Friday, June 27, 2014

The World Rulers (Buddhist "chakravartins")

Seth Auberon, Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Wisdom Quarterly; G.P. Malalasekera; John Kelly
Asia 200 BC showing outlines of "great footholds of clans" (maha-janapadas) and empires (consolidated lands), like the Greco-Bactria Kingdom in Indo-Greek Afghan Gandhara.
Afghan (Gandharan) Buddhist monks with Greek King Menander (Milinda), Bactria (WHP)
Chakra at center of Indian flag
The special name given in Buddhist texts to a world ruler or monarch is cakka-vatti. It means "Turner of the Wheel," the Wheel (cakka, chakra) being the well known Indian symbol of empire. 

More than 1,000 sons are his; his dominions extend throughout the Earth to its ocean bounds (sāgarapariyantam) [a reference either to space and the planet in the Milky Way ocean or to the subcontinent of India bounded by seas]; and [the ruler's empire] is established not by the scourge nor by the sword, but by righteousness...
...When the world monarch is about to die, the Wheel slips down from its place and sinks down slightly. When the king sees this he leaves the household life, and retires into homelessness, to taste the joys of contemplation [meditation], having handed over the kingdom to his eldest son. At the king's death, the Elephant, the Horse and the Gem return to where they came from, the Woman loses her beauty, the Treasurer his divine vision, and the Adviser his efficiency (DA.ii.635).
Golden Buddha (Boddo) coin (
The world monarchs (cakka-vattis) are rare in the world, born in ages/aeons (kalpas) in which buddhas do not arise (SA.iii.131).

The Cakkavattisīhanāda Sutta gives the names of seven who succeeded one another. In the case of each of them, the Wheel (cakka, chakra) disappeared. But when his successor practiced the noble (ariyan) duty of a world monarch, honoring the Dharma and following it to perfection, the Wheel reappeared.

In the case of the seventh, his virtues gradually disappeared through forgetfulness; crime spread among his subjects, and the Wheel vanished forever. More

King Milinda questions Ven. Nagasena
John Kelly (trans.) Milindapañha or "Questions of King Milinda" (excerpts)
The metallic Milinda/Menander I coin
The Milinda-pañha, the 18th book of the Khuddaka Nikaya (Burmese version of the Pali canon), consists of seven parts (see further on).

The conclusion states that it contains 262 questions, but the editions available today only contain 236. Although not included as a canonical text in the traditions of all the Theravada countries, this work is much revered throughout and is one of the most popular and authoritative Buddhist works in Pali [a uniquely Buddhist language very similar to Sanskrit].
Composed around the beginning of the common era and of unknown authorship, it is set up as a compilation of questions posed by King Milinda [Greek King Menander I] to a revered senior monk named Ven. Nagasena.

Nagasena answers the king's many questions
Milinda is identified by scholars with considerable confidence as the Greek King Menander of Bactria, a dominion founded by Alexander the Great.

The area corresponds with much of present day Afghanistan. King Menander's realm would have included Gandhara, where Buddhism was flourishing at that time.
What is most interesting about the Milindapañha is that it is the product of the encounter of two great civilizations -- Hellenistic Greece and Buddhist India [which in ancient times included all of modern Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan, which is what Gandhara was]. So it is of continuing relevance as the Wisdom of the East meets the modern Western world.
  • [NOTE: It is more likely that Buddhism co-arose in Afghanistan because the Buddha was from there. The evidence for this is more archeological than anything. Afghanistan contains the earliest anthropomorphic depictions of the Buddha, the largest Buddha figures, the richest and most massive temple complexes, such as the incomprehensible finds at 2,600-year-old Mes Aynak near the modern capital of Kabul. Buddhism is currently thought to be 2,600-years old. Is it reasonable to believe that the first year the Buddha began teaching in India, someone thought to found a massive temple with monastic residences?]
King Milinda poses questions about dilemmas raised by Buddhist philosophy that we might well ask today. And Ven. Nagasena's responses are full of wisdom, wit, and helpful analogies. More

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