Reference to the chakras in symbols and in textual descriptions can be found in diverse cultures worldwide. The following is a brief synopsis:
Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism
Since yoga and tantra are mystical teachings within Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, it is evident that chakras are integral to these religious systems.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam
The chakras are widely symbolised in the Bible. In Genesis, for example, there is the image of Jacob’s ladder:
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached the heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 1
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the ladder is the string of chakras, one above the other, the lower end corresponding to the mooladhara, the earthly plane. The top reaches heaven, that is, the Sahasrara – to the celestial heights of human experience and realisation. The angels of God, are each of us, embodied Consciousness, functioning at differing levels of the chakras.
The ascending angels represent humans on the mystical path, awakening to their spiritual potential by realising and expressing the energies and qualities represented by the chakras, eventually awakening the higher chakras and returning to their heavenly abode; these humans, symbolised as angels, aspire to gain wisdom, identification with Consciousness.
The descending angels symbolise those humans who take materialism to be the basis of life and existence and who are attracted to material and worldly enjoyment. They are engaged in the day to day life of the world, the tendency to totally identify with the body and personality, together with the associated materialism, limitation, and spiritual ignorance. There is a tendency to identify with the lower chakras.
Jacob realised the profound significance of this ladder for he said:
How awe inspiring this place is! This is nothing less than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven. 2
This indicates exactly the nature of the chakras – especially the higher chakras: they are the gateways to heaven, to realisation of our spiritual roots.
There are also numerous allusions to the chakras given in Revelations.
Various Christian mystics refer to the chakras; for example, St. Theresa of Avila, the medieval Spanish mystic, called the chakras ‘the interior castles’. During meditation she went into what she called ‘the seventh mansion’ (in yogic terminology, the bindu/Sahasrara). Moreover, the central teaching and path of Christianity is devotion, surrender and service (bhakti yoga); that is, awakening the anahata chakra.
the chakras are symbolised by Mohammed’s night flight to heaven in which he passes through seven spheres (the six chakras, plus bindu/ Sahasrara). Surely it is not without reason that pilgrims to Mecca walk seven times around the Kaaba stone! Indeed, in Islam, a great deal of emphasis is given to the anahata (heart) chakra – the path of devotion and surrender to the will of Allah.
the Star of David is a symbol of the anahata chakra (exactly the same as the symbol used in yoga and tantra3), again to indicate surrender to God.
In Jewish mysticism,
the Kabbala4 has been regarded by some as the key to all the mysteries of the universe. It professes to explain, or at least symbolise, how Reality reveals itself and continuously creates both the physical realm and the chain of more subtle energy levels as a step by step descent from the Ain Soph5 (literally, ‘no limit’; that is, infinite Reality; the Sahasrara), through ten emanations, called sephiroth (lit., ‘shining ones’ or ‘emanations’). Though ten in number, sephiroth correspond well with the qualities of the chakras and the changes that are required in our personality for them to express their fullest potential.
Though little of the ancient Egyptian literature remains, it had a profound influence on the Greek philosophers, the Jews and early Christians, on medieval mysticism and even on us today.
There were reputed to be hundreds of thousands of scrolls and books in the famous Library of Alexandria, said to be the biggest in the world at that time. Most of their texts were destroyed in 391 CE. One of the few remaining texts available to us today is called the Divine Pymander (‘Poemandres’) attributed to Hermes Trismegistus6. It contains the teachings of Hermes, the mystic of ancient Egypt (sometimes identified as Enoch).
The book tells of how Hermes meets the great Pymander, the Illuminator, the Lord of the Word, who initiates him, gives him spiritual instructions, so that he gains insight into the Mysteries of life and existence.
The Pymander explains the secret of the seven worlds, or heavens, which suggests the six chakras plus the bindu/ Sahasrara. Associated with each heaven is a governor, which corresponds to the residing deity of the yogic/ tantric system7. These represent the qualities of each heaven (chakra). The Pymander describes wo/man as having a septenary nature (again indicating the chakras) and lists them as follows:
Having had these things revealed to him, Hermes then asks how they can be realised by fellow spiritual seekers. The Pymander tells him that each stage (chakra) is attained by letting go of attachment to the previous and lower stage (chakra). In yogic terms, this means that one progressively relinquishes identification with each chakra in turn, allowing the qualities of the higher chakras to flow into ones being; this is the process of de-conditioning and re-identification.
