Mandalas are often associated with geometric, circular designs that contain repetitive shapes, colors, and patterns radiating from the center.
In today’s world mandalas have become a generic term for almost any circle ornament.
In the European and American cultures, the term is usually interpreted as a tool for relaxation.
It is connected mainly to art therapy.
However, the underlying meaning of a mandala is much broader than its vibrant appearance.
In numerous traditions, this geometric configuration represents a spiritual guidance tool.
This serves as a base for building a sacred space, and aid for practices such as meditation and trance induction.
For example, in the Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and the Japanese religion of Shintoism, a mandala may represent deities, spirits, holy powers, paradises or actual shrines.
Yet, different perspectives reveal the diverse meaning, functions, and benefits of mandalas.
They can be precise, perfectly measured and symmetrical or completely the opposite, asymmetric, organic and free-flowing.
But once you reach a complete understanding of this phenomenon, you will start seeing mandalas everywhere!
What is a mandala?
The word ‘mandala’ comes from a Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, with direct translation to a “circle” or a “discoid object”.
As a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, mandalas are mainly divided into two parts: an inner and outer world of the universe.
The first level of understanding is connected to several practices from Asian traditions.
These include meditation, which is related to the spiritual journey of the individual.
The mandala serves as a guide and the individual viewer is encouraged to find his/her place within the universe.
The second view is related to the “circle” which is a symbolic representation of the universe.
It is a magical form that is believed to have no beginning and no end.
More specifically, the metaphorical meaning implies that everything eventually connects and life is a never-ending round.
The most basic form of a mandala is a square with four T-shaped gates and a circle with a central point.
But the mandala can be also drawn in an outer circle. Also, variations of the prototype may include various shapes and patterns.
These include other geometric forms (triangles and polygons), flowers, Buddhist saints, and much more.
Due to its symmetric shape and the center-positioned circle, the mandala is used as a tool for focusing the viewer’s attention.
Apart from redirecting the body and mind, mandalas are used to remove irritating thoughts and guide the mind towards more relaxing and creative horizons.
History of Mandalas
Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, known as the founder of Buddhism, was a religious leader from Ancient India.
During his 45 years of teaching, his guidance was not only based on getting insights into “duḥkha” or suffering but also putting an end to it.
Above all, he wanted to show his followers the path to enlightenment. Hence, through meditation and thoughtful action, he unified his followers and established core values which are still practiced in the many forms of Buddhism.
Once Siddhartha Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment and has freed himself from the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth, he wanted to pass this knowledge onto someone.
Finally, he started to preach his philosophy and has established the first Buddhist community of monks, called “sangha”. Their culture has an enormous influence on the making of mandalas.
The earliest evidence of a Buddhist mandala date to the first century B.C.E. While the sangha traveled through major trade routes in Asia, including the Silk Road, they have spread Buddhism as a religion and the art of making mandalas to numerous lands and regions.
Proof of the existence of mandalas dates back to the 4th century and can be found in regions such as China, Tibet, and Japan.
After a while, the spread of these art pieces continued onto other religions and practices, such as Hinduism.
Mandala construction by monks
The construction of mandalas by monks is considered both a sacred and a meditative ritual.
The monks participating in this process believe that they are part of Buddha’s teachings.
Due to this fact, not anyone can take part in this technique. Therefore, a monk who is willing to construct a mandala must go through an artistic and philosophical study, which usually takes around 3 years.
The making of a single mandala can last from several days to several weeks. To ease the construction, usually, four monks come together to work on one mandala.
Each of them has an equal quadrant to work on. Likewise, once they come to the coloring part, each monk has an assistant to help them finish the task.
The principle on which the monks work is from the center and outwards to a series of concentric circles.
Certainly, the monks are well organized and usually move around the mandala; working in tandem.
Even more, to ensure balance, they wait upon each other. Once they finish their section, they continue working in agreement.
Furthermore, when monks finish the construction of a particular mandala, they can either choose to paint it or choose to deliberately destroy it.
Painting serves as an enduring object of contemplation, whereas destroying it reminds them of the impermanence of things in their teachings.
Two Major Types of Mandalas
As explained before, mandalas are found in numerous cultures and have a distinct use in each of them.
Additionally, they differ in their form, types, and varieties.
Mandalas in China, Japan, and Tibet are mainly divided into two types: the garbha-dhatu and the vajra-dhatu.
The distinction lies in their representation of the universe. More specifically, the movement in the garbha-dhatu is from one to many. In contrast, the movement in the vajra-dhatu is from many into one.
Other Types of Mandalas
Mandalas may be painted on paper, stone, wood, cloth or even on a wall. Also, they can be constructed on the ground, which must be well-prepared for the technique. Some traditions use ephemeral material such as butter, colored sand, or rice powders, fashion the art piece in bronze or build it in stone.
Above all, Tibetan Buddhism has used this process for architectural structures. Their temples are built as giant art pieces of a mandala.
According to their purpose, they can be divided into teaching, healing and sand mandalas.
