The Chakra wheel symbol is always moving, rolling on its journey throughout the course of Indian history. In each period, the wheel is associated to a great cultural – historical character and carries a different meaning, which made this an extremely polysemantic and complex symbol in Indian culture.
1. History of India
India is the largest country in South Asia, where housed the Indus Valley civilization in ancient times, from 3300BC – 1300BC. Historic trading routes emerged along with vast and wealthy empires in most of its long history, such as the Maurya empire, the Gupta empire (the Golden Age) and the Mogul empire (Muslim age).
It is also home to 4 large religions of the world: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. While Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam spreaded into the region in the 1st millennium also helped shape the region’s diverse culture. India gradually came under the rule of British East India Company, then under British direct rule in the mid-19th century. India became an independent country in 1947 after a nationalist movement in the form of nonviolent resistance led by Mahatma Gandhi, but then again it was divided into 2 countries: India and Pakistan. The Eastern wing of Pakistan later became Bangladesh in 1971.
The central symbol on India’s national flag is the national symbol of this country: the chakra wheel, and it carries many different meanings, associated with the most important Indian cultural – historical figures.
2. The Sudarshana Chakra in Hinduism
Firstly, the Chakra wheel is the main symbol of the god Vishnu in Hinduism, also known as Sudarshana Chakra. Vishnu is one of the most important gods in Hinduism and the most widely worshiped. Vishnu (god of preservation), Brahma (god of creation) and Shiva (god of destruction) make the top 3 gods in Hinduism, called Trimurti. However, the “Vaishnavism” sect in Northern India worshiped him as the supreme deity, the “absolute truth“. The mount of Vishnu is the holy eagle Garuda, Vishnu’s wife is the goddess of fortune Lakshmi.
Vishnu’s main role is to protect and preserve the universe, to ensure the victory of good against evil, by transforming into different avatars to save the world when being threatened by evil, chaos and destructive forces.. Vishnu has a total of 10 incarnations, the most important of which is prince Rama, the main character of the epic Ramayana and Krishna in the Mahabharata. The ten avatars of Vishnu are as follows:
- The fish Matysa saving the world the and the first man from the Great Flood
- The tortoise Kurma supporting the cosmo in the myth of Churning of the ocean of milk
- The boar Vahara defeating the demon Hiranyaksha and lifting the world up from underwater
- Half man – half lion Narasimha defeating the demonHiranyakashipu
- The dwarf Vamana taking back the world from the demon Bali by 3 giant steps
- The sage Parashurama balancing the equality of the sage caste and the warrior clas
- The prince Rama in the epic of Ramayana, saving Sita from the demon Ravana
- The god Vishnu in his usual form
- The Buddha, the founder of Buddhism
- The knight Kalki, who will come from the future to renew and restart the cosmo
In Hindu symbolism, Vishnu is usually depicted with blue or pale skin, and 4 arms. In each hand he holds an item: the lotus Padma (purity and transcendence), the mace Kaumodaki (authority and power of knowledge), the conch shell Panchajanya (source of life) and the most importantly, the weapon Sudarshana Chakra (power of protection).
The meaning of the wheel symbol comes from its radiating composition and its movement, making it one of the symbols of the Sun, so Vishnu’s Sudarshana Chakra is a symbol of the Sun. It is a spinning, disk-like weapon, literally means “disk of auspicious vision“, having 108 sharp serrated edges around, it is generally portrayed on the right rear hand of Vishnu.
In later periods, this weapon emerged as an Ayudha Purusha (anthropomorphic form), an avatar expressing the fierceness of Vishnu, used for the destruction of an enemy.
In fact, in the Vedic time, Vishnu was considered just a minor god, who strides across the sky in just 3 steps, symbolizing the movement of the Sun in one day: rising, zenith & setting. And Vishnu himself also has attributes of a sun god.
3. The Chakram weapon
The archetype of the Sudarshana Chakra is actually a real weapon in the subcontinent India, called chakram, also known as the chlikar, which means “circle“. This is a throwing weapon but can also be used in hand-to-hand combat. It is circular in shape with a sharpened outer edge and a size range of approximately 12–30cm in diameter. There are many variants of the chakram, a warrior can wear it on his wrist, arm, neck or even tied in tiers on high turbans
In combats, it was usually thrown vertically to avoid accidentally hitting an ally on sides. A warrior can throw a stack of chakram one at a time like a type of shuriken. Because of its aerodynamic circular shape it is not easily deflected by wind. It can easily cut through the throat, face or arms and legs of the enemy.
The most iconic method of throwing a chakram is tajani, which is a unique technique of Indian martial arts. As seen in god Vishnu‘s depictions, this technique is performed when the weapon is twirled on the index finger and thrown with a timed flick of the wrist. The spin adds more power and range to the throw, while also avoiding cutting the user on the sharp outer edge. An adept warrior can twirl the chakram on one hand while using another weapon with the other hand.
