The most celebrated of the Ashokan pillars is the one erected at Sarnath, the site of Buddha’s First Sermon where he shared the Four Noble Truths (the Dharma or the law). Currently, the pillar remains where it was originally sunk into the ground, but the capital is now on display at the Sarnath Museum. It is this pillar that was adopted as the national emblem of India. It is depicted on the one rupee note and the two rupee coin.
The pillar is a symbol of the axis mundi (cosmic axis) and of the column that rises everyday at noon from the legendary Lake Anavatapta (the lake at the center of the universe according to Buddhist cosmology) to touch the sun.
The top of the column—the capital—has three parts. First, a base of a lotus flower, the most ubiquitous symbol of Buddhism.
Then, a drum on which four animals are carved representing the four cardinal directions: a horse (West), an ox (east), an elephant (south), and a lion (north). They also represent the four rivers that leave Lake Anavatapta and enter the world as the four major rivers. Each of the animals can also be identified by each of the four perils of samsara. The moving animals follow one another endlessly turning the wheel of existence.
Four Lions stand atop the drum, each facing in the four cardinal directions. Their mouths are open roaring or spreading the dharma, the Four Noble Truths, across the land. The lion references the Buddha, formerly Shakyamuni, a member of the Shakya (lion) clan. The lion is also a symbol of royalty and leadership and may also represent the Buddhist King Ashoka who ordered these columns. A chakra was originally mounted above the lions.
Some of the lion capitals that survive have a row of geese carved below the lions. The goose is an ancient Vedic symbol. The flight of the goose is thought of as a link between the earthly and heavenly spheres.
The pillar reads from bottom to top. The lotus represents the murky water of the mundane world and the four animals remind the practitioner of the unending cycle of samsara as we remain, through our ignorance and fear, stuck in the material world. But the chakras (wheels) between them offer the promise of the Eightfold Path, that guide one to the unmoving center at the hub of the wheel. Note that in these particular chakras, the number of spokes in the wheel (eight for the Eightfold Path), had not yet been standardized.
The Lions are the Buddha himself from whom the knowledge of release from samsara is possible. And the chakra that once stood at the apex represents moksha, the release from samsara. The symbolism of moving up the column toward Enlightenment parallels the way in which the practitioner meditates on the stupa in order to attain the same goal.