Article: Cakreśvarī or Apraticakrā

The yakṣī Cakreśvarī or Apraticakrā is one of the best-known Jain goddesses. She is a śāsana-devatā – ‘deity of the teaching’ – and is believed to help protect and spread the message of her Jina. She is the yakṣī of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, and a very popular deity who has developed a separate identity as a powerful goddess. Her male counterpart, the yakṣa Gomukha, does not have an independent status.

As a goddess, Cakreśvarī or Apraticakrā is a soul subject to the cycle of birth and can intervene in human affairs, unlike Jinas, who are liberated, perfect souls, completely detached from everyday human experience. Lay Jains worship gods partly to request help with worldly matters, ranging from issues of health and fertility, and passing examinations to business success. By the tenth century several of the śāsana-devatās had developed into independent gods at the centre of their own cults. This may be because of their connections with the major Jinas, links with a prominent pilgrimage centre or various stories of their powers.

Śvetāmbara Jains call this goddess Cakreśvarī while Digambaras know her as Apraticakrā, but this distinction is not watertight. Each sect gives her different attributes, but the disc – cakra – is her distinctive symbol, connected to the two versions of her name. In sculptures as well as paintings she is shown holding it in at least one of her hands. She has close associations with Mount Shatrunjaya, a major Śvetāmbara pilgrimage centre. She is also linked to the popular Jain hymn called the Bhaktāmara-stotra.

Name

This goddess is known as:

  • the ‘lord of the disc’ – Cakreśvarī
  • the ‘one with a disc without rival’ – Apraticakrā.

In this case, there is a close connection between the yakṣī’s name and her most important symbol. This association can be said to underline her unrivalled power or supremacy.

In addition, Cakreśvarī as a vidyā-devī or ‘goddess of knowledge’ is sometimes called Vaiṣṇavī, the consort of Viṣṇu, whose main emblem is the disc.

Roles

Detail of the dome of the Ranakpur temple in Rajasthan. The ceiling in the main hall features the 16 goddesses of magical knowledge – vidyā-devīs. Dedicated to the first Jina, R̥ṣabha, the Ranakpur temple is one of the foremost Jain pilgrimage sites.

Detail of the Ranakpur dome
Image by w3p706 – Fabian Heusser © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Apraticakrā or Cakreśvarī is mainly known as the yakṣī – attendant goddess – of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. But like many yakṣas and yakṣīs she is at the crossroads of categories. She is also the fifth among the 16 mahā-vidyās or vidyā-devīs, who represent types of magical power or knowledge.

She is ‘parallel in concept to the Hindu goddess Vaiṣṇavī’ (Bruhn 1969: 23), who is the female energy of Viṣṇu. He is the protective, preserver deity of the Hindu triad of major gods and Vaiṣṇavī has similar associations.

Cakreśvarī is also the tutelary deity of the Śvetāmbara monastic lineage of the Ancala-gaccha, along with another goddess named Kālikā.

Appearance

The vajra is a double-ended thunderbolt that is a divine weapon in Indian mythology. To Jains, it is particularly associated with the yakṣī Cakreśvarī and with Śakra, the lord of the gods who reside in the Saudharma heaven.

Thunderbolt
Image by NelC – Nelson Cunningham © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Both yakṣas and yakṣīs are considered part of the entourage of the Jina image, technically known as parikara. Like all of the attendant deities, Cakreśvarī has certain features that help to identify her and indicate her powers. These are described in, for example, texts on the iconography of the Jina, which outline the appearance of the Jina’s attendants.

Being presented as a deity implies that Cakreśvarī has special characteristics linked to the depiction of gods in art. This means she:

  • may have more than two arms or hands
  • has a vehiclevāhana
  • demonstrates attributes by holding various objects
  • may exhibit hand-gestures that symbolise a concept or attitude – mudrās.

Cakreśvarī’s vehicle is Garuḍa, a mythical eagle. Her symbol is the disc – cakra – which is one of the main Indian weapons.

Cakreśvarī is given varying numbers of hands by different traditions within the two main Jain sects, as follows:

  • two, four, six, eight, ten, 12, 16 or 20 hands – Digambara
  • two, four, eight or 18 hands – Śvetāmbara.

According to the Nirvāṇa-kālikā, she has eight hands. Ascribed to the first quarter of the 11th century, this treatise deals with the installation of images and contains a lot of information about iconography. It states that her four right hands:

  • make the gesture of giving a boon – varada-mudrā
  • hold an arrow
  • carry a disc
  • grasp a noose.

Her left hands hold a:

  • bow
  • thunderbolt – vajra
  • disc
  • goad.

The sects also give her varying divine attributes. In her 12-hand form, her attributes are identical in the two traditions. They are:

  • discs in eight hands
  • thunderbolt in two hands
  • fruit and varada-mudrā in the two remaining hands.

A 14th-century work says:

On both sides [of the frame of the jina image] there should be yakṣa, yakṣī, lions, elephants, caurī, and in the middle the goddess Cakreśvarī. These should occupy fourteen, twelve, ten, three, and six parts respectively of the whole [frame]


Vatthusāra-payaraṇa II. 27

quoted in Fischer and Jain 1978, volume II, page 22

Written in the 12th century, Hemacandra’s standard Śvetāmbara version of the lives of the 24 Jinas contains a paragraph for each pair of gods attendant on the Jinas. Here is the description he gives of Cakreśvarī:

Apraticakrā, gold-color, with a garuḍa-seat, with one right arm in varada-position and the others holding an arrow, disc, and noose, her left arms holding a bow, thunderbolt, disc, and goad


Hemacandra, Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra I.3.279ff.

