The Pali term 'loka' or 'world'

In the Pali suttas, the word ‘loka’ or ‘world’ is used in many ways, such in the phrase: “origin of the world” (AN 4.45; SN 12.44); transient things & conditions (SN 35.82; AN 8.6) and in the terms “manussaloka” (human world) and “devaloka” (godly world) (AN 6.63; Dhp 171; Dhp 174).

What are commonly called the ‘hell’, ‘animal’ & ‘ghost realms’ are actually in Pali called ‘niraya’, ‘tiracchānayoni’ & ‘pettivisaya’ respectively.

There is also the general term ‘vinipāta’ (‘destined to suffer’).

The animal realm uses the word ‘yoni’ and, to make it more confusing, MN 12 includes gods, hell beings, certain (ekacce ca) humans & certain ‘vinipāta’ within the four kinds of ‘opapātikā yoni’.

I am curious if there is an explanation for:

(1) why the term ‘loka’ (‘world’) is used in the human & godly realms but not in the animal, hell or ghost realms?

(2) why the term ‘loka’ is used to cover all dukkha (SN 12.44), which we assume includes the animal, hell & ghost realms?


Interesting! Just adding to the questions:

Devas can apparently manifest themselves to human beings, and can sometimes be seen by humans of ordinary spiritual attainment in the human realm. On the other hand, only humans of exceptional spiritual attainment - like the Buddha - can visit the deva realm. Why?

With animals and humans, on the other hand, we are all here in the same realm. We can see animals and they can see us.

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I comment on so many of the threads here, i feel like I’m missing out if I don’t say anything. But I agree, it is curious, and no, for once I don’t have an answer!

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I thought about it and speculated to myself that the ‘world’ (‘loka’) may be used in two interrelated ways: (i) the conventional way, referring to the general society of people or beings that follow moral & social norms; and (ii) the aspirations of that society of people or beings that are founded on craving & thus trapped within suffering.

Where as the three lower realms (animals, hell & ghosts) are aberrations, i.e., not a ‘society’, thus are not included in a ‘world’, such as in the following phrases:

Go forth, o bhikkhus, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, for the good, for the happiness of gods and humans.

Thus indeed, is that Blessed One: He is the Holy One, fully enlightened, endowed with clear vision and virtuous conduct, sublime, the Knower of the worlds, the incomparable leader of men to be tamed, the teacher of gods and men, enlightened and blessed.

These brings to mind the teachings about ‘rebirth’ (‘upapannā’), such as:

nirayaṃ upapannā… sugatiṃ saggaṃ lokaṃ upapannā

Again, the lower realms are not called a ‘world’ but the happy realms are.

Similarly, Dhp 306:

Dhp 306 Nihīnakammā manujā parattha. Men of base actions both, on departing they share the same destiny in the other world.

But then there is the terms ‘lokavidu’ & ‘paraloka’ (other world). Does ‘lokavidu’ mean ‘knower of the world’ or ‘knower of the worlds’? Does ‘paraloka’ means ‘other world’ or ‘other worlds’?


I think the most obvious answer would be that there is no doctrinal content or special meaning behind the choice of words denoting various planes of existence. In the Catholic Christianity, one also doesn’t talk about the ‘Heavenly World’, ‘Human World’, and ‘Helld World’, there are separate wolds for all supposed regions of the universe: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, etc. No-one feels the need to unify the nomenclatory here, because it’s really not needed, everyone understands what we are talking about anyway.

So, one may assume that the word ‘loka’ means ‘place, world’, and ‘devaloka’ and ‘manussaloka’ were coined or used by the Buddha for lack of better terms. ‘Pettivisaya’ and ‘niraya’ may have been taken over from pre-existing traditions where they denoted just that: ‘Anscestral Realm’ and ‘Hell’. Anyway, your guess is as good as mine, and your theory does make sense. A similar semantic development can be observed in the Christian asceticism, where the ‘world’ is understood as opposed to the seclusion of an ascetic life at a monastery or convent. I wouldn’t say this would be exactly my intuition, as I don’t feel any strong semantic ties to the existence of a social order in words like ‘arupaloka’, but this argument is in now way conclusive. It would be interesting to see if there is any explicit connection in the Canon between the word ‘loka’ and existence of a social order in any other context apart from the one discussed.

