The Chakras

Different sources often do not concur on the existence of the 7th or 8th chakra or the explanation of them. These inconsistencies will show up in this summary.

chakrasituationnumber of petalsregnant tattva and its qualitiescolor
MuladharaSpinal center of region below the genitals4Prthivi; cohesion, stimulating sense of smellyellow
SvadhisthanaSpinal center of region above the genitals6Ap; contraction, stimulating sense of tastewhite
ManipuraSpinal center of region of the navel10Tejas; expansion, producing heat and stimulating sight-sense of color and formred
AnahataSpinal center of region of the heart12Vayu; general movement, stimulating sense of touchsmoky
VisuddhaSpinal center of region of the throat16Akasa; space-giving, stimulation sense of hearingwhite
AjnaCenter of region between the eyebrows2Manas (mental faculties)...
Above the Ajna is the causal region and the Lotus of a thousand petals with all the qualities, wherein is the abode of the Supreme Bindu Parasiva.

Shape of the mandalaBija and its Vahana (carrier)Devata and its VahanaShakti of the DhatuLinga and YoniOther Tattvas here dissolved
squareLam on the Airavata elephantBrahma on HamsaDakiniSvayam-bhu and Traipura-TrikonaGandha (smell) Tattva; smell (organ of sensation); feet (organ of action)
crescentVam on MakaraVishnu on GarudaTakini...Rasa (taste) Tattva; taste (organ of sensation); hand (organ of action)
triangleRam on a ramRudra on a bullLakini...Rupa (form and color; sight) Tattva; sight (organ of sensation); anus (organ of action)
six-pointed hexagonYam on an antelopeIsaKakiniBana and TrikonaSparsa (touch and feel) Tattva; touch (organ of sensation); penis (organ of action)
circleHam on a white elephantSadasivaSakini...Sada (sound) Tattva; hearing (organ of sensation); mouth (organ of action)
...OmSambhuHakiniItara and TrikonaMahar, the Suksma Prakrti called Hiranyagarbha

The Power of the Serpent

The yogi who has attained complete mastery over the technique of breathing and who has been able by this means to isolate himself totally from the external world, succeeds in "seeing" the interior of his body or, in other words acquires intuitive knowledge of the secret mandala that his subtle body forms. Having unraveled the tangled web of the nadis, he reaches the end of initiation and penetrates to the most inward part of himself, at the base of the trunk, where there is a cave located at the foot of the cosmic mountain. In this cave the yogi perceives three things: a fire of glowing embers, a sleeping serpent, and the threefold orifice of the three principal channels, the ida, the pingala, and the sushuma:

The divine power
the kundalini, shines
like the stem of a young lotus;
like a snake, coiled around upon herself,
she holds her tail in her mouth and lies resting half asleep
at the base of the body.

--Yogakundalini Upanishad

The great task now is to awaken this serpent, which means, in symbolic terms, to achieve conscious awareness of the presence within us of shakti or "cosmic power" and begin to use it in the service of spiritual progress

To succeed in this task the yogi will need to summon up all the strength he has at his command since yoga has enabled him to reach the stage at which he can practice dhyana (transcendental meditation). Taking up the yoga position he has personally found most suitable (usually the siddha-asana or "position of perfection"), he closes the windows of his body one by one (in other words achieves pratyahara or "sense withdrawl" and concentrates all his attention on a single point (dharana). At this point his mental activity is totally suspended, and the buddhi (intelligence), reflecting the light of the atman, takes over. Illuminated in this way, the yogi's supraconscious will (i.e., the intellectual vitality of the buddhi as opposed to the manas, which has been "dissolved" by dharana) is directed upon the breath inhaled and retained in pranayama. Guided in this way, the breath (prana) is conveyed down to the base of the trunk and introduced via either the ida or the pingala into the cave where the kundalini lies coiled

The entry of the prana produces an abrupt animation of the fire in the cave: the embers blossom into flame and the god Agni (Fire) brightens into splendor. The heat, the brightness, and the roar of the now flaming fire combine to waken the serpent at least from its torpor

The yogi conveys the prana
down into the muladhara;
the air thus drawn in awakens
the fire-below that lay sleeping
Meditating on the pranava
that is brahman,
concentrating his thought
he causes the breath to rise
mingled with the fire-below
as far as the navel and beyond
within the subtle body
--Amritanada Upanishad

It is clear from this text that the process of awakening the kundalini is in the first place a result of meditation (dhyana); it is because he is meditating on pranava (that is, brahman represented by the sound om) that the yogi succeeds in fanning the fire-below into flame. And we should note that the Upanishad also instructs the yogi that he must cause the breath, once vivified by the fire-below, to rise up inside his subtle body. The idea here is that the kundalini is assisted by the prana and the god Agni: having awakened her they continue to accompany her in her gradual descent.

