The chakras (in IAST, cakra) are one of the most iconic representations of modern spirituality. Having been widely adopted outside their original Tantric cultural milieu by New Age expressions of spirituality and those interested in so-called “energy practices,” they have taken on a life of their own that can not easily be distinguished from the psychologized understanding them introduced and expanded by modern teachers like Anodea Judith. Indeed, given that the chakras are associated with a more embodied approach to energetic healing, it is common to find programs that promise to “balance,” “clear,” or even “remove” your chakras in the modern spiritual marketplace.

While the chakras are an incredibly familiar and popular representation of yogic wisdom, they have surprisingly been under-studied from the perspective of their original Tantric context. For example, by comparison with the vast number of translations we have of texts like the Yoga Sūtras and the Bhagavad Gītā (wherein the chakras are not mentioned), translations of the various texts that include the chakras are much harder to find, especially those written for an audience of practitioners and those interested in the chakras as more than a scholarly pursuit

So research into this area of yoga’s fascinating history is still very much in its infancy. Many texts were completely unavailable in any kind of English translation as recently as ten years ago, and even in India, many fascinating texts were locked away in decaying palm-leaf manuscripts, suffering a mortal fate characteristic of the humid conditions we find in especially the Southern regions of the Indian sub-continent. 

It is no wonder then that a single text translated on the chakras – the ṣaṭ-cakra nirūpaṇa (lit. “investigation [into the] six chakras”) – gained so much influence in the modern world. One of the earliest translators of this text was written by Sir John Woodroffe under the pseudonym “Arthur Avalon,” and published in 1918 with the title, The Serpent Power: The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga. 

This translation was of profound interest to one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, Carl Jung, who gave a series of lectures in 1932, during which he analyzed the chakras from the perspective of his own system of psychoanalysis. His lecture notes were posthumously published as the book The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga – Notes of the Seminar Given in 1932, which is still widely available in print today.

It is largely from the interpretations of Carl Jung and certain members of the Theosophical Society (such as Helena Blavatsky) that we derive so much of our modern understanding about the chakra system. The six chakras referenced in the ṣaṭ-cakra nirūpaṇa become seven when a “non-local” chakra is included that has become famously referred to as the “crown chakra.” One argument for why this seventh chakra is not included in the numbering of six is because it represents the destination of Tantric Yoga practice and is therefore not “embodied” in the same way as the other six chakras.

As sympathetic interpreters have attempted to integrate an understanding of the chakras with modern biological sciences, there has been much ink spilt on the so-called physicality of the chakras. Fascinating correspondences have been noted between the described location of the chakras and nerve plexuses within the body, and relatedly how these chakras further map onto the human endocrine system.

These ongoing investigations are incredibly interesting, but as research into the Tantric traditions has evolved, practitioner-scholars have noted two important things:

  1. There are actually different chakra systems found represented in ancient texts – many of which include a widely varying number of chakras; and related to this,
  2. That the purpose and utility of the chakras for much of the Non-dual Tantric traditions was not aligned with an attempt to describe “physical” realities in the way characteristic of modern sciences. 

The chakras in many Non-dual Śaiva-Śākta traditions were part of a comprehensive spiritual technology that includes mantras (sound formulas), yantras (geometric devices), and other elements to aid the Tantric yoga practitioner in a form of internalized meditative ritual. Whether or not a chakra can be “found” physiologically was, in an important sense, beside the point. What mattered was whether or not the chakras were effective at achieving the goal of Tantric yoga practice – awakening the kuṇḍalinī-śakti so as to pierce through the delusory stories and imaginings of dualistic individuated experience. Duality is an unavoidable experience of life, but Tantric yoga practice suggests that duality can be suffused with non-dual consciousness; what appears separate is ultimately perceived as non-separate from anything and everyone else.

Scholars have attempted to trace the chakras back to the earliest text available that reference them. Alexis Sanderson, for example, has pointed to the Kubjikāmata Tantra (KMT) as the earliest text in which we find a numbering and naming of the chakras that to some degrees reflects the modern chakra system as it is understood today. In fact, the KMT references two different chakra systems – one comprised of five chakras that are connected to the five elements, and another enumeration that includes a six-chakra system very much like what we find today.

Of course, this text, which scholars have dated to the 9th or 10th centuries, is certainly not the first time that we see a reference to something like chakras. Mention of ādhāras (‘stations’ or ‘foundations’) can be found mentioned in various Upaniṣads. However, it is suggested that they did not receive their full systemization as a spiritual technology until the Tantric period. Furthermore, the incorporation of the chakras into a full-fledged system of spiritual practice is not reserved to Śākta-Śaiva traditions, but is interestingly found extensively in Tibetan Buddhist texts. In fact, given that many Śākta lineages have not continued in living lineages (with the exception of various lineages of Śrī Vidyā and the Nepalese Sarvāmnāya tradition), while the Buddhist tradition has remained more intact, the Buddhist tradition can be a rich resource through which to engage with the chakras in, for example, Buddhist Haṭha Yoga. 

In concluding this short summary, it is important to note that while the hope is for more texts that refer to the chakras to come to light through practice and study, this does not entail the kind of condemnation of modern chakra discourses. This attitude stems from a problematic preoccupation with “origins” and “authenticity” in the modern spiritual world. Investigating and re-invigorating the ancient Tantric practices of the chakras is not done in an attempt to “be right” about the chakras, or have our practices be more “authentic” than anyone else. While it is understandable to be deeply interested and fascinated by the spiritual technology of the Tantric yoga system that many scholars have traced back to the medieval period (and others much prior to that), it is important not to delegitimize any other path that may be working for other practitioners. 

Just as the “new” is not necessarily better than the “old,” the “ancient” is not necessarily better than the “modern”: they’re just different – but difference can be a fascinating portal to greater insight


Avalon, Arthur. The Serpent Power: The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga. London: Dover Publications, 2000.

Butto, Nader. “Psychological Conflict and Physical Illness: A New Mind–Body Model” in International Journal of Psychiatry Research. 2019. Accessed 11th June 2024: 

Jung, Carl. The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga – Notes of the Seminar Given in 1932. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

1. See Avalon (1918).
2. See Jung (1996).
3. For example, Butto (2019).