Early doctrines regarding the chakras
The idea of the subtle vital force (prana) and the channels along which it flows (nadis) appear in the earliest Upanishads (7th-8th century b.c.e.).
The heart was said to be the centre of the 72,000 nadis or subtle channels, and the place into which the senses are withdrawn during sleep. As with many ancient civilisations (e.g. Egypt, Homeric Greece), the heart was also considered the seat of waking consciousness.
But it was only in the later Upanishads – the earlier of which were composed somewhere between the 2nd century b.c.e. and the 2nd century c.e. – reference is first made to basic Tantric concepts such as chakras, mantras, and so on.
The Brahma-Upanishad mentions the four “places” occupied by the purusha (soul): the navel, heart, throat, and head. Following common tradition, each place is characterised by a particular state of consciousness: the navel (or the eye) waking consciousness, the heart dreamless sleep, the throat dreaming, and the head the “fourth” or transcendent state. These four states, originally referred to in the Mandukya Upanishad, are identified with the gods Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra (a derivative of Shiva) and Akshara (the indestructable). (Mircea Eliade, Yoga, Immortality, and Freedom, p.128)
The Yogatattva Upanishad speaks of the “five parts” of the body corresponding to the five great or cosmic elements – earth, water, fire, air, and space. Each element corresponds to a particular mantra – a “seed-vibration” or mystical syllable – and a particular deity. Emphasise is also given to siddhis (supernormal powers) that can be attained through mastery of yoga and of the different elements. (Eliade, Ibid, pp.130-1)
The Tibetan Buddhist Theory of Chakras
Tantric Buddhism (or Vajrayana) broke off from the Indian Tantric one at a very early stage. Hence they developed a rather different version of the chakras. Tibetan Buddhism acknowledges four (navel, heart, throat, and head), five, seven, or even ten chakras or “channel wheels”; each with a different number of “spokes” to its Indian Tantric counterpart.
The navel chakra for example has sixty-four spokes, the heart chakra eight, the throat sixteen (the only one to agree with the Hindu scheme), and the head or crown chakra thirty-two. There is also, as in Laya-yoga, an elaborate system of correspondences. Note that in this system it is the head-centre, and not, as in many Western interpretations of Hindu Tantra, the Perineal or the base, that is associated with the body and physical consciousness. The throat centre represents a more subtle state of consciousness, the dream state; and the heart centre the refined of all, deep meditataion, dreamless sleep, the peaceful deities and the Clear Light.
Instead of Kundalini, reference is made to the red and white subtle “drops” in the navel and head chakras respectively, although sometimes other drops are mentioned as well. Through the dissolution of these drops, and of the various subtle winds, in the central channel, one attains transcendent awareness. This happens not only during advanced yoga, but also at the time of death; and constitutes the phenomenon known as the “Clear Light”.
The Shakta Theory of Chakras
Developed Shakta doctrine postulates seven chakras (see image). These are called the Muladhara or “Root Support” at the base of the spine with four “petals”, the Swadhishthana or “Own Abode” at the root of the genitals with six, the Manipura or “Fullness of Jewels” at the level of the navel with ten “petals”, the Anahata or “Unstruck Melody” at the heart-centre with twelve, the Vishuddha or “Complete Purity” at the throat with sixteen, and finally the Ajna or “Guru’s Command” at the brow with two “petals”. The Crown centre, the Sahasrara-Padma or “Thousand Petalled-Lotus”, located at the very top of the head, is technically speaking not a chakra at all, but the summation of all the chakras.
The chakras are strung along the central or Sushumna channel (usually located at the spine). In the lowest chakra, the Muladhara, at the base of the spine, there lies the kundalini-shakti, the latent consciousness-energy, the microcosm of the cosmic creative shakti. When this is aroused, it can be made to ascend the sushumna, either ac-tivating or dissolving (depending on the yogic tradition) each chakra in turn, until it reaches the highest or crown chakra, the Sahasrara, where dwells the Godhead or Supreme Shiva (Paramashiva). As the Kundalini-Shakti unites with Paramashiva, the original transcendent equilibrium is restored, and the yogi returns to the state of oneness with the Absolute.
The chakras are described as stations or centres of pure consciousness (chaitanya) and consciousness-power. They are focal points of meditation; iconographic structures within the occult or “subtle body”. Apart from the Sahasrara, each chakra is described by means of a whole lot of symbolic associations or correspondences. Building upon the initial later Upanishads speculation, each chakra, as well as having a specific position in the physical body, element, mantra, and deity, also has a particular number of “petals”, each associated with one of the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, a corresponding colour, shape, animal, plane of existence, sense-organ, mantric sound, and so on.
As is usually the case with intellectual esoteric systems, a lot of these correspondences are arbitrary, for example, smell and feet with Muladhara, taste and hand with Swadhishthana, sight and anus with Manipura, etc. These associations are all based on the Samkhyan sequence of tattwas and their attributes.
In addition to the seven major chakras arranged along the spine there are also chakras in the hands, feet, genitals, and so on. Also in addition to the seven major chakras, there are also a number of other chakras along the spine which are sometimes referred to. In his exhaustively detailed and definitive work on the chakras according to the traditional Indian understanding, Layayoga – an Advanced Method of Concentration, Shyam Sundar Goswami, citing numerous references, describes thirteen chakras altogether; the seven standard chakras there are six minor ones. The following lists the chakras according to the 13-chakra model.
|Sahasrara||above head||1000||transcendent||transcendent spirit|
|Nirvana||crown||100||origin of mind||mind|
|Talu/Lalana||roof of mouth||12 or 64||n/a||n/a|
|Muladhara||base of spine||4||earth|
Reference is also made in all Tantric texts to the nadis or channels of vital-force (prana). According to the traditional Tantric teachings, the seven chakras are strung like pearls or jewels along the brilliant thin thread of the sushumna nadi, which is the primary nadi in the body. On either side of the sushumna are the two main secondary nadis: the white moon-like ida on the left, containing descending vitality (apana), and the red sun-like pingala on the right, containing ascending vitality (prana in the narrow sense of the term). The tantric yogi aims to direct the subtle airs from these two primary side channels into the central sushumna nadi, and so activate the latent Kundalini energy. This then ascends through each of the chakras in turn, and when it reaches the top of the head, the yogi attains Liberation
The understanding of the chakras and kundalini in the West derives largely from Sir John Woodroffe’s The Serpent Power, a very technical work, first published in 1919 under the pseudonym Arthur Avalon. The first (and still one of of the only) serious books on the chakras and Kundalini yoga to be published in the West, it is actually a translation of two sixteenth century Bengali texts and their commentaries, together with Woodroffe’s own long and detailed introduction. Woodroffe’s book – his own chapters cover Shakta metaphysics and cosmology, Patanjali Yoga, and Tantric practice, as well as the chakras themselves – is unfortunately very difficult for the beginner, but it served as the inspiration and chief reference text (usually without acknowledgment) for many Western occult-esoteric writers.