Are Chakras a Developmental Map?
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | November 14, 2021
Recently I was asked if I think chakras are a developmental map.
A developmental map explains human psychological development across the lifespan. Probably the most famous map was created by Erik Erikson. But plenty of other psychologists and philosophers have offered their own take on human development.
Western psychologists have definitely been interested in the chakras as a developmental map. That would start with Jung in 1932 when he gave four lectures about chakras in Zurich. Jung saw the chakras as steps to personal development or what he called individuation. He definitely understood that there were differences between his ideas of psychological development and those that came from Indian philosophy.
Nevertheless, he astutely used the chakras in a way that bridged the two. Lots of other thinkers like Ken Wilbur have also used chakras as a developmental map.
The source material for the seven chakra system is a medieval text called the Ṣaṭ Cakra Nirūpaṇa which starts out with the idea that the spine/central channel is a mountain (Meru) and that yoga practice is basically about climbing this mountain to merge with Oneness at the peak or the crown of the head.
So yeah, the tantric chakra system is developmentally oriented. I believe the yogis understood the chakras as stepping stones to greater levels of consciousness.
The problem is that their understanding of progress doesn’t equate exactly with western developmental psychology. Sure, there are some similarities. But at the heart of the matter, their worldviews are quite different.
Often, western psychology looks at personal development as some form of self-actualization (Maslow) and/or individuation (Jung). Maslow later added transcendence to his hierarchy (which he probably stole from yoga LOL!)
Healthy development is measured in terms of becoming more of an individual, and more of yourself. Yoga psychology is concerned with how the individual is a reflection of the whole. Its telos, or goal, is merging back into the ocean of Oneness. (BTW, you can find some similarities in the Stoics/Platonic concept of logos to a certain extent, it’s what some of the ancient Greeks before Aristotle were interested in, but that orientation is largely lost in western psychology.)
Tantric yogis see chakras as a developmental expansion into the universe. An understanding of the cosmological order, how humans are part of it, and how the chakras lead you back to Oneness lies at the heart of their thinking. This is absent in the western psychology. And certain aspects of western psychology informs the New Age chakra system.
This fundamental worldview difference is why there are two quite distinct chakra orientations – one from India and one from…well, California in the 1970s.
So sure, tantric chakras are a developmental map, but not one that lines up with western developmental theory or New Age ideas about chakras all that well.
The whole survival, sex/pleasure, power, love, expression, intuition chakra theme stuff is decidedly western.
Woodroffe was probably the first western translator who was concerned that proto-New Age psychics were barking up the wrong chakra tree. In his second edition of The Serpent Power he critiqued Charles Leadbeater’s book The Chakras (which was published in 1927 and remains the bestselling book of the Theosophical Society today).
Woodroffe said he didn’t mind if Leadbeater and his followers saw energies coming off the body and interpreted it in their own way, but he thought they shouldn’t call them “chakras”, because that’s not what the Indians were talking about.
Leadbeater didn’t spend much time in India. Woodroffe lived there, studied Sanskrit and tantra, and was loved by both Indians and the English apparently. But people in the west struggled to understand his book and started creating their own interpretations of the chakras.
I don’t think you can have a meaningful conversation about chakras without considering cultural appropriation because there was plenty of that happening. Many of the folks interpreting chakras in the west in the 70s were not yoga practitioners or scholars of Indian philosophy or religion – they were not necessarily interested in the Indian tantrics’ perspective.
I have a higher regard for both Jung and Joseph Campbell’s work since they considered Indian culture in a more serious and less grabby way.
It’s erroneous to claim that Jung’s work formed the basis of the New Age chakra system.
There are a few scholars out there who assert this, and it makes me pitta provoked. It’s just not accurate. Jung’s lectures were not widely disseminated until 1996 when they were published as The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga. This means that all the “chakra dogma” that was laid down in the 70s and 80s came largely from folks like Ken Dyctwald and then Anodea Judith who were most likely familiar with Leadbeater’s book, but not Jung’s work.
You may find Jung’s book in some of the New Age chakra book bibliographies, but not the first editions. If western chakra writers had access to Jung’s work, it may be that the New Age chakra system would have evolved to be more similar to traditional tantric thinking.
As far as I’m concerned, any experience people have with chakras is groovy. However, as a yoga teacher, I’d like to source information about the chakras that at least references tantric texts. I want to teach about chakras from a yoga perspective, otherwise, I’ll continue to perpetuate the superficial understanding of a system that is much deeper and more meaningful – a system which may hold the key to human health and evolution.