Who are we, where do we come from and what is our place in the universe? These questions have confounded humans across millennia, and all religions attempt to answer these existential challenges.
While Christianity and other monotheistic religions like Islam and Judaism assume a transcendent and sovereign God who created the universe and continually maintains its existence, the Hindu scriptures consider that the universe is cyclically created and destroyed.
The Jain religion, on the other hand, believes that the universe has existed since infinity; it has not been created and has no beginning or end. The Jains depict their understanding of the cosmic world in a set of vivid paintings that have been passed down through religious texts and manuscripts.
Let’s embark on a journey through the many realms in the Jain universe, to get an idea of what they make of the cosmic world. The Jain text Tattvartha Sutra – literally translated, it means ‘a commentary on the true nature of realities’ – written by Umasvati between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE, is considered one of the most authoritative books on Jain cosmology. It says the universe is divided into three parts – broad at the top, narrow in the middle and again broad at the bottom, just like a man standing with legs apart and arms resting on his waist.
Illustrations of this cosmic ‘man’ or Lokapurusha can be found in many Jain manuscripts. Interestingly, the three parts represent three ‘worlds’. The torso denotes various heavens filled with pleasure and the legs denote a series of hells consumed by torture. The most important, albeit the smallest, is the circle at the waist; it is where human beings can reside.
These three worlds are the areas where souls travel on their spiritual journey, through a continuous cycle of rebirths according to their karma. This ends when they have perfected themselves and attained salvation. When this happens, the soul floats to the top of the universe and eternally resides in the crescent-shaped realm above the heavens, shown at the forehead of the Lokapurusha.
Let’s start with the middle world, the area where humans reside. Called Adhaidvipa (two and a half continents), it constitutes 90 continents and oceans. The continents are shown as concentric circles surrounded by ring-shaped oceans filled with swimmers and fish, complex networks of rivers and lakes, and mountain ranges.
The first or the central continent is the Jambudvipa (rose-apple continent). It is encircled by a blue ring that represents the Lavana Samudra (salt ocean). The next ring corresponds to the continent Dhatakikanda bounded by Kalodadhi (black-water ocean). The outermost band represents half of the third continent, Pushkaradvipa (lotus island). This final band is surrounded by the multi-coloured peaks of the mountain range that delimits mortal space, while the pavilions at the corners of the chart represent celestial guardians of the human world.
In the centre of Jambudvipa is Mount Meru, the cosmic axis or the centre of the universe. It has three terraces, each smaller than the one below, each one dotted with parks and forests. A temple dedicated to the Jinas (Tirthankaras) is at the top. Models of Mount Meru are often found in Jain temples and are objects of worship. In the upper world reside the Gods, in various heavens. They may be living a life of pleasure and are not free of worldly desires, thus not liberated. They are organised in hierarchical ranks like traditional human society, from servants at the bottom to the king or chief at the top.
The lower world is the world of suffering, with seven layers and including various types of torture administered either by demi-gods or by the residents themselves, on each other. The seven layers further have multiple storeys, divided into multiple hells. There are a total of 49 storeys with 84,00,000 hells. The deeper the hells, the worse are their inhabitants.
Generally, discussions around Jainism are centred on the principle of non-violence or the extreme rituals that the faith is best known for, but more often than not, we forget to mention its complex philosophy or evolved art. Over the course of two millennia, Jainism has had a great tradition of art and architecture that needs to be brought to the forefront in a country that has nearly 5 million followers of this religion.
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