In the state of Uttar Pradesh lies a small town Sarnath near present day Varanasi. It was ruled by the Mauryan Samrat Ashoka in the 3rd Century BC. Being a follower of Buddha, Samrat Ashoka built a Sarnath pillar consisting of a Ashoka Chakra, the place where Lord Buddha gave his first speech and taught Dharma to his five monks.
The Sarnath Pillar is one amongst the many pillars erected by Samrat Ashok to convey the principles of Buddhism. However, the Sarnath pillar is unique because it was crowned with a sculpture on it popularly known as the Lion Capital.
What is the Lion Capital of Sarnath Pillar?
The Ashoka Lion Capital or the Ashoka Chakra at the Sarnath comprises of 4 lions, standing back to back. The front view has 3 Lions. All the 4 lions are mounted on a cylindrical abacus. The abacus illustrates the sculptures of a galloping horse, an elephant, a lion and a bull separated by intervening 24-spoked Dharma wheels over an inverted bell-shaped lotus flower (National Flower of India).
The four animals in the Lion Capital symbolizes different times and phases in Buddha’s life. The Elephant is a representation of his mother Queen Maya’s conception of Buddha when she saw a white elephant entering her womb in a dream. The Bull represents desire during the life of the Buddha as a prince.
The Horse symbolizes Buddha’s departure from palatial life and te Lion represents the attainment of Nirvana by Lord Buddha.
There are also non-religious symbolic interpretations of the Lion Capital believing the four lions symbolize Ashoka’s rule over the four directions, the wheels as symbols of his enlightened rule and the four animals as symbols of four adjoining territories of India.
The Sarnath pillar still stands in it’s original place, however the Ashoka Lion Capital or the Ashoka Chakra has been moved to the Sarnath Museum for preservation.
Present Day National Emblem of India
In the State emblem, adopted by the Government of India on January 26, 1950, only three lions are visible, the fourth being hidden from view. Symbolizing power, courage and confidence, the abacus is girded by four smaller animals regarded as guardians of the four directions; The lion of the North, the elephant of the East, the horse of the South and the bull of the West. Each of these animals is separated by intervening wheels of Dharma Chakras* (Eternal wheels of law). The inverted bell-shaped lotus which the original sculpture shows the abacus resting on has been omitted.
Everything About the 24 spokes on the Ashoka Chakra –
According to Hindu religion, Puranas mentioned that only 24 Rishis wielded the whole power of the Gayatri Mantra. These 24 rishi in Himalayas are represented through the 24 letters of Gayatri Mantra. The 24 spokes of Dharmachakra are representation of all these 24 rishi of Himalayas in which Vishvamitra is first and Yajnavalkya is the last who governs the religion (Dharma).
Ashok Chakra is symbol of Dharmchakra and also known as Samay Chakra in which all the 24 spokes represents 24 hours of the day and symbol of the movement of the time.
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 the Indian flag and it asserts the strong ties of India with the Buddhist faith. It is also known as Bhavachakra.
However, the 12 out of 24 spokes represent the twelve causal 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).
24 Spokes of Ashok Chakra according Hindu religion:
11. Self Sacrifice
21. Moral Values
22. Spiritual Wisdom
23. The Fear of God
24. Faith or Belief or Hope