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Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 4.10 ► The Cosmos

Published: 09.12.2015

Thinkers throughout the ages have explored the nature of the universe, Jain thinkers no less than any others. Over the centuries a specifically Jain picture of the cosmos was developed and elaborated in great detail, and it figures extensively in traditional Jain art and forms a symbolic background to the Jain explanation of the meaning of life.

There are a large number of texts about the cosmological concepts of the Jains. The earliest canon contains cosmological references. There are specialised texts composed between the third and thirteenth centuries CE in which the Jain universe is described in detail. These include: the 'Treatise on three worlds' (Triloka Prajnaapti); the 'Treatise on the Sun' (Surya Prajnaapti); the 'Treatise on the Moon' (Candra Pragnaapti); the 'Summary of three worlds' (Trilokya Saara); the 'Illumination of three worlds' (Trilokya Dipikaa); the 'Treatise on Jambudvipa' (Jambudvipa Pragnaapti); the 'Treatise on Realities' (Tattvartha Sutra), the 'Summary of Jain geography' (Ksetra Samasa); and the 'Treatise on Jain cosmology and geography' (Bruhat Sangrahani).

The universe as conceived by the Jain tradition has two parts: one occupied by entities and the other unoccupied space, the whole being infinite in extension and time. The infinite unoccupied universe of empty space surrounds the occupied universe.

The occupied universe is imagined as being of human shape with three distinct parts: upper, middle and lower - each supporting specific worlds. (The traditional image of the occupied universe is shown in figure 4.10). There is an area, referred to as a 'channel' (trasa nali), which extends in a narrow band throughout the length of the occupied universe. It has the height of fourteen 'ropes' and a width of one 'rope' (rajju), a measurement of immense width.

This measurement is defined as the distance covered flying non-stop for six months at a speed of 2,057,152 yojanas per second. (A yojana is equal to about 6 miles). For astronomical calculations Jains use the unit of a pramaana yojana (1,000 yojanas). This is the yojana used throughout this chapter. Mobile beings live in the trasa nali, while immobile beings may live both inside and outside it. Three layers: dense water, dense air and thin air surround the wholeoccupied universe respectively. Beyond these lie empty space. The trasa nali extends the entire length of the occupied space, fourteen rajjus. Occupied space is widest at its base, seven rajjus, and then tapers to a constricted centre with a width of one rajju. From the centre upwards it increases in width to a maximum of five rajjus and then tapers again to the apex which is one rajju wide.

The upper part of the occupied universe, the 'upper world', is occupied by celestial beings. Humans, animals and plants, astral bodies and lower kinds of celestials (vyantars and bhavanvaasi) occupy the 'middle world'. The 'infernals' reside in the 'lower world'.

Figure 4.11 The traditional Jain view of the occupied universe

Figure 4.12 Sectional diagram of the traditional Middle World, showing the two-and-a-half continents inhabited by humans.

Figure 4.13 'Map' showing the relative positions of Jambudvipa and Nandisvar Dvipa which has the four groups of fifty-two eternal Jain temples.

The Lower World and Infernal Beings

The largest area of the occupied universe is the lower world. Certain types of celestial beings, opposed to good, live here with infernal beings. The lower world is seven rajjus high (or long). It consists of a stack of seven infernal regions, one above the other, and each one smaller than the one below.

Each level of the lower world is one rajju high and is surrounded and supported by layers of dense water, dense air and thin air. The top and bottom of each of the seven hells, two zones, a few thousand miles high, are uninhabited. The scriptures give names to each of the hells. They are, from top to bottom:

  • First hell: 'illuminated like jewels' (ratnaprabhaa)
  • Second hell: 'illuminated like gravel' (sarkaraaprabhaa)
  • Third hell: 'illuminated like sand' (vaalukaaprabhaa)
  • Fourth hell: 'illuminated like mud' (pankaprabhaa)
  • Fifth hell: 'illuminated like smoke' (dhumaprabhaa)
  • Sixth hell: 'illuminated like darkness' (tamahprabhaa)
  • Seventh hell: 'illuminated like deepest darkness' (tamastamah prabhaa).

The misery of the beings inhabiting the hells is the result of their karma. Only those creatures, human or animal, which have earned demerit because of evil actions, go to the lower world, from where they obtain rebirth as plants, animals or humans. After the realisation of their hellish-body producing karma, they are reborn in one of the above destinies, which depends upon the new bodyproducing karma acquired in the hellish life.