Johnson’s translation, volume I, page 211

There is also a terrifying form of Cakreśvarī depicted in Tantric texts. She has the same attributes but ‘is visualized as three-eyed with dreadful appearance’ (Tiwari and Sinha 2011: 91).

Images

The main Svetāmbara pilgrimage site, Mount Shatrunjaya, is one of the most famous Indian temple-cities. Almost a thousand temples cluster on the hill, most of them completed in the 18th and 19th centuries, though the site has long been considered holy

Mount Shatrunjaya temples
Image by Amre Ghiba © CC BY-NC 2.0

The earliest image of the goddess Cakreśvarī with an identifying caption is considered to be the sculpture on the façade of temple number 12 at Deogarh, which is dated 862 CE. The peak creation period for surviving Cakreśvarī figures is the tenth to 12th centuries, especially in central India. Sites such as Deogarh or Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh have yielded individual images of her, pointing to the existence of independent worship at that time.

Important images are the:

  • 11th-century Cakreśvarī with 20 arms preserved in the Sahu Jaina Museum at Deogarh (Tiwari and Sinha 2011: 92 and plate 122)
  • four-armed Cakreśvarī seated on a human garuḍa, found in temple number 19 at Deogarh (Bruhn 1969: figure 250).

Another one is the Cakreśvarī in cave temple 30 at Ellora, Maharashtra, dating from the ninth century. There she has 12 arms and rides on a garuḍa in human form. South Indian images rarely show the eagle as a vehicle, but the disc is always present.

In western India, noteworthy figures of Cakreśvarī are a:

  • marble image with eight arms in a niche to the left of the steps leading to the Caumukha Tunka in Shatrunjaya (Jhavery 1944: 330) in Gujarat
  • four-armed image in the temple of Vastupāla and Tejaḥpāla on Mount Girnar, also in Gujarat.

Describing Ayodhyā as a Jain holy place in section 13 of his 14th-century Vividha-tīrtha-kalpa, Jinaprabha-sūri, the Śvetāmbara author, implies that there was an idol of her and of the yakṣa Gomukha in a shrine at Shatrunjaya.

In the 11th century the worship of Cakreśvarī is said to have led the businessman Jāvaḍa Śeṭh to rediscover an image of R̥ṣabhanātha or Lord R̥ṣabha. This subsequently led to the re-establishment of Shatrunjaya as a holy place (Cort 1987: 241).

Cakreśvarī is thus associated with this major pilgrimage centre for Śvetāmbara Jains. She is considered the site’s protective deity and there is a small shrine to her there. The development of her cult is linked to the growth of the pilgrimage site.

Bhaktāmara-stotra

This highly decorated manuscript page is from an 18th-century copy of the Bhaktāmara-stotra, one of the most popular Jain prayers. The figure in the centre is the first Jina Ṛṣabha. An auspicious image of a Jina or god often appears at the start of a text

Bhaktāmara-stotra opening
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Cakreśvarī appears as a major figure in many of the stories relating to the Bhaktāmara-stotra, one of the most famous Jain hymns.

Dedicated to the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, the hymn has given rise to numerous accounts demonstrating the positive effects of reciting it. The tales featuring Cakreśvarī all show how she is instrumental in helping the devout Jain who is meditating on this hymn and reciting its verses. When she is satisfied with his devotion, she appears in front of him, gives him a boon and then disappears. This boon reverses the worshipper’s difficult position and determines his future success in life.

Worship

Evidence from the tenth century demonstrates that at that point the worship of independent yakṣīs was already well established and important.

Devotees call upon these individual divinities to remove all sorts of obstacles and bestow success in all areas of life. Independent hymns of praise develop as a form of literature. One instance is the Cakreśvarī-stotra, written by Jinadatta-sūri in the 12th century (Nawab 1937/1996: 182–183; Jhavery 1944: 331–332).

Tantric rituals

In golden colours, this manuscript painting shows Ṛṣabha. The first of the 24 Jinas, Ṛṣabha takes the lotus position of meditation. His jewels and headdress show he is a spiritual king, stressed by royal symbols, such as the elephant and parasol.

Worship of Ṛṣabha
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The individual yakṣīs are also associated with magic or occult practices. Hence there are Tantric modes of worship associated with them as well. This implies propitiatory rituals meant to invite the benevolence of the deity. Unlike more orthodox Jain rites, worshippers invoke the goddess under her different names and visualise her using mantras to assist meditation. They perform various rites with the help of yantras, intended to appease evil forces and win the favour of the goddess.

Such mantras, yantras and ceremonies are given in works that may take the form of hymns of praise composed in Sanskrit. Of unknown date and authorship, the Cakreśvarī-aṣṭaka (Nawab 1937/1996: 184–185 and Jhavery 1944: 331–332) is one such example.

However, this type of worship is probably less prominent for Cakreśvarī than it is for other important yakṣīs such as:

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