Published on July 07, 2013, in Mid-Day.
At the center of the Indian national flag is a wheel. What does it represent? An enquiry leads us to a fascinating path of Indian history, mythology and philosophy.
The wheel on the national flag was derived from the flag of the Indian National Congress, which had in the centre Gandhiji’s famous charkha, or the spinning wheel, which played a vital symbolic role in the Indian National Movement. It represented a defiance of the British industrial goods that had destroyed local handloom industries and plunged the country into abject poverty.
The wheel also represented Buddhism, the religion that which was embraced by Dr. Ambedkar, leader of the Dalit movement, who felt Hindu caste structures always placed them at a disadvantage. Across the world, the spoked wheel represents Buddhism. It can be seen on the insignias of Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and the erstwhile Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim. The central hub represents attention and stillness established through meditation, the rim represents mindfulness and the spokes represent the various tenets of Buddhism. For a long time, the wheel was used to represent the Buddha himself. When the image of the Buddha became popular, roughly from around 1st century AD, the wheel transformed into the nimbus, the solar disc behind the Buddha’s head.
Often the wheel is shown with two deer, one on either side. It is supposed to represent the first discourse of the Buddha in the deer park at Sarnath. This symbol of wheel with two deer is also found in Jain temples. In iconography, the deer represents restlessness and anxiety of the human mind and the wheel represents time that is constantly rotating, never pausing for anyone. Thus the deer symbolizes the human reaction to nature’s rhythms represented by the wheel. In other words, purusha and prakriti, the two principles that form the cornerstone of traditional Indian thought.
The wheel has been found in Harappan seals, indicating that such wheels with spokes existed in India over 4000 years ago. By Mauryan times, the idea of the chakravarti gains great popularity across India. Chakravarti is the ruler of the world and his stories are found in Jain scriptures where he is one of the shalaka purushas or worthy beings. The Chakravarti is marked by the hub of the wheel, and the horizon (circular in shape) marks the boundaries of his kingdom, and the spokes represent the laws and regulations (dharma) with which he binds the whole kingdom together. The wheel also represents the wheels of the king’s chariots that are constantly moving along the royal highways and are unstoppable. It is this wheel that we find atop Ashoka’s pillar, which is another inspiration for the wheel on India’s flag. Ashoka was the Mauryan Emperor whose kingdom, about 2300 years ago, extended from modern Afghanistan in the north across India right up to Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The four lions atop the wheel reinforces it as a symbol of royal power. Thus the word dharmachakra takes a rather materialistic and regal manifestation, very different from the form given by Buddhist and Jain thought.