Also known as the “Dharmachakra”, the Dharma Wheel is an ancient symbol that represents the teachings of Buddha.
However, the wheel’s deeper symbolism can get interpreted in a multitude of different ways. Around the world, the Dharma Wheel is commonly known to symbolize Buddhism, (similar to how the Star-of-David symbolized Judaism).
But having said that, it’s also somewhat ironic that the original ancient origins of the ‘wheel of dharma’, actually pre-date the entire Buddhist religion itself.
In this article we explore expert perspectives, opinions, and resources in-order-to find out what the Dharma Wheel really symbolizes and represents.
Let’s Dive In.
The Origin Of The Dharma Wheel
The Dharma Wheel (or dharmachakra as it’s originally called in Sanskrit) has a long and complicated history. Here’s the condensed version based on the collective consciousness of commonly understood ancient history.
The Buddhist religion started when the original Gautama Buddha (who was a Noble Prince in India) took pieces of the Hindu religion and left his luxurious homeland in India to go on a lifelong journey in-order-to create a new way of life, and find happiness, sometime around 500 BC.
One of those ‘pieces of the Hindu religion’ that Buddha borrowed was the Dharma Wheel, which can be traced back to the founding texts of the Hindu religion, the ancient and sacred “Vedas Texts” which date back to around 1,300 BC.
Some experts suggest that the original symbol that the Dharma Wheel is based on, and can be traced back to, the Ancient Indus Valley Civilization inscriptions and seals dated back to around 2,500 BC.
Like most ideas and religions they change, improve, rise, fall, and become re-invented as time goes on. The Dharma Wheel is no exception to the rule.
What Does The Wheel Of Dharma Symbolize
Symbolic Representation of the Sun –
According to author Robert Beer, who has studied Buddhist symbols for over 40 years, in it’s oldest form, the ‘wheel of dharma’ first appears on ancient Indus valley seals as a symbol for the sun around 2,500 BC.
The symbolic ‘wheel of the sun’ coincides with later versions of Hindu text known as the “Great Puranas which were written around the year 600 (3,000 years after the original symbol).
The Purnas say that “the chariot of the sun-god has only one wheel” – the sun
Wheel Of The Law –
In the original Indian language of Sanskrit dharma comes from the root word “dhri”, which means “to hold,” “to maintain,” or “to preserve.”
In ancient “Vedas Texts”, dharma is referred to as the “cosmic law” that created the universe.
Dharma was also applied in other contexts, such as the fundamental ways of living that prevent society from descending into chaos. In other words, dharma became to be understood as a means to maintain righteousness.
Wheel Of A Chariot –
The wheel of dharma is commonly understood today to represent the wheel of an ancient chariot from the Indus Valley Civilization.
The wheel of dharma has 3 basic components that make up the chariot wheel. The center hub, the outside wheel, and the spokes.
Author and Zen Buddhism expert Barbara O’Brien has spent years researching the symbolic meanings of the dharma wheel. And Mrs. O’Brian has found that, over the centuries, the core components of the dharma wheel have taken on their own meanings and symbolism.
The Hub –
The hub of the dharma wheel is often depicted differently over time and in different cultures, sects, religions. Generally, the hub of the dharma wheel is believed to represent moral discipline.
Sometimes the hub is represented by the yin-yang symbol. And sometimes the hub is composed of 3 swirls. The three swirls are said to represent the Three Treasures or Three Jewels of Buddhism
The Rim –
The main circle which gives the ancient symbol its round wheel shape, represents the perfection of the dharma (which is interpreted as the natural laws of nature and the universe). Circular and never ending.
Many historians also believe that the rim of the wheel represents meditation, concentration, and mindfulness, which are key pillars of both Buddhist and Hindu disciplines.
The Spokes –
Dharma Wheel And Number Of Spokes –
The number of spokes on the dharma wheel varies over time as the wheel has taken on different meanings in different cultures. Sometimes the wheel’s spokes are contained with-in the circle, and sometimes the spokes protrude beyond the wheel.
It is said that the spokes protruding outside the circle represent penetrating insights which have edges sharp enough to cut through ignorance.
4 Spokes: The Four Noble Truths –
When the dharma wheel is displayed with four spokes (which is fairly uncommon) the spokes represent the Four Noble Truths. The four truths are one of the first lessons and core principles in the teachings of Buddha.
The four noble truths are as follows:
- The truth that suffering in the world is a natural characteristic of existence. This is represented by the ancient Sanskrit word Dukkha.
