Chakras (Sanskrit: चक्र, IAST: cakra, Pali: cakka, lit. wheel, circle; English: / /-, CHUK-, CHAK-rə) are the various focal points in the subtle body used in a variety of ancient meditation practices, collectively denominated as Tantra, or the esoteric or inner traditions of Hinduism.
The concept is found in the early traditions of Hinduism. Beliefs differ between the Indian religions, with many Buddhist texts consistently mentioning five chakras, while Hindu sources offer six or even seven. Early Sanskrit texts speak of them both as meditative visualizations combining flowers and mantras and as physical entities in the body. Some modern interpreters speak of them as complexes of electromagnetic variety, the precise degree and variety of which directly arise from a synthetic average of all positive and negative so-called "fields", thus eventuating the complex Nadi. Within kundalini yoga, the techniques of breath exercises, visualizations, mudras, bandhas, kriyas, and mantras are focused on manipulating the flow of subtle energy through chakras.
Lexically, cakra is the Indic reflex of an ancestral Indo-European form *kʷékʷlos, whence also "wheel" and "cycle" (Ancient Greek κύκλος). It has both literal and metaphorical uses, as in the "wheel of time" or "wheel of dharma", such as in Rigveda hymn verse 1.164.11, pervasive in the earliest Vedic texts.
In Buddhism, especially in Theravada, the Pali noun cakka connotes "wheel". Within the central "Tripitaka", the Buddha variously refers the "dhammacakka", or "wheel of dharma", connoting that this dharma, universal in its advocacy, should bear the marks characteristic of any temporal dispensation. The Buddha spoke of freedom from cycles in and of themselves, whether karmic, reincarnative, liberative, cognitive or emotional.
In Jainism, the term chakra also means "wheel" and appears in various contexts in its ancient literature. As in other Indian religions, chakra in esoteric theories in Jainism such as those by Buddhisagarsuri means a yogic energy center.
The term chakra appears to first emerge within the Hindu Vedas, though not precisely in the sense of psychic energy centers, rather as chakravartin or the king who "turns the wheel of his empire" in all directions from a center, representing his influence and power. The iconography popular in representing the Chakras, states White, trace back to the five symbols of yajna, the Vedic fire altar: "square, circle, triangle, half moon and dumpling".
The hymn 10.136 of the Rigveda mentions a renunciate yogi with a female named kunamnama. Literally, it means "she who is bent, coiled", representing both a minor goddess and one of many embedded enigmas and esoteric riddles within the Rigveda. Some scholars, such as David Gordon White and Georg Feuerstein, interpret this might be related to kundalini shakti, and an overt overture to the terms of esotericism that would later emerge in Post-Aryan Bramhanism. the Upanishad.
Breath channels (nāḍi) are mentioned in the classical Upanishads of Hinduism from the 1st millennium BCE, but not psychic-energy chakra theories. The latter, states David Gordon White, were introduced about 8th-century CE in Buddhist texts as hierarchies of inner energy centers, such as in the Hevajra Tantra and Caryāgiti. These are called by various terms such as cakka, padma (lotus) or pitha (mound). These medieval Buddhist texts mention only four chakras, while later Hindu texts such as the Kubjikāmata and Kaulajñānanirnaya expanded the list to many more.
In contrast to White, according to Georg Feuerstein, early Upanishads of Hinduism do mention cakra in the sense of "psychospiritual vortices", along with other terms found in tantra: prana or vayu (life energy) along with nadi (energy carrying arteries). According to Gavin Flood, the ancient texts do not present chakra and kundalini-style yoga theories although these words appear in the earliest Vedic literature in many contexts. The chakra in the sense of four or more vital energy centers appear in the medieval era Hindu and Buddhist texts.
Shining, she holds
the noose made of the energy of will,
the hook which is energy of knowledge,
the bow and arrows made of energy of action.
Split into support and supported,
divided into eight, bearer of weapons,
arising from the chakra with eight points,
she has the ninefold chakra as a throne.
(Translator: Andre Padoux)
Chakra is a part of the esoteric medieval era theories about physiology and psychic centers that emerged across Indian traditions. The theory posited that human life simultaneously exists in two parallel dimensions, one "physical body" (sthula sarira) and other "psychological, emotional, mind, non-physical" it is called the "subtle body" (sukshma sarira).[note 1] This subtle body is energy, while the physical body is mass. The psyche or mind plane corresponds to and interacts with the body plane, and the theory posits that the body and the mind mutually affect each other. The subtle body consists of nadi (energy channels) connected by nodes of psychic energy called chakra. The theory grew into extensive elaboration, with some suggesting 88,000 chakras throughout the subtle body. The number of major chakras varied between various traditions, but they typically ranged between four and seven.