4. The Dharma chakra in Buddhism
By the time of Buddhism, the Chakra wheel symbol had a completely different meaning, not related to violence. It is the Dharma chakra symbol which symbolizes the most basic and fundamental philosophies of Buddhism, it is one of the most representative, sacred, and meaningful images of this religion.
The Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was prince Siddhartha Gautama, is a real historical character who lived in India from the 6th to 7th century BC. He gave up his kingly life and after 6 years searching, he attained the spiritual enlightenment, understood the universe’ operation, fully liberated himself from the cycle of life and death. Then he spent the last 45 years of his life spreading his enlightenment experience to others so they can end their own sufferings and achieve the ultimate happiness. Siddhartha initiated the Middle Way (Majjhimāpaṭipadā), not only give up the luxury life of the warrior caste but also give up the severe asceticism which was common among the Brahmin sage caste in that time.
Dharma chakra is a wheel symbol with 8 spokes symbolizing the Noble Eightfold Path, which is 8 paths leading to liberation from samsara, the painful cycle of rebirth, including:
Additionally, we also see another Dharma chakra with 12 spokes, that is the wheel of incarnation, showing the vicious circle that sentient beings are bound forever in. In order to liberate oneself from this unending cycle, each person has to eliminate their ignorance, and understand the nature of life and death because it is the main reason causing suffering. Therefore, people used the image of a wheel with 12 spokes to symbolize the meaning of reincarnation that people always have to suffer.
The movement of the Dharma chakra has 3 main meanings:
- The wheel moves constantly, as the Buddha’s teachings spread constantly, bringing beings from Ignorance to Enlightenment, from hell to Nirvana
- Wherever the wheel rolls, it is unstoppable and obstacles are crushed, as well as delusion and afficiton
- The wheel only moves forward, never regresses
The Buddha is a Chakravarti, which means “who turns the Dharma chakra“, teaching his philosophies and sermons, leading beings to the enlightenment to see the only Truth. According to legends, the Dharma chakra was moved 3 times by the Buddha:
- The Buddha preached his first sermon to Kaundinya in Sarnath, later was called Theravada Buddhism
- The Buddha preached on the Holy Eagle Peak (Grdhrakuta), forming Mahayana Buddhism
- The Buddha preached about secret practices to eliminate sins, forming Vajrayana Buddhism (Tibetan Buddhism)
In 1956, B.R.Ambedkar, the leader in drafting India’s Constitution, the greatest contributor to the revival of Buddhism in India, proposed using the Dharma chakra symbol of king Ashoka to symbolize Buddhism itself.
5. The Ashoka chakra in history
In the time of king Ashoka, the chakra wheel symbol was called Ashoka chakra, symbol of a heroic king’s rule, who turned the people’s wheel of fate, bringing all people to prosperity in every way.
King Ashoka (304 BC -232 BC), is the third king of the Maurya dynasty, who was originally tyrannical, aggressive and cruel, ruling a vast territory thanks to his successful conquests spreading the realm. After ruling for 8 years, king Ashoka waged a destructive war against the state of Kalinga (modern Odisha, India) in about 260 BC. Ashoka prevailed and conquered, but the number of 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations made this king aware of the brutality and crimes of war. This historical milestone marks the conversion of king Ashoka to Buddhism.
Ever since becoming a Buddhist, Ashoka also became a merciful, benign king, who used peace to rule the country following Buddhist spirit. Ashoka considered winning the people’s hearts by morality is the highest victory. Thus, from a tyrant with invasion and oppressing policies, he changed into a good king pursuing the path of peaceful virtue. The king comissioned to make edicts and pillars carved with his precepts, along with beautiful words guiding people to live a moral life, to do good and avoid evil, then he located these in public places and for people to read.