‘Tiracchānayoni’ seems to be the least problematic of all, since, technically speaking, animals live in the same world / place / plane as humans, i.e. in the manussaloka / Jambudipa, so, to distinguish them from humans you would probably like to use expressions whose meaning amounts to ‘of animal origin’ or ‘of animal birth’ (Cf. with the use of ‘manussayoni’ in Ja506). This is also somewhat confounded by the use of ‘opapātikā yoni’ you mentioned, as it seems to mean ‘of spontaneous origin’ or ‘of spontaneous birth’. An animal can belong to both ‘tiracchānayoni’ and ‘opapātikā yoni’, i.e. to be both of animal and spontaneous origin. Curiously enough, there seems to exist the word ‘petayoni’ (even though I was unable to determine where it is used in the Canon), which, combined with the absence of ‘petaloka’ may indicate that petas could be thought of as living in the same world as us, just in another visaya’, i.e. ‘neighbourhood’, ‘region’… or I may be reading too much into the wording. Maybe a better rendering of yoni in that case would be ‘condition’, as in ‘human / animal / peta condition’? Or is the semantic of origination too strong to discard?

As for the meaning of ‘paraloka’, my first guess would be it means just ‘the Hereafter, life after this one’, with the exact meaning as hard to pin down as it is in the Christian or Muslim radition. Just imagine the scholars of the distant future scratching there heads trying to figure out what ‘the Other Side’ means. Does it imply the Christians imagined the world as being similar to a river? Is this the motive of a World River like Ganges or world stream from many shamanistic traditions showing up again? Or was death considered to be an invisible wall of sorts? Again, it is just a conjecture, any constructive criticism is welcome and even, I’m afraid, required :blush: Whether it means ‘world’ or ‘worlds’ is easy to determine by its grammatical form in a given context, I think, as the Pali declension is unambiguous in that respect, whereas the citation form is not really helpful. A brief search on SC shows that the world is used in singular and is thus to rendered as ‘other world’. And ‘lokavidu’, is it meant as singular or plural? No idea :slight_smile:

Thank you for your valuable & helpful comments @Vstakan. Some further comments:

Is ‘arupaloka’ found in the suttas or only in commentaries?

In the Gospels, particularly in John, the word ‘world’ is often used in a similar way as used in the Lokavagga Dhp 174, meaning the world of ignorant beings who do not comprehend Christ or the Dhamma.

Then there is Paul’s statement in Ephesians 6:12 :

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

John 12:31 seems to state “the ruler of this world” is Satan, which is similar to the Pupphavagga, which states:

Ko imaṃ paṭhaviṃ vicessati Yamalokañca imaṃ sadevakaṃ

Who shall overcome this earth, this realm of Yama and this sphere of men and gods?

Dhp 44

I myself do not know what the ‘world of Yama’ means.

On ‘paraloka’, I think the translation ‘next word’ is universally regarded as tenuous. Even in modern languages such as Singalese, I have heard ‘para’ only means ‘other’ or ‘another’ rather than ‘next’.

Thank you again. :slight_smile:

A good point, yes. So, if we could found an explicit semantic connection between loka and scoail order in a non-cosmological context, that would be a good argument in favour of your theory.[quote=“Deeele, post:6, topic:3504”]
Is the Gospels, particularly in John, the word ‘world’ is often used in a similar way as used in the Lokavagga Dhp 174, meaning the world of ignorant beings who do not comprehend Christ or the Dhamma.

Don’t let’s remember the original context in which Jesus preached. Most of the highly knowledgeable specialists in the field agree Jesus was an apocalyptically minded Jewish preacher who thought the End of the World was just around the corner. This line of thought became even more pronounced in the Paulinean writings: Paul even strongly opposed to single members of the early Christian community marrying each other, since marriage would distract them from the only thing worth paying your attention to, from the coming Kingdom of God that the resurrected Jesus Christ was supposed to proclaim. This apocalyptical thinking is easily, very easily associated with the idea that the contemporary society is ruled by evil, ungodly forces. For Paul, these evil forces that among other things included death dominated the world since the original sin. In other words, apocalyptical religions are often inclined to think of the world as ruled by Satan, which is why he is referred to as ‘the ruler of the world’. Besides, Jesus and his immediate disciples were people living in a Semitic and, more specifilcally, Hebrew cultural context where words ‘world’ and ‘age’ were easibly interchangeable. I mean, it is sure intriguing to compare similar Christian and Buddhist ideas, but both of the traditions first need careful exegesis, and after this exegesis Jesus’ understanding of ‘this world’ is rather different from what the Buddha said. The Christian philosophical tradition is a treasure trove of helpful and inspiring ideas but it’s still not Dhamma.

