CAKRAVARTIN is a Sanskrit noun referring to an ideal universal king who rules ethically and benevolently over the entire world. Derived from the Sanskrit cakra, "wheel," and vartin, "one who turns," the term cakravartin (Pali, cakkavatti ) in classical Hindu texts signifies that all-powerful monarch "whose chariot wheels turn freely" or "whose travels are unobstructed." Such a ruler's unsurpassed and virtuous rule is described as sarvabhauma ; it pertains to all creatures everywhere. Buddhist and Jain literatures describe their enlightened founders (the Buddha or Buddhas and the tīrthaṅkara s, respectively) in similar terms, the notion being that religious truth transcends local or national limitations and applies to all people everywhere. This idea is particularly evident in Buddhist oral and scriptural traditions, which frequently refer to Gautama as a cakravāla cakravartin, an illuminator of dharma (life in adherence to compassionate truth) in all regions of the world. From the symbol of the turning wheel, a sign of universal sovereignty, comes the description of the Buddha as dharmacakrapravartayati, "he who sets the wheel of law in motion," and thus the name of his first sermon, Dharmacakrapravartana Sūtra (Pali, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ; The sūtra on the turning forth of the wheel of dharma), in which the Buddha presents his insights into the Four Noble Truths. After his death in 480 bce, Gautama's followers cremated his body and enshrined his relics in a stupa, just as they would have done with a universal monarch.
History of the Cakravartin as an Imperial Ideal
The general South Asian notion that the king was to have extensive rule dates at least as far back as the high Vedic era (1200–800 bce) and possibly to the centuries preceding. The Vedic ritual coronation of the king (Rājasūya), for example, was preceded by a ceremony in which a wild stallion was left to wander at will throughout the land for an entire year, at which time it was sacrificed in the important rite known as the Aśvamedha, and all of the territory it had covered in that year was held to be the king's domain. The actual term cakravartin was known in the late fifth and early fourth centuries bce by the compilers of the Maitri Upaniṣad, who used the noun when listing the names of several kings who had renounced their royal prerogatives in favor of the life of ascetic contemplation (Maitri Upaniṣad 1.4).
Direct discussions of the cakravartin as an imperial ideal appear as early as Kauṭilya's Artha Śāstra (c. 300 bce), a court manual of polity, diplomacy, economy, and social behavior. In his descriptions of the range of an emperor's influence (cakravarti-kśetra ), Kauṭilya notes that the king should undertake any task he feels will bring him and his people prosperity and that he should have power "from the Himalayas to the ocean." Kauṭilya may have had in mind the prestige and hopes of the first Mauryan king, Candragupta, who reigned from about 321 to 297 bce and whom Kauṭilya reportedly served as chief minister. Candragupta was perhaps the first ruler to unify all of the lands from the shores of the southern tip of India to the Himalayas in the north and the Kabul Valley in the northwest. Edicts and other lessons inscribed on pillars and cliffs describe the last Mauryan king, Aśoka (d. 238 bce?) as a cakravartin under whose patronage the Buddhist Dharma spread throughout South and Southeast Asia. Chroniclers in the courts of the Śātavāhana emperors (first to second centuries ce) similarly defined their kingdoms as that world extending from the eastern, southern, and western oceans to the mountains. The Guptas, too, viewed themselves as the rulers of empires. Skandha Gupta I, who reigned from 455 to 467 ce, for example, is depicted in the Janagadh inscriptions (dated mid-fifth century ce) as a leader whose rule was the entire earth bounded by the four oceans and within which thrive several smaller countries. The Western Cāḷlukyas (sixth to eighth and tenth to twelfth centuries) described themselves as the emperors of the lands between the three seas, while the Vijayanagara rulers (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries) labeled themselves the masters of the eastern, western, southern, and northern seas.
Thus the South Asian political imagination up to the seventeenth century generally included the ideal of a unified rule, and various kings have identified themselves as universal monarchs: hence the common royal titles samrāj ("supreme monarch," i.e., the one who rules over all princes and principalities), rājādhirāja ("king above kings"), ekarāja ("the only king"), parama-bhaṭṭārka ("most venerable lord"), disampati ("lord of the lands"), and digvijayin ("conqueror of the regions").