The other interesting point brought out by this quotation is the mention of the first center of the subtle body, the muladhara. And it is now time in fact to explain that the internal mandala--consisting, as we have seen, of a vast number of nadis (rivers, channels) forming a complex network--also comprises a series of geometrical figures, seven in number, spaced out along a vertical axis running from the base of the trunk up to the top of the head. These figures are usually called chakras, a Sanskrit word that has the primary meaning of "wheel" (of a chariot) but can be used more broadly to denote any circular object, such as a disk, a potter's wheel, a cyclic period, and so on. The universe itself, for instance, is an immense chakra (that cosmic wheel) that revolves eternally around a hub (brahman). All the chakras within the subtle body are therefore primarily circles, whatever other geometrical figures they may have inscribed within those circles. Moreover, these centers are also referred to as lotuses (padma), but it must be remembered that all stylized representations of the lotus in Indian iconography are based on the circle (surrounded by a variable number of petals), except of course when the flower has not yet opened (the lotus bud, often used as a symbol of virtuality awaiting realization). In fact this iconographic stylization is often taken so far that one is unsure whether to recognize certain figures as a wheel or as a lotus. The average Indian is not at all sure whether the symbol that appears on his national flag is a lotus or a wheel, and from his point of view it does not matter much, since the symbolism is the same: that circular structure with its radiating beams is beyond doubt an image of dharma.

Obviously the seven chakras are precisely located within the subtle body, and by analogy with the gross body they are said to be situated at the same height as such and such an organ. But I must emphasize yet again that the chakras must not be thought of as coincident with any part of the gross body; they are superimposed images indicating the confluent points of particular vital forces, the activity of which sets the forces of the gross body in motion, but which remain substantially distinct from them (they subsist after death and contribute to the animation of the fetus at the moment of reincarnation in another body, in accordance with the laws of transmigration). It is therefore more correct to say that the seven chakras are situated "at the same latitude" as certain parts of the body. With this proviso in mind we can say that the first chakra is level with the anus; the second with the genitals; the third with the navel; the fourth with the heart; the fifth with the throat; the sixth with the forehead; the seventh with the top of the head. Here are a few more details about each one individually.

The chakra is called the muladhara, because it is situated at the base (mula, "root") of the trunk. Its geometrical representation is a circles containing a square and a downward pointing triangle. Viewed as a lotus, the muladhara has four petal; its dominant color is yellow, and the related mantra is the syllable lam. As the presence of the square and the color yellow indicate, the symbolism here is that the element earth, further stressed by the downward pointing (image of the yoni, the female sexual organ). It is sometimes said that the yogi should perceive a linga in the center of the yoni, which is a way of making him understand that the male and female principles coexist in all living beings.

The second chakra is located at the level of the sexual organs and is called the svadhishthana, which implies that it is the site of whatever constitutes the individual's specific personality. The geometrical representation is a circle containing a crescent moon (sometimes). As a lotus, this center has six petals; its color is white; its mantra is the syllable vam. Here we recognize the sexual symbolism that is bound up in Hinduism with the moon and the color white: the moon god, it is said, travels through the world during the nights when he is new and fertilizes the waters, which then give birth to the plants that will serve in their turn as food for beasts and men, and so on. The moon god is always present when two living beings unite: it is he who deposits the drop of sperm in the womb. The cosmic element of this chakra is therefore water.

The third chakra, called the manipura, is located on the latitude of the navel. It is represented by a circle enclosing a downward pointing triangle which sometimes has additional geometric protuberances (rather like T's) which are said to be either "doors" for effecting entrance into the diagram or stylized svastikas (the svastika or auspicious sign is a symbol of fire). As a lotus, the manipura has ten petals; it's color is red, and the appropriate mantra is the syllable ram. The symbolism here is that of fire, as indicated by the color red and possibly by the protuberances sometimes added to the triangle, if it is true that they are svastikas. The presence of fire in this region of the body is explained by the fact that Hindu traditions view digestion as the destruction of food by an inner fire, a process of combustion that reduces the food to ashes (feces) while fortifying our vital energy (thought of as a warm luminous flame).