The important chakras are stated in Hindu and Buddhist texts to be arranged in a column along the spinal cord, from its base to the top of the head, connected by vertical channels. The tantric traditions sought to master them, awaken and energize them through various breathing exercises or with assistance of a teacher. These chakras were also symbolically mapped to specific human physiological capacity, seed syllables (bija), sounds, subtle elements (tanmatra), in some cases deities, colors and other motifs.
The chakra theories of Hinduism and Buddhism differs from the historic Chinese system of meridians in acupuncture. Unlike the latter, the chakra relates to subtle body, wherein it has a position but no definite nervous node or precise physical connection. The tantric systems envision it as continually present, highly relevant and a means to psychic and emotional energy. It is useful in a type of yogic rituals and meditative discovery of radiant inner energy (prana flows) and mind-body connections. The meditation is aided by extensive symbology, mantras, diagrams, models (deity and mandala). The practitioner proceeds step by step from perceptible models, to increasingly abstract models where deity and external mandala are abandoned, inner self and internal mandalas are awakened.
These ideas are not unique to Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Similar and overlapping concepts emerged in other cultures in the East and the West, and these are variously called by other names such as subtle body, spirit body, esoteric anatomy, sidereal body and etheric body. According to Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, professors of Religious studies known for their studies on Yoga and esoteric traditions:
Ideas and practices involving so-called 'subtle bodies' have existed for many centuries in many parts of the world. (...) Virtually all human cultures known to us have some kind of concept of mind, spirit or soul as distinct from the physical body, if only to explain experiences such as sleep and dreaming. (...) An important subset of subtle-body practices, found particularly in Indian and Tibetan Tantric traditions, and in similar Chinese practices, involves the idea of an internal 'subtle physiology' of the body (or rather of the body-mind complex) made up of channels through which substances of some kind flow, and points of intersection at which these channels come together. In the Indian tradition the channels are known as nadi and the points of intersection as cakra.— Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body
Contrast with classical yoga
Chakra and related theories have been important to the esoteric traditions, but they are not directly related to mainstream yoga. According to the Indologist Edwin Bryant and other scholars, the goals of classical yoga such as spiritual liberation (freedom, self-knowledge, moksha) is "attained entirely differently in classical yoga, and the cakra / nadi / kundalini physiology is completely peripheral to it."
The classical eastern traditions, particularly those that developed in India during the 1st millennium AD, primarily describe nadi and cakra in a "subtle body" context. To them, they are in same dimension as of the psyche-mind reality that is invisible yet real. In the nadi and cakra flow the prana (breath, life energy). The concept of "life energy" varies between the texts, ranging from simple inhalation-exhalation to far more complex association with breath-mind-emotions-sexual energy. This prana or essence is what vanishes when a person dies, leaving a gross body. Some of this concept states this subtle body is what withdraws within, when one sleeps. All of it is believed to be reachable, awake-able and important for an individual's body-mind health, and how one relates to other people in one's life. This subtle body network of nadi and chakra is, according to some later Indian theories and many new age speculations, closely associated with emotions.
Different esoteric traditions in Hinduism mention numerous numbers and arrangements chakras, of which a classical system of seven is most prevalent. This seven-part system, central to the core texts of hatha yoga, is one among many systems found in Hindu tantric literature. These texts teach many different Chakra theories.
The Chakra methodology is extensively developed in the goddess tradition of Hinduism called Shaktism. It is an important concept along with yantras, mandalas and kundalini yoga in its practice. Chakra in Shakta tantrism means circle, an "energy center" within, as well as being a term for group rituals such as in chakra-puja (worship within a circle) which may or may not involve tantra practice. The cakra-based system is a part of the meditative exercises that came to be known as yoga.