The seven regions of the lower world become gloomier and more unpleasant as one travels down. These regions are filled with pain and suffering - extremes of cold and heat, and interminable hunger and thirst. The lower world begins 900 pramaana yojanas below the base of Mount Meru (the central point of the continent on which humans live). Infernals are not born from the womb, but they come into being spontaneously in a narrow-necked vessel. They are removed from the birth vessel by evil celestial beings (parama dhaamis). Their bodies are broken when removed from the vessel, but they reconstitute themselves, just as drops of mercury flow back together. Their bodies are made of inauspicious particles of matter and are capable of adapting to any shape or size, and they possess a perverted form of clairvoyant knowledge. Most of them spend their time in conflict with one another. Infernals are not reborn as infernals, because of the realisation that their karma and resultant suffering burns away much of their bad karma. Some are reborn as lower forms of life such as plants, birds or animals, and others who suffer the results of their karma with equanimity are reborn as humans.

The Lower World and Celestial Beings

The uppermost hell of the lower world is the residence of the lowest category of celestials called the 'residentials' (bhavanvaasis), brilliant, charming, gracious and playful, each with gems, weapons and distinctive insignia. There are ten classes of 'residential' celestials, each further divided into two groups, northern and southern, both ruled over by a celestial sovereign (Indra). The asuras belong to this category.

Celestial beings are not born from the womb but come into existence spontaneously on a bed of flowers. Their bodies are made from auspicious particles of matter, and they can change their size and shape of their bodies at will. Their 'real' form is that of young people, both male and female, and they retain this youthfulness. They have a long lifespan, but six months before the end of their lives, the garland of flowers which they wear withers signifying the end of their celestial life. They feel miserable because of the thoughts of their future rebirth in utero, as an animal or human. They resemble the rich who enjoy wealth, but cannot control themselves. Those few who live an ethical life are born as human beings that can progress towards liberation. Celestial beings can be jealous of other celestial beings that are superior to them. Celestial beings have varied forms of clairvoyant knowledge and tremendous power over the material universe.

The Middle World and Celestial Beings

'Peripatetics' (vyantaras and vaana vyantaras), a second group of celestial beings, live in the middle world, 100 yojanas above the first hell and 100 yojanas below the earth. They lodge in hollows in rocks or in forests in the three worlds, and come of their own accord to help or bless humans. The peripatetics are divided into eight groups and each has sub-groups. They are recognisable by their different emblems, and two Indras, with their retinues of princes, ministers, courtesans, bodyguards, police, troops, citizens, servants and country people, command each group. The minimum lifespan of celestials is ten thousand years. Humans can control them through the meditative recital of certain mantras and, if controlled, they serve those people. The names of the different groups of the peripatetics described in the Jain scriptures are pisach, bhuta, yaksa, raaksasa, kinnara, kimpurusa, mahoraga, gaandharva and others.

Astral Celestials

Astrals are the third group of celestial beings found in the middle world, very high above the earth. These celestial beings: suns, moons, planets, constellations and stars, are known as 'astrals' (jyotiskas) as they shine brightly and light the world. It is said that these astral beings have celestial cars and chariots to transport them in and outside the palaces in which they live. We perceive these celestial vehicles and palaces by their luminescence and the radiation of heat.

These celestials reside in the area 790-900 pramaana yojanas above Mount Meru. Their movement causes days, nights, eclipses, solstices and other astronomical phenomena with which the human world is familiar. Their movement is said to affect the destiny of individuals in the human world. Jain geography describes a large 'continent' known as Jambudvipa or Jambu in the middle world. Our earth lies in the southern part of the Jambu continent. Jain texts claim that this continent has two sons and two moons. Many oceans and other continents, which are larger, surround the Jambu continent. These have an even greater number of suns and moons.

The Upper World and Celestial Beings

The fourth and highest groups of celestial beings inhabit the upper world, which is seven rajjus high. They live in the palaces of paradise. They are called the 'celestial-charioteerones' (vaimaanikas). They normally live in the heavens (kalpas) of the upper world. These celestial beings can be either 'born in paradises' (kalpopapanna) or 'beyond the kalpas' (kalpaatita). Jain texts describe fourteen heavens. Kalpopapannas live in the first twelve heavens, where they have a social structure of princes, ministers, courtesans, bodyguards, police, troops, citizens, servants and country people. Kalpaatitas are themselves like 'heavenly kings' and do not have need of any social structure. Their needs are fulfilled simply by their wishes. The first twelve kalpas are symbolised by animals: deer, buffalo, boar, lion, goat, leopard, horse, elephant, cobra, rhinoceros, bull and antelope.

