The Concept of Leśyā in Jaina Literature

Posted: 27.06.2017
Updated on: 23.10.2017

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London

Leśyā or les(s)ā in Prākrit has been expressed in various ways in Jainism - as colour of the soul, type of soul, karmic stain, aura, (volitional) colouration, thought paint etc. There are six main classes of leśyā; kṛṣṇa (black), nīla (blue), kāpota (grey), tejas (red), padma (lotus pink) and śukla (white) of which the first three are considered meritorious and the last three non-meritorious (Jaini 1927/1990:254). Modern scholars have stated that it is difficult to trace the etymology and history of origin of leśyā in Jainism, as allegorical use of colour has also been used in other South Asian traditions and some feel that this concept may have originated from or was shared by other traditions. The leśyās are compared with the colour coded abhijātis (social classes) of the Ājīvikas (Bruhn 2003:45): jīvavarṇa (soul colour or hierarchically ordered social categories) in the Mokṣadharma section of the Mahābhārata; correspondence of the six leśyās with the three guṇas (natural qualities) of prakṛti (matter): sattva (clear, pure), rajas (fiery) and tamas (darkness) of Sāṃkhya; and colours of kamma (deeds) and the colour application to the spiritual classification of monks in Buddhism.

This article is based on my SOAS MA dissertation which argues that the concept of leśyā plays an important role in Jaina karma theory, 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). On the basis of an analysis and reinterpretation of various aspects of leśyā discussed in the secondary literature and translations and modern commentaries on primary texts, it is argued that the concept of leśyā is important in the Jaina doctrine of karman because it has two applications: firstly allegorical, which is how it may have started when the karman doctrine was not fully developed and colour was used to symbolize the quality of soul or deed; and secondly, the concept gained technical, ontological application. Once karman was interpreted in terms of the theory of atoms the allegorical notion of colour associated with certain actions was explained as a material property of karmic matter. Hence as the karman doctrine became more sophisticated, so did the concept of leśyā (Tatia 1966:22).

The basis of Jaina philosophy is avoiding all kinds of sinful activity, which was very much emphasized in the early doctrines.  The early terms used were ārambha (causing injury) and kriyā (unworthy and worthy acts) (Dixit 1978: 5f., 37). Sūtrakṛtāṅga 2.2.20 (see Jacobi's translation, SBE Vol. 45) mentions kriyā, not karmic particles, being expressed in terms of leśyā. Hence the allegorical use of colour to categorize evil, unwholesome actions or thoughts is an important aspect and it is also a useful tool in pedagogic understanding and transmission of doctrine. The parable of six men searching for food, in the Karmagranthas is an example (Glasenapp 1942/1991:48). (See picture)

Picture depicting the parable on leśyā in the Karmagrantha.  Source: Surana (2009):

The second application is based on the Jaina belief in the ontological duality of nature, which explains that the jīva or soul is sentient and not made up of atoms or molecules, and that ajīva is non-sentient or physical matter and has the material properties (paudgalika) of  touch, taste, smell and colour (TS 5.4, 5.23). A later text, the Uttarādhyayana Sūtra 34, which is one of the fundamental texts, is key in expressing this version of the leśyā doctrine. Karman which is considered paudgalika in Jainism, envelopes the worldly soul. This intimate association casts a shadow or reflects on the soul, giving it colour, which explains leśyā as 'colour of the soul' and also gives identity to the worldly soul. A common simile is that of a crystal being tinged by a coloured object adjacent to it. An example of this is quoted in Kundakunda's Samayasāra §278-9 (Edholm 1988:109, n.15). The etymology of leśyā explained by Abhayadevasūri may give an insight to understanding this application. He derives leśyā from liśyate and explains that 'leśyā is that which a living being [soul] is connected with or burned with karma' in his commentary to the Sthānāṅga Sūtra (Wiley 2000:351f.).

Jaina soteriology is about purification of the soul from the contamination by karman and the pure soul (siddha) is without leśyā. However leśyā is not karman, but it appears only if there is karmic bondage to the soul. If according to Jaina doctrine the soul is considered to be without any material attributes, then how can it have this stain, colour or aura? The exact nature of the relationship between karmic matter and the non-material soul is difficult to describe. From the conventional point of view (vyavahāra), bondage is explained in terms of an actual physical association between these two existents (dravya). However, there is no actual contact between them —rather they occupy the same locus (ekakṣetrāvagāha) (Jaini 1979/1998:113f.). Leśyā is not visible to the human senses, but only to those who possess special knowledge, that of avadhi (clairvoyant) and kevala (omniscient) (Ohira 1978-80:119f.).