Beyond its original Shakta milieu, various sub-traditions within the Shaiva and Vaishnava schools of Hinduism also developed texts and practices on Nadi and Chakra systems. Modern Hindu groups including the Bihar School of Yoga and the Self Realization Fellowship utilize a technique of circular energy that works based on the chakras known as kriya yoga. Although Paramahansa Yogananda claimed this was the same technique taught as kriya yoga by Patañjali in the Yoga Sūtras and by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (as karma yoga), Swami Satyananda of the Bihar school disagreed with this assessment and acknowledged the similarities between kriya and taoist inner orbit practices. Both schools claim the technique is taught in every age by an avatar of god known as Babaji. The historicity of its techniques in India prior to the early twentieth century are not well established. It believed by its practitioners to activate the chakras and stimulate faster spiritual development.
The esoteric traditions in Buddhism generally teach four chakras. In some early Buddhist sources, these chakras are identified as: manipura (navel), anahata (heart), vishuddha (throat) and ushnisha kamala (crown). In one development within the Nyingma lineage of the Mantrayana of Tibetan Buddhism a popular conceptualization of chakras in increasing subtlety and increasing order is as follows: Nirmanakaya (gross self), Sambhogakaya (subtle self), Dharmakaya (causal self), and Mahasukhakaya (non-dual self), each vaguely – yet by no means directly – corresponding to the categories within the Shaiva Mantramarga universe, i.e., Svadhisthana, Anahata, Visuddha, Sahasrara, etc. However, depending on the meditational tradition, these vary between three and six. The chakras are considered psycho-spiritual constituents, each bearing meaningful correspondences to cosmic processes and their postulated Buddha counterpart.
- Basal chakra (Element: Earth, Buddha: Amoghasiddhi, Bija mantra: LAM)
- Abdominal chakra (Element: Water, Buddha: Ratnasambhava, Bija mantra: VAM)
- Heart chakra (Element: Fire, Buddha: Akshobhya, Bija mantra: RAM)
- Throat chakra (Element: Wind, Buddha: Amitabha, Bija mantra: YAM)
- Crown chakra (Element: Space, Buddha: Vairochana, Bija mantra: KHAM)
Chakras clearly play a key role in Tibetan Buddhism, and are considered to be the pivotal providence of Tantric thinking. And, the precise use of the chakras across the gamut of tantric sadhanas gives little space to doubt the primary efficacy of Tibetan Buddhism as distinct religious agency, that being that precise revelation that, without Tantra there would be no Chakras, but more importantly, without Chakras, there is no Tibetan Buddhism. The highest practices in Tibetan Buddhism point to the ability to bring the subtle pranas of an entity into alignment with the central channel, and to thus penetrate the realisation of the ultimate unity, namely, the "organic harmony" of one's individual consciousness of Wisdom with the co-attainment of All-embracing Love, thus synthesizing a direct cognition of absolute Buddhahood.
According to Geoffrey Samuel, the buddhist esoteric systems developed cakra and nadi as "central to their soteriological process". The theories were sometimes, but not always, coupled with a unique system of physical exercises, called yantra yoga or 'phrul 'khor.
Chakras, according to the Bon tradition, enable the gestalt of experience, with each of the five major chakras, being psychologically linked with the five experiential qualities of unenlightened consciousness, the six realms of woe.
The tsa lung practice embodied in the Trul khor lineage, unbaffles the primary channels, thus activating and circulating liberating prana. Yoga awakens the deep mind, thus bringing forth positive attributes, inherent gestalts, and virtuous qualities. In a computer analogy, the screen of one's consciousness is slated and an attribute-bearing file is called up that contains necessary positive or negative, supportive qualities.
Tantric practice is said to eventually transform all experience into clear light. The practice aims to liberate from all negative conditioning, and the deep cognitive salvation of freedom from control and unity of perception and cognition.
Qigong (氣功) also relies on a similar model of the human body as an esoteric energy system, except that it involves the circulation of qì (氣, also ki) or life-energy. The qì, equivalent to the Hindu prana, flows through the energy channels called meridians, equivalent to the nadi, but two other energies are also important: jīng, or primordial essence, and shén, or spirit energy.
In the principle circuit of qì, called the microcosmic orbit, energy rises up a main meridian along the spine, but also comes back down the front torso. Throughout its cycle it enters various dantian (elixir fields) which act as furnaces, where the types of energy in the body (jing, qi and shen) are progressively refined. These dantian play a very similar role to that of chakras. The number of dantian varies depending on the system; the navel dantian is the most well-known, but there is usually a dantian located at the heart and between the eyebrows. The lower dantian at or below the navel transforms essence, or jīng, into qì. The middle dantian in the middle of the chest transforms qì into shén, or spirit, and the higher dantian at the level of the forehead (or at the top of the head), transforms shen into wuji, infinite space of void.