Occasionally, celestials pass from one part of the world to another. Sometimes they pay visits to those who were their friends in earlier existences, either to guide them or to help them in the consecration ceremony of a recently born humans designated to be tirthankaras. Sometimes they are pleased with the sincere devotion to them and may help their devotees with material wealth. They possess miraculous chariots in which they travel, hence their description in Jain texts is as 'celestial-charioteer'.

The serenity of the inhabitants of the paradises increases gradually as one goes upward through the levels of the upper world. Their lifespan, power, radiance, morality and the sphere of their sensory and supersensory knowledge, differentiate celestial beings from each other, which increase proportionally as one moves up the ladder of the heavens.

Female celestials are born only in the two lowest heavens. Their movements are restricted as far as the eighth paradise. The sexual enjoyment of the two lowest celestial beings is similar to that of humans. The higher the level of the celestial beings, the more subtle is their sexual life. It is sufficient for them to touch, or to see or simply to hear goddesses, to satisfy their sexual urge. The celestials of the tenth and eleventh paradises can satisfy their urges by imagining the object of their desires. Finally, beyond the twelfth paradise they are rid of their passions. They are pure, satisfied and serene.

The first four and the last four paradises are usually grouped in pairs. The celestial world also contains matter and darkness, since water and vegetable particles arising from one of the large seas of the middle world spread right up to the fifth heaven, Brahmaloka. In this level of the fifth heaven, eight dark masses (krisnaraajis), or conglomerations are found. In these masses are the lower forms of life, every living being is born several times on the cycle of transmigration. In it asura and naaga celestials produce rain or thunder. The nine 'gods of the limits of the world' (lokaantikas), the guardians of the four cardinal directions, and the four intermediate directions and the zenith. reside in the fifth heaven.

There are sixty-two layers of 'celestial chariots' in the heavens and beyond, arranged to prevent collisions. Jain texts describe thirteen layers in Saudharma and Isaana, twelve in Sanatkumara and Mahendra, six in Brahmaloka, five in Lokaantika, four in Mahusukra, four in Sahasrara, and then four in Anata and Pranata, and four more in the Aarana and Acyuta regions of the heaven. There are nine layers in graiveyakas and a single layer in anuttara.

The nine graiveyakas and the five 'unsurpassables' (annuttaras) reside in the thirteenth and fourteenth heavens. Annuttaras are very close to that final perfection which they will attain after two human births. Under the crescent of siddha silaa, the 'all-accomplished' celestials (sarvarthasiddha) reside and they will be reborn just once as humans, since human existence is the only one through which one may attain liberation.

Jains believe that rebirth is dependent on the merit and demerit acquired in previous lives, and on the maturing of attached karma to the soul. Humans and five-sensed animals have the possibility of attaining heavenly life in the upper world. The celestials and the infernals are not reborn as celestials. Ascetics, whether Jains or not, who venerate spiritual teachers and their doctrine, wear the insignia of their religion, repeat and teach the scriptures to the laity, and who observe Right Conduct (but do not have Right Faith) can be reborn up to the ninth heaven.

The Middle World

The middle world is the region from where the soul can attain liberation. Jain cosmology pictures the middle world as a flat, elliptical disk, one rajju wide and 100,000 yojanas high. It is made up of concentric rings of 'continents' and 'oceans' as diagrammatically shown in figure 3.2. In the centre of the middle world is the Jambu continent with a diameter of a hundred thousand yojanas. A salty ocean (lavana-samudra) of twice the area of the Jambu continent surrounds it. Lavana-samudra contains four vast recepticles (paataala), at the four cardinal points, which function to produce tides along with velamdhara mountains (found in the salty ocean) to regulate the sea. Paataalas are the abode of the kaala and mahaakaala groups of divinities. This ocean is itself surrounded by the dhaataki continent, around which lies the ocean of kaalodadhi samudra and the pushkarvar continent. A range of mountains called manusottar divides this continent. Human beings and animals inhabit jambudvipa, dhaataki and half of the pushkarvar continent. These two and a half continents mentioned in Jain geography are 4.5 million yojanas in diameter. There are more continents and ocean surrounding one another, represented in Jain cosmology as concentric circles, the last one being an ocean of immense size called svayambhuraman.

