The Ashoka Chakra is a depiction of the Buddhist Dharmachakra, represented with 24 spokes. It is so called because it appears on a number of edicts of Ashoka, most prominent among which is the Lion Capital of Sarnath.
The most visible use of the Ashoka Chakra today is at the centre of the National flag of the Republic of India (adopted on 22 July 1947), where it is rendered in a Navy-blue colour on a White background, by replacing the symbol of Charkha (Spinning wheel) of the pre-independence versions of the flag.
When Buddha achieved nirvana (Enlightenment) at Gaya, he came to Sarnath on the outskirts of Varanasi. There He found his five disciples (panch vargiya Bhikshu) Ashwajeet, Mahanaam, Kaundinya, Bhadrak and Kashyap, who had earlier abandoned him. He preached his first sermon to them, thereby promulgating the Dharmachakra. This is the motif taken up by Ashoka and portrayed on top of his pillars. This is the origin of the chakra in our flag and it asserts the strong ties of our country with the Buddhist faith. It is also known as Bhavachakra.
However, the 12 out of 24 spokes represent the twelve casual links taught by The Buddha. The twelve causal links, paired with their corresponding symbols, are:
- Avidyā lack of knowledge - a blind person, often walking, or a person peering out
- Saṃskāra constructive volitional activity - a potter shaping a vessel or vessels
- Vijñāna consciousness - a man or a monkey grasping a fruit
- Nāmarūpa name and form (constituent elements of mental and physical existence) - two men afloat in a boat
- Ṣaḍāyatana six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) - a dwelling with six windows
- Sparśa contact - lovers consorting, kissing, or entwined
- Vedanā pain - an arrow to the eye
- Tṛṣṇa thirst - a drinker receiving drink
- Upādāna grasping - a man or a monkey picking fruit
- Bhava coming to be - a couple engaged in intercourse, a standing, leaping, or reflective person
- Jāti being born - woman giving birth
- Jarāmaraṇa old age and death - corpse being carried
These 12 in reverse represent a total 24 spokes representing the Life-The Dhamma(Pali).
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who later became India's first Vice President, described the flag as follows:Bhagwa or the saffron colour denotes renunciation of disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work. The white in the centre is light, the path of truth to guide our conduct. The green shows our relation to (the) soil, our relation to the plant life here, on which all other life depends. The "Ashoka Chakra" in the centre of the white is the wheel of the law of dharma. Truth or satya, dharma or virtue ought to be the controlling principle of those who work under this flag. Again, the wheel denotes motion. There is death in stagnation. There is life in movement. India should no more resist change, it must move and go forward. The wheel represents the dynamism of a peaceful change.
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