Traditional spirituality in the Malay Archipelago borrows heavily from Hindu-Buddhist concepts. In Malay and Indonesian metaphysical theory, the chakras' energy rotates outwards along diagonal lines. Defensive energy emits outwards from the centre line, while offensive energy moves inwards from the sides of the body. This can be applied to energy-healing, meditation, or martial arts. Silat practitioners aim to harmonise their movements with these chakras, thereby increasing the power and effectiveness of attacks and movements.
The seven chakra system
The more common and most studied chakra system incorporates six major chakras along with a seventh center generally not regarded as a chakra. These points are arranged vertically along the axial channel (sushumna nadi in Hindu texts, Avadhuti in some Buddhist texts). According to Gavin Flood, this system of six chakras plus the sahasrara "center" at the crown first appears in the Kubjikāmata-tantra, an 11th-century Kaula work.
It was this chakra system that was translated in the early 20th century by Sir John Woodroffe (also called Arthur Avalon) in the text The Serpent Power. Avalon translated the Hindu text Ṣaṭ-Cakra-Nirūpaṇa meaning the examination (nirūpaṇa) of the six (ṣaṭ) chakras (cakra).
The Chakras are traditionally considered meditation aids. The yogi progresses from lower chakras to the highest chakra blossoming in the crown of the head, internalizing the journey of spiritual ascent. In both the Hindu and Buddhist kundalini or candali traditions, the chakras are pierced by a dormant energy residing near or in the lowest chakra. In Hindu texts she is known as Kundalini, while in Buddhist texts she is called Candali or Tummo (Tibetan: gtum mo, "fierce one").
Below are the common new age description of these six chakras and the seventh point known as sahasrara. This new age version incorporates the Newtonian colors that were unknown when these systems were created.
|Image of chakra||Name||Sanskrit||Translation||Location||No. of lotus petals||Modern colour||Description|
|Sahasrara||सहस्रार||"Thousand-petaled"||Crown||1000||Multi-coloured or violet||Highest spiritual centre, pure consciousness, containing neither object nor subject. When the feminine Kundalini Shakti rises to this point, it unites with the masculine Shiva, giving self-realization and samadhi. In esoteric Buddhism, it is called Mahasukha, the petal lotus of "Great Bliss" corresponding to the fourth state of Four Noble Truths.|
|Ajna||आज्ञा||"Command"||Between eyebrows||2||Indigo||Guru chakra or third-eye chakra, the subtle center of energy, where the tantra guru touches the seeker during the initiation ritual (saktipata). He or she commands the awakened kundalini to pass through this centre.|
|Vishuddha||विशुद्ध||"Purest"||Throat||16||Blue||The Vishuddha is iconographically represented with 16 petals covered with the sixteen Sanskrit vowels. It is associated with the element of space (akasha) and has the seed syllable of the space element Ham at its centre. The residing deity is Panchavaktra shiva, with 5 heads and 4 arms, and the Shakti is Shakini.|
|Anahata||अनाहत||"Unstruck"||Heart||12||Green||Within it is a yantra of two intersecting triangles, forming a hexagram, symbolising a union of the male and female as well as being the esoteric symbol for the element of air (vayu). The seed mantra of air, Yam, is at its centre. The presiding deity is Ishana Rudra Shiva, and the Shakti is Kakini.|
|Manipura||मणिपूर||"Jewel city"||Navel||10||Yellow||For the Nath yogi meditation system, this is described as the Madhyama-Shakti or the intermediate stage of self-discovery. This chakra is represented as an downward pointing triangle representing fire in the middle of a lotus with ten petals. The seed syllable for fire is at its center Ram. The presiding deity is Braddha Rudra, with Lakini as the Shakti.|
|Svadhishthana||स्वाधिष्ठान||"Where the self is established"||Root of sexual organs||6||Orange||Svadhisthana is represented with a lotus within which is a crescent moon symbolizing the water element. The seed mantra in its center is Vam representing water. The presiding deity is Brahma, with the Shakti being Rakini (or Chakini).|
|Muladhara||मूलाधार||"Root"||Base of spine||4||Red||Dormant Kundalini is often said to be resting here, wrapped three and a half, or seven or twelve times. Sometimes she is wrapped around the black Svayambhu linga, the lowest of three obstructions to her full rising (also known as knots or granthis). It is symbolised as a four-petaled lotus with a yellow square at its center representing the element of earth.
