The Wheel and the Dharmacakra

Dholavira Signboard — Wikimedia Commons

From the Rig Veda to independent India

Starting from maybe the mid-fourth millennium B.C., the proto-Indo-European people seem to have been constantly on the move, spreading out to the West and to the East. The full motivation for such rapid and multi-directional waves of migration is not well-understood, but the availability of vehicular means to enable such migration would be part of the story.

Specifically, the chariot was a technology of the utmost importance, and its core component, the wheel and axle system, is generally reckoned to be one of the rather more significant technological inventions in history. The earliest wheels were pottery wheels in use in the Middle East in the fifth millennium B.C. and the wheeled vehicle is generally thought to have been a follow-on development from the pottery wheel taking place in the Middle East in the fourth millennium B.C and enabling the beginning of a new wave of mass migration. The specific innovation required for the wheeled vehicle is the connection of the wheel with an axle.

For the Vedic tribes, and likely thus for all the ancient Indo-Europeans, the chariot-maker (rathakāra) was held in high esteem and ranked as an elite member of society by virtue of his skill at making chariots. The proto-Indo-European peoples were constantly on the move across much of the Eurasian continent and hence the ability to make chariots and to maintain them in good repair as they traversed rugged and difficult terrain would have been crucial to the functioning of entire tribes of people. In Vedic verses, chariots are described as being fashioned from śimsapā (rosewood) [RV 3.53.19] or from kimśuka (Hindi — palāsh) and śalmali (silk cotton tree) [RV 10.85.20], all types of wood still in common use in India today.

Similarly, some early Indo-European names bear witness to the importance of the chariot in society, such as Vedic Tvaṣṭṛ, possibly meaning chariot-maker, or possibly cognate with Mitanni (Indo-Aryan substrate) Tushratta, then possibly both meaning “whose chariot is vehement”.

The Sanskrit terms ‘sukha’ (सुखः, contentment) and ‘duḥkha’ (दुःखः, suffering) which are important terms in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy as well as terms in daily use in India, are related to the axle (खः) — and thus the journey — being smooth (सु) or rough (दुः). Similarly, the Indian term cakravarti indicates one whose wheels are always turning, i.e. who is constantly on the move as the powerful figures would be in ancient times.

Depiction of a chakravartin, possibly Ashoka, with a 16-spoked wheel — Wikimedia Commns

In the Rig Veda, the term ‘sukha’ occurs many times as an adjective for a chariot, such as in this verse about the Ṛbhus or ‘labouring’ gods who famously made the chariot of the Aśvins –

They [the Ṛbhus] made a well-axled [सुखं] chariot for the Nāsatyas [= Aśvins]

[Rig Veda Book 1 Verse 20 Line 3ab of Ṛṣi Medhātithiḥ Kāṇvaḥ; my own translation]

In the Rig Veda, we encounter the idea of a wheel or a one-wheeled chariot as a metaphor or symbolic representation of the sun, in verses such as the following –

Seven yoke the one-wheeled chariot; one horse with seven names pull it;

Where all these worlds stand upon the unaging, unobstructable three-naved wheel

[Rig Veda 1.164.2 of Ṛṣi Dīrghatamā Aucithyaḥ; my own translation]

This single wheel is also then associated with the calendrical and seasonal timescales in subsequent verses, such as the following –

The twelve-spoked wheel keeps moving, not wearing down, regularly, day by day.

Here 720 sons in pairs are stood, O Agni!

[Rig Veda 1.164.11 of Ṛṣi Dīrghatamā Aucithyaḥ; my own translation]

Here the 12 spokes apparently represent the 12 months, whilst the 720 sons are the 360 days and 360 nights. The earlier reference to seven names perhaps indicate the days of the week, which are equally the day yet have different names. However, there is a slight calendrical problem with a year of 360 days, and thus –

“They say that besides those born in pairs there is a seventh born alone, while the six sets of twins are the sages born from the gods. The sacrifices for them are firmly set, but they change their forms and waver as he stands firm.”

