The Wheel As A Symbol Of Creation With God As Its Hub

Brahma Wheel

by Jayaram V

The Svetasvatara Upanishad belongs to the Taittiriya section of the Yajurveda. In its approach, the Upanishad leans more towards the non-dualistic schools of Saivism. It describes the manifest creation as inhabited by the divine power of God (devatma-shakti), whom it identifies with Rudra or Lord Siva. Unlike the Prakriti of the Samkhya school, the Shakti that is described in the Upanishad is not independent of Brahman but an aspect of Him. Brahman is recognized in the Upanishad as Mayin, the creator of maya or illusion which subjects the individual souls to the cycle of births and deaths and from which they have to become free in order to attain liberation. For the purpose of our discussion, we quote here the fourth verse in the first chapter of the Upanishad, which describes the qualities of the manifested creation in the following manner:

tam eka-nemim travrtam sodasantam satardharam vimsati pratyarabhih

astakaih sabdhih visva-rupaika-pasam tri-marga-bhedam dvini mittaika moham

"We know Him with one hub, three divisions, sixteen ends, sixteen supports (spokes), six sets of eight each, whose one noose has innumerable forms, whose paths are distinguished as three and whose delusion arises out of two causes."

This verse envisions the whole creation as a a rotating wheel. We can interpret its meaning at two different levels. At the macrocosmic level its describes the constituent parts of the manifest being or Iswara, also referred as Purusha. At the microcosmic level it represent Jiva or the individual soul itself. The symbolism contained in the verse is explained as below:

One hub - eka nemi: This is the One Creative Principle, who is also known as Iswara, the Manifest Being in contrast to the Unmanifest Being or Nirguna Brahman. He is the source and the center of everything. In case of living beings, it is the Atman or the eternal soul.

Three Divisions - travrtam: The three qualities namely sattva, rajas and tamas which are present in every aspect of creation and which are responsible for its multiplicity and diversity. They also represent the three functional aspects of Brahman, namely Vishnu, Brahma and Siva.

Sixteen Ends - sodasantam: Sodasa means sixteen. These are the five gross elements ( mahabhutas), the five sense organs (jnanedriyas), the five organs of action (karmendriyas) and the mind (manas). These sixteen are part of the 24 principles or tattvas of Prakriti or Nature. They are often collectively referred as vikriti. The remaining eight (prakriti, buddhi, ahamkara and the five elements namely, earth, water, fire, air and ether) are categorized as mula Prakriti or the primordial Nature.

Fifty supports - satadharam: These are compared to the spokes of the wheel, because they support or uphold the entire creation and make possible the experience of duality among the beings and the idea of separation between God and His creation. They are the

  • Five viparyayas (ignorance (tamas), infatuation (moha), love (mahamoha), anger (tamisra) and fear (andhatamisra),
  • The 28 weaknesses or asaktis.
  • Nine opposites of happiness (tushti) and
  • Eight opposites of perfections or supernatural powers ( siddhis).

Twenty counter supports - pratyarabhih: They are the five sense organs, five organs of action and their objects. They counter support because they represent the objectivity we experience in our relation with the external world and perpetuate the illusion and the sense of duality we experience in our lives.

Six sets of eight each - astakaih sabbhih: They are: 1. Prakriti with its eight principles of gross elements, mind, buddhi and ego-sense, 2. eight types of minerals (dhatus) found in the body, 3. eight types of wealth or abundance (aisvarya), 4. eight types of feelings or mental states (bhava), 5. the eight types of gods (devas), and 6. eight qualities of the self (atma guna).

The one noose with innumerable forms: The noose in this expression is the desire or kama which manifests in us in many forms and responsible for our bondage and attachment.

The three paths - trimarga bhedam: The three different paths mentioned here are the three paths to salvation namely, the path of knowledge (jnanamarg) , the path of devotion (bhaktimarg) and the path of action (karmamarg). According to another classification they are the path of righteousness (dharma), the path of irreligiousness (adharma) and the path of knowledge (jnana).

The two causes of delusion: Delusion arises from both good actions and bad actions and also from actions and inaction. In the ultimate sense all actions are binding, unless they are performed without desire and as an offering to God, which is not easy to practice. According to another interpretation, as found in the Isa Upanishad, delusion may arise from both knowledge and ignorance. So the two causes referred here can be any of these.

The subsequent verse speaks of Brahman as a river of five streams (panca srotombum) flowing from five terrifying and crooked sources, whose vital breaths are five, who is at the root of the five perceptions, five whirl pools, five pains that are divided into five branches of fifty each. The five streams are perceptions flowing from the five sensory organs, the five vital breaths are the five types of prana that flows in the body, the five whirlpools are the five types of mental afflictions caused due to ignorance, desire etc.

As the material and efficient cause, Brahman brings forth His entire manifestation through His own Power or Shakti, using its constituent principles or tattvas as the building blocks. In this vast wheel of creation, there are wheels within wheels or worlds within worlds. Each individual existence in the creation is a wheel or world by itself. The individual souls continue their deluded existence, bound by the triple bonds (pasas) of egoism (anava), actions (karma) and delusion (moha), believing themselves to be different and separate from the rest of the creation. These principles are elucidated in more detail by different schools of Saivism. The Svetavatara Upanishad was composed probably to reflect the growing popularity of Saivism and its integration into the Vedic tradition. Rudra, the Rigvedic deity, whom the Rigvedic Indians feared the most, was revered in the Upanishad as the Highest and Supreme Brahman, which is suggestive of the extent of the transformation that was taking place within the Vedic religion.

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