What is Chakra?
Chakra (meaning circle or wheel) is a widely used concept in Indian religion and politics that underpins many spiritual practices and philosophical systems. Within some forms of yoga, the chakras refer to energy centers found in the body located at major branchings of the human nervous system, beginning at the base of the spinal column and moving upward to the top of the skull. Chakras are considered to be points of metaphysical and/or biophysical energy of the human body, which provide a nexus for the flow of energy. Chakras are also considered to be gradations of consciousness that reflect states of the soul. A mystic may deal with chakra as ‘energy centers’, wherein subtle electromagnetic forces connect to the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of a person. In Chinese medicine, traditional chakra locations correspond to acupuncture points.
Another use of the term “chakra” is found in classical Indian politics, where it was associated with the wheel of a chariot thus becoming a symbol of political rulership and sovereigenty (as in a “circle/sphere” of power and influence).
From India, the notion of chakra as an energy center was taken to China where it was absorbed and harmonized with Chinese concepts of the flow of energy. Today, the chakra concept remains popular among the New Age Movement in the West.
The English word chakra is derived from the Sanskrit cakraṃ चक्रं meaning “wheel” or “circle”. More generally, the term refers to circular objects or formations, and Apte provides 23 different definitions for cakram used as a noun. Examples include “discus” (a type of divine weapon, particularly associated with the god Vishnu), a potter’s wheel, a form of military array, etc.
Bhattacharyya’s review of Tantric history says that the word chakra is used to mean several different things in the Sanskrit sources:
- “Circle,” used in a variety of senses, symbolizing endless rotation of shakti.
- A circle of people. In rituals there are different cakra-sādhanā, in which adherents assemble and perform rites. According to the Niruttaratantra, chakras in the sense of assemblies are of five types.
- The term chakra also is used to denote yantras or mystic diagrams, variously known as trikoṇa-cakra, aṣṭakoṇa-cakra, etc.
- Different “nerve plexi within the body.”
In Buddhist literature, the term cakra (Pali cakka) is used in a different sense of “circle,” referring to a Buddhist conception of the four circles or states of existence in which gods or men may find themselves.
“A chakra is a center of activity that receives, assimilates, and expresses life force energy. The word chakra literally translates as wheel or disk and refers to a spinning sphere of bioenergetic activity emanating from the major nerve ganglia branching forward from the spinal column. There are six of these wheels stacked in a column of energy that spans from the base of the spine to the middle of the forehead. And the seventh which is beyond the physical region. It is the six major chakras that correlate with basic states of consciousness.”
The Indian concept of chakra is very ancient, deriving back to the Vedas, the later Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Within these Hindu scriptures, the chakra concept became a part of a complex set of ideas related to esoteric anatomy. These ideas occur most often in the class of texts that are called Āgamas or Tantras. Various traditional sources list 5, 6, 7, or 8 chakras. Over time, one system of 6 or 7 chakras along the body’s axis became the dominant model, adopted by most schools of yoga. This particular system may have originated in about the eleventh century C.E., and rapidly became widely popular. It is in this model where Kundalini is said to “rise” upward, piercing the various centers until reaching the crown of the head, resulting in union with the Divine. Nevertheless, the chakras are described in the tantric texts the Sat-Cakra-Nirupana, and the Padaka-Pancaka, in which they are described as emanations of consciousness from Brahman, an energy emanating from the spiritual which gradually turns concrete, creating these distinct levels of chakras, and which eventually finds its rest in the Muladhara chakra. They are therefore part of an emanationist theory, like that of the Kabbalah in the west, lataif-e-sitta in Sufism or Neo-platonism. The energy that was unleashed in creation, called the Kundalini, lies coiled and sleeping at the base of the spine. It is the purpose of the tantric or kundalini forms of yoga to arouse this energy, and cause it to rise back up through the increasingly subtler chakras, until union with God is achieved in the Sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head.
The Tantric sadhana of Laya yoga works with the chakra system.
The tantric chakras
Shaktism describes eight primary inner chakras:
- Muladhara (Mūlādhāra) tip of the tailbone, spiritual potential
- Swadhisthana (Svādhiṣṭhāna) tailbone, unconscious emotion or desire
- Manipura (Maṇipūra) navel, dynamism
- Anahata (Anāhata) heart, love based decisions
- Vishuddha (Viśuddha) neck, discrimination and wisdom
- Ajna (Ājñā) eyebrow, mind
- Bindu (Bindu) a dot at the back of the head, prayer and Aum
- Sahasrara (Sahasrāra) top of head, higher consciousness.