The fourth chakra is called the anahata. It is located at the level of the heart, and its circle is occupied by two superimposed triangles, one pointing up and one down, forming a six- pointed star like Solomon's seal. As a lotus, this center has twelve petals; its color is gray; it's mantra is yam; and its cosmic element is air. The symbolism here is complex; the two triangles indicate the ultimate union and fulfillment of the male principle (upward-pointing triangle) and the female (downward-pointing triangle), so that here they have a cosmic, universal value, whereas that of the linga within the yoni seen in the muladhara was restricted to that of specifically sexual union. The other aspect of the fourth chakra's symbolism concerns the element air. Here it is not air as "vital breath" but air as atmosphere and the conveyer of sound that is involved. The name of the chakra in fact implies that it emits a mysterious sound comparable to that which would be produced by an un- (an-) -beaten (-ahata) drum, which is another way of saying that the sound in question lies outside the categories of the world of the senses. And as the texts indicate, the sound that reverberates within the lotus of the heart is om, brahman as sonic vibration.

The fifth chakra is found at the level of the throat and is called the vishuddha. It is represented by a circle containing a downward pointing triangle enclosing in its turn a smaller circle. As a lotus it has sixteen petals; its color is brilliant white (or "golden" white); its mantra is the syllable ham. The cosmic element governing this center is ether (hence the notion of purity implied in the chakra's name: ether is the most "subtle" of the five elements). Some texts explain the symbolism of the vishuddha by saying that the smaller central circle represents the moon and the triangle within it the yoni, which would mean that we are once again dealing with the male and female principles, here combined in the same intrinsic mode as in the divine hermaphrodite (Shiva, as the Lord who is "half man, half woman.").

The sixth chakra, called the ajna (authority), is located at the level of the forehead, between the eyebrows (just above the point where the "third eye" opens). It is represented by a circle containing a downward-pointing triangle. As a lotus it has two petals only; its color is once more white ("the white of the full moon in all its brilliance"); and its mantra is om. The cosmic element related to this center is the one that is placed "above the five others" and transcends them. Its most usual name is mahant (majesty, sovereignty, greatness) and it is likened to the creative power of the Demiurge, though at other times this superelement is said to be the universal intelligence or the world-soul (not brahman but the world's jiva-atman or "incarnate soul"). But in any case, the presence of the syllable om within the ajna-chakra's inner triangle is a clear indication that the associated symbolism is that of the origin, the beginning of all things (and that of their end also, since om is in equal measure the sonic vibration from which all things emerge and that into which they must eventually be reabsorbed at the end of the cosmic cycle).

A redition of the seventh chakra is forthcoming.
The seventh and last chakra bears the name sahasrara, the thousand-rayed. It is a simple circle of which we are told only that it radiates splendor. As a lotus it naturally has a thousand petals, but it has no specific symbolism (color, sound, or element) connected with it. This is easily understood if we remember that we had already reached the peak of cosmic manifestation with the ajna-chakra: the color white, they syllable om, and the element mahant admit nothing beyond themselves unless it be the Absolute itself, brahman/atman. It must therefore be the Absolute itself that governs the sahasrara, and since "That" (tad) is beyond all quality, it clearly cannot posses any color (unless it be white, which transcends all colors by absorbing them into itself) or any sonority (om is a manifestation, a sign of brahman; it cannot strictly speaking be brahman). To attain the sahasrara is thus to attain the "world of brahman (the brahma-loka, in which liberation is symbolically "located"). One ought therefore to say that this chakra is located, not "at the top of the head," but rather "above the top of the head" in order to stress that it is differentiated from the other six. The best graphic representations, indeed, show it in the form of an inverted lotus (stem upward, corolla opening downward) emitting a radiance that bathes the subtle body in its entirety (rather like the aura, the golden vesica piscis with which Byzantine iconography surrounds the body of Christ)

The role played by these centers becomes clear at the moment when the kundalini, rising through the sushumna toward the top of the head, touches each one on her journey. The texts are fond of saying that the lotus blossoms in the chakras are normally not more than half-open buds; they are functioning just enough to sustain the average individual's ordinary level of existence. For each of the chakras corresponds to a particular form of vital activity, the muladhara presides over the sense of smell and governs the actions of arms and hands; the manipura presides over sight and governs the excretory organs; the anahata presides over touch and governs the sexual organs; the vishuddha is in harmony with the sense of hearing and the mouth; the ajna with all forms of mental activity. Clearly the, the kundalini as she ascends is going to cause the lotuses to blossom and enable their latent energies to manifest themselves with all the power of which they are capable. This of course is the source of the miraculous powers described, which, as it has been explained on more than one occasion, are nothing but the perfect realization or fulfillment (siddhi) of natural virtualities, or the unfurling or blossoming (vibhuti) of those virtualities when finally "realized."

