Mandalas are beautiful designs commonly seen in Hindu and Buddhist history. Bohemian, free-spirit cultures in many Western countries have also adapted the mandala since the late 20th century. But while we can all appreciate their beauty, what exactly are they and what do they represent? Here are 5 fun tidbits of information about the gorgeous mandala.
1. Mandalas in Buddhism
The mandala has been frequently used throughout history in a spiritual sense. However, while mandalas were first referenced by Hindu scholars during the Vedic times, the modern day mandala design that we see most often was actually first inspired by Buddhist scholars. What's remarkable about this is that these designs erupted almost 2,000 years after the first spiritual usage of mandalas! In the Buddhist design, the outer circle of the mandala usually symbolizes wisdom. The next ring represent the eight charnel grounds, which were locations where dead human bodies were handled - this displays the commotion of normal everyday life. Finally, we get to the inner rings, which symbolize the palaces of deities which are preserved in ever lasting peace and protected from commotion.
2. Mandalas Represent an Ideal Form of the Universe
While mandalas come in various types and sizes, they are most commonly circular and have a dense point at the center. This is because in the Hindu and Buddhist religion, the universe is often portrayed as being a massive circular shape with an all powerful force at the center from which the universe originates. This center of the universe is often referred to as Mount Meru, a five peaked mountain. Most mandala designs we see today work to recreate that perception of the universe in an aesthetically pleasing way. That's also why often times we see in mandalas that the lines seem to grow from the very center of the portrait - this resembles how everything originates from the center of the universe. Next time you gaze into that beautiful tapestry on your wall, you'll also feel like you're gazing into the depths of the universe!
3. The Mandala's Role in Ancient Vedic Literature
In Sanskrit, the language of Ancient South Asia, mandala very loosely means "circle" or disc like object. In Buddhism and Hinduism, the universe is also perceived to essentially be a massive circle. It's very easy to see how the two concepts, the mandala and the universe, would come to be linked in historic South Asian society. The ancient, Indian collection of Vedic hymns, the Rigveda, is actually one of the first known works in history to reference the mandala in a divine sense. The collection of books, believed to be created sometime around 1500 BCE (or earlier), was divided into 10 different segments. Each of these segments were called "mandalas," and included several in depth discussions of various Hindu deities, questions about the universe, and spirituality presented in the form of hymns. These hymns were perceived as being powerful and divine - in fact, some legends even claimed that the universe was created as a result of these hymns! Within a few hundred years of the Rigveda's creation, the word mandala had grown to have a powerful spiritual connotation.
4. Other Cultures Also Have Ideas Similar to the Mandala
It's actually quite remarkable how several different cultures around the world have come up with similar ideas despite being separated by thousands of miles! For example, the Mayans used a Tzolk'in wheel as a calendar instrument and as a symbol for religious purposes. The wheel, seen below, has remarkable similarities to many mandala designs, especially the ones that evolved in Hindu cultures. Another example of a civilization using a circular object to portray the Universe is the Aztec's usage of a Sun Stone. This was normally a carving with several symbols portrayed on a circular stone, and the Aztecs too, portrayed some sort of deity at the center of their universe. Absolutely remarkable!
5. Mandalas Have Been Referenced In Psychology
It's all too easy to think of the mandala as something that wasn't around in Western culture until the counterculture (read:hippie) movements of the 1960s and 1970s. However, way before all of that, Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, incorporated mandalas in his scientific research. Carl while exploring the relation of drawing to the psychology of the drawer, noticed that circles appeared very frequently in his and his patients' drawings. He called these drawings "mandalas," in his belief that just like their Asian counterparts, they could signify something greater. To quote Jung, " I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing, ... which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time. ... Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is: ... the Self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious. " Jung, in his research, concluded that frequent circle drawing was associated with certain psychological states - most notably, he noticed that the urge to draw circles was strongest when patients were undergoing some sort of personal growth or change!
As you can see, mandalas are quite incredible! Studying them unearths a rich history of many cultures, and the opportunity to gain perspective into many religions.
Brauen, Martin (1997) The Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambala Publications.