Traditional Chinese medicine also relies on a similar model of the human body as an energy system, except that it involves the circulation of qi energy, rather than a simple ascent as in kundalini yoga.
In the circuit of qi, called the microcosmic orbit, energy also comes back down the front torso channel (equivalent to the nadis of Hatha yoga), and enters the Dantian (tan tiens): when it returns to the heart (and cycles down and reascends to the head) further meditation/contemplation or union with deity develops. In macrocosmic orbit, the qi is also guided through the main channels in the limbs.
With the front tan tiens (autonomic plexuses to organs/glands) branching from cerebrospinal chakras) and two levels of a vitality triangle on/in the back (spleen and behind a ‘belly chakra/tantien’, and by the arm-nadi branch) on the back, there are 7 (or 8) chakra spots outside the cerebrospinal nadis.
Chakras, as pranic centers of the body, according to the Himalayan Bönpo tradition, influence the quality of experience, because movement of prana can not be separated from experience. Each of six major chakras are 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 (Lung is a Tibetan term cognate with prana or qi) may move without obstruction. Yoga opens chakras and evokes positive qualities associated with a particular chakra. A seed syllable (Sanskrit “bija“) is used both as a password that evokes the positive quality and the armor that sustains the quality.
Tantric practice eventually transforms all experience into bliss. The practice liberates from negative conditioning and leads to control over perception and cognition.
New Age models
There are numerous new age modern models of the chakra system of the human subtle energetic body. As the system is subtle, these differences may co-exist and be perceived as foregrounding and backgrounding different qualities or attributes for specific reasons or purposes rather than perceived as vying for ascendancy. That said, the bodymind is a system, refer systems theory and no chakra is supreme. Chakra work in dialogue and in relationship to each other and that is how Ayurvedic Medicine energetic interplay which is directly comparable to the human endocrine system and how different glands chemically signal and communicate to each other. What is construed as the New Age movement, and to some degree the distinctly different New Thought movement, has adopted and developed the chakra meme.
Chakrology is a neologism sometimes employed by Alternative Medicine practitioners or esoteric philosophers for the study of chakras. There are many different chakrologies, some of them based on ancient Indian Hindu Tantric esoteric traditions, New Age interpretations, or Western occult analyses, as well as ancient Greek and Christian references.
The chakras are described as being aligned in an ascending column from the base of the spine to the top of the head. In New Age practices, each chakra is often associated with a certain color. In various traditions chakras are associated with multiple physiological functions, an aspect of consciousness, a classical element, and other distinguishing characteristics. They are visualized as lotuses/flowers with a different number of petals in every chakra.
The chakras are thought to vitalize 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, also called shakti, qi (Chinese; ki in Japanese), coach-ha-guf (Hebrew), bios (Greek) and aether (English), which is thought to flow among them along pathways called nadis. 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.
The New Age movement has led to an increased interest in the West regarding chakras. Many in this movement point to a correspondence between the position and role of the chakras and those of the glands in the endocrine system. These ideas first appear in the writings of theosophical authors like C. W. Leadbeater, who wrote a book on the Chakras published in 1927.
Western derivative models and interpretations
The first western reference on chakra commonly accepted by modern scholars is from a disciple of Jakob Böhme namely Johann Georg Gichtel. Gichtel, in his book Theosophia Practica (1696), directly refer to inner force centers which are strictly related with eastern chakra doctrines.
However, an even older influence may be present in the practices of the Hesychastic Tradition. and Christian Ascetical Theology as well, where the ascetical methods and meditation which lead to an inner Knowledge of the Heart were often referred as Cardiognosis. Hesychasm specifies four centers:
- Cerebrofrontal centre: Positioned between the eyebrows (compare with Ajna).
- Buccolaryngeal centre.
- Pectoral centre: Positioned in the upper and median region of the chest.
- Cardiac centre: Positioned near the upper part of the heart (compare with Anahata).
