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How many chakras (Skt. cakra) do we have?
My guess is you’ve heard of the seven chakras, or subtle energy centers, within the body. Yes? And that you’ve likely been introduced to their associative psychological characteristics, colors and/or sounds through workshops, classes, books or some other media or live teaching.
Did you also know that the seven-chakra system most popularly used today is actually a 20th century construct? Or that most of the modern concepts around chakras were not in the original Tantrik teachings (the source of subtle body physiology)?
So what are chakras, actually?
TRADITIONAL V. MODERN: COMPARATIVE SUMMARY
◦ The current practice of superimposing and weaving psychological concepts with seven chakras is based on 20th century interpretations of a 20th century translation of a 16th century post-scriptural text.
◦ Chakras were originally used as a template for the practice of installing mantras and visualizing deities in certain areas of the subtle body (nyāsa).
◦ Chakras vary in number (beyond seven) based on Tantrik branch.
◦ Likewise, the geometric shapes modernly associated with each chakra relate directly to the five elements vs. with a particular chakra.
As with most concepts deriving from Sanskrit sources, most of the West is still green around what chakras originally meant. Thus, I’ll briefly highlight some of the major differences between chakras as scholars and long-standing lineages have related to them, and chakras as they’re popularly being taught or practiced today across 200-hour YTT programs and the like.
Chakras are one aspect of a system of subtle anatomy, which includes subtle energy channels or nāḍīs, and prāṇa, the life force that travels through those nāḍīs and animates all living things.
Chakras are most commonly known as subtle energy centers in the body, and they exist where a number of nāḍīs (subtle channels or meridians) converge. According to Tantric principles, where the original teachings on cakras derive, a cakra is an inward representation of a maṇḍala, interiorized into the body and utilized as a focal point for meditation. Other Sanskrit words used to refer cakras include ādhāras and sthānas.
In practice, these centers are usually visualized as structures of energy resembling discs or lotuses (with varied numbers of petals). Tantrik branches have identified various systems of chakras, ranging in number from five to twenty-one, etc. For example, Gorakṣanātha (author of kādiprakaraṇa or kubjikāmata-tantra) recognizes twenty-eight or more of such centers with presiding deity and śaktis.
These cakras symbolize the cosmic processes of emanation and re-integration.1
POST-SCRIPTURAL, RECENT TEXTUAL SOURCES
The earliest chakra systems date from the 7th-8th century, and they were systems of five or six chakras.2
A few of the more recent Sanskrit texts from which we derive information on the chakras are:
- 1577: Ṣaṭ Cakra Nirūpaṇa (SCN), written by Swami Pūrṇānanda Yati
- 14/15th cent. CE: Śiva Samhitā
- 13th cent. CE: Śāradā-Tilaka
- 10th cent. CE: Padaka-Pancaka
- 10th cent. CE: Gorakṣaśataka
TANTRA: THE ORIGIN OF CHAKRAS
The theory of chakras or the subtle body and it’s anatomy and physiology were developed within Tantra, which flourished from 600-1300 CE, and is still alive today. By year ~900, all of the major branches of the tantrik tradition articulated a different chakra system, and this includes different systems elaborated within a single branch.
Thus, depending on lineage, we find chakra systems that identify anywhere from five, six, seven, nine, ten, twelve, twenty-one or more chakras.
20TH CENTURY: THE ORIGIN OF THE MODERN SEVEN-CHAKRA SYSTEM
Our current understanding of the chakras, both in India and in the West, is based on a “somewhat incoherent and confusing” translation of the Ṣat Cakra Nirūpana (Explanation of the Six Chakras) written by John Woodroffe in 1918.3 The SCN treatise was written in 1577. So, our current system of chakras, the most popularly used system today, was derived from a 20th-century translation of a 16th-century text.
TRADITIONAL (TANTRIK) USE OF CHAKRAS: NYĀSA
Traditionally, the primary function of any cakra system was to serve as a template for a practice called nyāsa, which is the installment or mental appropriation of mantras or mantric syllables and devatas or deity-energies at specific parts of the subtle body, and may include physical touch.
Some important features to note:
- the sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet are distributed across the lotus petals of the cakras,
- each cakra is associated with one of the five elements, earth, water, fire, air, and ether, and
- each cakra is associated with a deity.
UNPACKING MODERN PRACTICE
Chakras + Mantras
- Earth – LAM
- Water – VAM
- Fire – RAM
- Air – YAM
- Ether – HAM
Traditionally, the bīj mantras are not rigidly fixed to any cakra. Thus, in nyāsa, the installation of an element’s bīj is not limited to the modern seven cakra associations you may be familiar with, i.e. lam for the mūlādhāra or “root chakra”, and vam for the svādhiṣṭhāna or “sacral chakra”.
Chakras + Geometric Shapes
The geometric figures we associate with the cakras also belong to the five elements:
- Earth – Yellow Square
- Water – Silvery Crescent Moon
- Fire – Downward Pointing Red Triangle
- Air – Hexagram or Six-Pointed Star
- Ether – Circle