Monday, April 30, 2018

The Ubiquitous Wheel Has Spiritual Significance

by Sri Ajit Halder

If we hear the word “wheel” spoken by someone, then pictures of various types of vehicles fitted with wheels immediately start flashing before our mind’s eye.  The rotating, circularly shaped wheel – ‘Chakra’ in Sanskrit, - has made the most significant impact in our daily life by facilitating travel to and from one’s home, workplace, superstore, place of worship, homes of relatives and friends, and holiday resort.  All modes of transportation such as the horse-drawn cart, bicycle, scooter, car, public bus, truck, tram and train need wheels to roll on from one place to another.  Even an aeroplane – a vehicle which flies in the air - has to rely on wheels to speed along the runway of a departure airport and to pick up enough thrust for take-off, as well as upon arrival at its destination, touchdown and progressively reduce its speed as it crawls towards the terminal building.  It is now abundantly clear that Chakrayaan (wheeled vehicle) has brought mobility to our daily life, contributing a new spirit of exploration that has inspired and revolutionized the life-style of humankind.   Moreover, the word ‘Chakra’ may also refer to a metal disk, circular in shape, like a medallion, a broach or an illustration (like the Ashoka Chakra).   A chakra may refer to a "circle" and "cycle”.  More on these will be covered in latter sections.

Besides empowering humans to cope with the cares and the demands of their daily life, the Chakra also has its spiritual connotation. We mention for example, the Buddhist Dharma Chakra.  Practicing religion with the aid of this chakra and other chakras ensures advancement in one’s spiritual life.  It is interesting to note that the wheel's motion is a metaphor for making rapid spiritual progress in the human mind.  So the Chakra is an important concept for achieving spirituality in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other faiths.  A selection of chakras mentioned in the narratives of historical accounts and religious mythology will be described in succeeding paragraphs.
The Dharma Chakra

The pride of place of course belongs to the Buddhist Dharma Chakra - also known as the wheel of divine law and of fortune.  Lord Buddha is the one who turned the wheel of the dharma, and the eight spokes of the Dharma Chakra refer to the eight Noble Paths aenunciated by the Buddha.  The Noble Eightfold Path set out by the Buddha is considered to be at the heart of the practice of Buddhism.

The name of each noble path begins with the front word ‘sammaa’ in Pali (from sammyag in Sanskrit, meaning ‘right’ or ‘correct’), followed by the word naming the respective path (also in Pali).  The paths are: sammaaditthi (Right View or Understanding); sammaakammanto (Right Action); sammaasankappo (Right Intention); sammaavaaca (Right Speech); sammaaajivo (Right Livelihood); sammaavayamo (Right Effort); sammaasati (Right Mindfulness); and sammaasamaadhi (Right Concentration or Meditation). 

We note that Right view refers to the right knowledge of suffering, and the knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering.  In order not to create more suffering, we need to rely on paying attention (Mindfulness) to what our Intentions are with our actions.  All these observations stress the importance of the Dharma Chakra to the followers of Buddhism.

The Dharma Chakra in Buddhist Art 

The wheel was a common symbol in early Buddhist art. The Dharma Chakra symbolized not only Buddha's teachings, but Buddha himself.  On the top of pillars built by Emperor Ashoka, four carved lions and four wheels face the four directions to proclaim the spread of Buddhist Dharma throughout India.  Today, the Dharma Chakra appears in the art of every Buddhist culture. On images of the Buddha, the wheel appears on the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet.   Additionally, the wheel represents the endless cycle of samsara or rebirth, which can only be escaped by means of the Buddha's teachings and achieving Nirvana, the extinction of the flame of desires.

