Wheel of Dharma symbol

The dharmachakra (Pali: dhammacakka, Devanagari: धर्मचक्र) or wheel of dharma is a widespread symbol used in Buddhism.[1][2] The symbol also finds usage in Hinduism, particularly in places that underwent religious transformation,[3][4][5][6] and in Jainism and in modern India.

Historically, the dharmachakra was often used as a decoration in East Asian statues and inscriptions, beginning with the earliest period of East Asian culture to the present.[7] It remains a major symbol of the Buddhist religion today.


The Sanskrit noun dharma (धर्म) is a derivation from the root dhṛ 'to hold, maintain, keep',[8] and means 'what is established or firm'. The word derives from the Vedic Sanskrit n-stem dharman- with the meaning "bearer, supporter". The historical Vedic religion apparently conceived of dharma as an aspect of Ṛta.[9]

History and usage

Ten Indus characters from the northern gate of Dholavira, dubbed the Dholavira Signboard.

Similar chakra (spoked-wheel) symbols are one of the most ancient in all Indian history. Madhavan and Parpola note that a wheel symbol appears frequently in Indus Valley civilization artifacts, particularly on several seals.[10][note 1] Notably, it is present in a sequence of ten signs on the Dholavira Signboard.[10][12]

Some historians associate the ancient chakra symbols with solar symbolism.[13] In the Vedas, the god Surya is associated with the solar disc, which is said to be a chariot of one wheel (cakra). Mitra, a form of Surya, is described as "the eye of the world", and thus the sun is conceived of as an eye (cakṣu) which illuminates and perceives the world.[14] Such a wheel is also the main attribute of Vishnu.[12] Thus, a wheel symbol might also be associated with light and knowledge.

Buddhist usage and significance

Dharmachakra in front of a statue of Padmasambhava. Lake Rewalsar, Himachal Pradesh, India
Worshipers and Dharmachakra, Sanchi Stupa, South Face, West Pillar.

In Buddhism, the Dharma Chakra is widely used to represent the Buddha's Dharma (Buddha's teaching and the universal moral order), Gautama Buddha himself and the walking of the path to enlightenment, since the time of Early Buddhism.[15][1][note 2] The symbol is also sometimes connected to the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and Dependent Origination. The pre-Buddhist dharmachakra (Pali: dhammacakka) is considered one of the ashtamangala (auspicious signs) in Hinduism and Buddhism and often used as a symbol of both faiths.[16][note 3] It is one of the oldest known Indian symbols found in Indian art, appearing with the first surviving post-Indus Valley Civilisation Indian iconography in the time of the Buddhist king Ashoka.[15][note 2]

The Buddha is said to have set the "wheel of dharma" in motion when he delivered his first sermon,[17] which is described in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. This "turning of the wheel" signifies a great and revolutionary change with universal consequences, brought about by an exceptional human being. Buddhism adopted the wheel as a symbol from the Indian mythical idea of the ideal king, called a chakravartin ("wheel-turner", or "universal monarch"),[12][17] who was said to possess several mythical objects, including the ratana cakka (the ideal wheel). The Mahā Sudassana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya describes this wheel as having a nave (nābhi), a thousand spokes (sahassārāni) and a felly (nemi), all of which are perfect in every respect.[14] Siddhartha Gautama was said to have been a "mahapurisa" (great man) who could have chosen to become a wheel turning king, but instead became the spiritual counterpart to such a king, a wheel turning sage, that is, a Buddha.[18]

In his explanation of the term "turning the wheel of Dharma", the Theravada exegete Buddhaghosa explains that this "wheel" which the Buddha turned is primarily to be understood as wisdom, knowledge, and insight (ñāṇa). This wisdom has two aspects, paṭivedha-ñāṇa, the wisdom of self-realisation of the Truth and desanā-ñāṇa, the wisdom of proclamation of the Truth.[14] The dharmachakra symbol also points to the central Indian idea of "Dharma", a complex and multivalent term which refers to the eternal cosmic law, universal moral order and in Buddhism, the very teaching and path expounded by the Buddha.[19]

The original Lion Capital of Ashoka, from Sarnath. It originally supported a large dhamachakra on the top (reconstitution).

In the Buddhist Art at early sites such as Bharhut and Sanchi, the dharmachakra was often used as a symbol of Gautama Buddha himself.[18][14] The symbol is often paired with the triratna (triple jewel) or trishula (trident) symbolizing the triple gem, umbrellas (chatra), symbols of sovereignty and royal power, gems and garlands. It is also sometimes depicted alongside animals such as lions,[14] or deer.

