What is the Dharma Wheel? (and What it Means)

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The dharma wheel is one of the most ancient symbols in Indian history and culture. Its meaning and significance vary depending on which culture and religion uses it, but today it’s typically seen as a Buddhist symbol. In this article, we will unlock the mysteries behind the dharma wheel to better understand its history and symbolic meaning.

History of the Dharma Wheel

Dharma wheel history

The dharma wheel or the dharmachakra is deeply embedded in Indian culture and history because of its significance not only to Buddhism but to other religions in India including Hinduism and Jainism. However, the Buddhists were not the first to use the wheel as a symbol. It was actually adopted from the ideals of an older Indian king who was known to be a ‘wheel turner’ or a universal monarch. 

Dharmachakra comes from the Sanskrit word dharma which means an aspect of truth in Buddhist philosophy, and the word chakra, which literallymeans wheel. Together, the idea of the dharmachakra is akin to the wheel of truth.

It is said that the Dharma wheel represents the teachings of Siddharta Gautama and the rules he followed as he walked on the path of enlightenment. The Buddha was believed to have set the wheel of dharma in motion by ‘turning the wheel’ when he gave his first sermon after reaching enlightenment. 

Buddha meditating
The Buddha is believed to have set the dharmachakra in motion

One of the oldest depictions of the dharma wheel can be traced back to the time of Ashoka the Great, between 304 to 232 BC. Emperor Ashoka ruled over all of India, which included regions later known as Pakistan and Bangladesh. As a Buddhist, Ashoka led India to greatness by closely following the teachings of Sidharta Gautama, the first Buddha.

Ashoka never forced his people to practice Buddhism, but the ancient pillars made during his time proved that he preached the teachings of Buddha to his people. Engraved in these pillars were the so-called Ashoka Chakras. These are dharma wheels that have 24 spokes which represent Buddha’s teachings as well as the concept of dependent origination. The Ashoka Chakra is pretty popular today because it is seen at the center of the modern Indian Flag.

Indian flag with ashoka chakra
Indian flag with Ashoka Chakra at the center

For Hindus, the dharma wheel is commonly part of depictions of Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation. This wheel is believed to be a powerful weapon that can conquer desires and passions. The dharmachakra can also mean Wheel of the Law.

However, in Jainism, the Dharma wheel symbolizes the wheel of time, which has no beginning or no end. The dharma wheel of the Jains also has 24 spokes which represent the 24 royalties in their final lives known as tirthankaras.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Dharmachakra

While Buddhists generally believe that the dharma wheel itself symbolizes the Buddha, they also think that each part of the dharma Wheel represents several values that are important in their religion.  These include the following: 

  • Round Shape – This symbolizes the perfection of the teachings of Buddha.
  • Rim – The dharma wheel’s rim signifies a Buddhist’s ability to take in all the teachings of Buddha through concentration and meditation.
  • Hub – The central hub of the dharma wheel signifies moral discipline. Inside the hub lies the Three Treasure Jewels of Buddhism, typically represented by three swirls. These jewels are Dharma, Buddha, and Sangha respectively.
  • Cyclical Movement of the Wheel – This represents the reincarnation or the cycle of life in the world, known as Samsara. It incorporates birth, death and rebirth.
Dharma wheel symbolism

In addition to this symbolism, the number of spokes on the dharma wheel represents different aspects not just for Buddhists but for Hindus and Jains, too. So here are some of the meanings behind certain number of spokes on a dharma wheel:

  • 4 spokes – The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. These are the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path.
  • 8 spokes – The Eightfold Path to achieve enlightenment. These encompass the right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, concentration, and mindfulness. 
  • 10 spokes – These spokes represent the 10 directions of Buddhism.
  • 12 spokes – The 12 Links of Dependent Origination taught by Buddha. These include the concepts of ignorance, social formations, consciousness, the constituents of a living being, the six senses (which includes the mind), contact, sensation, thirst, grasping, birth, rebirth, old age, and death. 
  • 24 spokes – In Jainism, these represent the 24 tirthankaras that are near nirvana. In Buddhism, a dharma wheel that has 24 spokes is also called the Ashoka Wheel. The first 12 represent the 12 links of dependent origination and the next 12 represents the causal links in reverse order. The reversal of these 12 stages of suffering signifies the escape from reincarnation through enlightenment.

In other religions in India, particularly in Hinduism and Jainism, the dharma wheel represents the wheel of law and the continuous passage of time.

Dharma wheel symbol meaning

The Dharma Wheel in Fashion and Jewelry

For practitioners of Buddhism, wearing dharma wheel jewelry is a good alternative to wearing actual Buddha symbols. The general rule is that the Buddha must never be worn as an accessory, but no such prohibition exists for the dharma wheel.

That’s why the dharma wheel is a pretty common charm used as a pendant or amulet for bracelets and necklaces. It may also be used as a pin or a brooch. The design of the dharma wheel can be stylized in several ways. The most popular dharma chakra designs look similar to a ship’s wheel, with eight spokes. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the dharma wheel symbol.

Editor's Top Picks
Religious Jewelry by FDJ Fine Sterling Silver Wheel of The Buddhist Dharma...
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Sterling Silver Dharma Wheel Buddhism Symbol Dharmachakra Necklace, 18
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Dharma Wheel of Life Samsara Buddhist Amulet Pendant Talisman (bronze)
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Last update was on: October 17, 2021 9:07 am

Aside from jewelry, the dharma wheel is also a popular tattoo design especially for those who believe in Hinduism, Jainism or Buddhism. It can be stylized in many ways, and since it’s a symbol of a common object (the wheel), it’s quite discreet.

In Brief

The dharma wheel is one of the most important and sacred symbols of India. It is widely known as the central symbol in the Indian flag. But the wheel’s true significance lies with its connection to religion, specifically to Buddhism. The dharma wheel serves as a reminder to always follow the teachings of Buddha to end suffering and reach enlightenment. 

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