four tīrthakaras appears, who preaches the eternal Jain doctrine and teaches human beings cultural skills. It is only during the third and fourth stages, in which there is neither an extremity of knowledge nor of ignorance, that human beings can obtain liberation. During these periods there also appear the various universal emperors (cakravartin), nonviolent heroes (baladeva), warlike heroes (vāsudeva), and their enemies (prativāsudeva) whose careers mesh with those of the first twenty-two tīrthakaras and provide the substance of an extensive Jain legendary history.

The fifth stage, called "unhappy" (duamā), is the one in which those inhabitants of the Middle World subject to the influence of time are located at present. It lasts for 21,000 calendrical years. During this time human beings assume "normal" physical dimension and longevity, no tīrthakaras are born, the Jain community goes into decline, and receptivity to Jain teachings diminishes, until at the end, with the almost complete disappearance of knowledge of the scriptures, there remain only a single monk, nun, layman, and laywoman.

The sixth stage, the "very unhappy" (duamā-duamā), lasts for 21,000 calendrical years. During this stage, human beings degenerate completely and are reduced to the status of short-lived dwarves without any social skills who exist as troglodytes. Eventually, the sixth stage ends in a conflagration and the succeeding upward movement of time starts, with its six stages in reverse order to those of the downward motion.


Caillat, Colette, and Ravi Kumar. The Jain Cosmology. Basel, Paris, and New Delhi, 1981. Contains outstanding illustrations of Jain cosmological art.

Jnanmati, Aryika. Jaina Geography. Hāstinapur, India, 1985. A detailed account of the configuration of the Middle World by a prominent Digambara nun.

Kirfel, Willibald. Die Kosmographie der Inder. Hildesheim, Germany, 1967. See pp. 208331. The definitive treatment of Jain descriptions of the universe, containing full details of cosmological enumeration and measurement.

Ohira, Suzuko. A Study of the Bhagavatīsūtra: A Chronological Analysis. Ahmedabad, India, 1994. Important for the early development of Jain cosmology.

Paul Dundas (2005)