There are different designs of the Buddhist dharmachakra with 8, 12, 24 or more spokes. In different Buddhist traditions, the different number of spokes may represent different aspects of the Buddha's Dharma (teaching). In the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition for example, the 8 spoked wheel represents the noble eightfold path, and the hub, rim and spokes are also said to represent the three trainings (sila, prajña and samadhi).[20]

In Buddhism, the cyclical movement of a wheel is also used to symbolize the cyclical nature of life in the world (also referred to as the "wheel of samsara", samsara-chakra or the "wheel of becoming", bhava-cakra).[14] This wheel of suffering can be reversed or "turned" through the practice of the Buddhist path. The Buddhist terms for "suffering" (dukkha) and happiness (sukha) may also originally be related to the proper or improper fitting of wheels on a chariot's axle.[21] The Indo-Tibetan tradition has developed elaborate depictions called Bhavacakras which depict the many realms of rebirth in Buddhist cosmology.

The spokes of a wheel are also often used as symbols of the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination. According to the Theravada scholar Buddhaghosa:

“It is the beginningless round of rebirths that is called the ’Wheel of the round of rebirths’ (saṃsāracakka). Ignorance (avijjā) is its hub (or nave) because it is its root. Ageing-and-death (jarā-maraṇa) is its rim (or felly) because it terminates it. The remaining ten links [of Dependent Origination] are its spokes [i.e. saṅkhāra up to the process of becoming, bhava].”[14]

The earliest Indian monument featuring dharmachakras are the Ashokan Pillars, such as the lion pillar at Sanchi, built at the behest of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. According to Benjamin Rowland:[14]

”The Sārnāth column may be interpreted, therefore, not only as a glorification of the Buddha’s preaching symbolised by the crowning wheel, but also through the cosmological implications of the whole pillar as a symbol of the universal extension of the power of the Buddha’s Law as typified by the sun that dominates all space and all time, and simultaneously an emblem of the universal extension of Mauryan imperialism through the Dharma. The whole structure is then a translation of age-old Indian and Asiatic cosmology into artistic terms of essentially foreign origin and dedicated, like all Asoka’s monuments, to the glory of Buddhism and the royal house.”

According to Harrison, the symbolism of "the wheel of the law" and the order of Nature is also visible in the Tibetan prayer wheels. The moving wheels symbolize the movement of cosmic order (ṛta).[22]

Jain, Hindu and modern Indian usages

Wheel of the chariot of the sun, Konark Sun Temple.
The State Emblem of India features the 24 spoke Dharmachakra from the Lion Capital of Ashoka.
Jain illustration with dharmachakra and the motto Ahiṃsā Paramo Dharma (non-violence is the highest dharma).

The dharmachakra is a symbol in the sramana religion of Jainism, sometimes on statues of the Tirthankaras.[23][24][25]

Wheel symbolism was also used in Indian temples in places that underwent a religious transformation from Buddhism,[26][27] such as Jagannath temple, whose deity is believed by some scholars to have a Buddhist origin.[28][29] It also finds use in other ancient temples of Odisha, the most famous of which is the Konark Sun Temple.

The 24 spoke Ashoka dharmachakra is present in the modern flag of India, representing the pan-Indian concept of Dharma.[30] The modern State Emblem of India is a depiction of the Lion Capital of Ashoka (Sanchi), which includes the dharmachakra. An integral part of the emblem is the motto inscribed in Devanagari script: Satyameva Jayate (English: Truth Alone Triumphs).[31] This is a quote from the Mundaka Upanishad,[32] the concluding part of the Vedas.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the first Vice President of India, stated that the Ashoka Chakra of India represents the "wheel of the law of dharma", as well as "Truth or satya", "Virtue" as well as "motion", as in the "dynamism of a peaceful change".[30]

Other uses and similar symbols


Historical and archeological examples

Contemporary examples

National flags and official symbolism


  1. ^ These symbols, however, are elongated and not circular. Spoked wheel vehicle are virtually absent in Harappan civilisation.[11] Therefore interpreting these symbols as spoked wheel is a matter of debate.
  2. ^ a b Grünwedel e.a.:"The wheel (dharmachakra) as already mentioned, was adopted by Buddha's disciples as the symbol of his doctrine, and combined with other symbols—a trident placed above it, etc.—stands for him on the sculptures of the Asoka period."[15]
  3. ^ Goetz: "dharmachakra, symbol of the Buddhist faith".[16]


