लोक, loka

area, world, plane of being, level of existence of living beings, location, place (literally and figuratively).

Origin of the term

According to Jan Gonda, a famous Dutch Orientalist, "loka" comes from the Indo-European *louko- [1], the basic meaning of which can be translated as "glade, meadow, clearing, open place". It should be noted that the Monnier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary records such meanings of loka as: "unoccupied space, extension, free movement, opportunities (for movement, action, thought, etc.)", being among the first to do so.

Presumably, *louko- described a predominantly open place to which the light of day had access, and loka- in ancient times was semantically associated with the light of day. In some verses of the Vedas loka- is more or less clearly associated with the light of Heaven (svarga), e.g:

ajaḥ pakvaḥ svarge loke dadhāti pañcaudano nirṛtiṃ bādhamānaḥ |
tena lokānt sūryavato jayema ||18||

The cooked goat, having five rice-dishes, driving off perdition, sets [one] in the heavenly (svargá) world; with it may we conquer worlds that possess suns.
(Atharva-Veda 9,5,18 translated by William Dwight Whitney). 

The Goat Panchaudana, when cooked, transporteth, repelling Nirriti, to the world of Svarga.
By him may we win worlds which Sūrya brightens.
(Atharva-Veda 9,5,18 translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith).

ayaṃ vaste garbhaṃ pr̥thivyā dívaṃ vaste'yám antarikṣam |
ayaṃ bradhnasya viṣṭapi svar lokān vy ānaśe ||16||

This one clothes himself in the embryo (womb?) of the earth; this one clothes himself in the sky, the atmosphere; this one, on the summit of the reddish one, has penetrated the heaven (svàr), the worlds (lokān).
(Atharva-Veda 13,1,16 translated by William Dwight Whitney).

He goes into the womb of earth, he robes himself in heaven and air.
He on the Bright One's station hath reached heavenly light and all the worlds.
(Atharva-Veda 13,1,16 translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith).

As Gonda notes, in the Vedic period "loka" was closely associated with the concept of "pratishtha" ("solid foundation", stability, protection from the threats of volatile worldly existence) and appeared as a kind of base on which other things were established. "Loka" could mean a state of well-being, power, inviolability. Loka also referred to time periods: days and nights, months, etc.

The division of the universe

In different historical periods different schools of thought have divided the universe into different numbers of lokas, but these systems of division are not mutually exclusive.

From the Rigveda text it appears that initially the cosmos was conceived as consisting of two parts, earth and heaven, then the triloka concept became the basis: earth – antariksha (intermediate space) – heaven or the underworld – earth – heaven. In the PuranASic era the number of lokas increased to 14, 7 above-ground and 7 below-ground worlds were distinguished:

  • Upper worlds from bottom to top: Bhurloka (Earth), Bhuvarloka, Swarloka, Maharloka, Jnanaloka, Tapoloka and Satyaloka.
  • The lower worlds (according to Padma-purana) from top to bottom: Athala, Vithala, Sutala, Talatala, Mahatala, Rasatala, Patala.

Jan Gonda's book “Loka: World and Heaven in the Veda” was used to write this article.

[1] The * sign denotes that the word is not recorded in the texts, but is rather reconstructed by means of comparative-historical methods.