CAKRAS . Literally meaning a circle, wheel, or discus, the Sanskrit term cakra plays a key role in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, particularly in their more esoteric Tantric forms. The term has several uses in various forms of yogic and Tantric practice. Thus cakra may refer to the circle of worship in which a particular ritual is conducted—for example, the highly esoteric cakra pūjā of Hindu Tantric rituals, usually performed in the dead of night in a cremation ground, involving practices that deliberately violate traditional laws of class distinctions and purity. Cakras may also refer to circular diagrams used in meditation and the worship of such specific deities as the famous Śri Cakras or Śri Yantra images associated with the goddess Tripurāsundarī.
In Hindu and Buddhist yogic practice, however, cakra has a more specific meaning. In these traditions it refers to the spiritual energy centers believed to lie within the human subtle body (sukṣma śarīra ). The subtle body in the yogic tradition is the immaterial aspect of the living being that lies between its gross physical form and its divine spiritual essence. This subtle organism is comprised of a complex network of arteries (nāḍīs, usually numbered at seventy-two thousand), knots (granthis ), and energy centers (cakras), which correspond only roughly to the arteries and organs of the physical body. The cakras are often imagined not just as wheels but also as lotus blossoms with varying numbers of petals and even in some traditions as ponds connected by an internal network of rivers.
The most widely known list of cakras in the early twenty-first century is the sixfold system, which identifies six energy centers located along the spinal column from the base of the spine to the eyebrows, with a seventh supreme cakra at the crown of the head. This sixfold list, however, is by no means the only or oldest one; it became standardized only after the publication of a translation of one relatively late text, the Ṣaṭ-cakra-nirūpaṇa, by Sir John George Woodroffe in 1919. The historical origin of the cakras as inner centers of subtle energy is not entirely clear. Some scholars believe that the cakras are derived from circular arrays of powerful goddesses who were originally represented externally in temples and ritual diagrams but were then gradually internalized and identified with energy centers within the body (White, 2003, p. 222). The earliest-known accounts of cakras as inner circles of energy actually come from an eighth-century Buddhist text, the Hevajra Tantra, which identifies four cakras in the body at the navel, heart, throat, and head respectively. These cakras are in turn identified with four geographical sites (pīiṭhas ) in India regarded as sacred to the Great Goddess, Devi or Śakti. The classic group of six cakras emerged slowly; not until the ninth or tenth century, in works like the Kaulajñānanirṇaya, does one find an identifiable system of six energy centers called cakras. Other yogic traditions, however, added a variety of other cakras, some listing as many as twelve.
According to the well-known sixfold system, the name and location of the cakras is as follows:
- the mūlādhāra, located between the anus and the genitals, imagined as a lotus with four petals;
- the svādhiṣṭhānā at the root of the genitals, with six petals;
- the maṇipūra at the navel, with ten petals;
- the anāhata at the heart, with twelve petals;
- the viśuddha at the throat, with sixteen petals;
- the ājñā between the eyebrows, with two petals.
Above these six lies a seventh and ultimate cakra, the sahasrāra, imagined as a thousand-petaled lotus that serves as the divine seat of Lord Śiva. Each of the cakras is also in turn enmeshed in a complex network of correspondences and is identified with a particular color, shape, element, cosmic principle, sacred syllable, and deity.
The aim of yogic practice is to awaken the divine creative energy believed to lie within every human body. This energy is imagined in the form of a coiled serpent or kuṇḍalinī, which represents the microcosmic presence of the divine power (śakti ) of the goddess within each of us. When this energy is awakened through meditation, it can be made to rise upward through the body, where it successively penetrates the six cakras and awakens the various powers associated with each one. Finally, when it reaches the sahasrāra cakra at the crown of the head, the yogi experiences the supreme union of the divine male and female principles—Lord Śiva and the Goddess Śakti —within his or her own body.
Although the cakras do not exist as physically measurable entities in the material body, they do correspond to particular psychological states and levels of consciousness. Their opening in turn leads to "mental transformation and the opening of the psyche to hitherto inaccessible levels of consciousness" (Kakar, 1988, p. 187). On the other hand, the malfunctioning of the cakras may also lead to a variety of mental and physical problems. For example, a disorder in the svādhiṣṭhāna cakra at the base of the genitals can produce delusion, infatuations, and sexual disturbances among other ills (Kakar, 1998, p. 188).
One of the more remarkable figures in modern history to describe his experience of the cakras was the great Bengali holy man Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836–1886). According to Ramakrishna, the lower three cakras associated with the anus, the sexual organs, and the navel correspond primarily to the instinctual levels of consciousness, namely greed and desire. The higher cakras, however, relate to the transcendent states of consciousness found in the heart, in mystical experience, and finally in "complete absorption in the mystic-erotic union of Śiva and Śakti" (Kripal, 1988, p. 44). As Ramakrishna described the awakening of the highest cakra, it is a state of pure ecstatic annihilation in union with the divine: "When the kuṇḍalinī comes here there is Samādhi [meditative absorption]. In this sahasrāra, Śiva, full of sat [Being] cit [Consciousness] and ānanda [Bliss], resides in union with Śakti …. In Samādhi nothing external remains. One cannot even take care of his body any more; if milk is put into his mouth, he does not swallow. If he remains for twenty-one days in this condition, he is dead" (Dimock, 1966, p. 178). For Ramakrishna then, the awakening of the seven cakras suggests that there is no rigid separation of the physical and spiritual or the sexual and transcendent dimensions of consciousness. Rather, the higher and lower cakras lie on a continuum in which "mystical union and sexual experience are different wavelengths of the same energetic spectrum" (Kripal, 1998, pp. 45–46). Through the techniques of yoga and meditation, sexual energy itself can be transformed into mystical experience, greed and desire into spiritual ecstasy.
In the early twenty-first century the cakras and techniques of awakening them are found not only in esoteric Tantric traditions but are also more widely dispersed throughout other Indian yogic practices. They have also made their way to the West and are now a regular feature in much of New Age and other alternative forms of spirituality across Europe and the United States.
For good discussions of the cakras and their historical development, see David Gordon White, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (Chicago, 1996), and Kiss of the Yoginī: "Tantric Sex" in Its South Asian Contexts (Chicago, 2003). The classic description of the sixfold system is Sir John George Woodroffe, trans., The Serpent Power, Being the Ṣaṭ-cakra-nirūpaṇa and Pādukā-pañcaka (London, 1919). On Ramakrishna's description of the cakras, see Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kālī's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago, 1998); and Edward C. Dimock, The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaiṣṇava-Sahajiyā Cult of Bengal (Chicago, 1966). For an interesting psychological interpretation of the cakras, see Sudhir Kakar, Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and Its Healing Traditions (New York, 1982).
AndrÉ Padoux (1987)
Hugh B. Urban (2005)