In addition to putting his edicts throughout the realm, another Ashoka’s prominent deed was that after he converted to Buddhism, he came to pray at 4 Buddhist holy sites which are associated to the 4 main events of the Buddha‘s life:
- Lumbini: birthplace of Gautama Buddha (in modern Nepal)
- Bodh Gaya: where the Buddha gained enlightenment and Buddhahood (in Mahabodhi Temple, Bihar, India)
- Sarnath: where Gautama Buddha delivered his first teaching (Varanasi, Uttar pradesh, India)
- Kushinagar: where Gautama Buddha died and gained Parinirvana (Nirvana after death) (now Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India)
At each of these sites, the king ordered to carve his edicts on stone boulders, pillars and tablets. These artifacts and inscriptions remain until today as evidences of his adherence and admiration towards the Buddha and Buddhim. In which, the Lion Capital pillar in Sarnath was the most unique of all, depicting 4 Asiatic lions standing back to back, 4 lion heads facing 4 directions symbolizing Dharma of the Buddha from Sarnath has spreaded in all directions. The other 4 animals on the pillars were explained by scholars to symbolize 4 stages of the Buddha’s life:
- The white elephant: when queen Maya dreamed and conceived prince Siddhartha
- The bull: when the prince is still in his palace, full of energy and worldly happiness
- The white horse: when the prince gave up his kingly life and set out to seek liberation from the cycle of reincarnation
- The lion: the fully and enlightened life of the Buddha, his sermons awoke all beings and helped them escape from their ignorance
Ruling a vaster territory than India now by virute and assuring a peaceful, prosperous life for the people are the greatest successes of this Buddhist king. Ashoka became the ideal symbol of true leaders. Right after India gained its independence in 1947, the Sarnath stone lion pillar was chosen as the national emblem and the Ashoka chakra symbol was placed at the center of the national flag, as a way to tribute to the old wise king and encourage the country’s new leaders.
Obviously, Indian leaders wanted to honor and imitate the way of ruling by morality and virute of king Ashoka, to look forward to a peaceful, prosperous society. Today, Buddishm is no longer flourishing in India. But profoundly in the people’s philosophy, culture and daily life, Buddism still exists silently but widely.
6. The Ahimsa chakra in Jainism
In Jainism an ancient religion that was founded almost the same time with Buddishm, the chakra wheel is also called the Dharma chakra, but is associated with another philosophy.
Jainism was founded by Mahavira in around 500 BC. Mahavira (599 BC – 527 BC), also known as Vardhamana, was also a noble prince in the Kshatriya (warrior) caste, but gave up his kingly life at the age of 30 and set out to the jungles to pursue the spiritual enlightenment, gradually became an ascetic. He considered himself the 24th tirthankara (ford-maker) of Jainism, he preached about ratnatraya, the 3 gems of Jainism constituting the path to liberation: the right faith (Samyak Darshana), right knowledge (Samyak Gyana) and right conduct (Samyak Charitra).
Devout Jains take 5 main vows: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (not stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy or chastity), and aparigraha (non-attachment).
The most fundamental principle of Jainism is Ahimsa (non-violence), means non-injury and absence of desire to harm any life forms including micro-organisms or bacterias, leading to a predominantly vegetarian lifestyle of Jains that avoids harm to animals and their life cycles. This important principle is symbolized by a wheel symbol on a palm with the word “ahimsa” written in the center. This symbol represents the Dharma Chakra which stands for the relentless pursuit of ahimsa to halt the wheel of incarnation. The ahimsa philosophy also had a great influence on one of the most important figures in India’s mordern history: Mahatma Gandhi.
7. The Charkha spinning wheel of Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi is the great national hero of India, who led the resistance against the British Empire‘s colonial regime and gained independence for India with the dedicating support of millions of people. Throughout his life, he opposed all forms of violence and instead, applied only the highest moral standards and the Ahimsa principle (non-violence). He was reverently called by millions of Indians as Mahatma, meaning “the Great Soul“, or Bapu (Hindi word for Father of the Nation). The principle of non-violence he initiated with the name of Devotion to the Truth (satyagraha) has affected the national and even overseas non-violent struggle movements until today.
In 1921, after Gandhi was elected into the Indian National Congress, he initiated the movement of boycotting foreign products, especially the British’s. He called on the Indian people to spend a few hours each day weaving their own clothes, with the symbol of this movement is the charkha spinning wheel.
This was originally the Indian people’s tradition but but due to the influence of British products, it was decaying. Gandhi’s weaving movement not only helped India stop importing British goods, but also symbolized the refusal to accept the modern industrial civilization. Many researchers believe that the spinning wheel in the Swadeshi (Indian self-weaving) movement has become a symbol of the non-violent principle, economic self-rule as well as the struggle for independence in India. Interestingly, according to the law, the Indian national flag must be made from a special hand-woven cotton or silk fabric called khadi, a kind of fabric popularized by Gandhi himself.
In 1921, Mahatma Gandhi first proposed a national flag to the Indian National Congress party: at the center is a traditional charkha spinning wheel, which is also one of the other meanings of the Ashoka Chakra on the Indian flag today.
The philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who later became the 2nd president of India, explained about flag’s meaning as follows:
“…The “Ashoka Chakra” in the centre of the white is the wheel of the law of dharma. Truth or satya, dharma or virtue ought to be the controlling principle of those who work under this flag. Again, the wheel denotes motion. There is death in stagnation. There is life in movement. India should no more resist change, it must move and go forward. The wheel represents the dynamism of a peaceful change.”
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