The Tibetan Prayer Wheel

Two thousand years ago, the famed Buddhist master Naagaarjuna determined that setting the Buddha's printed words in motion activated the same blessings as reciting them with the human voice. The concept of the prayer wheel was the result of his noble thinking and is a physical manifestation of the phrase "turning the wheel of Dharma".  Prayer wheels contain the words of the Buddha - teachings of wisdom and compassion, printed on rolls of paper that are glued together and wrapped by hand.  Traditionally, the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hummeaning the jewel is in the rose petals, is written in Devnagari script on the outside, while the tightly wound scroll on the inside can have a variety of Tibetan prayers.  As a result, each single revolution of the Tibetan wheel generates the merit of reciting an immense volume of prayers.

Bhava Chakra

The word Bhava means being in the realm of worldly existence.  In Buddhism it denotes the continuity of being, reincarnating to a new life and being subject to Jivan Chakra, the wheel of life. The Bhava Chakra is seen painted on the outside walls of nearly every Tibetan Buddhist temple in Tibet and India, to instruct non-monastic audience about the Buddhist teachings.  This Chakra consists of three inner circles.  Symbolically, the three circles, moving from the centre outward, show the three imperfections of the human mind: ignorance, attachment, and aversion.  These shortcomings may give rise to karma (actions) with harmful results.

The Sudarshan Chakra

In Hindu mythology, the Sudarshan Chakra is mentioned as a spinning, wheel-shaped weapon literally meaning "chakra with auspicious vision”.  Lord Vishnu is depicted as holding this chakra on the right rear hand. He is seen brandishing the Sudarshan Chakra as a weapon to destroy an enemy, or conquer evil, ignorance, desires and passions. In the Rigveda, the Chakra was Vishnu's symbol as Kaala Chakra, the wheel of Time.

RathaYatra of Puri

Ratha Yatra or Chariot Festival is a Hindu festival held at Puri (in the state of Odisha) and celebrated on the Ashadha Shukla Paksha Dwitiya (second day in the bright fortnight of Ashadha month).  As part of the festival, the deities of Jagannatha, his elder brother Balabhadra, and younger sister Subhadra are taken out on three richly decorated rathas resembling temple structures supported on wheels.  The huge, colourfully-decorated raths, are drawn by multitude of devotees on the grand avenue in a procession to reach their aunt's temple, the Gundicha Temple.

Lord Jagannatha's rath has sixteen chakras, each seven feet in diameter.  The Lord is identified with Pitambara Krishna, who is attired in golden yellow robes.  Hence distinguishing yellow stripes decorate the canopy of the ratha, ‘Nandighosha’.  The ratha of Lord Balarama, called the ‘Taaladhwaja’, is the one with the Taala or Palm Tree on its flag.  It has fourteen chakras, each seven feet in diameter, and is covered with red and blue cloth.  The ratha of Subhadra is known as ‘Dwarpadalana’, literally meaning "trampler of pride".  It is fitted with twelve chakras, each seven feet in diameter. This ratha is decked with a covering of red and black cloth – black being traditionally associated with Shakti, i.e. female power.

We see chakras on the ground all around us but there is a chakra at a great height attached to the pinnacle of the Jagannatha Temple in Puri known as the Neela Chakra, the Blue wheel. This chakra atop the huge temple of Lord Jagannath has an immensely holy connection with the lord of the world, Jagannatha.  

Ratha Chakras of Konark Sun Temple

The Sanskrit word ‘ark’ means the sun and the place name Konark ends in ‘ark’. The temple at Konark, about thirty-five kilometres from Puri in the state of Odisha, is dedicated to the Hindu sun god, Surya.  So it is proper to call this temple, the ‘Konark Sun Temple’.  The temple has the appearance of a high chariot and has twenty-four elaborately carved stone chakras.  Each chakra is nearly twelve feet in diameter, and the ratha is shown as being pulled by a set of seven stone horses. The temple is a classic illustration of the Odisha style of Hindu temple architecture.

