The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 39


BY: SUN STAFF - 12.9 2018

Raja Pandu, King of Hastinapur, and Matakunti 
Jammu/Kashmir, Mankot, c. 1690

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


It would not be improper here to go into a brief discussion of the term cakravartin-, the title of the emperor who according to the later belief 738) consisted of a part of Visnu, i.e. was a partial incarnation of that Supreme Deity. The dictionaries 739) in translating it by "a ruler the wheels of whose chariot roll everywhere without obstruction, emperor, sovereign of the world", follow Indian explications 740).

However, -vartin- at the end of a compound regularly conveys the sense of "being situated, abiding, staying in etc.": cf. kanthavartin — "being in the throat" (Kalidasa); parsvavartin- "standing by the side, attendant" (kavya); madhyavartin- "being in the middle, central" (kavya etc.); vasavartin- "being under the control of" (Mbh. etc.), etc. 741). The remarkable mandalavartin- which occurs in the Bhagavata-purana in the sense of "governor of a province or ruler of a small kingdom", though obviously formed after the model of cakravartin- points the same way.

The compound guruvartin- (epics) means "behaving respectfully towards parents or venerable persons" is not essentially different, the relation between the members of the compound being unaltered. So the term cakravartin-, though occurring as early as the Maitri-upanisad. 1, 4 can hardly be interpreted otherwise. The explanation "who sets rolling the wheel (of his dominion), turner of the wheel" 742) which is not incompatible with the rules of Sanskrit grammar 743) may perhaps be regarded as a re-interpretation. If this be correct, the only point which needs clearing up is: what is meant by a cakra- in this connection?

What then is a cakra -? The original, i.e. etymological sense of the word is "wheel": Avestan caxra (Yt. 10, 136), Engl, wheel etc., belonging, with other words, to the root kuel- "to turn, move round". It does not seem to be an unwarranted supposition that already in prehistoric times the word could also express related meanings: the cognate xuxyos[Greek]; expresses, in the earlier Greek texts, mostly the sense of "ring, circle"; moreover, it can, partly in comparatively ancient documents, stand for "any circular body".

It is on the other hand beyond doubt that the wheel had already at an early period, what is sometimes incorrectly qualified as a metaphorical or symbolical value, that is to say that it involved conceptions of a ritual or magico-religious order 744). The cakra- or wheel as a 'symbol' is generally assumed to be derived from the wheel of the sun which in its daily course illumines and rules the earth 745). That the 'symbolism' of the wheel was present to the 'Indian mind' is also apparent from Kalidasa's statement that the sovereign who could achieve the ideal of ruling the entire world under one umbrella, drove a chariot of unchecked course up to the end of directions, and similar phrases which also recur in inscriptions 746).

According to the Petrograd Dictionary 747) cakra- is sometimes equivalent to rastra- "dominion" meaning "das uber die Lander hinrollende Rad des Monarches, Herrschaft" ("the wheel of a monarch's chariot rolling over his dominions, realm, sovereignty). I would propose the following emendation, taking cakra- to be the 'symbol' or rather representation of conquering efficacy. On the one hand the wheel constitutes the moving power of a carnage and chariot races are as we already know, a very important means of generating vaja and obtaining or establishing dominion.

On the other hand the sun which is itself a wheel, ever invincible and ever indefatigable, turns its circle in the sky and the universe. We must recall to memory the famous Buddhist dhammacakka, the so-called Wheel of Law, or rather, the conquering efficacy, perfection, supremacy the Dhamma, which like the sun illumines and rules the earth, and the likewise Buddhist brahmacakka "the excellent wheel, i.e., the doctrine of the Buddha.

The wheel is representative of the universality of the spiritual dominion of the Enlightened One, whose secular counterpart is the universal earthly monarch, both of them manifesting the same universal principle, the former on the spiritual, the latter on the secular plane. To roll or move the wheel belongs to a king: "I am that king, that peerless king of dhamma; in accordance with dhamma I roll my cakka" ("wheel of Truth") 748). Needless to observe that Buddha is the cakravartin- par excellence.



