Understanding the Dharma Wheel: This Ancient Symbol Holds Secret Meanings
The Dharma Wheel is an Ashtamangala, or one of ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’, a set of sacred symbols found in Indian religions. Although the Dharma Wheel is found also in Hinduism and Jainism, it is best-known as a Buddhist symbol. Known also as a Dharmachakra, the Dharma Wheel in Buddhism is an important symbol that represents the teachings of Buddha. The wheel’s symbolism, however, may be interpreted in a number of different ways.
Wheel of the Law
The word ‘dharma’ may be translated to mean ‘law’, and therefore, the Dharma Wheel may be said to be the Wheel of Law. This well-known Buddhist symbol may have had its origins in Hinduism, as the god Vishnu is commonly depicted as carrying a wheel / discus. In Hinduism, the wheel / discus is regarded to be a powerful weapon capable of conquering passions and desires.
Dharma Wheel Buddhist symbol ( Vladyslav Danilin / Adobe Stock)
Wheel of a Chariot
The Dharma Wheel is also described as being the wheel of a chariot, and consists of three elements – the hub, the rim, and the spokes. These elements of the Dharma Wheel, however, may be depicted in a variety of ways. For example, the hub may be an empty circle, another wheel, a yin-yang symbol, or three shapes swirling together. Although the Dharma Wheel is commonly depicted as having eight spokes, this is not always the case. The different number of spokes represent different ideas.
Dharma Wheel Meaning
The Dharma Wheel is rich in symbolism and may be interpreted in a number of ways. For instance, the shape of the wheel, which is a circle, represents the perfection of the dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha, whereas the three components (the hub, the spokes, and the rim) represent the three aspects of Buddhist teachings that relate to ethics, wisdom, and concentration. As the centre of the wheel, the hub symbolises discipline and mental stability, which are vital for meditation. The spokes represent the wisdom and awareness needed to dispel ignorance, whilst the rim represents the state of consciousness required to hold everything together.
The Dharmachakra sometimes resembles a chariot wheel ( TWiRote / Adobe Stock)
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Dharma Wheel is most commonly depicted as having eight spokes. These spokes are meant to represent the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of the eight practices that would lead a person to liberation from samsara (the cycle of rebirth). Dharma Wheels rarely have four spokes, but when these occur, the spokes symbolise the Four Noble Truths, or the four dhyanas (a series of cultivated states of mind). Dharma Wheels may also have 10 or 12 spokes, the former representing the ten directions, whereas the latter the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. Some Dharma Wheels have 24 spokes, and represents both the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination and the reversing of these links, or the 24 qualities that Buddhists ought to strive for. Finally, there are Dharma Wheels with 31 spokes, and these represent the 31 realms of existence in Buddhist cosmology.
A Symbol of Spiritual Progression
The Buddha is known also as the one who ‘turned the Wheel of Dharma’, and the motion of the wheel itself contains the teachings of the Buddha. The turning of the Wheel of Dharma represents the spiritual progression generated by the Buddha’s teachings. The first turning corresponds to the Buddha’s sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath, in which he spoke about the Four Noble Truths. During the second and third turnings, the Buddha introduced the concepts of emptiness and compassion, and unveiled the philosophy of Buddha-nature.
The Dharma Wheel has often been depicted in art. One of the oldest depictions of the Dharma Wheel may be found on the pillars erected by the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka the Great. This wheel, which has 24 spokes, is known also as the Ashoka Chakra, and was adopted as part of the Indian flag in 1947. Apart from flags and emblems, the Dharma Wheel is also featured on Buddhist buildings, such as the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet.
The Ashoka Chakra on the Indian Flag ( Irina / Adobe Stock)
Top image: The Dharma Wheel . ( Artwell / Adobe Stock)
By Wu Mingren
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Greetings ḎḤWTY ,
I have a question regarding your statement, "This well-known Buddhist symbol may have had its origins in Hinduism, as the god Vishnu is commonly depicted as carrying a wheel / discus." It is my understanding that Hinduism did not exist at the time of the Buddha in the late 6th and 5th centuries BCE, The term usually applied to the practices the were contemporaneous with the Buddha is Brahmanism. Is it possible that the later Hinduism absorbed the dharma wheel (dhamma in Pali) from Buddhism rather than the other way around. Hinduism has a history of doing so and made the Buddha one of the reincarnations of Vishnu. Your timeline might need corecting. What do you think?
Thank you for your work,