In more modern times, it is the shakta theory of seven main chakras that many people in the West adhere to, largely thanks to a translation of two Indian texts, the Sat-Cakra-Nirupana, and the Padaka-Pancaka, by Sir John Woodroffe, alias Arthur Avalon, in a book entitled The Serpent Power. This book is extremely detailed and complex, and later the ideas were developed into what is predominant Western view of the Chakras by the Theosophists, and largely the controversial (in theosophical circles) C. W. Leadbeater in his book The Chakras, which are in large part his own meditations and insights on the matter.
Rudolf Steiner (one-time Theosophist, and founder of Anthroposophy) says much about the Chakras that is unusual, especially that the chakra system is dynamic and evolving and is very different for modern people than it was in ancient times, and will in turn be radically different in future times. In contrast to the traditional Eastern teachings, Steiner describes a sequence of development from the top down rather than the bottom up. This is the so-called ‘Christos Path’ which has not always been available to humanity. He also seems to ignore the ‘Thousand Petaled’ at the crown of the head and mentions cryptically an Eight Petaled chakra located between the Ten Petaled and the Six Petaled. In his book How to Know Higher Worlds, Steiner gives clear instructions on how to develop the chakras safely into maturity. These are more like life disciplines than exercises and can take considerable time. He warns that while quicker methods exist, they can be dangerous to one’s health, character, or sanity.
Many New Age writers, such as the Danish author and musician Peter Kjærulff in his book, The Ringbearer’s Diary, or Anodea Judith in her book Wheels of Life, have written their opinions about the chakras in great detail, including the reasons for their appearance and functions.
A Common Chakra Model
Sahasrara, or the crown chakra, is generally considered to be the chakra of consciousness. Its role may be envisioned somewhat similar to that of the pituitary gland, which secretes hormones to communicate to the rest of the endocrine system and also connects to the central nervous system via the hypothalamus. The thalamus is thought to have a key role in the physical basis of consciousness. Symbolized by a lotus with nine hundred seventy-two petals, it is located above the head outside the body.
Ajna (along with Bindu, either (or both) are considered to correspond to the third eye), is linked to the pineal gland which may inform a model of its envisioning. Ajna is held as the chakra of time, awareness and of light. The pineal gland is a light sensitive gland that produces the hormone melatonin which regulates sleep and awakening. Symbolized by a lotus with two petals.
Vishuddha (also Vishuddhi) or the throat chakra, may be envisioned as relating to communication and growth, growth being a form of expression. This chakra is paralleled to the thyroid, a gland that is also in the throat and which produces thyroid hormone, responsible for growth and maturation. Symbolized by a lotus with sixteen petals.
Anahata, or the heart chakra, is related to complex emotion, compassion, love, equilibrium and well-being. It is related to the thymus, located in the chest. The thymus is an element of the immune system as well as being part of the endocrine system. It produces T cells responsible for fending off disease and may be adversely affected by stress. Symbolized by a lotus with 12 petals. See also heartmind.
Manipura (also Nabhi) or the solar plexus chakra, is related to the transition from simple or base to complex emotion, energy, assimilation and digestion, and is held to correspond to the roles played by the pancreas and the outer adrenal glands, the adrenal cortex. These play a valuable role in digestion, the conversion of food matter into energy for the body. Symbolized by a lotus with ten petals.
Swadhisthana, or the sacral chakra, is located in the groin and is related to base emotion, sexuality and creativity. This chakra is considered to correspond to the testicles or the ovaries that produce the various sex hormones involved in the reproductive cycle which may cause dramatic mood swings. Symbolized by a lotus with six petals.
Muladhara, or the base or root chakra, is related to instinct, security, survival and also to basic human potentiality. This centre is located in the region between the genitals and the anus. Although no endocrine organ is placed here, it is said to relate to the inner adrenal glands, the adrenal medulla, responsible for the fight and flight response when survival is under threat. In this region is located a muscle that controls ejaculation in the sexual act in the human male. A parallel is charted between the sperm cell and the ovum where the genetic code lies coiled and the kundalini. Symbolized by a lotus with four petals.