738) Cf. e.g. Brahmananda Pur. 1, 20, 78.

739) Cf. Petrograd Dict 2, 911; Monier-Williams 381.

740) However, the authorities do not agree in all respects. Nilakantha, on Mbh. 1, 74, 127 for instance, observes: cakram rathacakram ajna va anyatarena sarvant vyapnotiti cakravarti. Cf. the Mitaksara on Yajn. 1, 266 pravritacakratan apratihatajnata.

741) It is not difficult to give some parallels of adjectives in -in- denoting a close contact, a person who is charged or entrusted with a task, an "Inhaber" etc.: see J. Wackernagel-A. Derrunner, Altindische Grammatik, II2, Gottingen 1954, p. 333 ff.; compare especially such titles as sresthin- "a distinguished man, chief of an association, head of a guild" and paramesthin- "chief, principal". Being more specialized in sense they cannot be called complete synonyms of their "Grundwort".

742) Cf. also the Petrograd Dict. II, 911: "der die Rader seines Wagens ungehemmt uber alle Lander rollen lasst".

743) See Wackernagel-Derunner, o.c., p. 342 f.

744) The ancient texts supply a large number of instances of the important role played by the wheel in the thought of Vedic men. The wheel of the chariot of the sun is e.g. mentioned RV. 1, 121, 13; 130, 9: 174, 5 175, 4; 5, 31 II; it is checked by Indra: 4, 28. 2, or stolen by the same god: 4, 30. 4; 5, 201. 10. It may be added that this chariot which is the visible representation of the year and of time in general — hence the wheel of the year e.g. RV. 1, 164, 11 — has only one wheel: I, 164, 2; AV. 10, 8, 7; the sun is said to make it turn: 7, 63, 2 (.cf. 1, 164, 14); 2, 11, 20. We find the wheel also in similes. RV. 6, 24, 3, the two worlds being compared to two wheels, Indra to the axle which reaches beyond them (cf. 10, 89, 4). All worlds, abodes, or beings (bhuvana-) are called wheels: AV. 19, 53, I; cf. 9, 9, 2 etc.; or all beings are placed on a revolving wheel: RV. 1, 164, 13 (cf. 11; AV. 9, 9, 14). The wheel of dominion — thus Geldner — occurs RV. 10, 93, 9, Indra being the one who controls it; 8, 63, 8 the same god protects or helps along the turning wheel; cf. also 10, 89, 2.

745) For the wheel see also K. A. Tiemann, in H. Bachtold-Staubli, Handworterbuch dcs deutschen Aberglaubcns VII, p. 463 ft.: "Das Rad findet ... eine so verschiedenartige Anwendung, dass es nicht moglich ist, diese Formen alle auf eine Grundvorstellung zuruckzufuhren: ... magisch, apotropaisch, Orakelkraft ...; haufig ... im Kulte dcs Jahresfeuers: alle Glaubensausserungen beziehen sich nur auf die Verbreitung von Fruchtbarkeit und Gedeihen oder aufdie Abwehr von Schaden und feindlichen Damonen. In den meisten Fallen sind … Special attention may be drawn to a symbolism already know to Plato (Phaedrus 24): the wheel, as a "symbol" of motion, can express the idea of life in general. …

746) Cf. Kal. Ragh. 2, 47; 3, 4; Sak. 7, 33 etc.; Mathura stone Inscription of Candragupta II, etc.

747) Petr. Dict. II, 907, II – In a stanza to be pronounced during the simantonnayana (see e.g. Kane, Hist. of Dharmas, II, p. 222 f.) it reads: "fixed is the wheel (i.e. dominion) of this river (i.e., the river near which the sacrificer lives)".

748) Suttanipata 3, 7, 554. The Buddhists also hold that the main treasure of the emperor, the cakkaratana, which is a sort of palladium of dominion, wins the various quarters of the world for him. Wherever it halts, all the chiefs of that quarter acclaim him as their sovereign.