The eighth concentric ring is the continent of nandisvaradvipa, where, fifty-two eternal Jina temples are situated as shown in figure 4.11, celestials go to worship the jinas at the time of the kalyanakas of the jinas, auspicious events in the lives of the jinas, and atthai mahotsava, an eight-day celebration of rituals and pujaas. The nandhyavarta diagram, an elaborate swastika design, formed from rice grains by most Jains during temple worship, reflects veneration of those holy places. Rare accomplished humans may travel as far as nandisvaradvipa. Occasionally, humans can be found beyond the two and a half continents if celestials take them there, but no human being can experience birth or death beyond these continents.

The Jambu continent is the region we inhabitat. In its centre is Mount Meru, 100,000 yojanas high (1,000 yojanas below the earth and 99,000 yojanas above the earth). Its base-diameter is 100,000 yojanas, which reduces to 1,000 yojanas at its peak. The surface is divided into four terraces at different heights, each terrace having a lush and environmentally pleasing forest, parks full of flowers, trees, forests, palaces and temples and are named after the forest of 'prosperous trees' (bhadrasal van): 'pleasing' (nandan van), 'flowery' (somanas van) and 'pink-flowery' (padnuka van). There is a pinnacle on the fourth terrace with jina temples at its four corners, and there are four crescent-shaped rocks on which newborn tirthankaras are bathed.

The Jambu continent has many rivers. It has six mountain ranges of different colours crossing the Jambu continent from east to west. They divide it into seven regions or countries. The seven regions are: Bharat, Airavat, Hemvat, Hairanyavat, Hari, Pamyak and (Mahaa)videha. Each region is presided over by a deity named after the region itself. Bharat is in the south and Airavat is in the north, both of similar size and constituents. The two and a half continents are called the 'land of action' (karmabhumi), where the law of retribution for actions operates. Only there human beings can attain liberation. Jain cosmology describes thirty-five karmabhumis, but from only fifteen can one attain liberation. These are: Bharat, Airavat and Mahaavideha on Jambudvipa; two Bharats, two Airavats and two Mahaavidehas on Dhataki continent; and two Bharats, two Airavats and two Mahaavidehas on the Puskara continent.

There are also 'lands of pleasure' (bhogabhumi) whose inhabitants are born as 'couples' and whose needs and desires are satisfied by 'wish-fulfilling trees' (kalpavruksas). They are fifty-six in number and are known as antardvipas. In addition to karmabhumis, tirthankaras may be born in these antardvipas.

In the 'land of action' people have to learn and earn a living through activities such as government, defence, agriculture, education, business, arts and handicrafts. Living beings in the 'land of action' are differentiated from those in the 'lands of pleasure' by the fact that they are capable of attaining liberation. Hence, birth in the land of action is considered superior. Jain scriptures mention that human beings living in (Mahaa)videha are simple and can easily attain liberation, as the environment of the (Mahaa)videha region is conducive to spiritual advancement. Twenty tithankaras live and preach in (Mahaa)videha at any time. Some other continents also have tirthankaras. Jains venerate the tirthankaras of the (Mahaa)videha region. Many temples have images of Simandhara Svami, the senior tirthankara of (Mahaa) videha. During the morning penitential retreat, eulogies to venerate Simandhara Svami are recited.

The (Mahaa)videha region is sub-divided into thirty-two smaller regions or empires (vijayas) and consists of the same elements as our earth. Jain cosmological texts describe Jambudvipa in detail. The description given and the artistically presented diagrams are fascinating (Caillat and Ravi Kumar 1981: pp. 31, 119, 143; Jausundar Muni date n.a: 3, 8, 12;Doshi S. 1985: 67-86)

Jain texts abound in precise details on this cosmology and geography. Modern science is sceptical about it. Whether one accepts or does not accept the traditional cosmology has no bearing upon the contribution of Jainism to spiritual matters.


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Acyuta
  2. Asura
  3. Candra
  4. Environment
  5. Equanimity
  6. Indra
  7. Jain Art
  8. Jain Cosmology
  9. Jain Temples
  10. Jainism
  11. Jambudvipa
  12. Jina
  13. Kaala
  14. Kalpopapanna
  15. Karma
  16. Kinnara
  17. Meru
  18. Mount Meru
  19. Muni
  20. Nandisvar
  21. Rajju
  22. Science
  23. Siddha
  24. Soul
  25. Space
  26. Sutra
  27. Swastika
  28. Tattvartha Sutra
  29. Tirthankara
  30. Tirthankaras
  31. Trasa
  32. Yaksa
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