Meaning of Dharma Wheel

January 30, 2019

Meaning of Dharma Wheel

 

The Dharma Wheel, Dharmachakra, or Wheel of Dharma, is one of the many sacred teachings of Buddhism and other Indian religions, such as Hinduism and Jainism. It is one of the most important and sacred symbols in the Buddhist faith as it represents Buddha's teachings.  

The Meaning of the Dharma Wheel 

The Dharmachakra comes from the Dharma, which is the path to attaining enlightenment and reaching Nirvana (the highest state of being a person can achieve). It also means the Wheel of Law.  

dharma chakra dharma wheel meaning

While there are many variations of the Dharma Wheel, they are usually depicted with eight spokes and are gold in color. Three shapes are depicted within the center of the wheel, typically a Yin Yang shape, wheel or circle. 

The Dharmachakra meaning generally refers to a typical Dharma Wheel with eight spokes - representing the Eightfold Path - and is the oldest, universal symbol for Buddhism. There are multiple ways of interpreting the Dharma Wheel so there are several meanings behind the symbol. There are three different parts that make up the Dharma Wheel: the spokes, the hub, and the rim. 

The rim of the Dharma Wheel further signifies the ability to hold all of the teachings together by meditating and concentrating. The circular shape of the wheel symbolizes the perfection of Buddha's teachings.  

The hub in the center of the Dharma Wheel represents moral discipline. The three swirling shapes on the hub, often depicted in blue, yellow and red, symbolize Dharma, Buddha, and Sangha respectively. They are also known as the Three Treasures or Jewels.  

 

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A Dharma Wheel with four spokes symbolizes the Four Noble Truths. When the wheel has eight spokes, it represents the Eightfold Path and Buddhism. Ten spokes on a Dharma Wheel signifies the ten directions and twelve spokes symbolize the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.  

If a Dharma Wheel has twenty-four spokes, it is known as the Ashoka Chakra and symbolizes the twenty-four ideal qualities of a follower of Buddhism. The Ashoka Chakra also represents the reversal of the Twelve Links and becoming free from Samsara - the continuous cycle of reincarnation.  A Dharma Wheel with thirty-one spokes represents the thirty-one realms of existence found in Buddhist cosmology.  

ashok chakra

Image Attribution: Chrisi1964

In its entirety, the Dharma Wheel symbolizes Buddha's teachings. When one practices Dharma, one is practicing the teachings of Buddha and protecting oneself from suffering and eliminating ignorance, thereby improving one's quality of life. These teachings were described as a wheel because they move and travel throughout the land and then people can practice control over their minds. Altogether, the three aspects of the Dharma Wheel symbolize concentration, ethics, and wisdom - which are all essential in the teachings of Buddha.  

The History of the Dharma Wheel  

One of the oldest depictions of the Dharma Wheel as a symbol was found on pillars that were built by the Emperor Ashoka between 304 and 232 BC. He ruled over India and followed the teachings of Buddhism.  

Many of the pillars he built are still standing today and depict various edicts that encouraged his people to practice Buddhism, while never forcing it upon them. Ashoka Chakras, Dharma Wheels with twenty-four spokes, can be found on these pillars.  

dharma chakra pillar

Attribution: Biswarup Ganguly

However, the Dharma Wheel was appearing in Indian artworks before Ashoka the Great's reign. These Dharma Wheels also had twenty-four spokes and usually appeared sitting on top of four lions who were sitting back to back as they each faced one of the four cardinal points.  

In 1947, the Ashoka Chakra became a part of the Indian flag. Nowadays, the Dharma Wheel is depicted in the art within the various Buddhist cultures. It can be seen in images of Buddha as it appears on his hands and feet - representing one of the Marks of a Great Man. 

The Dharma Wheel in Different Cultures 

Hinduism 

The Dharmachakra meaning in Hinduism refers more to the Dharma Wheel as the Wheel of Law. It is a symbol of order and religious routine that devout Hindu followers must practice. In Sanskrit, the word Dharma comes from the word dhr, which means 'to hold and maintain' and 'what is established or firm' Therefore it means 'law'.  

The Dharma Wheel is commonly found in depictions of Vishnu, the god of preservation. Vishnu is one of the Hindu Triumvirate and is the god responsible for protecting humans as well as restoring and maintaining order in the world. He is often depicted carrying a wheel or discus, which is regarded as a very powerful weapon that can conquer passions and desires.  

Image Attribution: Shooting_Brooklyn

Tibet  

In Tibet, the Dharma Wheel is a very prominent symbol as it is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols. It is typically seen between two deer, which symbolizes Buddha's first teachings in a deer park. When Buddha gave this first sermon, the deer in the park gathered around and listened. When deer are depicted alongside a Dharma Wheel, it serves as a reminder that Buddha valued all beings and all life, not just humans.  

In these depictions, the Dharma Wheel has to be twice the height of the deer as they sit peacefully next to it with their legs folded under them and their heads lifted up to look at the wheel.   

Some Tibetan deities are portrayed using the wheel as a weapon in order to overcome evil and ignorance. It is believed that these depictions were influenced by Hindu depictions of Lord Vishnu who also carries the wheel as a weapon.  

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Buddhist Symbolism 

The Dharma Wheel is a sacred and ancient Buddhist symbol and represents the Buddhist faith universally.  After attaining enlightenment, Buddha gave his first teachings and gave a sermon on the first Wheel of Dharma. He gave this sermon in a deer park, Sarnath, in Uttar Pradesh, India.  

Buddha spoke about the Sutra of the Four Noble Truths, the Perfection of the Wisdom Sutras and the Sutra Discriminating the Intention. These three teachings are known as the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma.  

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