The Significance of The Mandala, An Instrument for Spiritual Awakening
No other symbol in the world remains as universal as the circle. With an infinite number of sides and no beginning or end, it is often attributed to the concept of eternity and wholeness. Even early diagrams such as cosmic maps and stone calendars used the circle to refer to a then-indefinite understanding of the universe. Indeed, this figure is ever-present in countless cultures: the wheel of eternity, yin and yang, even the modern peace sign.
In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the circle is appropriated in the form of a mandala. It is the quintessential symbol of the universe in its ideal form, a reminder of its transcendental presence. Because of its spiritual properties, it is an instrument of meditation and enlightenment.
Today, these diagrams are familiar even in non-religious contexts. Because of their decorative potential, mandalas are often seen as wallpaper patterns and on coloring book pages. But we do know that beyond its aesthetic complexity, the mandala contributes to the spiritual understanding of an individual—believer or not.
Buddhist and Hindu mandalas
There is no official record of mandalas in religious texts or scripture. Most of its meanings and significance are inferred from how often it appeared in art, ritual practices, and architecture.
What we do know, though, is that the symbol was spread by Buddhist monks while trading in the Silk Road. Some centuries later, it began to appear in parts of Asia like China, Tibet, and Japan. It also began to be adopted by other religions like Hinduism.
There are several types of mandalas across cultures (and even within Buddhist and Hindu traditions alone), but the most common ones are recognized according to purpose.
The teaching mandala is a mandala created by student monks. These mandalas follow different principles of design and Buddhist concepts. Whatever they create serves as a culmination of their years of monastic education. In this sense, the teaching mandala is more personal than others; it reveals the creator’s insights and reverence for the religion.
The healing mandala is created for meditation. These mandalas are usually described as “intuitive,” evoking insights, a sense of wisdom, and a state of focus for the viewer. (It is worth noting, however, that all mandalas—regardless of their purpose—are inherently meditative in different ways.)
Perhaps most fascinating of all is the sand mandala, which involves both a process of creation and destruction. This practice originates from Tibet, where mandalas are known as kyil-khor (“center of all creation”). However, this practice has been adopted into other Buddhist cultures.
Here the act of creating is a collective one: a group of monks sits in a circle, sometimes spanning as large as three meters, tracing a pattern elaborately marked by chalk. To fill in the gaps, they extrude colored powders (made from crushed dyed rock or precious stone) from a thin piece of metal. This process is extremely meticulous and requires a great deal of patience and concentration.
Once the pattern is completed (this can take up to weeks), the monks say a prayer and pause for a moment of deep contemplation. Then, in a swift instant, the weeks of work are swept aside and ceremonially thrown into a body of water. This unique ritual is symbolic of the impermanence of life and all things.
Symbolisms within the mandala
The mandala is designed intricately for a purpose. From the center, the patterns become more and more elaborate as they diverge outwards. Each element within it symbolizes something to represent its entirety.
A mandala’s focal point is its center, representing the awakened being at the center of the universe. In Hindu traditions, this is a sacred symbol called the Bindu: the point in which all things unite, and at the same time, a manifestation of the infinite nature of the universe. This is the foundation of many principles within the religion—the art of the mandala is one of its most expressive demonstrations.
The dharma wheel, or the Wheel of the Law, is another frequent symbol represented with eight spokes. These spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path, the central Buddhist philosophy believed to liberate an individual from the cycle of worldly suffering.
The lotus flower also bears great significance in both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. The lotus is known for its unique life cycle: it grows and rises from muddy waters. Similarly, it is believed that human life follows this process of growth and transformation.
Other shapes within the mandala are squares and triangles. Squares represent divine energy and existence within the material world. Triangles, depending on where they face, hold various meanings: upward-facing ones represent action and energy, and downward-facing ones represent wisdom and creativity.
Mandalas in other cultures
Although the word ‘mandala’ stems from the Sanskrit language (meaning “circle”), it has become an umbrella term for circular ceremonial figures in religions across the world.
The dreamcatcher, for instance, is considered a mandala despite its Native American origins. Like mandalas in Hindu and Buddhist customs, dreamcatchers connote connections with spiritual forces. They are called as such because they are believed to “manipulate” spirits during a person’s slumber.
The Aztec Sun Stone is another mandala, this time used as a reference for communal beliefs. It is often called a “stone calendar,” although it is a typical misconception to regard it as a literal calendar. The stone is believed to be an altar dedicated to Tonatiuh, the sun god who sustains humanity.
The stone, which spans almost 12 feet in diameter, displays Aztec beliefs on creation and brutal portrayals of human sacrifice. Such details revealed a lot about the period’s culture, tradition, and political climate.
Here, the religious connotation of the mandala is contextualized within the theme of divine sustenance: Tonatiuh lives and dies with the rising and setting of the sun. The mandala represents the deity’s perpetual cycle of life and death.
A view into an individual’s psyche
In the 20th century, psychologist Carl Jung introduced the Eastern tradition of mandalas to Western thinking. He used it as a tool to study human orientations, comparing its characteristics to qualities of the “metaphysical” nature. He even shared his theories, musings, and drawings of mandalas in The Red Book.
“I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing, a mandala, which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time,” Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, his autobiography. “With the help of these drawings, I could observe my psychic transformations from day to day.” Later on, he would employ and observe the same line of thought during psychiatric treatments.
Jung believed that these complex patterns compensate for the disorder of the psychic state. He described it in The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious as “the construction of a central point to which everything is related; by a concentric arrangement of disordered multiplicity and of contradictory and irreconcilable elements.”
Such a sentiment reflects the original purpose of the mandala, rooted in Buddhism and Hinduism. The art and process of it try to make sense of a disordered universe by illustrating it within a central point surrounded by meaningful abstractions.
Mandalas in the modern period
Today, the significance of the mandala persists: in architecture, through creative techniques, as meditative tools. Through Jungian influence, the mandala is used in therapy. Practitioners encourage their patients to keep a journal in which they draw their mandalas as a form of reflection and self-expression. This allows them to make sense of the patient’s emotional state.
Coloring books are also known to relieve stress and anxiety. Mandalas are frequently printed on these pages; dynamic patterns and shapes waiting to be filled with color. This activity is not as complex as creating, but it can offer an invaluable thing: peace of mind, even for just a few minutes.
Whether we revere the mandala as a religious symbol or make use of it in casual activities, it appears that the philosophy behind it is universal—just as it has always been.