Basilides, a well-known Alexandrian scholar and mystic8, is said to have coined the word ‘abraxas’, the seven letters of which signify the creative power and the seven corresponding planetary angels. We can speculate that the word ‘abraxas’ represents the chakras and their presiding deities.
The ancient Egyptians regarded the agya chakra (the third eye) as being of prime importance in awakening to our highest potential. This is why Egyptian priests wore a headdress which depicted a uraeus (a serpent which indisputably represents the Kundalini, the energy of creation and transformation9) emerging from the eye-brow centre. The uraeus is also known as the ‘Eye of Ra’ (Eye of the Sun God), indicating the agya chakra as the eye of Consciousness.
In Western mystical circles, the chakras were well known. For example, in the 17th century Johann Georg Gichtel, a disciple of the mystic Jakob Boehme, published a book called the Theosophia Practica in which he depicts pictures of the energy centres (chakras) as he saw them clairvoyantly.
In antiquity, mazes were constructed all over Europe, the basic idea of which was a return to the Centre. They were conceived and designed to depict the path of awakening of the chakras and to symbolise the tribulations that one had to experience and pass through to reach the centre of the maze, symbolising the bindu, which is the stepping stone to the Ineffable (Sahasrara). If you ever get the chance, go and see the maze inside Chartres Cathedral in France10.
In acupuncture, the word for chakra is keiketsu; in judo, it is kyosho. The following correspondences can be seen between chakras in yoga, acupuncture and judo:
In acupuncture, ki (or chi) means roughly ‘vital energy’; the corresponding term in yoga is prana. Both are centred at the manipura (navel) chakra11.
Inca/ Aztec/ Maya
One of the main gods of Mesoamerica was called ‘Quetzalcoatl’ derived from two words: quetzal, bird and coatl, snake. Quetzalcoatl was traditionally shown as a flying snake. The bird symbolised the heavens, transcendence and the snake symbolised the earth. Therefore Quetzalcoatl was a god on earth, symbolising the potential innate in every human being: the possibility of integrating the material with the ethereal, the snake (material life) with the bird (mystical realisation); of realising our Spiritual nature whilst living on the earth. Though not explicit, this symbol seems to indicate the chakras, because in yogic symbolism, the snake relates to the mooladhara and the bird, the eagle, relates to the agya chakra12.
Quetzalcoatl was also shown as a rainbow coloured feathered serpent. Again, possibly, the colours indicate the different chakra colours (as they do in yogic symbolism)13.
Caduceus in ancient Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria, Egyptian, Greece and Rome
The caduceus, as well as being the age-old symbol of hatha yoga, can be found in the myths and cultures of ancient Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria, Egyptian, Greece and Rome, and, in a modified form, is still used as a symbol by today’s medical profession.
This is a direct and indisputable symbol of the chakras. It comprises a wand entwined by two snakes, which cross each other six times indicating the six spinal chakras, starting from the mooladhara. Above and beyond the six spinal chakras is the seventh ‘chakra’, that is, the bindu/ Sahasrara’.
An ancient Sumerian seal called ‘God of the Caduceus (ca. 2350-2150 BCE)14, beautifully and graphically illustrates the full implications of the caduceus and the chakras.
The god (preceptor; initiate) on the left side of the seal is shown sitting in front of the caduceus, sign of his power and nature, and, without doubt, symbolising the chakras. In front of him is a fire, symbolizing purification (i.e., the process of whittling away blockages and thereby awakening of the chakras). A disciple, or spiritual seeker is being led before him by a second god. Behind is another figure standing in front of another caduceus with a serpent emerging from his forehead, symbolising that the caduceus and the god is the key to awakening the chakras, the ascent of the Kundalini and spiritual realization. The first god offers the aspirant a potion of nectar (amrita), indicating the bliss which arises in us when we understand the implications of the caduceus and apply its meaning in our lives. Above the potion is a crescent moon showing that the nectar can be found within oneself (the moon symbolises the inner and mystical).
