In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Indian gurus and authors began to map the medieval yogic body of cakras, lotuses and channels onto the anatomical body of modern science. In 1889, Major Basu, a general editor for the Bombay Theosophical Society, published two essays in which he equated cakras with various ganglia and plexuses of the nervous system. Many other interpretations followed, including Swami Hamsasvarupa’s illustrated Hindi translation of a Sanskrit work called the Ṣaṭcakranirūpaṇa (“Explanation of the Six Cakras”), which was published in 1903. Traditionally located in the region of the navel, the cakra called maṇipūraka is identified in Figure 5 with the epigastric plexus, which is represented by the illustration of the intestines in the top right corner. The cakra itself has ten petals in the colour of heavy rain clouds. Each petal contains a seed syllable called a bīja mantra. Within the circle of petals is an orange triangle representing the body’s region of fire, which is covered by its own seed syllable “raṁ” in red. The fire is mounted on a ram (meṣa), and two deities named Rudra (a form of Śiva) and Lākinī are depicted within the fire’s seed syllable. Various channels (nāḍī) radiating from the navel cakra are represented as blood vessels. In premodern traditions of Tantra and yoga, cakras were visualised as lotus-like centres positioned along the central channel of the body, which extended up to a point twelve finger-breaths above the head. The number of cakras could range from four or six to nine or more in different conceptions of the yogic body. By meditating
on cakras, a yogi gained various supramundane powers. For example, the Ṣaṭcakranirūpaṇa states that by visualising the navel cakra in the way it describes the yogi acquires the power to preserve or destroy the world and Sarasvatī, the goddess of eloquent speech, music and learning, abides in him forever.
A fragment of a larger sixteenth-century work called the Tattvacintāmaṇi, the Ṣaṭcakranirūpaṇa was translated into English by a British Indian judge named Sir John Woodroffe and his Bengali collaborator Atal Bihari Ghosh in 1924. His publication, which included pictures, helped to popularise the six cakra model in New Age religions and modern yoga schools.
Sir John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon). The Serpent Power: Being the Shat-Chakra-Nirupana and Paduka-Panchaka: Two Works on Laya Yoga. Madras: Ganesh and co, 1924.
Mark Singleton. Yoga Body : The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.