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The Concept of Great Elements in Jain Cosmology

Mangala Mirasdar

All philosophical systems aim at a quest for Supreme Truth or Reality, based upon the concept of Universe. All of them try to  explain the creation and existence of the Universe from their own points of view.

According to Um¡sw¡ti, the author of the renowned Jain philosophical text Tattv¡rth¡dhigama-s£tra, the definition of Reality is sat, i.e., existence. He uses the word dravya or substance for Reality. In the process of the creation of the world, various philosophies mention the role of the well-known five great elements viz. p¤thiv¢, ap, tejas, v¡yu and ¡k¡¿a. Jain philosop[hy also mentions these elements but in different contexts. The first four, except ¡k¡¿a are included by them in the pudgala dravya. Ëk¡¿a is considered to be a different dravya in Jain thought. To point out this difference of substances from the five great elements in  other systems, it is necessary to see in brief the ]Sa·dravyas in Jainism. Jain system has divided the universe in two main categories, j¢va and aj¢va, which comprise of six substances (dravyas). This aj¢va category is a positive variety standing opposed to j¢va. It is not merely of the form of negation. Aj¢va consists of five substances - ¡k¡¿a (space); dharma, i.e., medium of motion; adharma (medium of rest), k¡la (Time) and pudgala (matter). Excluding k¡la, all other substances are of the nature of astik¡yas. Astik¡ya means a combination or collection of areas or aspects. Because they exist, they are called asti and because they have many prade¿as like bodies, they are called k¡yas. These astik¡yas or extensive substances are j¢v¡stik¡ya, ¡k¡¿¡stik¡ya, dharm¡stik¡ya, adharm¡stik¡ya and pudgal¡stik¡ya. J¢va also is called astik¡ya because, according to Jainism each j¢va has innumerable prade¿as. By contraction and expansion of its prade¿as, the j¢va occupies different proportions. It is just like the flame of a lamp whose light can fill a small room as well a big hall.1 So a j¢va can occupy a smallest body of a bacterium or the biggest body of a great fish.

These five fundamental substances in the form of five astik¡yas are eternal (nitya); immutable (avasthita) and devoid of form (ar£pin). They are not externally created,  but are evident by their own nature.

The pudgalas are possessed of r£pa. The properties are capable of being grasped through the sense-organs. So they are m£rta or r£pin. Though the atoms on account of being supra-sensuous, are not grasped through the sense-organs, but under some specific transformation they do develop the capacity to be grasped through the sense-organs. Generally it is defined that aj¢va is that which has no consciousness, but which can be touched, tasted, seen and smelt; but according to Jainism, these four characteristics belong to pudgala or matter which can be touched, tasted, seen and smelt because matter has gross forms. It shows that the scope of the aj¢va category of Jainism comprises not only pudgala or matter but something more, that is, dharma, adharma, ¡k¡¿a and k¡la.

According to the Jain system, ¡k¡¿a is not included among the well-known five great elements, i.e., p¤thiv¢, ap, tejas, v¡yu and ¡k¡¿a. Ëk¡¿a is a substance which allows dharma, adharma, k¡la, pudgala and j¢va to remain within itself and which allows them to enter itself. It means that ¡k¡¿a acts as a support for the remaining substances which act as occupants. It is self-supporting. The Jain concept of space is unique in its originality, for it holds space as positional quality of the world of material objects and space as the container of material objects and other substances.