This seal shows the whole process of mystical initiation in a very simple yet vivid way.
Let us not also forget the shamanic traditions worldwide15, which almost certainly predate orthodox religions. Shamans – mystics who explore the deeper realms of the mind and access inconceivable energy realms – must have had, and still have, a profound knowledge of the chakras. (Let us not forget also that tantra is itself the indigenous shamanic path which evolved on the Indian subcontinent.) According to renowned religious historian Mircea Eliade, shamans are ‘technicians of ecstasy …. They talk of a ladder – a vine, rope, a spiral staircase or a twisted rope ladder (cf. Jacob’s ladder which was mentioned previously) – that connects heaven and earth and which they use to gain access to the world of the spirits’.16 This symbolism is very common among the indigenous peoples of Amazonia. For example, ‘[A]mong the Campas17 there is a belief that at one time Earth and Sky were close together and connected by a cable’.18 This strongly suggests knowledge of the chakras, since, using tantric terminology, the ‘Earth’ corresponds to the mooladhara chakra and the ‘Sky’ to the Sahasrara, whilst the cable corresponds to the spinal passage (sushumna). By awakening the chakras, they are enabled to explore other dimensions of existence, from where they bring back ‘knowledge’ and, in this way, help other members of the tribe.
What I have written on references to the chakras in traditions worldwide is just brushing the surface. Some of it is speculation. I have not introduced information on the chakras from African tribal sources20, Australian aboriginal, native American, Celtic and Druidic mysticism21 etc. because I lack personal knowledge of them. But since the energy systems that chakras represent is a fundamental aspect, in fact the very structure of our life in every sphere, I’m sure knowledge of the chakras did exist in the mystical teachings of these diverse societies worldwide, and still does.
1 28:12; King James version.
2 Genesis 28:17.
3 Refer to the symbolic diagram (anahata chakra yantra) given in chapter 7.
4 It has had a profound influence on a vast number of Jewish mystics and philosophers, as well as, throughout the ages, large numbers of mystics with Christian, Muslim, Gnostic and Hermetic backgrounds. It is said to date from the time of Abraham, believed to be about 2000 BCE.
5 The traditional terminology of the Kabbala is in Hebrew; transliteration into English often gives various spellings. Here we have adopted the most common spelling.
6 A good translation is published by The Shrine of Wisdom, Fintry, Brook, nr. Godalming, Surrey.
7 For simplicity, we have not included the deities in this book, since they do not figure in kriya yoga.
8 Circa 2nd century CE.
9 See chapter 17.
10 In Mandala Yoga Ashram, we have also constructed a small labyrinth, which gives us the opportunity to practise walking meditation.
11 For some reason, there seems to be no reference to the agya chakra; if any reader knows why this is so, the author would be delighted to know.
12 See the symbolic diagrams (chakra yantras) for the mooladhara and the agya chakras in chapters 4 and 9, together with the side heading ‘Animal symbol’ in each chapter.
13 See chapters 4-9, under the side heading ‘Primary colour (colour of lotus petals)’.
14 Found in Iraq; custodian: The Oriental Institute. University of Chicago. The drawing is from p.284 ‘The Mythic Image’ Joseph Campbell, Bollingen/Princeton Univ. Press.
15 Shamanism is an integral mystical tradition of many tribes and cultures which live in northern climes from Siberia to Canada, as well as in Indonesia, Uganda and Amazonia.
16 As quoted by Jeremy Narby, The Cosmic Serpent (London: Phoenix 1998), p. 17.
17 An Amazonian tribe.
18 ibid p.94; attributed to Gerald Weiss, The Cosmology of the Campa Indians of Eastern Peru. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms (1969).
20 An excellent book has been published entitled Opening to Spirit by Caroline Arewa, pub. Harpers Collins, which talks of the chakras from an African (or Afrikan, as she prefers) point of view, as well the African contribution to Spirituality.
21 Though I am told that in Celtic and Druidic mysticism chakras are called ‘ruelles’ – little wheels.