In Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, a chakra (Sanskrit: Cakra, Pali : Cakka, Tamil: chakra ) is thought to be an energy point or node in the subtle body. Chakras are believed to be part of the subtle body, not the physical body, and as such, are the meeting points of the subtle (non-physical) energy channels called nadi. Nadi are believed to be channels in the subtle body through which the life force (prana) (non-physical) or vital energy (non-physical) moves. Various scriptural texts and teachings present a different number of chakras. It's believed that there are many chakras in the subtle human body, according to the tantric texts, but there are seven chakras that are considered to be the most important ones.
The word Chakra (चक्र) derives from the Sanskrit word meaning "wheel," as well as "circle" and "cycle". It's described by many as a spinning wheel of light. Of the 88,000 chakras within the human body, seven are considered of principle importance and are referred to as the "major chakras".
M. N. Roy'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, symbolising endless rotation of shakti.
- A circle of people. In rituals, there are different cakrasādhanās in which adherents assemble and perform rites. According to the Niruttaratantra, chakras in the sense of assemblies are of 5 types.
- The term chakra is also used to denote yantras (mystic diagram)s, variously known as trikoṇa-cakra, aṣṭakoṇa-cakra, etc.
- Different nerve plexuses within the body.
In Buddhism, the Sanskrit term cakra (Pali cakka) is used in a different sense of "circle," referring to the conception of rebirth consisting of six states in which beings may be reborn.
Breath channels (nāḍi) of yogic practices are mentioned in the classical Upanishads, but hierarchies of chakras are introduced in the eighth-century Buddhist Hevajra Tantra and Caryāgiti.
The texts and teachings present different numbers of chakras. Also, different physical structures are considered chakras. David Gordon White thus emphasises:
"In fact, there is no "standard" system of the chakras. Every school, sometimes every teacher within each school, has had his own chakra system."
The following features are common:
David Gordon White traces the modern popularity of the "Hindu" seven chakra system to Arthur Avalon's The Serpent Power, which was Avalon's translation of a late work, the Satcakranirupana. In actuality, there are several models and systems present in Hindu tantric literature, as White documents. Kundalini is a feature of Hindu chakra systems.
Chakras play an important role in the main surviving branch of Indian Vajrayana, Tibetan Buddhism. They play a pivotal role in completion stage practices, where an attempt is made 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.
The Vajrayana system states that the central channel (avadhūtī) begins at the point of the third eye like of lord Shiva, curves up to the crown of the head, and then goes straight down to the lower body. There are two side channels, the rasanā and lalanā, which start at their respective nostrils and then travel down to the lower body. The apāna vāyu governs the lower terminations of the three channels. The lower end of the central channel ends in the rectum. The lower end of the lalanā ends in the urinary tract. The lower end of the rasanā channel emits semen.
The side channels run parallel to the centre channel, except at locations such as the navel, heart, throat and crown (i.e. chakras) where the two side channels twist around the central channel. At the navel, throat and crown, there is a twofold knot caused by each side channel twisting once around the central channel. At the heart wheel there is a sixfold knot, where each side channel twists around three times. An important part of completion stage practice involves loosening and undoing these knots.
Within the chakras exist the 'subtle drops'. The white drop exists in the crown, the red drop exists in the navel, and at the heart exists the indestructible red and white drop, which leaves the body at the time of death. In addition, each chakra has a number of 'spokes' or 'petals', which branch off into thousands of subtle channels running to every part of the body, and each contains a Sanskrit syllable.
By focusing on a specific chakra (while often holding the breath) the subtle winds enter the central channel. The chakra at which they enter is important in order to realise specific practices. For example, focusing on the subnavel area is important for the practice of tummo, or inner fire. Meditating on the heart chakra is important for realising clear light. Meditating on the throat chakra is important for lucid dreaming and the practices of dream yoga. And meditating on the crown chakra is important for consciousness projection, either to another world, or into another body.
A result of energetic imbalance among the chakras is an almost continuous feeling of dissatisfaction. When the heart chakra is agitated, people lose touch with feelings and sensations, and that breeds the sense of dissatisfaction. That leads to looking outside for fulfilment. When people live in their heads, feelings are secondary; they are interpretations of mental images that are fed back to the individual. When awareness is focused on memories of past experiences and mental verbalisations, the energy flow to the head chakra increases and the energy flow to the heart chakra lessens. Without nurturing feelings of the heart a subtle form of anxiety arises which results in the self reaching out for experience. When the throat chakra settles and energy is distributed evenly between the head and the heart chakras, one is able to truly contact one's senses and touch real feelings.
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.
A modern teacher, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, uses a computer analogy: main chakras are like hard drives. Each hard drive has many files. One of the files is always open in each of the chakras, no matter how "closed" that particular chakra may be. What is displayed by the file shapes experience.
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.
Indonesian and Malaysian metaphysics
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.
Western adaptation of Hindu yogic chakras
In Western culture, a concept similar to that of prana can be traced back as far as the 18th century's Franz Anton Mesmer, who used "animal magnetism" to treat disease.