The seed of the Jain concept of space is embodied in the Jain ¡gamas like  the Bhagavat¢ S£tra etc. In the post-¡gama age, Um¡sw¡t$¢ had sown the seed of its metaphysical aspects on the basis of its ¡gamic conception. The Jain thinkers retained the substantial existence of space as conceived by the Ny¡ya Vai¿eÀikas;2 but they had discarded the elemental concept of space of the S¡Ækhyas. S¡Ækhyas in their Prak¤tiv¡da, i.e., the doctrine of the fundamental cause of the material universe, mention ¡k¡¿a as produced from tanm¡tras. It is also stated to have originated out of the Mass or Inertia (tamas) in the Prak¤ti as a result of its transformation, when the original equilibrium comes to an end. So in S¡Ækhya, ¡k¡¿a is janyapad¡rtha of an evolved entity or element; but not an independent absolute substance. The Ny¡ya-Vai¿eÀikas conceive ¡k¡¿a as one of the categories of dravya and the fundamental principle of creation. The Ved¡ntin also maintains the view that ¡k¡¿a is Brahman as the characteristic marks are mentioned.3 As all the prominent characteristics of Brahman are ascribed to ¡k¡¿a it cannot be the etheral ¡k¡¿a but Brahman. But  according to Jainism, in the purest form, this objectively real entity ¡k¡¿a does one function only, i.e., to accommodate other substances of the universe. The function of the other dravyas is to attain room and the function of the space is to give room to them.4 The aphorism in Tattv¡rth¡dhigamas£tra (lok¡k¡¿e avag¡hah) (V.12) implies the division of space into lok¡k¡¿a and alok¡k¡¿a. The five fundamental substances are accommodated in lok¡k¡¿a. So the differentiation of space is to accommodate other substances.

Another substance pudgal¡stik¡ya, goes under the aj¢va category. This term pudgala is used in Buddhist literature also, but there it is used in the sense of soul. In Jainism j¢va and pudgala are totally different categories. Pudgala generally means Matter. It has two parts pud and gala. The first part means  'to combine' and second part gala means 'to dissociate'. So the etymological meaning of pudgala is that substance which undergoes modifications by combination and dissolutions. The definition is significant because this process of combination and dissolution does not occur in other substances.

Pudgala is of two types - a¸u and skandha or atoms and aggregates or molecules. An indivisible material particle is called atom. It is the smallest possible form of pudgala. Skandha means an aggregate or something tied together. It is significant that each and every atom possesses touch, taste, smell and colour and is potentially capable of forming earth, water, fire and air. These are no distinct and different kinds of atoms of earth etc., i.e., the atoms are ultimately not different. For example, airy atoms can be converted into water, watery atoms can be converted into fire and so on. Ultimately all the atoms belong to one and the same class of pudgala. Sometimes they form earth, sometimes they form water and so on. Thus according to Jainism, earth, water, fire and air are not  ultimately separate and independent entities but only different forms of pudgala. There are no qualitative difference among them. The school of Ny¡ya-Vai¿eÀika does not agree to this view of Jain as seen before that  regards earth, water, fire and air as absolutely different and independent substances and so their atoms are also ultimately distinct and different.

The function of pudgala is to form the basis  of the body and organs of speech, mind and respiration. Pleasure, pain, life, death also are the benefits due to pudgala.

Though we call pudgala as synonymous with matter, pudgala is not pure matter untouched from consciousness like the insentient matter of the S¡Ækhya. The pudgala skandha has also an element of consciousness. The j¢va and aj¢va categories of Jainism are not empirical abstractions of consciousness and non-consciousness. In the following characteristics of the conception of the gross elements in Jainism this point will be very clear.