At other times (albeit less often), the texts make use of different images: they compare the chakras to obstacles that the kundalini must "break down" or "pierce" in order to reach the seventh center. The purpose of this approach is to stress the fact that the full realization of a virtuality is at the same time an annihilation of it, since what is involved, at all six stages, is the transcending of that stage so that there will be no risk of self-indulgent lingering in it and forgetting one's ultimate aim, which is liberation. We even find it said on occasion, as a means of emphasizing the necessity for this transcendence, that the chakras are actually Gordian knots that the yogi must cut through with the knife of meditation.

Very little is said about the ascent itself, except that the various teachers disagree as to whether it is slow, gradual, or rapid (or even instantaneous). The most traditional schools, following the teaching of the Yoga-Sutras, favor the doctrine that the road is a difficult, arduous: several attempts are needed, and many yogis will never get beyond a particular chakra. Other gurus teach the opposite: that once the kundalini has been awakened and found the entrance to the sushumna, she hurls herself into it and "rearing up like a snake uncoiling itself in once great leap," reaches the sahasrara right away (or the ajna at the very least). Knowing how far classical yoga is a school of patience and endurance, one is inclined to favor the proponents of the arduous path, yet there is clearly one major objection to their account: if it is true that samadhi is attained at the moment when the kundalini reaches the top of the head, then it must follow that those incapable of drawing it up further than the third or fourth chakra must be forever excluded from that experience. Yet it is difficult to imagine that a yogi who has succeeded in acquiring total mastery over his body, and in "dissolving his mind" (by means of dharana), will then prove incapable of practicing meditation with sufficient efficacity to attain samadhi. The truth (or at least the most widely held opinion) is to be found between these two positions: most gurus tend to say that the road leading to sense withdrawal and perfect attention (dharana) is indeed a very difficult one, but that once on has succeeded in awakening the kundalini, the struggle is essentially over; the power of the serpent manifests itself in all it's strength and samadhi is attained (the adverb "instantaneously" being nugatory here, since the experience takes place, by definition, outside time).

In Tantric symbolism, samadhi is referred to as the beatific union of Shiva and his shakti (the goddess Parvati). On the microcosmic level it is that of the atman (which we must remember is a masculine word in Sanskrit) and the kundalini, an image of the eternal marriage of purusha (spirit) and prakriti (nature). And if it is indeed true that the union knows no end, this means that the yogi who has achieved this stage "will not return" will never again leave his new status as a jivan-mukta (liberated-alive):

At the top of the body, above the head,
there is the lotus with a thousand petals,
shining like the light of heaven:
it is the giver of liberation
It's secret name is Kailasa,
the mountain where Shiva dwells.
He who knows this secret place
is freed from samsara.

It is significant that the name Kailasa should be given to this "place outside the body" (sahasrara, the seventh center) in which the yogi finally achieves the goal he first set himself during his novitiate: liberation (moksha, mukti). For Shiva's paradise is a region of delight where the supreme being (sach-chid-ananda) joys eternally in his union with shakti: the final liberation is thus presented as being a sort of perpetual wedding feast, an orgasm without end.

This particular coloration of samadhi is specific to Tantrism and is in conformity with the ideology of that movement, which, as we have seen permeates the whole of modern Hinduism, despite the claims of certain schools that they are completely separate from it. The originality here, as far as yoga is concerned, is that great stress is laid on the contribution of sexual desire to the human composite's motivating force. Of course all schools agree in seeing desire (kama) as the source of the mental impregnations (vasanas) that imprison the soul in the world of phenomena; but most schools seem to "forget," as it were, that the word kama has the primary meaning of "love" (eros). Even the Yoga-Sutras themselves, in their list of Restraints and Disciplines, mention chastity only once, and then only in passing, as one item among ten others, a sign that in their author's eyes libido was no more that one manifestation, and ultimately a secondary one, of concupiscence in general. Tantrism adopts a diametrically opposed view-point: heralding the discoveries of Freud, it places sexual appetite at the center of personality and sees gluttony, craving for wealth, and aggression as derivative forms of that central appetite. From this point of view it is more faithful to the very oldest tradition that the Yoga-Sutrasare, since it is clearly not just by chance that the term kama was selected from among all other possible ones to denote Desire in its universal sense.