The ontological basis to express leśyā of the soul has dual aspects - one, the psychic conditions which modify the soul brought about by the vibration of the space-points (bhāva-leśyā) and the other, the soul's attachment to the material (paudgalika) karman which produces an alteration (dravya-leśyā) (Tatia 1966:21; Wiley 2000:355). The colour of the physical body is also determined by dravyaleśyā. The distinction between dravya and bhāva-leśyā is different from that between dravya-karman which is a specific type of physical matter itself, and bhāva-karman which is the transformation or modification of the soul caused by corresponding dravya-karman (Wiley 2000:363). Hence there are two aspects of dravya-leśyā: the soul's association with material karman and the colour of the physical body. The colour of the physical body is not indicative of the colour of the soul as in the case of the sayogi-kevalin (omniscient with activity) who has only śukla-leśyā while the colour of his body may even be black as in the case of Neminātha (Wiley 2000:357).

Other modern studies have debated the possible causes of leśyā, where yoga (activity, especially mental), kaṣāyas (passions) and aṣṭa-karman (eight categories of karman) are debated as the causes. Yoga is considered as a highly probable cause of leśyā as it is considered to be the transformation of the soul, dependent upon the activity of the mind, which Jacobi has translated as adhyavasāya in UtS 34.1 (Jacobi 1895/2004:196).

Leśyā also has many interconnections with other concepts like kaṣāya (passion), guṇasthāna (spiritual status), dhyāna (meditation) and mārgaṇā (soul-quest) which are important in the classical Jaina karman doctrine. To attain mokṣa a soul must be free of all karmic matter. The degree to which the soul is purified is described in terms of fourteen spiritual stages or guṇasthānas which indicate the theoretical gradation of aspirants in accordance with disappearance of the causes of karmic bondage. The final three guṇasthānas are most relevant to the discussion of leśyās. The twelfth (kṣhīna-moha) is attained when all kaṣāyas  are overcome through destruction of all conduct-deluding (cāritra-mohanīya) karmas. Then śukla-leśyā is irreversible. At the thirteenth stage the omniscient is sayogi-kevalin with only subtle vibratory activities present due to the presence of śarīra-nāma karman. The sayogi-kevalin possesses śukla-leśyā and is sa-leśyā (with leśyā) at the fourteenth stage, that of ayogi-kevalin (omniscient without vibrations) a momentary state prior to death when all longevity (āyu) karman is exhausted and leśyā is absent (a-leśya). Regarding dhyāna, the first śukla-dhyāna starts at the eighth guṇasthāna (Jaini 1927/1990: 42) and the transition between the final two guṇasthānas occurs when the kevalin performs third and fourth śukla-dhyāna meditations (Wiley 2000:350). These interconnections with other concepts strengthen the argument that the concept of leśyā is important to the Jaina karman doctrine.

With regard to the origin of the concept of leśyā in Jainism, the comparable application of colours in the Upaniṣads may be the crux as regards the historical sequence of ideas. However, my argument of the two applications of leśyā to the Jaina karman doctrine holds whether or not the concept was imported and superimposed upon Jaina philosophy.

Shruti Malde completed her MA in the Study of Religions (Major in Jainism) at SOAS in September 2010. Her dissertation 'The Concept of Leśyā in Jaina Literature' was awarded the CoJS Dissertation Prize in Jaina Studies, sponsored by the N.K. Sethia Foundation through the Institute of Jainology.


Primary Sources

ĀS Ācārāṅga Sūtra. Translated by Hermann Jacobi. Sacred Books of the East. Vol. 22. Jaina Sutras Part I, 1-213. Ed. Max Müller. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1884/2002.

TS Tattvārtha Sūtra of Umāsvāti. Translated by Nathmal Tatia as Tattvārtha Sūtra: That Which Is. San Francisco & London: HarperCollins, 1994.

SS Samayasāra of Ācārya Kundakunda. Edited and Translated by Prof. A. Chakravarti Nayanar. New Delhi: Today and Tomorrow's Publishers, 1930/ 2005.

SKT Sūtrakṛtāṅga Sūtra. Translated by Hermann Jacobi. Sacred Books of the East. Vol. 45. Jaina Sūtras Part II, 235-435. Ed. Max Müller. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1895/2004.

UtS Uttarādhyayana Sūtra. Translated by Hermann Jacobi. Sacred Books of the East Vol. 45. Jaina Sūtras Part II, 1-232. Ed. Max Müller. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1895/2004.

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Glasenapp, Helmuth von. Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy. Translated from the original German by Mr. Barry Gifford. Varanasi: P.V. Research Institute, 1915/1942/1991.

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