However, it was only in 1918 that the shakta theory of seven main chakras, that has become most popular in the West, was introduced, largely through the translation of two Indian texts: the Sat-Cakra-Nirupana and the Padaka-Pancaka, by Sir John Woodroffe, alias Arthur Avalon, in a book titled The Serpent Power.
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 completely 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.
In his book on Japa Yoga (Himalaya Press, 1978), Swami Sivananda states that a yogi that practices Japa only with the Om and is successful at Mahasamyama (oneness with the object —in this case, a word being meditated on—) becomes a direct disciple of the Om, the most holy of all words and syllables (the same as the word of creation as recognised by the Torah, although this is not professed or quite possibly not even recognised by those of secular authority in either Judaism or Christianity). Thus, the yogi who achieves this feat needs no guru or Sat-guru to achieve any spiritual goal (an archetype or an Ascended Master —a Krishna, a Rama, a Jesus, a Nanak, a Buddha...—). Swami Sivananda mentions that this yogi has a path that is, in all recognisable ways and manners, reverse of that of other yogis or spiritual aspirants and their paths, in that this spiritual aspirant then works through the chakras, mastering them from the crown down. Satprem explains, in page 67 of his book Sri Aurobindo, or the Adventure of Consciousness (ISBN 81-85137-60-9), that, in Sri Aurobindo and the Mother's Integral Yoga, the practitioner experiences a "descent" where the Grace and Light works through and enlightens the chakras from the crown chakra downwards.
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.
Chakras and their importance are posited to reside in the psyche. However, there are those who believe that chakras have a physical manifestation as well. Gary Osborn, for instance, has described the chakras as metaphysical counterparts to the endocrine glands, while Anodea Judith noted a marked similarity between the positions of the two and the roles described for each. 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. These associations remain speculative, however, and have yet to be empirically validated.
Spectrum of light
A development in Western practices dating back to the 1940s is to associate each one of the seven chakras to a given colour and a corresponding crystal. For example, the chakra in the forehead is associated with the colour purple, so to try and cure a headache a person might apply a purple stone to the forehead.
Mercier introduces the relation of colour energy to the science of the light spectrum:
As humans, we exist within the 49th Octave of Vibration of the electromagnetic light spectrum. Below this range are barely visible radiant heat, then invisible infrared, television and radiowaves, sound and brain waves; above it is barely visible ultraviolet, then the invisible frequencies of chemicals and perfumes, followed by x-rays, gamma rays, radium rays and unknown cosmic rays.
Understanding existence and physical form as an interpretation of light energy through the physical eyes will open up greater potential to explore the energetic boundaries of colour, form and light that are perceived as immediate reality. Indian Yogic teachings assign to the seven major chakras specific qualities, such as colour of influence (from the seven rays of spectrum light), elements (such as earth, air, water & ether), body sense (such as touch, taste, and smell), and relation to an endocrine gland.
Description of each chakra
There are believed to be seven major chakras, which are arranged vertically along the axial channel (sushumna nadi). David Gordon White traces the modern popularity of the seven chakra system to Arthur Avalon's The Serpent Power, which was Avalon's translation of a late work, the Sat-Cakra-Nirupana. Below is a description of the seven chakras, with various associations. Each of these chakras also has its elemental deity (Vasu), demigod of its material element.
From the top down, they are thought to be:
Hridhiya chakra (also known as hrid chakra) is measured from centre of Anahata chakra, two fingers to the left and continue with two finger down, whereby the heart beat can be felt. Talu chakra is located at behind of Reticular Formation at Fourth Ventrical before beginning of spinal cord. There are said to be 21 minor chakras which are reflected points of the major chakras. These 21 are further grouped into ten bilateral minor chakras that correspond to the foot, hand, knee, elbow, groin, clavicle, navel, shoulder and ear. The spleen may also be listed by some authorities as a location for a minor chakra.
There are said to be three chakras that are beyond the physical and spiritual. They are called Golata, Lalata, and Lalana and "located on the uvula at the back of the throat, above the Ajna chakra, and within the soft upper palate". According to Robert Svoboda they defy description in the sense of the above seven and can only be experienced once Kundalini has fully awakened.
Minor chakras below Muladhara
There are said to be a series of seven chakras below Muladhara going down the leg, corresponding the base animal instincts, and to the Hindu underworld patala. From the top down they are:
Atala — Located in the hips, it governs fear and lust.
Vitala — Located in the thighs, it governs anger and resentment.
Sutala — Located in the knees, it governs jealousy.
Talatala — Translated as "under the bottom level", it is located in the calves and represents a state of prolonged confusion and instinctive wilfulness.
Rasatala — Located in the ankles, it is the centre of selfishness and pure animal nature.
Mahatala — Located in the feet, this is the dark realm 'without conscience', and inner blindness.
Patala — Located in the soles of the feet, this is the realm of malice, murder, torture and hatred, and in Hindu mythology it borders on the realm of Naraka, or hell.