Chakravyuha-trapped Abhimanyu

The word ‘vyuha’ denotes any military strategy of grouping army personnel.  The word ‘chakra’ in the context of ‘vyuha’ refers to the pattern of arranging troops in a complicated, circularly-shaped intricate formation, known as Chakra vyuha.  In the battle of Kurukhetra described in the epic Mahabharata, Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna, was tricked by the Kaurava army chiefs to enter the labyrinth trap, i.e. the Chakra Vyuha.  Abhimanyu knew how to enter the vyuha, but he did not know the escape route to free himself and was killed by the enemy force.  This is yet another mention of Chakra in the Hindu mythology. 

Kundalini Chakras

In Indian tradition, the physical body of a human (sthulasarira) exists also in psychological and emotional state called the "subtle body" (suksmasarira).  The subtle body consists of nodes of psychic energy, called chakras - altogether seven in number, arranged in a column along the spinal cord of the human body from its base to the top of the head. 

Kundalini is a yogic exercise that refers to the awakening of spiritual energy and its rising upwards from the chakra at the base of the spine (known as Muladhara Chakra) going to the crown of one’s head (known as Sahasrara Chakra).  In yogic practice, the Chakraasana is a strong back-bending yoga asana with m beneanyficial effects.  It is so called because the body forms the shape of a circular chakra when in this posture.

Chakra in Gallantry Awards

As has been mentioned earlier in the text, the term chakra also refers to circularly shaped medallions as used in the Gallantry awards instituted by the Government of India.  The most notable awards for valour or courageous action are:  ParamVir Chakra, MahaVir Chakra, Vir Chakra, Shaurya Chakra and Ashoka Chakra. 

Ashoka Chakra on the National Flag of India

The Ashoka Chakra, a depiction of Lord Budddha’s Dharma Chakra with 24 spokes, is most prominently displayed on the Lion Capital of Emperor Ashoka. The most visible use of the Ashoka Chakra today is at the centre of the national Flag of India.  It signifies the wheel of the law of dharma or virtue, which ought to be the controlling principle of all those working to serve the people of India.  Again, the wheel denotes motion.  India must move on and go forward, and so the wheel represents the dynamism of a peaceful change that is taking place in today’s India.

Gandhiji’s Charkhaa 

The charkhaa is a hand-driven spinning wheel, especially used to spin cotton wool into threads and then used to weave cloth in a hand-operated loom. Gandhiji emphasized the use of  charkhaaas as an effective way to remove the poverty of villagers.  The villagers could earn a living by using a charkha to produce cotton yarn that could be employed to weave hand-made khaddar cloth.  This venture would surely contribute to boost the nation’s economy by saving foreign exchange that was being spent in importing machine-manufactured clothes from Britain.  During the freedom struggle, the Charkhaa conveyed the spirit of nationalism to the Indian masses and became the symbol of Swadeshi movement.

Mahatma Gandhi gave charkhaaa a new meaning and novel interpretation by describing it as "the ever-moving wheel of divine love”.  To the Mahatma, hand-spinning was like a sacrament, a medium for spiritual uplift, a means of self-help and self-reliance, and a symbol of the dignity of labour and human values. 


In this article, the two words “Chakra” and "Wheel" have been used interchangeably.  The underlying form of a chakra is a circle which is a shape that is complete and perfect in itself.  Various chakras have been described in this piece, and it is stressed that religious practice performed with the aid of chakras should help the devotee progress towards a perfect, spiritual life. 

Metaphorically speaking, chakras - like the steering wheels used in boats, ships and cars for steering purposes - steer our minds, hearts and destiny towards divine thoughts and religious activities for achieving moksha, salvation or redemption from worldly sufferings.

And lastly, a quote in Sanskrit:

‘ChakravatParibartyanteDuhkhaanica Sukhaanica’!

In English, the saying asserts that sorrowful events and pleasant happenings take place iteratively in Chakras (i.e. cycles) - and by implication, all humans experience those occurrences in their worldly life.  We close this discussion with the assurance given to all readers that at the end of all these infallibilities, our minds will ultimately be filled with joy and happiness every time we encounter sorrow in our lives.

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