Buddhist and Jain literatures have distinguished three types of cakravartin. A pradeśa cakravartin is a monarch who leads the people of a specific region and may be thought of as a local king. A dvīipa cakravartin governs all of the people of any one of the four continents (dvīipas, literally "islands") posited by ancient Indian cosmologies and is, accordingly, more powerful in the secular realm than the pradeśa cakravartin. Superior even to a dvīipa cakravartin, however, is the cakravāla cakravartin, the monarch who rules over all of the continents of the world. It is the political paramountcy of the cakravāla cakravartin with which the Buddha's religious supremacy is compared.
Religious Dimensions of the Cakravartin Ideal
The source of the image of the king as a cakravartin is not to be found, however, in its political history. Rather, it is the powerful and evocative South Asian mythic and religious themes regarding the cakravartin with which various kings identified. According to South Asian sovereign myths (many of which suggest a solar origin), the cakravartin —here, a paradigmatic figure—while deep in meditation sees a peaceful and pleasantly glowing wheel (cakra ) turning slowly in the sky above him. Knowing this wheel to be a call to unify all peoples, the king leads his armies out in all directions to the farthest horizons, all the way to the universal ring of mountains (cakravāla ) that lie beyond the oceans and that mark the final edge of the concentric world. Guided by the celestial wheel, and borne upon the atmosphere by flying white elephants and horses, he ends all strife and suffering as he brings all people everywhere under his virtuous rule. Thus, cakravālacakravartī cakram vartayati: the universal monarch turns the wheel of righteousness throughout the whole world.
The mythic cakravartin, therefore, was a ruler in whose virtue and strength all people, regardless of their homeland, could find guidance. He was a pacifying leader whose power was embodied in his unifying skills. Hence it may be no coincidence that the religious traditions in which the cakravartin is given the most prestige revolve around the ideologies and aspirations of the kṣatriya class of Indian society, that group who were to protect society, serve as its soldiers, rule its courts, and sit on its thrones. For some kṣatriya communities, as, for example, those represented by the epics Mahābhārata and Rāmāyāṇa (c. 300 ce), the most appropriate person to become a universal monarch was somebody who already was a king, someone who could extend his rule through martial and diplomatic skill.
Even for some kṣatriya traditions, however, the true cakravartin renounces the political life of the secular king and guides the people through the power of his spiritual virtue. Such is the case for the early Jain and, particularly, Buddhist communities, whose histories of their founders suggest the notion that to them religious truth is more powerful and universal than political prestige. According to both Jain and Buddhist literatures, both Vardhamāna Mahāvīra (the most recent of the twenty-four Jain tīrthaṃkara s) and Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha) were born into powerful royal families, both displayed the characteristic physical signs of a mahāpuruṣa ("great man"), and thus were certain to become secular cakravartin s. Both traditions further maintain that their founders, however, chose not to enjoy the political power and privileges incumbent on the universal monarch but, rather, to seek understanding of the deepest dimensions of existence itself and—especially in the case of the Buddha—to teach that understanding to all.
Readers interested in the history of imperial rule in India may consult any of a number of good works on the history of India. A good, if relatively short, reference is An Advanced History of India (London, 1948), by Ramesh Chandra Majumdar and others. For more thorough studies by various respected historians, see The History and Culture of the Indian People, 11 vols., under the general editorship of Ramesh Chandra Majumdar (Bombay, 1951–1969): see especially volume 2, The Age of Imperial Unity ; volume 3, The Classical Age, pp. 1–360; volume 4, The Age of the Imperial Kanauj ; and volume 5, The Struggle for Empire. A more impressionistic depiction of the cakravartin ideal is found in Heinrich Zimmer's Philosophies of India, edited by Joseph Campbell, "Bollingen Foundation Series," no. 26 (1951; reprint, Princeton, 1969), pp. 127–139. Finally, for an example of the cakravartin ideal as expressed in religious myth, see Frank E. Reynolds and Mani Reynolds's translation of a Thai Buddhist text, Three Worlds according to King Ruang (Berkeley, 1982), pp. 135–172.
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