Life and Death Matters: The Cosmic Man
Three months ago, on August 10, the High Court of the state of Rajasthan in India ruled against the Jain community’s voluntary practice of meditating without food or water until death. Though this practice is held in high regard by the Jain community, the High Court ignored its religious dimensions in favor of the litigant who claimed that since it is mostly the elderly who undergo this ritual, it is a form of elder abuse, and should be illegal both as suicide and “ritual murder.” Jains, on the other hand, believe only the fortunate live a life that enables them to choose this ritual, and that those who do so will eventually free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth. Relatively unknown outside of South Asia, Jainism emerged in northern India around the 6th century BCE
By Anna Lise Seastrand|October 29, 2015
Three months ago, on August 10, the High Court of the state of Rajasthan in India ruled against the Jain community’s voluntary practice of meditating without food or water until death.
Though this practice is held in high regard by the Jain community, the High Court ignored its religious dimensions in favor of the litigant who claimed that since it is mostly the elderly who undergo this ritual, it is a form of elder abuse, and should be illegal both as suicide and “ritual murder.” Jains, on the other hand, believe only the fortunate live a life that enables them to choose this ritual, and that those who do so will eventually free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Relatively unknown outside of South Asia, Jainism emerged in northern India around the 6th century BCE. The founder of Jainism—like his near-contemporary Sakyamuni, who would become the Buddha—was born into a wealthy family, renounced his worldly attachments, and taught his followers how to obtain freedom from the cycle of rebirth.
Jains believe in nonviolence, respect for all living things, and a permanent soul that gains liberation from the cycle of rebirth through the purification of asceticism. Such purification includes the vow of “santhara” or “sullekhana”—the vow of fasting unto death that, undertaken by Keila Devi Hirawat in 2006 at the age of 93, touched off the debate culminating in the High Court’s August 10 ruling.
Although its adherents are now relatively few, Jain literature, art, and architecture flourished for centuries under courtly and merchant patronage. Jain authors produced a large body of cosmographic literature, art, and mathematical treatises. The image above, from the Smart Museum of Art’s collection, is a loka-purusha or cosmic man, a visualization of the Jain cosmic system that likens the macrocosm of all the worlds and heavens to the microcosm of man’s own body.
One of the delightful things about this work is that because it is unfinished, we have a glimpse of the artists’ working process. Notice that the white outline of the body doesn’t quite match the finished image—particularly the figure’s right arm, which has moved closer to the body in the final painting. Yellow bands and circles—jewelry that has yet to be outlined—adorn the ears, neck, arms, and ankles; black outlining has transformed the yellow circles on the figure’s left upper arm into a golden armband.
Perhaps most striking, while the face and eyes of the figure appear finely finished, only rough outlines are sketched into each of the pictorial registers on the body. The master painter of an atelier or workshop would often finish the faces of figures before less accomplished painters would fill in the other details.
The cosmic (loka) man (purusha) represents the structure of the universe. The universe is comprised of space, loka-akasha, and non-space, aloka-akasha. Aloka is where pure souls abide, free from the cycle of rebirth, while loka is composed of three parts in which all other living beings reside: the bright upper world of the celestials, the middle world in which humans live, and the lower world of hells. Everything within the body of the cosmic man is loka—space that is finite, but vast.
Figured on the torso of the cosmic man are the worlds of those who know pleasure without pain. This is the world of the gods. Here, we see the twelve gods (Vaimanikas) who sometimes benevolently interfere in human affairs. They are named for their flying vehicles, vimanas, in which we see them here in small, canopied tents.
The middle world, where humans live, is small compared to the others, but it is extremely special: Only here, when a soul is reborn as a human, is liberation possible. Because life in all three of the worlds is impermanent, one must strive in this world to escape the cycle of pleasure and pain. Although just a single empty circle has been sketched in this image, the intricate structure of this world is a popular theme in Jain art.
The world of hells occupies the seven registers below the waist. Those who are born into one of these hells are doomed to suffer and to inflict pain on themselves and others until they are reborn—a rebirth that is a long time coming.
In addition to depicting cosmic structure, the loka-purusha is also a diagram of the exact dimensions of the three worlds, emphasizing both the great time and vast distance through which each soul transmigrates in accordance with its karma. Each of the red and blue squares at the sides of the figure is a unit of space, the length of which is written on the left side, while the total area is written on the right.
Together, these figures indicate the total area of space in the cosmos. The vastness of the upper and lower worlds compared to the relatively tiny middle world—and the correspondingly slim chance of being born as a human into it—is meant to convey the extraordinary value of a human birth, and to enjoin the devotee to use this opportunity wisely.
The manner of one’s death can affect where in the vast space of the cosmos one’s soul will be reborn. According to Jains, making an oath to end one’s life is a way to purge oneself of bad karma and eventually end the cycle of rebirth. For now, the vow of santhara, meditating and fasting unto death, may resume under the directive by the Supreme Court of India, which on August 31 stayed the lower court’s order against the ban, allowing Jains once again to choose to die as they wish.
“Jainpedia: The Jain Universe Online.”
Caillat, Colette, and Ravi Kumar. The Jain Cosmology. New York: Harmony Books, 1981.
Mahapatra, Dhananjay. “Supreme Court permits Jain community to practice Santhara.” The Times of India, September 1, 2015.
Granoff, P. E., ed. Victorious Ones: Jain Images of Perfection. New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2009. See especially: John Cort, “The Cosmic Man and the Human Condition,” 34-47; P.E. Granoff, “Contemplating the Jain Universe: Visions of Order and Chaos,” 48-63; and Kim Plofker, “The Mathematics of the Jain Cosmos,” 64-69.
Joychen, PJ. “Jain practice of Santhara illegal: Rajasthan HC.” The Times of India, August 11, 2015, India.
Pal, Pratapaditya. The Peaceful Liberators : Jain Art from India. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
Rossi, Barbara, ed. From the Ocean of Painting : India's Popular Paintings, 1589 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. See pp. 152-154 for a discussion of the Smart’s painting.
Talwar, Kay, and Kalyan Krishna. Indian Pigment Paintings on Cloth. Historic Textiles of India at the Calico Museum, Ahmedabad V 3. Ahmedabad: B. U. Balsari on behalf of Calico Museum of Textiles, 1979.
Author, Anna Lise Seastrand, (Ph.D. Art History, Columbia University) is Collegiate Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. Her current projects focus primarily on early modern South Asia, especially on the art and languages of southeastern India.
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