- The truth that the cause of suffering arises from cravings, wants, desires, and attachments to things. This is represented by the ancient Sanskrit word Samudaya.
- The truth that the end of individual and community suffering can be achieved by letting go. Letting go of desires, thirst, and greed for materialism and wants . This is represented by the ancient Sanskrit word Nirhodha.
- The truth that the Noble Eightfold Path is the path to follow that frees us from suffering . This is represented by the ancient Sanskrit word Magga.
8 Spokes: The Noble Eightfold Path –
The eight spoked wheel of dharma is the most commonly used symbol when representing Buddhism. The eight spoked dharma wheel is specific to Buddhism because the eight spokes represent the Eightfold Path which is a concept unique to Buddhism.
Some people dedicate their entire life to following and understanding the eightfold path, but for the sake of your time and mine, here’s a brief overview.
The 8 Buddhist practices in the Noble Eightfold Path are:
- Right Resolve (Intention) –
Having no “ill-will” and maintaining a mindset of consistent outward love, kindness, and compassion. And also steering away from any and all elements of cruelty.
- Right Speech –
No lying, being rude, gossiping, slandering, or any talk that is malicious, abusive or causes dis-harmony among groups or individuals.
Buddha taught that by abstaining from these forms of ‘ harmful speech’ one naturally has to speak the truth, use words that are friendly, meaningful, and useful. Buddha believed that speech was a powerful tool and that one should not speak carelessly.
If you cannot say something useful, you should keep “noble silence.”
- Right Conduct (Action) –
Having the right actions in life aims to promote moral, honorable, and peaceful code of conduct. The basics are, no killing ,injuring, taking what is not given, no sexual misconduct, and no materialistic greed.
Buddha taught that by conducting yourself nobly, we should abstain from destroying life in any form, abstain from stealing, from being dishonest in any dealings, from unwanted sex, and to always help others.
- Right Livelihood –
Living with the right livelihood means that one should not make a financial living through a profession that brings harm to others. For example, trading arms, selling alcohol (or poison), killing animals, cheating, deceiving, etc.
Buddha taught that one should live by a profession which is honorable, generally constructive to society, and innocent of harm to others.
- Right Effort –
Putting in the “right effort” is knowing that you always try your best. The right effort is the energetic will to prevent distractions from disrupting your focused efforts.
- Right Mindfulness –
Being rightfully mindful is the practice and ability to “diligently aware”, mindful, and attentive to your body, emotions, and mental clarity.
By being mindful, one is never be “absent minded” (distracted) and always consciously aware of what one is doing.
- Right Concentration (level of consciousness) –
The ‘right concentration’ is a intense concentration that results from a deliberate attempt (meditation) to raise the mind to a higher, more purified level of awareness (or consciousness).
The ‘right concentration is often described as “a slowing down of our mental activity through single-pointed concentration.”
Through practice you can train your mind to become seriously disciplined and developed.
- Right View (perspective) –
Maintaining a ‘bigger picture’ perspective is a critical part of the teachings of Buddha. He famously taught that “our actions have consequences” and that death is not the end of the consequences of our actions. Our actions and beliefs today can have long-lasting consequences after death
Buddha’s life is a prime example. He’s been dead for over 2,000 years, yet Buddha still remains one of the most famous people on the planet.
10 Spokes: Ten Directions –
The 10 spoked dharma wheel represents the omni-presence of buddha in all ten directions (in essence, Buddha is everywhere).
North, South, East, West, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest as well as up and down. Buddhist scriptures refer to the existence of Buddha in all directions throughout the universe.
The phrase “ten directions” often appears with the phrase “three existences” which is a reference to past, present, and future tense of existences.
When a dharma wheel has twelve spokes, they represent the “Twelve Links of Dependent Origination” (or 12 links of causality).
In essence these 12 links are at the core of the endless circle of personal dissatisfaction in life. These 12 links are all interconnected and work together to lead people into an unenlightened life.
Ignorance is the first of the 12 causes and conditions as it is the key link.
Here’s the twelve links of dependence.