The gross elements excluding ¡k¡¿a are included in pudgala. It is interesting to know that unlike the gross elements in S¡Ækhya and Ved¡nta, the gross elements contained in pudgala are not totally insentient. But they are sentient as well as insentient also. Among the twofold classification of j¢vas as trasa and sth¡vara the sth¡vara j¢vas are of five kinds - p¤thiv¢k¡ya, apk¡ya, tejask¡ya, v¡yuk¡ya and vanaspatik¡ya. Thus j¢vas whose body consists of p¤thiv¢ is called p¤thiv¢k¡ya, the j¢va whose body consists of ap is called ¡pk¡ya. These  are sentient and non-sentient. Earth is the body of the sentient being as well as sentient body itself. These are elemental souls, which live and die and are born again in  the same or other elemental bodies. Their sentient part increases. To explain further, a metallic stone drawn from the mine in its natural condition is sentient but as soon as we make some chemical reaction on it, it becomes non-sentient. Earth which  has not suffered the blow of friction is sentient, but once there is friction it becomes insentient. In a similar way, the water which is flowing through a river is sentient but as soon as water is boiled it becomes non-sentient. All these are ekendriya j¢vas or j¢vas having only  one sense. In the case of vanaspatik¡ya, the plants are the j¢vas of one sense. Each plant may be the body of one soul or may possess a multitude of embodied souls. Thus, the doctrine of the gross elements having the sentient and non-sentient aspects, and the theory that there are souls even in inorganic objects like metals, stones, water, etc. are special features of the Jain system of thought.

According to the Vai¿eÀika system air or v¡yu contains only the quality of touch. The other qualities  colour, taste and smell are absent in air, but according to Jainism, colour, taste, touch and smell are found invariably together and therefore whenever there is touch, form, taste and smell will necessarily be there. This Jain theory is validated by the modern science, according to which air can be converted into bluish liquid by continuous cooling,  as steam can be converted into water, and the liquid contains all the four qualities of touch, colour, taste and smell. So the gross elements excluding ¡k¡¿a possess not only the specific qualities but, as these elements are included in pudgala, all the qualities of pudgala as touch, form, taste and smell are present in each element.

These six dravyas together are called universe. In their original state, they are stable and firm but on account of their mutual relation, new things emerge and old things perish. The working of universe is nothing but the substances experiencing the power of production, destruction, duration and transformation in respect of their forms and status. According to Ved¡nta and the Ny¡ya-Vai¿eÀika system, satt¡ is absolutely permanent having no change whatsoever. But the Jain philosopher Um¡sw¡ti decrees that "the thing which is characterized by origination, destruction and permanence is 'real'".5 During the period of taking new forms and leaving old ones, the substance does not leave its essence. In both origination and decay, it remains as it is. This immutable nature is called permanence. For example, a thing, say clay, assumes various shapes and under-goes diverse changes such as jug, pan etc. As illustrated by Ch¡ndogya UpaniÀad,

                    v¡c¡rambha¸aÆ vikaro n¡madheyaÆ m¤ttiketyeva satyam A

the unchangeable substance, i.e., clay alone is true and the changing forms are more illustrations of senses or mere objects of names. But Jainas do not suppose that substances alone are true and the qualities are false and illusory appearences. They argue, that in actual experience in all changes there are three processes: (1) some qualities remain unchanged, (2) some new qualities are generated, (3) some old qualities are destroyed. For example, when a jug is made, the lump-clay is destroyed, the jug is generated and the clay is permanent. Due to these unchanged qualities a thing is said to be permanent though it undergoes change. When a lump of gold is turned into a rod or a ring, all the specific qualities which connote the word 'gold' are seen to continue, though the forms are successively changed and with each change some of its qualities are lost and some new ones are acquired.

Due to the interaction of the six dravyas, new things emerge and old things perish. Through the interaction of soul and matter, the Universe rolls. Matter is the cause of making bodies. It forms the physical basis for the body, speech, mind, respiration of the worldly souls. When the worldly career of the beings is over, they give up the gross body and accompany the subtle body and again receive physical particles appropriate for the gross body in the next birth.

In short, the Jain system refuses to attribute either absolute permanence or absolute transience to anything, but treats everything as either permanent or transitory. This system retains the elemental nature of the gross elements to some  extent but at the same time it gives its own interpretation to the term ¡k¡¿a.



1.   Tattv¡., V.16 -

2.   Vai¿eÀika S£tra, I.15 -

3.   Br., S£. I.1.22 -

4.   Tattv¡. -

5.    Tattv¡rth¡dhigama S£tra, -


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