[Rig Veda 1.164.15 of Ṛṣi Dīrghatamā Aucithyaḥ; translation Prof. Wendy Doniger]

As Professor Wendy Doniger explains –

“In the ritual, there are twelve paired months and one odd one, the intercalary month which interrupts the sequence and causes the others to ‘change and waver’.”

Another, symbolic representation using the wheel metaphor the following passages from the Śvetāsvatara Upanishad, which seemingly pick up on the above cosmic symbolism, but in ways that are perhaps influenced by Sāṃkhya and Śaivite perspectives –

“We meditate on him who (like a wheel) has one felly with three tires, sixteen ends, fifty spokes with twenty counter-spokes, and six sets of eight; whose one rope is manifold, who proceeds on three different roads, and whose illusion arises from two causes.”

“In the vast Brahma-wheel, in which all things live and rest, the bird flutters about, so long as he thinks that the self (in him) is different from the mover (the god, the lord). When he has been blessed by him, then he gains immortality.”

[Śvetāsvatara Upanishad 1.4 and 1.6; translations by Max Müller]

Here, the wheel is used as an analogy for the continually evolving (or revolving) process phenomenal existence, considered ultimately unreal according to the Sāṃkhya philosophy of these verses. This seems to be connected with the opening question of the Śvetāsvatara Upanishad, which is about the ultimate cause of everything. The precise meaning of these verses is explicated in more detail in commentaries by later philosophers, but the bird and the Brahma-wheel seem to represent īśvara and puruṣa, which are both supposed to be ultimately unreal. Indeed, the Veda too presents this wheel as “this lovely Bird’s securely founded station” (RV 1.164.7b; trans. Griffith), so the idea of the individual self in a constantly changing world seems to be already present in the Rig Veda passage.

The symbolism of the wheel is also reflected in the dharma-cakra, used in Hinduism and Buddhism to represent sovereignty, dharma and saṃsara (phenomenal existence). As such, it is not surprising that it was used by the Buddhist King Aśoka as the symbol of his rule, perhaps drawing on its resonance more specifically as the wheel of the teaching of the Buddha. Indeed, regarding this Aśoka pillar, Professor Asko Parpola writes –

“Their occurrence in connection with the stūpas makes one suspect that they are survivals of an ancient tradition of erecting a turning post for a funeral chariot race near the funeral monument.”

Among other more ancient strata, we may also note that inthe Dholavira signboard, too, from a third millennium B.C. Indus Valley Civilization site of Dholavira in Gujarat, displayed above at top of story, a wheel symbol occurs repeatedly among the various symbols. This seems to substantiate that at an early date the wheel developed a symbolic significance in addition to a practical significance.

The wheel became significant in a quite different form during the Indian Independence struggle, in the shape of the spinning wheel, when Mahatma Gandhi made spinning a vehicle of India’s economic self-assertion. By weaving homespun fabric rather than buying cloth spun on industrial mills in the English mill-towns, India would resist economic exploitation. As Gandhi wrote, tellingly comparing the spinning wheel with the sudarshan cakra rather than the dharmacakra –

“As regards charkha and khaddar, charkha is the life of Hindustan and I have compared it to the Sudarshan Chakra and Kamdhenu. The destruction of charkha meant the beginning of poverty in India, and to drive (away) poverty we must reinstate charkha in its proper place.”


Indeed, the flag of the Indian National Congress, a precursor to the modern Indian flag, featured the spinning wheel (charkhā) as its centrepiece, and this is certainly one dimension of the symbolism present in the modern flag.

The metaphor of the wheel is particularly apt to describe the constant change of our phenomenal existence and of our psychological states. Indeed, contemplating this metaphor, we might see our joys and sorrows, our positive and negative emotions, as inevitable and necessary phases in our journey through life, just as the ancient Indo-European peoples themselves traversed both smooth roads and rocky terrain on axles that were both rough and smooth.

Indian Flag, the first stamp of independent India — Wikimedia Commons

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