  1. ^ a b John C. Huntington, Dina Bangdel, The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art, p. 524.
  2. ^ "Buddhist Symbols". Ancient-symbols.com. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  3. ^ Mansinha, Mayadhar (10 September 2021) [1960]. "CHAPTER VIII. THE POST SARALA PERIOD - A PERIOD OF EXPERIMENTS: I.The Buddhist Influence - The Metaphysical Poets". History of Oriya Literature. Creative Media Partners, LLC. ISBN 978-1015025486.
  4. ^ Nayak, Dr. Ganeswar (11 March 2014). "History of Odisha (From earliest times to 1434 A.D)" (PDF). Paralakhemundi: Shri Krushna Chandra Gajapati Autonomous College. p. 107.
  5. ^ Misra, Bijoy M. (2007). Bryant, Edwin Francis (ed.). Krishna: A Sourcebook. Oxford University Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0195148923.
  6. ^ Sahu, Nabin Kumar (1958). "Sailodbhavas, Bhaumakaras and Somavamśīs,". Buddhism in Orissa. Bhubaneshwar: Utkal University. p. x. OCLC 1391872675.
  7. ^ "Dharma And Ethics The Indian Ideal Of Human Perfection 1st Published". priscilla.work. Archived from the original on 29 October 2021. Retrieved 29 October 2021.
  8. ^ Monier Williams, A Sanskrit Dictionary (1899): "to hold, bear (also: bring forth), carry, maintain, preserve, keep, possess, have, use, employ, practise, undergo"
  9. ^ Day, Terence (1 January 2006) [1982]. "The Concept of Obligation". The Conception of Punishment in Early Indian Literature. Editions SR (volume 2). Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. p. 42. ISBN 9780889208384. Retrieved 5 March 2024. The importance of the conception of Dharma in early brāhmanic thought is so considerable that it has seemed either that it replaced Ṛta as the leading philosophical and religious conception or that the earlier concept was at some time absorbed into it. It is probably more true that Dharma was conceived as an aspect of Ṛta which became so useful for framing religious, moral and social regulations, that interest in it and discussion of its applications to social and moral order eclipsed all discussions of metaphysical and theological ideas.
  10. ^ a b The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives By Jane McIntosh. p. 377
  11. ^ Shahane, Girish (8 October 2014). "What the absence of chariots in ancient Harappa means for Modi's Clean India plan". Scroll.in. Archived from the original on 10 October 2014. Retrieved 16 January 2024.
  12. ^ a b c d Beer 2003, p. 14.
  13. ^ Issitt, Micah. Main, Carlyn. (2014). Hidden Religion: The Greatest Mysteries and Symbols of the World's Religious Beliefs, ABC-CLIO, p. 185.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h T. B. Karunaratne (1969), The Buddhist Wheel Symbol, The Wheel Publication No. 137/138, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy • Sri Lanka.
  15. ^ a b c Grünwedel, Gibson & Burgess 1901, p. 67.
  16. ^ a b Goetz 1964, p. 52.
  17. ^ a b Pal 1986, p. 42.
  18. ^ a b Ludowyk, E.F.C. (2013) The Footprint of the Buddha, Routledge, p. 22.
  19. ^ Issitt, Micah. Main, Carlyn. (2014). Hidden Religion: The Greatest Mysteries and Symbols of the World's Religious Beliefs, ABC-CLIO, p. 186.
  20. ^ A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation: An Explanation of Essential Topics for Dharma Students by Khenpo Gyaltsen (translated by Lhasey Lotsawa Translations, Nepal: 2014, pp. 247–248).
  21. ^ Sargeant, Winthrop (2009), The Bhagavad Gita, SUNY Press, p. 303.
  22. ^ Harrison 2010, p. 526.
  23. ^ Framing the Jina: Narratives of Icons and Idols in Jain History, p. 314, by John Cort, Oxford University
  24. ^ Asha Kalia, Art of Osian Temples: Socio-economic and Religious Life in India, 8th–12th Centuries A.D. Abhinav Publications, 1982, chapter 16.
  25. ^ Sharma, Savita (1990). Early Indian Symbols: Numismatic Evidence, Agam Kala Prakashan, 1990 p. 51.
  26. ^ Misra 2007.
  27. ^ Sahu 1958.
  28. ^ Nayak 2014.
  29. ^ Mansinha 2021.
  30. ^ a b c "The national flag code" (PDF). Mahapolice.gov.in. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 December 2017. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  31. ^ Kamal Dey v. Union of India and State of West Bengal (Calcutta High Court 2011-07-14), Text.
  32. ^ "Rajya Sabha Parliamentary Standing Committee On Home Affairs: 116th Report on The State Emblem Of India (Prohibition Of Improper Use) Bill, 2004" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 March 2013.
  33. ^ Hall, Adelaide S. (2005). A Glossary of Important Symbols in Their Hebrew: Pagan and Christian Forms. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-59605-593-3.


Further reading