The seed syllable is Lam for the earth element (pronounced lum),. All sounds, words and mantras in their dormant form rest in the muladhara chakra, where Ganesha resides, while the Shakti is Dakini. The associated animal is the elephant.
Many systems include myriad minor chakras throughout the body. Talu, bindu, manas, and dvadashanta chakra are close to and associated with Ajna chakra. Situated just to the left of Anahata chakra (where the heart is situated anatomically) is Hridaya chakra. Lalance chakra is situated at the base of the mouth and is associated with Vishuddha chakra. In some Shaivist traditions there are 114 chakras out of which 112 are present inside the body.
Reception and similar theories in the West
In 1918, the translation of two Indian texts—the Ṣaṭ-Cakra-Nirūpaṇa and the Pādukā-Pañcaka, by Sir John Woodroffe, alias Arthur Avalon, in a book titled The Serpent Power—introduced the shakta theory of seven main chakras in the West. This book is extremely detailed and complex, and later the ideas were developed into the predominant Western view of the chakras by C. W. Leadbeater in his book The Chakras. Many of the views which directed Leadbeater's understanding of the chakras were influenced by previous theosophist authors, in particular Johann Georg Gichtel, a disciple of Jakob Böhme, and his book Theosophia Practica (1696), in which Gichtel directly refers to inner force centres, a concept reminiscent of the chakras.
A separate contemplative movement within the Eastern Orthodox Church is Hesychasm, a form of Christian meditation. Comparisons have been made between the Hesychastic centres of prayer and the position of the chakras. Particular emphasis is placed upon the heart area. However, there is no talk about these centres as having any sort of metaphysical existence. Far more than in any of the cases discussed above, the centres are simply places to focus the concentration during prayer.
In Anatomy of the Spirit (1996), Caroline Myss describes the function of chakras as follows: "Every thought and experience you've ever had in your life gets filtered through these chakra databases. Each event is recorded into your cells...". The chakras are described as being aligned in an ascending column from the base of the spine to the top of the head. New Age practices often associate each chakra with a certain colour. In various traditions, chakras are associated with multiple physiological functions, an aspect of consciousness, a classical element, and other distinguishing characteristics. They are visualised as lotuses or flowers with a different number of petals in every chakra.
The chakras are thought to vitalise the physical body and to be associated with interactions of a physical, emotional and mental nature. They are considered loci of life energy or prana (which New Age belief equates with shakti, qi in Chinese, ki in Japanese, koach-ha-guf in Hebrew, bios in Greek, and aether in both Greek and English), which is thought to flow among them along pathways called nadi. The function of the chakras is to spin and draw in this energy to keep the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health of the body in balance.
Rudolf Steiner considered the chakra system to be dynamic and evolving. He suggested that this system has become different for modern people than it was in ancient times and that it will, in turn, be radically different in future times. Steiner described a sequence of development that begins with the upper chakras and moves down, rather than moving in the opposite direction. He gave suggestions on how to develop the chakras through disciplining thoughts, feelings, and will.
According to Florin Lowndes, a "spiritual student" can further develop and deepen or elevate thinking consciousness when taking the step from the "ancient path" of schooling to the "new path" represented by Steiner's The Philosophy of Freedom.
Supposed physical counterparts
Although chakras are posited to reside in the psyche, authors such as Gary Osborn have called the chakras metaphysical counterparts to the endocrine glands. Anodea Judith asserted that the positions and roles of the two were similar. Stephen Sturgess also links the lower six chakras to specific nerve plexuses along the spinal cord as well as glands. C. W. Leadbeater associated the Ajna chakra with the pineal gland, which is a part of the endocrine system.
- Meridian (Chinese medicine)
- Sudarshana Chakra
- Surya Namaskar—the Sun Salutation, in which each posture is sometimes associated with a chakra and a mantra
- Seven Factors of Awakening
- Classical planet
- Seven churches of Asia
- The roots to this theory are found in Samkhya and Vedanta which attempt to conceptualize the permanent soul and impermanent body as interacting in three overlapping states: the gross body (sthula sarira), the subtle body (sukshma sarira), and causal body (karana sarira). These ideas emerged to address questions relating to the nature of body and soul, how and why they interact while one is awake, one is asleep and over the conception-birth-growth-decay-death-rebirth cycle.
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