The following table sets forth some of the properties generally associated with each chakra:
|Chakra||Color||Primary Functions||Associated Element||Location||Open or Balance||Foods||Symbol|
|white or violet; may assume color of dominant chakra||Union, Bliss, Sense of empathy||space / thought||Top of the head||Meditation, guided visualization, energy, work||Air, Incense and Smudging Herbs|
|indigo||Direct perception, intuition, imagination, visualization, concentration, Self-mastery, Extra Sensory Perception||time / light||Between the eyebrows.||Meditation, guided visualization.||Dark bluish colored fruits, Liquids, Spices|
|azure blue||Creativity, communication, expression, eloquence, Intuition, synthesis, hearing||life / sound||Base of the throat||Sing, chant, hum, breathe consciously.||Liquids, Tart or tangy fruits, Other tree grown fruits, Spices|
|green||Love, wisdom, stability, perseverance, mental patience and equilibrium, or pleasure, Compassion, Touch||Air||Center of the chest||Meditating, practicing yoga or other bodily techniques, by swimming regularly (because water has healing powers)||Leafy vegetables, Air vegetables, Liquids, Spices|
|yellow||Will, determination, assertion, personal power, laughter, joy, anger, sight||Fire||Located at the mouth of the stomach||Rub your belly, become aware of the energy radiating from your solar plexus, breathe using your diaphragm.||Granola and Grains, Dairy, Spices|
|orange||Creativity, sexual energy (for women), desire, pleasure, Stability, self confidence, well-being, taste||Water||The lower belly||Sexual healing, try new ways of expressing yourself creatively, dance, move your hips, practice yoga.||Sweet fruits, raw honey, nuts, spices|
|red or coral red (shown)||Survival, grounding, sexuality (for men), stability, smell||Earth||The base of the spine||Spend some time each day sitting directly on the earth. Dance!||Root vegetables, Protein-rich foods, Spices|
Woodroffe also describes seven head chakras (including Ajna and Sahasrara) in his other Indian text sources. Lowest to highest they are: Talu/Talana/Lalana, Ajna, Manas, Soma, Brahmarandra, Sri (inside Sahasrara) Sahasrara.
- Apte, Vaman Shivram. 1965. The Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. ISBN 8120805674.
- Bhattacharyya, N. N. History of the Tantric Religion, Second Rev. Ed. Manohar: New Delhi, 1999, 174. ISBN 8173040257.
- Bucknell, Roderick & Martin Stuart-Fox. 1986. The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism. London: Curzon Press. ISBN 0312825404
- Chia, Mantak and Maneewan Chia. 1993. Awaken Healing Light of the Tao. Healing Tao Books. ISBN 0935621466.
- Edgerton, Franklin. 2004. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. ISBN 8120809998.
- Eliade, Mircea. (1958, 1969) Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, Willard R. Trask, Translator. 1969. Spring Publications, 1994, ISBN 0882143581.
- Flood, Gavin. 1996. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521438780.
- Goswami, Shyam Sundar. Layayoga: The Definitive Guide to the Chakras and Kundalini. Inner Traditions, 1999. ISBN 0892817666.
- Judith, Anodea. 1996. Eastern Body Western Mind: Psychology And The Chakra System As A Path To The Self, rev. ed. 2004. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts Publishing. ISBN 1587612259
- Monier-Williams, Sir. (1872 & 1899, rev.) A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, fourth ed. South Asia Books, 1988. ISBN 8120800699.
- Palamidessi, Tommaso, The Mystical Ascesis and Meditation on the Heart, ed. . Archeosofica, 1971.
- Prabhananda, S. 2000. Studies on the Tantras. Calcutta: The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. ISBN 8185843368. Second reprint edition.
- Rinpoche, Tenzin Wangyal. 2002. Healing with Form, Energy, and Light. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1559391766.
- Tulku, Tarthang. 2007. Tibetan Relaxation. The illustrated guide to Kum Nye massage and movement – A yoga from the Tibetan tradition. London: Dunkan Baird Publishers. ISBN 9781844834044.
- Woodroffe, John. (1865 – 1936) (Arthur Avalon – pseudonym). The Serpent Power. Madras, India: Ganesh & Co. Private Ltd. reprint 2003. ISBN 8185988056
- Yü, Lu K’uan (Charles Luk). Taoist Yoga – Alchemy and Immortality. London: Rider and Company,  reprint ed., Weiser Books, 1999. ISBN 0877280673.
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia