The Concept of Leśyā in Jainism

June, 2024 by Shruti Malde

Painting depicting the parable of leśyā




This article is an extract and adaptation of my dissertation for MA in the Study of Religions (Major in Jainism) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in September 2010. The dissertation titled ‘The Concept of Leśyā in Jaina Literature’ was awarded the Centre of Jain Studies (CoJS) Dissertation Prize in Jaina Studies, sponsored by the N.K. Sethia Foundation through the Institute of Jainology.

This article will discuss what is leśyā, its various types, application in the Jain doctrine both ontologically and allegorically, and also briefly look at the similarity of the concept of using colour in other South Asian traditions.

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. (Schubring 1962 [2000]:196). There are six main classes of leśyā; kṛṣṇa (black), nīla (blue), kāpota (grey), pīta (yellow), padma (pink), and śukla (white) of which the first three are considered bad and the last three as good.

The Uttarādhyayana Sūtra, Lecture 34 is exclusively on leśyā. It is one of the fundamental Śvetāmbara canonical texts, and the sixty-one sutras in this lesson give a comprehensive version of the leśyā doctrine. It explains each of the six leśyās with analogies for colour, taste, smell, touch, degrees or intensities, characteristics of people possessing each of the leśyās, variety in relation to the leśyā at each samaya (unit of time) in the kālchakra (time cycle) and kṣetra (area in the loka or universe), minimum and maximum durations of leśyā in each gati (realm), result and life of leśyā.

The concept of leśyā plays an important role in Jain philosophy. It has many interconnections with other concepts like kaṣāya (passions), guṇasthāna (spiritual status), dhyāna (meditation), mārgaṇā (soul-quest), and bondage of āyu (life-span) karma in the Jaina karma doctrine. However, it is beyond the remit of this article to discuss all of them or even some of them in any detail. Here, we will focus on two applications of leśyā, ontological and allegorical in relation to Jain doctrine and its practise, where interconnections with passions, spiritual status, soul-quests and bondage of lifespan for next birth will be touched upon.

Ontological concept of leśyā:

The ontological duality of the Jain doctrine is the underpinning factor in the concept of leśyā. Jain doctrine accepts the existence of both soul and non-soul substances, each having different characteristics. Of the soul substance, there are infinite in number in the universe. Of these, the pure souls, siddha all have essential characteristics of the four infinites knowledge, faith, bliss and energy. Pure souls are amurtik, which means that they are without material characteristics of touch, taste, smell and colour (TS 5.4, 5.23). The transmigrating impure souls, however, differ on account of their association or bondage with non-soul karmic matter, and thus the embodied soul assumes material characteristics of touch, taste, smell and colour.

Souls have been impure, embodied and transmigrating since time immemorial. New karma bondage occurs when yoga (activities of mind, speech and body) by worldly soul done with kaṣāya (passions) creates vibrations in the soul which results in influx and bondage with karma particles.  Karma is paudgalic (physical matter) and is murtik possessing material characteristics touch, taste, smell and colour which occupy the same space-points of the worldly soul. This intimate association of material karma casts a shadow or reflects on the amurtik soul, giving it colour, which explains leśyā as ‘colour of the soul’. A common simile quoted in Kundakunda’s Samayasāra §278-9 (Edholm 1988:109, n.15) is that of a crystal being tinged by a coloured object placed adjacent to it.

It is important to understand from the above that leśyās are different from karma.  Leśyā is produced by the influence of the karma bound to the soul, and it is the condition of the soul, not of karma. What produces leśyā is therefore the subtle substance of karmic matter. That is why the leśyās have colours, tastes, smell, touches, degrees, character, variety, duration, effect etc. (Tukol 1980: 132).

There are infinite times infinite number of worldly souls in the universe, each with individual identity, and leśyā is one of the identifying factors in the fourteen mārgaṇās (soul quests).

Leśyā types:

The soul has infinite-fold transformations due to infinite-fold activities of the mind, speech and body together with varying intensities of passions, hence there are infinite leśyās associated with it. But these transformations are classified for the sake of convenience into six main types kṛṣṇa, nīla, kapota, pīta, padma and śukla of which the first three are considered meritorious and the last three non-meritorious (J.L. Jaini 1927/1990:254).

The ontological basis to express leśyā of the soul has dual aspects – one, bhāva-leśyā (thought paint) and the other, dravya-leśyā.

Bhāva-leśyā (thought-paint) is the psychic conditions induced in the soul by karma, thus causing vibrations in its space-points.  The thought-paint induced in the soul is a transcendental colour, a kind of complexion and too subtle, which cannot be perceived by our eyes.

L. Jaini’s English commentary to Nemichandra Siddhānta Chakravarti’s Gommatsara Jiva Kanda (The Soul) verse 489 says that it is bhāva-leśyā by which the soul makes its own pāpa (demerit) and puṇya (merit). Since the thought paints vary with the intensity of passions and activities, their presence and degree of colouration would depend upon the stage of gunasthāna (spiritual development of the soul). Even a wrong believer in the first stage can have śukla bhāva-leśyā, if passions are mild, and a right believer in the fourth stage can have kṛṣṇa bhāva-leśyā if passions are strong in his actions (Wiley 2000:357).

As there is no vibrations or passions in the fourteenth spiritual stage of ayogi-kevalin (omniscient without activity) there is no possibility of thought-paint, and therefore there is no more bondage of either pāpa or puṇya. The state where there is absence of leśyā is known as aleśyā.

Uttarādhyayana Sūtra, Lecture 34, Verse 59 explains that when there is no leśyā at death then there is no rebirth. Interesting to note is that in the same lesson, Verse 60 explains that the soul in the next birth possesses the same leśyā which it possessed at the end of its previous birth.

Leśyā also plays an important role in binding āyu (life span) karma. Of the intensity spectrum of the six thought-paints, the black is the most intense and white the mildest. The life span for the next birth is only bound when the intensity of thought-paint is of moderate intensity (J. L. Jaini 1927/1990:259).

From the practical point of view when ascertaining spiritual progress, thought-paints are present in the soul until the thirteenth gunasthāna that of sayogi-kevalin (omniscient with activity). Thought-paints are not present at the final fourteenth gunasthāna the stage of ayogi-kevalin (omniscient without activity) and siddha or souls which are liberated from worldly transmigrations.

Dravya-leśyā is the colour of the physical body produced by the operational body-making karma. Therefore, beings in different states of existence have different bodily colours. Dravya-leśyā is also of six kinds. Important to note here is that 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 white bhāva-leśyā while the colour of his body, that is his dravya-leśyā may even be black as in the case of Neminātha (Wiley 2000:357).

Allegorical application of leśyā:

Having discussed the ontological application of leśyā, we will now discuss the second, allegorical application which is used to grade the purity of the soul. It is a useful pedagogical tool for understanding and transmission of doctrine. The basis of Jaina philosophy is avoiding all kinds of sinful activity, which is very much emphasized in all the doctrine. Hence the allegorical use of colour to categorize evil, unwholesome actions or thoughts is an important aspect.

The six thought-paints (leśyās): black, blue, grey, yellow, pink and white have a prominently moral bearing, as the thought-paint indicates the character of the individual who owns it. The first three belong to bad characters and the last three to good characters. In other words, the first three are the result of evil and last three the result of good emotions (Encyclopaedia of Religions and Ethics Vol VII, P. 469). Nemichandra Siddhānta Chakravarti has given an illuminating illustration through a parable of six men exhibiting six thought-paints and characters, identifying the soul’s qualities of merit and demerit resulting from their actions through their mental attitude.

The gist of the parable is as follows:

Six travellers lose their way in a forest. To satisfy their hunger, when they see a tree laden with fruits, each think differently as to how they wanted to procure the fruits.

The first one wanted to uproot the entire tree, driven by black thought paint.

The second wanted to cut the trunk, driven by blue thought paint.

The third wanted to cut the branches, driven by grey thought paint.

The fourth wished to cut only twigs, driven by yellow thought paint.

The fifth wished only to pluck the fruits, driven by pink thought paint.

The sixth wished only to eat the fruit that had fallen on the ground.

There are several other parables in Jain literature depicting leśyās.

J.L. Jaini’s English commentary to Nemichandra Siddhānta Chakravarti’s Gommatsara Jiva Kanda (The Soul) verses 509 – 516 describes the distinguishing signs and characteristics of individuals with each of the six leśyās:

Characteristics of people with bad – non meritorious leśyās:

Black – wrathful, hostile, aggressive temperament, unprincipled, devoid of pity and compassion, wicked, slow, without common sense or skill, extreme fondness for sensual pleasures.

Blue – extremely sleepy or lazy and deceitful, intense desire for wealth.

Grey – angry and irritable temperament, bad mouths others, envies and disgraces others, boastful, troublesome, sorrowful, not trust others, not mindful of own actions or of loss or gain to others.

Characteristics of people with good – meritorious leśyās:

Yellow – knows what is fit and unfit in life and for pleasure, impartial, self – controlled, engages in compassionate and charitable activities.

Pink – ready to do benevolent actions, humble, disciplined, restrained, forbearing, devoted and worships saints and teachers, and strives for the highest good.

White – impartial, equanimous towards all, engages in meditation, seeks truth, not desirous of sensual pleasures and practices restraint, free from passions.

Uttarādhyayana Sūtra, Lecture 34, Verse 61 states that “A wise man should, therefore, know the nature of these leśyās; he should avoid the bad ones and obtain good ones”.

It should be noted that in each of the six types of thought-paints, there are varying grades of intensities, and there can be increase or decrease in impurity or purity in each thought-paint or from one to another, for example from black to grey, or white to pink depending on the change in intensity of passions and activity of the person.

A person desirous of engaging in dhyana (meditation) has to concentrate the mind on one subject. In Jainism there are four types of meditations: ārta (sorrowful), raudra (cruel), dharma (virtuous) and śukla (supreme). A person engaged in the first two, is engaged in thoughts where intentions are revengeful, wicked, and hence the thought-paint of such people would be black, blue or grey, in varying intensities. In persons engaged in the latter two meditations, their thoughts would be auspicious and their mind gradually progressing towards getting an insight into the real nature of the soul, and state of supreme spirituality. Hence, the thought-paint of ascetics is likely to be white.

Similarity of the concept in other South Asian traditions:

Allegorical use of colour has also been used in other South Asian traditions. The leśyās are compared with the colour coded abhijātis (social classes according to creed or occupation) of the Ājīvikas (Bruhn 2003:45); jīvavarṇa (soul colour or hierarchically ordered social categories) in the Mokṣadharma section of the Mahābhārata (Bedekar 1968:335-6); there is correspondence of the six leśyās with the three guṇas (natural qualities) of prakṛti (matter): sattva (clear, pure), rajas (fiery) and tamas (darkness) of Sāṃkhya (Zimmer 1969 [1990]:229-30); and colours of kamma (deeds) and the colour application to the spiritual classification of monks in Buddhism.

Summary and Conclusion:

The ontological exposition that the colour of physical karmic matter in association with the formless soul gives an understanding of the concept of leśyā.  The analogy of crystal reflecting the colour of an adjacent coloured object further explains the commonly translated ‘colour of the soul’, considering that according to Jaina philosophy, pure soul has no material qualities and hence no colour.  One may be sceptical and say that there is no proof of leśyā as it is invisible to human senses.  However, leśyā and its interconnections with kaṣāya (passions), guṇasthāna (spiritual status), dhyāna (meditation), mārgaṇā (soul-quest), binding of āyu (life-span) karma for next birth is convincing that leśyā plays an important part in the Jaina karma doctrine. The voluminous canonical and post-canonical literature with mathematical dimensions on leśyā (in both Digambara and Śvetāmbara traditions) is a testimony that it is an essential concept in the Jain karma doctrine.

As ahiṃsā (non-violence) is very much central to Jaina tenets and to refrain from evil activities is fundamental, the allegorical use of leśyā to grade violence or evil deeds, as depicted by the parable of six men is an important tool in pedagogic understanding, practise and transmission of Jaina doctrine.


Bedekar, V.M. (1968).  The Doctrine of the Colours of Souls in the Mahābhārata: Its Characteristics and Implications, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (ABORI), 48-49, 329-338.

Bruhn, Klaus (2003).  The Mahāvratas in Early Jainism, Berliner Indologische Studien (BIS), 15/16/17, 3-98.

Edholm, Erik Af (1988).  The Colours of the Soul and the Origin of Karmic Eschatology, On the meaning of Death: Essays on Mortuary Rituals and Eschatological Beliefs. Edited by S. Cederroth, C. Corlin and J. Lindström.  Stockholm: Almqvist &Wiksell International.

Encyclopaedia of Religions and Ethics Vol VII.

Jaini, J.L. (1927 [1990]).  Introduction, Translation and Commentary to Gommaṭsāra Jīva-Kāṇḍa (The Soul) by Shri Nemichandra Siddhanta Chakravarty, The Sacred Books of the Jainas, Vol. V.  Delhi: Today and Tomorrow’s Printers.

McDermott, James P. (1983 [1999]).  Karma and Rebirth in Early Buddhism, Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Tradition.  Edited by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 165-192.

Schubring, Walter (1962 [2000]).  The Doctrine of the Jainas.  Translated from the revised German edition by Wolfgang Beurlen.  Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

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

Tukol, T.K (1980). Compendium of Jainism. Dharwad: Karnatak University Press.

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra.  Translated by Hermann Jacobi, Sacred Books of the East Volume 45, Jaina Sutras Part 2, 1-232. Edited by Max Müller. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass (1895 [2004]).

Wiley, Kristi (2000).  Colours of the Soul: By-Products of Activity or Passions? Philosophy East & West, Vol. 50, 3, 348-366.

Zimmer, Heinrich (1969 [1990]).  “Jainism”, Philosophies of India.  Edited by Joseph Campbell.  Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

About Author

Shruti Malde achieved MA in the Study of Religions (Major in Jainism) at SOAS in September 2010 while still actively pursuing her profession as a hospital Optometrist. Currently she is retired and actively participates in facilitating weekly on-line Jain classes on Zoom in London. She regularly visits Shrimad Rajchandra Koba Ashram.


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