Teaching mandalas serve as a visual symbolization of everything a student has learned. Certainly, the student must have an understanding of the principles of design and construction.
Then, he/she can project this onto his/her mandala, whereas each line, shape or color is a representation of a certain aspect of the philosophical or religious system.
These art pieces are mainly symbolic and serve as a mental map to their creator.
Unlike the teaching mandalas, the healing mandalas’ purpose is not based on strict rules.
On the contrary, this technique is used for meditation and is far more intuitive. The creator of a healing mandala aims to reach a certain level of calmness, focus, and concentration, and eventually chain wisdom.
The third type is sand mandalas, which are mainly used as a religious and traditional instrument. This technique is typical for the Buddhist monks and Navajo cultures.
The various symbols are of colorful sand and serve as an expression of the impermanence in human life.
In addition to the previously-explained, there are countless other types of mandalas.
The most famous ones being: Architectural, Aztec, Bodhi, Body, Butterfly, Celtic, Christian, Circle, Ceiling, Cosmological & Geographical, Deity, Element, Figure, Geometric, Healing, Heart, Henna, Jung, Kalachakra, Imagined, Initiation Card, Initiation, Inverted Figure, Letter, Plate With Deities, Mural Painting, Painting, Protection, Sand, Scroll Painting, Sculptural, “Self Blessing”, Square, Symbol, Thread-Cross, Upright-Figure, Yantra, Lotus, Flower, and Sun Mandalas.
Symbolism of Mandala
Both Hinduism and Buddhism use mandalas as a way of expression of Buddha’s teachings.
So, one way of interpretation is to understand the underlying principles and beliefs of these religions.
The mandala consists of a squared temple which is placed in the center of the structure and is surrounded by concentric circles, each of which has a unique symbolic meaning.
There are a dot and an image of the chief deity in the center of the mandala, symbolizing that the chief deity is the actual center of the universe. Apart from the essence of the Buddha that can be found in the temple itself, four gates are leading out of it.
The presence of Buddha is the abstract form of his mind, usually found in the form of a flower, a tree, a wheel or a jewel.
The interpretation of the gates may be north, south, east, and west- the four directions, or sympathy, compassion, loving-kindness, and equanimity – the four boundless thoughts.
The first circle features a ring of fire, representing the way humans are transformed before they reach the inside.
The second circle is composed of diamonds, a metaphor for indestructibility.
The third circle is of the eight graveyards, made by lotus leaves. The leaves represent religious rebirth, and the circle symbolizes the aspects of human consciousness through which humans are bound to the cycle of rebirth.
Mandalas can also be constructed to represent a particular deity or a group of deities. In the case of a few or even thousands of deities, the main deity (the generative force) is placed in the center, while the rest of them (manifestations of the power of the core image) are organized around the central point.
Common symbols in mandalas
Apart from these interpretations, some common symbols can be found in most mandalas, such as a bell representing openness, a triangle representing action and energy when faced upwards or creativity and the pursuit of knowledge when faced downwards.
Additionally, a Wheel with eight spokes represents the Eightfold Path of Buddhism or the perfect universe. The sun is connected with the universe as well, a symbol for life and energy.
Mandalas are found across all cultures, each of which has a certain representation and interpretation, so there is no one understanding of this phenomenon which could be generalized across all of them.
Modern use and benefits from Mandalas
Nowadays, people have increased their use of mandalas as a tool for relaxation and improving focus.
These geometric designs are no longer associated only with Buddhists. It seems like individuals also connect them with fun activities for personal enjoyment.
In such cases, no rules apply. It is entirely up to the person who creates the design whether it will consist of symmetrical shapes and patterns. He/she may also choose to fill the circles with colors of his/her choice.
Besides, coloring mandalas can be beneficial for people of different ages. Children could take advantage of the flexibility of this technique. Simultaneously this will expand their creativity.
Adults could use coloring as a way of calming down. Focusing on the mandala could certainly take your mind off of things and generally improve your concentration.
When it comes to elders, they may use coloring the symmetrical patterns as a way of keeping their minds sharp.
Based on research that involved creating 100 mandalas in 100 days, the results showed that this using this technique is quite beneficial for the creators.
More specifically, the participants have eased stress, fear, overwhelming feelings, worry and depression. Furthermore, they considered it a fun activity that relaxed their bodies and minds, improved their focus and enhanced their creativity.
Apart from cultivating feelings of happiness and inner peace, the creation of mandalas has enhanced the participants’ self-esteem and self-acceptance, simultaneously fostering a sense of connection with themselves and others around them.
Last but not least, the experiment has shown that this process had improved the sleep schedule of the participants.
All in all, mandalas have existed for centuries and have certainly made a significant impact on people from different cultures.
No matter the age and background of the creator, the purpose of constructing or coloring, these geometrical art designs have proven to be of great importance.
Even now, with all the available technology and advancement, people find mandalas as a great way of expression and transmitting the inner feeling onto a piece of paper.