- Volitional Action
- Conditioned Consciousness
- Name And Form (The Fetus In A Mother’s Uterus)
- Six Sensory Organs (I.E. Eye, Ear, Nose, Tongue, Body, And Mind)
- Contact Or Touch
- Desire or Craving
- Possessive Attachment
- Creating More Karma Or Becoming
- Old Age, Death, and Decay
24 Spokes: The Ashoka Chakra –
A dharma wheel with 24 spokes represents the “Twelve Links of Dependent-Origination” (above) plus, the counter-balancing “Twelves Links of liberation”
A 24-spoke Wheel-of-Dharma is also called an “Ashoka Chakra”, named after the Sanskrit word “ashoka”, meaning “painless, & without sorrow”. And of course, “chakra” being Sanskrit for wheel. So literally interpreted as the “wheel with-out pain, or sorrow”.
In my personal opinion, a “life with-out pain or sorrow” regardless of religion, is not a bad path to follow. [sociopaths aside of course]
The Ashoka Chakra is famous in India and is shown in the middle of India’s national flag ever since Mahatma Gandhi pushed for it in 1947. Gandi believed the symbol represented a spiritual progression for the people of India going forward into the 21st century.
The Ashoka Chakra Medal is also India’s highest military decoration in ‘times of peace’. It’s only awarded for those who display valor, courageousness, or self-sacrifice off the battlefield.
Also, according to the ancient “Vedas Texts” (the founding texts of the Hindu religion), there were originally 24 Rishis (spiritual leaders) all of which had the shared powers of the “Gayatri Mantra” – a sacred prayer containing 24 letters. The ‘Gayatri Mantra’ is known as one of the most powerful prayers said out-loud up to the creators of the universe.
31 Spokes: 31 Realms of Existence
According to ancient Buddhist cosmology, when a Dharma Wheel has a total 31 spokes, the spokes represent the “31 realms of existence”.
In the Buddhist ideology, reincarnation is believed to affect everyone differently based on their ‘karma’. There’s a belief of a ‘continuing-cycle-of-birth’, death, and then re-birth. After-death there’s an immediate rebirth back into one, of the 31 realms. Which ‘realm-of-existence’ you’re re-born into depends solely on your previous life’s karma.
Existence, in all 31 realms-of-existence, is believed to be temporary, and ranges from ‘grim-and -painful’ hell realms, all the way up ‘luxurious and blissful’ heavenly realms.
Turning The Dharma Wheel (Detailed Explanation)
The Motion Of The Dharma Wheel
Have you ever heard the saying “set the wheel in motion” in reference to a plan or action already underway.
According to Piyadassi Maha Thera (one of the world’s most respected Buddhist monks) the original Buddha is said to have “set the wheel-of-dharma in motion” , in a metaphorical sense, when he delivered his first sermon.
This “turning of the dharma wheel” set in motion by the spread of the Buddha’s teachings, signifies a revolutionary change with long-lasting, universal consequences. The “wheel” that the Buddha’s teachings “put-in-motion” were his commonly-understood teachings, wisdom, knowledge, and insight, all of which are still continuing to spread to this day (around 2, 500 years later).
Chakravartin : The Mythical Indian King
It’s said that the Buddha originally adopted the dharma wheel symbol from the mythical Indian king, called a chakravartin (“wheel-turning-king”)
The Chakravartin was said to possess seven sacred items, including the ratana-cakka (treasure wheel in sankskrit). As mythology goes, the ratana-cakka was also a wheel shaped ‘chariot of types’ allowing the Wheel King to travel around the world.
Dharma Wheel And the Pair Of Deer
Pair Of Deer Symbolism
Regarding the essential meaning of the Dharma wheel, from a historical perspective it is said to have been offered in the form of a thousand-spoke wheel to Buddha Shakyamuni by heavenly god Brahma when requesting Buddha to teach the sacred Dharma.
It is said that when the original Buddha accepted his life-mission a pair of male and female deer appeared out of the forest. These deer are commonly known as “the krishnasara-antelope of compassion”.
From then on, the deer would forever be accompanies with the Buddha as a sign of gentle compassion.
The male deer (on the right) and female deer (on the left) symbolically represent both the male and female students of Buddhism who enjoy the teachings of the sacred Dharma (Buddhist way of life).
Deer, by nature, are extremely shy and careful around people. Their ‘peaceful presence’ represents both the buddha’s calm vibe, and pure realm (where fear is unknown).
Final Thoughts: The Dharma Wheel Symbolic Meaning
The wheel of dharma is used heavily in both Hindu and Buddhist belief systems. And with-in both Hinduism and Buddhism there’s multiple interpretations, symbolic representations depending on the context.
What’s common about the dharma wheel between both ways-of-life is it’s symbolic representation of living a good, honest, happy, and overall positive life.
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