Article: Jain Universal History

Contributed by Eva De Clercq


This manuscript painting in a Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna shows the 14 magical jewels – ratna – of a 'universal ruler' – cakravartin. He uses these to conquer his enemies and become a universal monarch. The first panel depicts the cakravartin and a servant

14 magical jewels
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The Cakravartin is a ‘universal emperor’, who rules over large parts of the world, typically the six parts of Bhārata-varṣa. In Jain cosmology this is the entire civilised world. They live at different times in every half-cycle of time and their early lives share similarities with those of the Jinas. Cakravartins have various supernatural possessions or associates and have a variety of destinies.

The 12 Cakravartins of the present time period are:

  1. Bharata
  2. Sagara
  3. Maghavan
  4. Sanatkumāra
  5. Śānti
  6. Kunthu
  7. Ara
  8. Subhūma or Subhauma
  9. Mahāpadma or Padma
  10. Hariṣeṇa
  11. Jayasena
  12. Brahmadatta.

Three of these men become Cakravartins – ‘universal emperors’ – before they become Jinas. These are the:

  • 16th Jina, Śāntinātha or Lord Śānti
  • 17th Jina, Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu
  • 18th Jina, Aranātha or Lord Ara.

In previous existences the Cakravartins gathered a large amount of religious merit, and cultivated a nidāna – an intense desire to become a cakravartin, which is held on to in various incarnations of the soul. Their early lives proceed in a similar way to that of the Jinas, in that they are all born into royal families and their destiny is prophesied by a number of dreams of their pregnant mothers. They grow up to become powerful rulers, subjugating surrounding kingdoms – digvijaya. Eventually, the magic discus – cakra – Sudarśana appears in their armouries and they are then anointed cakravartin, which literally means ‘he who revolves the discus’. They marry many wives and have many sons.

Cakravartins possess:

  • 14 ratnas – ‘jewels’ – which are supernatural beings assisting them in their conquest
  • 9 nidhis – ‘treasures’ – which contain objects or sciences to facilitate their destiny.

At the end of their lives, some Cakravartins renounce the world and attain omniscience and final liberation. Others become a god in one of the heavens, while still others are reborn in one of the hells.

Baladevas, Vāsudevas and Prati-vāsudevas

The 22nd Jina Nemi with his cousin Kr̥ṣṇa. To Jains Kr̥ṣṇa is Prince Nemi's cousin, who appears in his life story. He is the ninth and final Vāsudeva of this time period and thus a a śalākā-puruṣa – 'great man'. To Hindus Kr̥ṣṇa is the avatar of Viṣṇu.

Nemi and Kr̥ṣṇa
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

A Baladeva, Vāsudeva and Prati-vāsudeva always live simultaneously. There are nine sets of them in every half-cycle of time. Bound in a triangle of enmity over many births, these men are popular mythical characters and feature in some of the best-known texts of the Jain Purāṇas. They have close affinities with some figures in Hinduism.

The Baladevas are righteous Jains, who go to heaven or attain liberation at the end of their lives. The Vāsudevas are their younger half-brothers. They kill their arch-enemies, the Prati-vāsudevas, which literally means the ‘anti-Vāsudevas’.

The hostility between the Vāsudeva and Prati-vāsudeva is explained through their encounters in many previous existences. In their lives as mahā-puruṣas the magic discus – cakra – Sudarśana first appears in the armoury of the Prati-vāsudeva, as with the Cakravartin. During the ultimate battle with the Vāsudeva, the Prati-vāsudeva hurls the discus at him. Instead of killing the Vāsudeva, the discus flies into the hands of the Vāsudeva, who throws it at the Prati-vāsudeva and kills him. The Vāsudeva is then hailed as an ardha-cakravartin – ‘half universal emperor’ – and reigns over half of Bhārata-varṣa.

The Jain categories of Baladevas and Vāsudevas, by their very names, are clearly based on the characters who are better known from the Hindu traditions as avatāraavatars – of the deity Viṣṇu. These are:

  • Balarāma, also known as Baladeva
  • Kṛṣṇa, also called Vāsudeva, the son of Vasudeva.

The Jains consider these two brothers, Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa, to be the ninth and final Baladeva and Vāsudeva of this time period. They are both popular characters in Jain and Hindu myth. Their enemy, the Prati-vāsudeva, was Jarāsandha, whom Kṛṣṇa eventually vanquishes. The eight preceding Baladevas, Vāsudevas and Prati-vāsudevas are variously named in different sources, shown in this table.

Nine sets of Baladeva, Vāsudeva and Prati-vāsudeva






Acala or Vijaya




Vijaya or Acala




Bhadra or Dharma


Meraka or Madhu




Madhu or Madhusūdana, or Niśumbha or Madhukaiṭabha




Niśumbha or Madhukaiṭabha or Madhukrīḍa


Ānanda or Nandiṣeṇa or Nandimitra


Bali or Niśumbha


Nandana or Nandiṣeṇa or Nandimitra

Puruṣadatta or Datta

Prahlāda or Praharaṇa or Balīndra


Padma or Rāma

Lakṣmaṇa or Nārāyaṇa

Rāvaṇa or Daśānana


Balarāma or Rāma, or Padma



Many of these also resemble the names of characters from myths associated with the Hindu deity Viṣṇu or one of his avatars, particularly Kṛṣṇa. The Jain Vāsudevas are modelled after the popular description of Kṛṣṇa. With a black-blue complexion, he wears yellow robes and is for ever young and without any facial hair. In addition, in Jain texts he is referred to by popular epithets from the Vaiṣṇava tradition, such as Viṣṇu, Janārdana, Govinda, Nārāyaṇa, Keśava and Mādhava.

Other great men

Statue of Bāhubali, one of the sons of the first Jina, Ṛṣabha. A śalākā-puruṣa – 'great man' in Jain Universal History – Bāhubali is one of the 24 Kāma-devas – ‘love-gods’. He is famous for giving up his worldly life to become a great ascetic.

Figure of Bāhubali
Image by Vikas m © public domain

Other, more extensive lists of Jain 'great men' include further categories of śalākā-puruṣas.

Among these are the 9 Nāradas, named after the divine intriguing musician Nārada, who is well known from the Hindu epics and Purāṇas. The Jain nāradas, who live in succession, are malicious troublemakers who go to hell for their machinations.

The 11 Rudras – ‘dreadful ones’ – are ascetics, living successively, in the monastic order of one of the Jinas. They eventually abandon the path of asceticism and therefore also go to hell.

The Kulakaras – ‘patriarchs’ – vary in number from 7 to 14 or 16. They are born consecutively in the suṣamā-duṣamā period, when people become frightened by the changing conditions in their surroundings. The Kulakaras teach them how to adjust to these conditions and thus provide them with a sense of security. The last of the Kulakaras of this time period was Nābhi, the father of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha.

A popular secondary category of śalākā-puruṣas are the 24 Kāma-devas – ‘love-gods’. Like the pan-Indian god of love, Kāma, they are very handsome and have many wives. The most famous among them is one of the sons of the first Jina, named Bāhubali. Other Kāma-devas are Kṛṣṇa’s father Vasudeva and his son Pradyumna, and characters better known from the Sanskrit epics, such as Hanumān and King Nala, the beloved of Damayantī.

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