A New Spin on Mandalas: Tracing the Transformation of an Ancient Art

‘Mandala’ is a Sanskrit word meaning “circle” or “discoid object.” That sounds like a simple and open definition, but like the design, the full meaning behind a mandala is often much more intricate. Originally, mandalas were created to both represent the complexity of the universe and to guide individual practices, such as meditation.

Tantric Hinduism, Tantric Buddhism, and Jainism all have used mandalas for hundreds of years. It can be argued, however, that other cultures have been using a similar idea for just as long, though with a different name and variations to the designs.

Traditional Mandalas

Mandala designs have been painted on wood, walls, paper, stone, and cloth. They’ve been incorporated into long-standing architecture and made with impermanent materials such as butter. Geometric patterns are generally at the basis of mandalas, but specific motifs vary by purpose. Traditional designs are comprised of concentric circles within squares, squares within circles, six-pronged stars, or inverted crossed triangles. The traditional process of creating a mandala is to start at the centre and expand from there. The most basic form contains four “gates”, each in a ‘T’ shape. Popular colours for mandalas include yellow, red, green, and blue.

The earliest extant example of a mandala, by that name, dates to the 11th century. But the practice of creating these designs likely dates to much further in the past. Depending on how open one is with the definition of ‘mandala’, this type of design may have been created 40,000 or more years ago in concentric circular rock art found in Kimberley, Australia.

Variations in Mandala Creation

Most people imagine an elaborate drawing when they think of a mandala. The so-called “Wheel of Time”, the Tibetan Buddhist Kalachakra, is one of the most famous examples of this.

Another example is the cloth mandala of Chakrasamvara and his consort Vajravarahi, one of the earliest large-scale paintings from Nepal. This mandala presents the wrathful Chakrasamvara and his consort Vajravarahi at the centre of the image. They are surrounded by six goddesses, each set on a stylized lotus petal that forms a vajra, a characteristic that suggests it was made in 1100 AD. The eight great burial grounds of India frame the mandala, which corresponds with meditation on Chakrasamvara taking place at such sites.

Another typical representation of a mandala is found in Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings. Monks lay coloured powders over geometric blueprints painted in white chalk to create these mandalas. It is believed that the mandala will aid in personal enlightenment and bring peace, wisdom, and liberation to all beings. The ritual of creating these mandalas is complex and monks need years of training before they are permitted to make one. It is also common for four monks to work together on the mandalas – each beginning after the last has completed his task. When finished, the mandala is ritually destroyed to symbolize the Buddhist idea of impermanence. The whole process can take days or weeks.

Although the pictorial version of a mandala is the most well-known, it is not the only type of mandala. Mandalas may be made in architectural designs as well. The Borobudur temple on Java is an example of a structure that is built in the shape of an interactive mandala-yantra. It is meant to be walked in a specific pattern by a person seeking enlightenment. This temple has nine stacked platforms, six square and three circular, and is topped by a central dome. 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues decorate the building and can provide inspiration and reflection as one passes through the site.

Mandala-like Images Found Around the World

But representations of mandalas aren’t restricted to Buddhist temples; stunning representations of mandala-like artwork can be found in the sacred geometry spread across the ceilings of Islamic mosques and in the Middle-eastern influenced rose windows of Christian churches too. It could be argued that these depictions of mandala-like images are useful not only for decoration, but also for worship.

Another well-known example which appears in Christianity are the “illuminations” showing alleged prophetic visions of nun and pre-Renaissance polymath Hildegard von Bingen. One particular example, a ‘fiery cosmic egg’, resonates with elements found in the Book of Revelation and emphasizes Hildegard’s archetypal knowledge.

Sacred images that look like mandalas, by other names of course, have been found in a variety of contexts around the world. Like the Tibetan Buddhist monks, Navajo healers create mandala designs in the sand to heal, but this time the focus is often just one individual. The healers fill their mandalas with specially chosen motifs. Once the design is drawn, the patient is instructed to place him or herself at the centre of the design to receive the benefits of helpful deities and restore balance and health. This purpose of a mandala may be likened in other North American medicine wheels.

Some researchers have further expanded the idea of a mandala to include Aztec ‘mandalas’ used for timekeeping, Celtic designs for spiritual growth, and perhaps the circular motifs found across the globe in ancient rock art as well.

New Uses for an Ancient Art

The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung is often credited for bringing the Eastern concept of the mandala to the Western world. For Jung, mandalas could be used to get a clearer picture of the Self. The psychologist thought that seeing a mandala in dreams or it unexpectedly coming out in a person’s art meant that the individual was moving forward in their self-knowledge. The circular forms supposedly unified opposites as they showed who a person is.

Mandalas can be included in art therapy today to both increase relaxation and provide insight on changes in a person’s life. The circular drawing is soothing and helps people demonstrate their creative side. It is said that drawing mandalas can be a meditative tool as well. From a psychological point of view, an analysis of a sequence of mandala drawings (over a period of weeks or months) can provide insight into changes in one’s personality, emotions, and experiences – the images will vary as time passes.

Although drawing, painting, or colouring mandalas has become a popular trend in art therapy today, the practice is ancient and the reasons behind their creation are diverse and complex. From ritual symbols used in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, mandalas have transformed into practically any geometric pattern, chart, or diagram that holds symbolic meaning as a sacred representation of the universe or a visual tool for self-introspection.

By Alicia McDermott

“Alicia McDermott has degrees in Anthropology, International Development Studies, and Psychology. She is a Canadian who resides in Ecuador. Travelling throughout Bolivia and Peru, as well as all-over Ecuador, Alicia has increased her knowledge of Pre-Colombian sites as well as learning more about modern Andean cultures and fine-tuning her Spanish skills. She has worked in various fields such as education, tourism, and anthropology. Ever since she was a child Alicia has had a passion for writing and she has written various essays about Latin American social issues and archaeological sites. Her hobbies include hatha yoga, crocheting, baking, reading and writing.” – Alicia McDermott at Ancient Origins

Huge thanks to Alicia McDermott and Ancient Origins for providing this post, if you would like to submit content for HJA then please visit the Contact page and send a request. Don’t forget to like and subscribe to HJA for more!


Four Mandalas” by Anonymous is licensed under Public Domain

Hevajra Mandala” by Wonderlane is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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