An 18th-century image of several chakras, probably from Rājasthān

THE SIX MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT THE CHAKRAS

Over the past hundred plus years, the concept of the chakras, or subtle energy centers within the body, has seized the Western imagination more than virtually any other teaching from the yoga tradition. Yet, as with most other concepts deriving from Sanskrit sources, the West (barring a handful of scholars) has almost totally failed to come to grips with what the chakras meant in their original context and how one is supposed to practice with them. This post seeks to rectify that situation to some extent. If you’re short on time, you can skip the contextual comments I’m about to make and go straight to the list of the six fundamental facts about the chakras that modern yogis don’t know. (See the postscript for a precise definition of ‘chakra’.)

1. THERE’S NOT JUST ONE CHAKRA SYSTEM IN THE ORIGINAL TRADITION, THERE ARE MANY.

So many! The theory of the subtle body and its energy centers called cakras (or padmas, ādhāras, lakṣyas, etc.) comes from the tradition of Tantrik Yoga, which flourished from 600–1300 CE, and is still alive today. In mature Tantrik Yoga (after the year 900 or so), every one of the many branches of the tradition articulated a different chakra system, and some branches articulated more than one. Five-chakra systems, six-chakra systems, seven, nine, ten, fifteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight and more chakras are taught, depending on what text you’re looking at. The seven- (or, technically, 6 + 1) chakra system that Western yogis know about is just one of many, and it became dominant around the 16th century (see point #4 below).

2. THE CHAKRA SYSTEMS ARE PRESCRIPTIVE, NOT DESCRIPTIVE.

This might be the most important point. English sources tend to present the chakra system as an existential fact, using descriptive language (like ‘the mūlādhāra chakra is at the base of the spine. it has four petals,’ and so on). But in most of the original Sanskrit sources, we are not being taught about the way things are, we are being given a specific yogic practice: we are to visualize a subtle object made of colored light, shaped like a lotus or a spinning wheel, at a specific point in the body, and then activate mantric syllables in it, for a specific purpose. When you understand this, point #1 above makes more sense. The texts are prescriptive — they tell what you ought to do to achieve a specific goal by mystical means. When the literal Sanskrit reads, in its elliptical fashion, ‘Four-petaled lotus at the base of the body’ we are supposed to understand ‘The yogī ought to visualize a four-petaled lotus…’ See point #5 for more on this.

3. THE PSYCHOLOGICAL STATES ASSOCIATED WITH THE CHAKRAS ARE COMPLETELY MODERN AND WESTERN.

On countless websites and in countless books, we read that the mūlādhāra chakra is associated with survival & safety, that maṇipūra chakra is associated with willpower & self-esteem, and so on. The educated yogi should know that all associations of the chakras with psychological states is a modern Western innovation that started with Jung. Perhaps such associations represent experiential realities for some people (though usually not without priming). We certainly don’t find them in the Sanskrit sources. There’s only one exception I’m aware of, and that is the 10-chakra system for yogi-musicians that I’ve done a blog post on. But in that 13th-century system, we do not find each chakra associated with a specific emotion or psychological state; rather, each petal of each lotus-chakra is associated with a distinct emotion or state, and there seems to be no pattern by which we could create a label for the chakra as a whole.

4. THE SEVEN-CHAKRA SYSTEM POPULAR TODAY DERIVES NOT FROM A SCRIPTURE, BUT FROM A TREATISE WRITTEN IN 1577.

The chakra system Western yogis follow is that found in a Sanskrit text written by a guy named Pūrṇānanda Yati. He completed his text (the Ṣhaṭ-chakra-nirūpaṇa or ‘Explanation of the six chakras’, actually chapter six of a larger work) in the year 1577.

5. THE PURPOSE OF A CHAKRA SYSTEM IS TO FUNCTION AS A TEMPLATE FOR NYĀSA.

As far as the original authors were concerned, the main purpose of any chakra system was to function as a template for nyāsa, which means the installation of mantras and deity-energies at specific points of the subtle body. So, though millions of people are fascinated with the chakras today, almost none of them are using them for their intended purpose. That’s okay. Again, I’m not here to make anyone wrong, just to educate the folks who are interested.

6. THE SEED-MANTRAS THAT YOU THINK GO WITH THE CHAKRAS ACTUALLY GO WITH THE ELEMENTS THAT HAPPEN TO BE INSTALLED IN THOSE CHAKRAS.

This is simpler than it sounds. You’ve been told that the seed-mantra (bīja or single-syllable mantra) of the mūlādhāra chakra is LAM. It’s not. Not in any Sanskrit source, not even Pūrṇānanda’s somewhat garbled syncretic account. And the mantra of svādhiṣṭhāna chakra is not VAM. Wait, what? It’s simple: LAM (rhymes with ‘thumb’) is the seed-mantra of the Earth element, which in most chakra visualization practices is installed in the mūlādhāra. VAM is the seed-mantra of the water element, which is installed in svādhiṣṭhāna (at least, in the seven-chakra system you know about). And so on: RAM is the syllable for Fire, YAM for Wind, and HAM for Space. (All these bījas rhyme with ‘thumb’; though I should note in passing that in esoteric Tantrik Yoga, the elemental bījas actually have different vowel sounds which are thought to be much more powerful.)