Mandala, loosely translated from Sanskrit as a circle, is a symbol that carries significant religious and traditional importance in many cultures and religions worldwide. The mandala is a geometric configuration of symbols.
The earliest known appearance of mandalas is thought to be in the 4th century in regions of Eastern Asia. More notably in India, Tibet, Japan, and China. Mandala symbolism is also present in many modern and ancient religions and cultures.
Table of Contents
- Mandala Symbolism
- Origins of Mandala
- Symbols in Mandalas
- Mandalas in Different Religions and Cultures
- Psychological Interpretations
The mandala in Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, represents a map of their deities, paradises, and shrines. Mandalas are tools for spiritual guidance and meditation. We can also find mandala symbolism in art, architecture, and science.
Origins of Mandala
Mandalas are thought to represent different aspects of the universe. Generally, a mandala represents one’s spiritual journey, starting from outside through the layers to the inner core. The inside of mandalas can have various shapes and forms, like a flower, tree, or jewel. The basis of every mandala is its center, which is a dot.
The origins of mandalas are from the 4th century in India, first made by Buddhist monks from whom their use was spread throughout the country and later the neighboring ones. They did this by traveling the Silk Road, which is a major trade route through Asia.
Today, mandalas are still used in Eastern religions but are also present in western cultures. Mandalas are mainly used to represent individual spiritualism in western countries. You will often see mandalas around people who practice yoga.
There are three types of mandalas in various cultures: teaching, healing, and sand.
Each shape, line, and color in a teaching mandala symbolizes a different concept from a philosophical or religious system. Based on design and construction concepts, the students make their mandalas to represent all they have studied. The creators of teaching mandalas use them as vivid mental maps.
Healing mandalas are made for meditation and are more intuitive than teaching mandalas. They are meant to impart knowledge, promote emotions of serenity, and direct focus and concentration.
Sand mandalas have long been a common devotional practice among Buddhist monks. Numerous symbols formed from colored sand that signify the transience of human life are used in these elaborate patterns. Sand mandalas are also present in Navajo cultures as a cultural and religious element.
Symbols in Mandalas
Inside the mandalas, you can recognize common symbols like a wheel, flower, tree, triangle, etc. The center of the mandala is always a dot considered free of dimensions. The dot is the beginning of one’s spiritual journey and devotion to the divine.
The lines and geometrical shapes surrounding the dot symbolize the universe. The most common mandala symbols within it are
- Bell: Bells stand for the mental opening and purging necessary to receive insight and clarity.
- Triangle: Triangles stand for movement and energy when facing upward and creativity and the quest for knowledge when facing downward.
- Lotus flower: A revered emblem in Buddhism, the lotus flower’s symmetry represents harmony. A human seeking spiritual awakening and enlightenment is similar to how a lotus climbs up from the water into the light.
- Sun: The sun is a common starting point for contemporary mandala patterns. Suns frequently represent the universe and carry meanings related to life and energy because the sun sustains life on Earth.
- Animals: Animals are also often depicted in mandalas. The meanings of animal mandalas depend on the characteristics of the animal depicted. Animals are popular in modern mandalas as they are secular symbols unrelated to religion or culture.
Mandalas in Different Religions and Cultures
In Hinduism, you will find a basic mandala called a yantra. The yantra is in the form of a square with four gates in the middle, of which there is a circle with a center point (Bindu). Yantras can be with two or three-dimensional geometric compositions used in sadhanas, puja, or meditative rituals.
In Hindu practice, yantras are revelatory symbols of cosmic truths and instructional charts of the spiritual aspect of human experience.
Aztec Sun Stone
According to the ancient Aztec religion, the Aztec Sun Stone is believed to represent the universe. What is interesting about the Sun Stone is its uncanny resemblance to traditional mandalas.
The Sun Stone’s purpose is a highly debated topic. For instance, some think the stone served the ancient Aztecs as a calendar. Others believe it to have a significant religious purpose. While modern archeologists think that the Sun Stone was most likely used as a ceremonial basin or ritual altar for gladiatorial sacrifices.
Mandala-like designs can also be found in Christian art and architecture. One example is the Cosmati pavements at Westminster Abbey, which geometrically resemble traditional mandalas.
Another example is the Sigillum Dei (Seal of God), a geometric symbol created by Christian alchemist, mathematician, and astrologer John Dee. The Seal of God incorporates in a universal geometric order the names of the archangels, derived from earlier forms of the key of Solomon.
In Buddhism, mandalas are used as support for meditation. The meditating person contemplates the mandala until they internalize every detail of it, and can have a vivid and clear image in their mind. Every mandala comes with its associated liturgy, texts known as tantras.
The tantras are instructions for practitioners to draw, build, and visualize the mandala. They also indicate the mantras that the practitioner should recite during ritual use.
Sand mandalas are also significant in Buddhism, made from sand and ritualistically destroyed. Sand mandalas originate from the 8th century in India, and each one is dedicated to a specific deity.
The sand mandalas are made by monks trained in a monastery for three to five years. The destruction of the mandalas is supposed to symbolize impermanence. Impermanence is the belief that death is not the end of one’s journey.
The process of creating a mandala
Making mandala art involves a precise procedure. This starts with a ritual in which all monks dedicate the artwork’s location and invoke goodness and healing using music, chanting, and meditation.
Then, the monks pour colored sand particles over 10 days using metal funnels called “chak-purs.” The environment and people crafting the piece are cleansed and healed during this process. They deconstruct the mandala artwork as soon as it is finished. It stands for the world’s transience. The blessings are then distributed to everyone using the disintegrated sand.
However, painting a mandala involves a very organized process:
The cloth is first stretched on a wooden frame by the artists, who then size it with gelatin. They finish by polishing a gesso layer to provide a flawless and smooth surface.
Deciding on a design
The subject matter for the artist’s mandalas is frequently chosen by the one commissioning the mandala. The painter may give a diagram to help them visualize the same.
However, the compositions are typically predetermined by artistic tradition and Buddhist symbolism. Using a charcoal crayon, the painters draft the mandala’s initial design. Black ink sketches support the final drawing.
The first coats of paint
Painters employ two different types of paint when creating mandalas. These are mineral pigments and organic dyes. The wooden handle and fine animal hair used to make the brushes are attached to them. Before adding the mineral pigments to the paint, the artists combine them with a binder like hide glue.
Outlining and shading
Shading plays a vital role in painting and draws attention to the many elements that make mandala art so beautiful. The employment of organic dyes by the painters to shade and outline the shapes inside the circular perimeter adds to the artwork’s complexity and level of detail.
Most painters conclude their job by scraping the surface with a knife edge once the painting is finished. This results in a canvas with a level texture.
Then, the finished piece is given a final dusting with a rag and a quick wipe with a tiny dough ball made of grain and flour. The grain flour dough gives the painting a matte texture and catches any leftover paint dust.
The introduction of mandalas into western psychology is credited to psychologist Carl Jung. In his research of the unconscious mind through art, he noticed a common appearance of the circle across different religions and cultures.
According to Jung’s hypothesis, circle drawings reflect the mind’s internal state at the moment of creation. According to Jung, the urge to make mandalas emerges during moments of intense personal growth.
The mandala symbolism commonly appears throughout many religions and cultures, both modern and ancient. Mandalas are often used to represent the universe as a whole and for personal spiritual journeys.
Mandalas have vital religious significance in Buddhist and Hindu practices. However, they are also widespread in western cultures, mainly among those practicing yoga and art.