The word Chakra (चक्र) derives from the Sanskrit word meaning “wheel,” as well as “circle” and “cycle”. One of the Hindu scriptures Rigveda mentions Chakra with the meaning of “wheel”, with ara (spokes). According to Frits Staal, Chakra has Indo-European roots, is “related to Greek Kuklos(from which comes English cycle), Latin circus, Anglo-Saxon hveohl and English wheel.” However, the Vedic period texts use the same word as a simile in other contexts, such as the “wheel of time” or “wheel of dharma”, such as in Rigveda hymn verse 1.164.11.
In Buddhism, the Sanskrit term cakra (Palicakka) also means “wheel”, but it is used in the additional sense of “circle” connoting rebirth in six realms of existence where a being is reborn after each death.
In Jainism, the term Chakra also means “wheel” and appears in various context in its ancient literature. Like other Indian religions, Chakra in esoteric theories in Jainism such as those by Buddhisagarsurimeans yogic-energy centers.
The term Chakra already appears in Vedic literature, the earliest stratum of Hindu scripture, but not 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 loner yogi ascetic with a female named kunamnama. Literally, it means “she who is bent, coiled”, and it probably is either a minor goddess or one of many embedded puzzles and hidden references within the Rigveda. Some scholars, such as David Gordon White and Georg Feuerstein interpret this might be related to kundalini shakti, and a prelude to the terms such as chakra that emerged later.
Breath channels (nāḍi) of Yoga practices are mentioned in the classical Upanishads of Hinduism dated to 1st millennium BCE,but not psychic-energy Chakra theories. The latter, states 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 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 Galvin 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.
Chakra and divine energies
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 cakra with eight points,
she has the ninefold cakra 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” (suksma 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 it called chakra. The theory grew into extensive elaboration, with some suggesting 88,000 cakras throughout the subtle body. The chakra it considered most important varied between various traditions, but they typically ranged between four and seven.
The seven Chakras are arranged along the spinal cord, from bottom to top: 1. Muladhara 2. Svadhisthana 3. Nabhi-Manipura 4. Anahata 5. Vishuddhi 6. Ajna 7. Sahasrara.
The important chakras are stated in Buddhist and Hindu 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 Buddhism and Hinduism 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 a 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 (pranaflows) 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 Buddhist and Hindu 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 nadiand 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 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 / kundaliniphysiology is completely peripheral to it.”
Chakras (as well as Yantras
) are visualised as lotus with different number of petals representing each chakra.
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 the parallel dimension of 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 essence is what vanishes when a person dies, leaving a gross body. Some of it, states this subtle body theory, 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, a “energy center” within, as well as being a term of group rituals such as in chakra-puja (worship within a circle) which may or may not involve tantra practice. The cakra-based system is one part of the meditative exercises that came to be known as laya yoga.
Beyond its original Shakta milieu, various sub-traditions within the Shaiva and Vaishnavaschools of Hinduism also developed texts and practices on Nadi and Chakra systems. Certain modern Hindu groups also utilize a technique of circular energy work based on the chakras known as kriya yoga. Followers of this practice include the Bihar School of Yogaand Self Realization Fellowship, and practitioners are known as kriyaban. 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 avatarof 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.
Vajrayana Buddhist Tantra
A Tibetan illustration of the subtle body showing the central channel and two side channels as well as five chakras.
The esoteric traditions in Buddhism generally teach four chakras. These are the Manipura, the Anahata, the Visuddha and the Usnisa Kamala. In another version, these four are the Nirmana, the Dharma, the Sambhoga and the Mahasukha (respectively corresponding to the Shaiva tantra school’s following four of seven chakra: Svadhisthana, the Anahata, the Visuddha and the Sahasrara). However, depending on the meditational tradition, these vary between three and six.
Chakras play an important role in the Tibetan Buddhism in completion stage practices. It is practiced to bring the subtle winds of the body into the central channel, to realise the clear light of bliss and emptiness, and to attain Buddhahood.
According to Geoffrey Samuel, the Tibetan and esoteric Buddhist traditions developed cakra and nadi as “central to their soteriological process”. The theories were coupled with a tradition of physical exercises, now sometimes called yantra yoga, but traditionally referred to a ‘phrul ‘khor in Tibetan. This style of yoga emphasizes visualizations and internal practices, somewhat similar to the kriya yoga practices in some sub-traditions of Hinduism. The differences between the two styles, according to Geoffrey, has been that the Tibetan tradition focussed more on “offering rituals to benign deities” already prevalent in Tibet, while the Indic traditions focussed more on the internal practices linked to subtle body concepts. The yantra yoga at the Completion Stage of esoteric Buddhism typically followed its deity-yoga practices of the Generation Stage.
The Chakra in the Tibetan practice are considered psycho-physical centers, each associated with a cosmic Buddha.
Chakras, according to the Bon tradition, influence the quality of experience, because movement of vayu cannot be separated from experience. Each of the six major chakras is linked to experiential qualities of one of the six realms of existence.
The tsa lung practices such as those embodied in Trul khor lineages open channels so lung (the Tibetan term for vayu) may move without obstruction. Yoga opens chakras and evokes positive qualities associated with a particular chakra. In the hard drive analogy, the screen is cleared and a file is called up that contains positive, supportive qualities. A bīja (seed syllable) is used both as a password that evokes the positive quality and the armour that sustains the quality.
Tantric practice is said to eventually transform all experience into bliss. The practice aims to liberate from negative conditioning and leads to control over 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 learn to harmonise their movements with the chakras, thereby increasing the power and effectiveness of attacks and movements.