If love is indeed the motive force of the world, then its role in the sphere of existence is a preeminent one. Ultimately, one might say that it is indistinguishable from life itself, from nature, from prakriti as cosmic energy. In man, the microcosmic analogue of the universe, love ought similarly to occupy a primary position, both as the determining cause of alienation (which imprisons the individual in the world of phenomena and obliges him to continue transmigrating until the end of the cycle) and as a power capable of liberating him, provided he acquires the necessary intellectual knowledge of his true nature. Thus sexuality, as Nietzsche recognized long since, involves the human being in his entirety, including the domain of spirituality so often thought of as a separate preserve. In which case it is legitimate to make use of sexuality in order to achieve liberation. That is what Tantrism does: taking the old adage that sin itself is a path to salvation, it pushes it to its furthest extremes by teaching that the yogi should eat meat, drink alcohol, and make love to prostitutes, all things forbidden by dharma to high-caste Hindus and viewed by yoga as sins automatically canceling any spiritual progress made. Of course, such practices have no value unless they are directed toward a higher good (salvation, liberation); otherwise they remain sins and certainly serve no purpose (except the accumulating of negative karman). Moreover, the yogi is not permitted to indulge in them until he has undergone his novitiate and reached the stage of sense withdrawl (pratyahara) and perfect concentration (dharana). In other words, these practices are intended to act as aids in the awakening of the kundalini and constitute, in a sense, a form of transcendental meditation (dhyana). And they are also an image of the felicities awaiting the soul (atman) when it has finally achieved liberation from the bonds of existence and is enjoying the ecstasy of union with shakti.

The omnipresence of the sexual instinct is indicated by seals or geometric figures within the chakras. In this context, however, sexual instinct means a multiform vital energy that can have either male or female manifestations (and it is not the least important aspect of Tantrism that it recognizes the coexistence of both these forms of libido within each and every being, whatever its sex). The feminine element is symbolized, as we have seen, by a downward-pointing triangle, the masculine element by a triangle with point uppermost, or by a representation of the moon (either crescent or circle), or by an erect linga. This double symbolism is clearly apparent in all of the chakras except the seventh, which is of course outside the body. The first two lotuses, for instance, include either the triangle symbolizing the yoni (female sexual organ) or the crescent moon (symbolizing the fertilizing power of the male sexual organ) Moving upward, the lotus at the heart level (anahata-chakra) contains both male and female triangles interlocked. And lastly, the ajna-chakra, highest of the "corporeal" lotuses, at the forehead level, presents the image of a full moon (male sexual power at its fullest stage of development) enclosing a downward-pointing triangle (the female symbol), and it is here, we are told, that the atman, which resides in this chakra, enters into union with its shakti. The perfection of this union, in the course of which the kundalini is reabsorbed into the atman-purusha (the soul in its male aspect) is the very symbol of love itself ("and they shall be as one flesh, as the Gospel puts it).

The syllable om occurring within the last chakra expresses the permanence of this union, it's perfection, and it beatific character, while also indicating that its realization will enable the resulting "unitary couple" to attain the thousand petaled lotus (sahasrar-chakra), where, having once more become one with essence, it will continue forever in blessed solitude (kaivalya or "isolation," the state of the principle of all things, which, because it is one, can have no second). Practitioners of yoga explain that this situation (the eternal marriage of spirit and nature) accounts for the name sach-chid-ananda (being-consciousness-joy) given to the Absolute: the couple is forever, on the level of essence, without any of the limitations of existence; it possesses full consciousness of itself without the slightest distraction; and this full and entire knowledge it has of its eternal marriage is in itself perfect joy or beatitude. When the yogi has attained this ultimate peace (shanti) by returning to the principle of all things, then he has reached the goal he set himself at the outset of his quest: the prize is won, and worth all the struggle it has cost.

The latter information was obtained from "Yoga and the Hindu Tradition." The former charts were obtained from "The Serpent Power." Full information available at the Bibliography.

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