I don’t think it changes anything on the substance of my point. ‘Otherworld’ can refer to life after death just as good as ‘Next world’ :slight_smile: It may also be the case that the word was taken over from a pre-existing tradition, where ancestors went to Yama’s realm. Yamaloka can thus mean just ‘death-ridden world’ or ‘sansara, conditioned existence’ and be a nice metaphor or whaddayacallit in a poetic context. I don’t really think there is a parallel to the Christian tradition, may a superficial one.

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In the MN42 there is reference to 3 realms further / beyond the five highest Rūpa worlds of suddhāvāsā. This is supported by suttas like the AN7.44 and DN33:

Bhikkhus, these seven are the stations of consciousness. What seven?

Bhikkhus, there are beings with various bodies and various perceptions for example human beings, sometimes like gods and sometimes like hellish beings. This is the first station of consciousness.

Bhikkhus, there are beings with various bodies and a single perception for example newly born gods in the world of Brahma. This is the second station of consciousness.

Bhikkhus, there are beings with a single body and various perceptions for example the radiant gods This is the third station of consciousness.

Bhikkhus, there are beings with a single body and a single perception for example gods surrounded with pleasantness only. This is the fourth station of consciousness.

Bhikkhus, there are beings who overcoming all perceptions of matter and all perceptions of aversion and not attending to various perceptions, with space is boundless attain to the sphere of space. This is the fifth station of consciousness.

Bhikkhus, there are beings who overcoming all perceptions of space with consciousness is boundless attain to the sphere of consciousness. This is the sixth station of consciousness.

Bhikkhus, there are beings who overcoming all perceptions of consciousness attain to the sphere of no-thingness. This is the seventh station of consciousness.
Bhikkhus, these seven are the stations of consciousness.

Notice that the terminology is different and the Blessed One refers to these states as stations of consciousness (viñ­ñā­ṇaṭ­ṭhiti).

I don’t think this is by accident and it may have a very practical reason.

Viññana is in the suttas linked to the first noble truth of suffering, the task it involves is to full understand it (e.g. SN56.29).

In other words, by framing all those possible “birth destinations” as instead states of consciousness, the Buddha is telling us to not forget that our task with relation to those is above all to fully understanding the suffering inherent to them.

“Bhikkhus, the formless is more peaceful than the form realm, and cessation is more peaceful than the formless.”

Those beings who reach the form realm
And those established in the formless,
If they do not know cessation
Come back to renewal of being.

Those who fully understand forms
Without getting stuck in the formless,
Are released into cessation
And leave Death far behind them.

Having touched with his own person
The deathless element free from clinging,
Having realized the relinquishment of clinging,
His taints all gone,
The Fully Enlightened One proclaims
The sorrowless state that is void of stain.
– Iti73

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… mentions lokavidu & again refers to the ‘world’ as the social world (& excludes the lower realms):

That Blessed One is accomplished, fully enlightened, perfect in true knowledge and conduct, sublime, knower of worlds (lokavidu), incomparable leader of persons to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans, enlightened, blessed. He declares this world with its gods, its Māras, and its Brahmās, this generation with its recluses and brahmins, its princes and its people, which he has himself realised with direct knowledge.

The introduction of Patrick Olivelle’s The Early Upanishads: Annotated Text and Translation on Google Books I think offers some insight into this teaching of ‘this world & the other world’ since my impression of this teaching in the suttas is it is not specific to Buddhism but specific to the whole Brahman, Jain & Buddhist society, which is why it also includes the non-bhikkhu-specific phrase:

"there are in the world good and virtuous recluses and brahmins who have realised for themselves by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world. "