The History of Mandalas
Originating in the Southeast Asian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, the mandala is recognized by patterns of geometric, concentric circles. Within art history, they are found in ancient Tibetan writing and sketches (8th-9th centuries) and on cloth paintings and murals of religious sanctuaries (11th– 12th centuries). The Sanskrit word “mandala” translates to “circle” and is expressed in symbolic, diagrammatic drawings representing the larger universe and the cosmos. Etymologically, “mandala” is derived from the Sanskrit words manda—“essence”—and la—“container” —referring to a “container of essence” that embodies various literal and metaphoric symbols.
The role of mandalas as a schematic representation of the universe is expressed in the architectural form of the Hindu Temple. Its symmetrical construction of concentric circles possesses a center divided into four squares. The temple uses these complex circular forms to focus cosmic and psychic energies and may encapsulate an infinite number of gods, as it is a symbolic form of paradise purified from demons. Used as drawings or diagrams, the mandala can be combined with incantations and ritual gestures to create, protect, enclose, or destroy energy.
Used as a place for worship and meditation in early and Theravada Buddhism, mandalas can be found in the form of stupas—a mound-like structure containing relics of the remains of Buddhist monks and nuns. Representations of mandalas can be found in parts of the Pali Canon (the scriptural collection of the Theravada tradition) under the Atanatiya Sutta and the Digha Nikaya, which are chanted.
Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism
The decorated mandala consists of an outer and inner circle with symbols and deities symbolizing the landscape of the Buddha Land or an enlightened Buddha. Used as an aid for meditation, this mandala helps achieve a mental sacred space or an internalized image of enlightenment with contemplative repetition. Sand mandalas symbolize the Buddhist teaching of impermanence; after weeks of designing the intricate pattern in sand, it is brushed away. Additionally, “mandala offerings” are employed wherein they offer a symbolic model of the universe to Buddha or to one’s teacher.
The Japanese branch of Vajrayana, Shingon Buddhism, uses mandalas to initiate new students: the Mandala of the Womb Realm and the Mandala of the Diamond Realm.
Politically, mandala means “circle of kings” and describes the pattern and diffusion of political power in historical Southeast Asia (circa 1360). The polities of Southeast Asia defined themselves by the center rather than the boundaries—in opposition to the Chinese and Europeans—and were composed of other tributary polities in a patchwork of overlapping political powers. Thus, any particular region could have had multiple layers of various powers.
Modern-day Renewed Interest
Carl Jung familiarized contemporary Western thought with mandala drawings as he believed they represented the unconscious self. Jung’s own art expressed repeated circles which he found as reflective of his current inner state. Jung utilized Hindu and Buddhist philosophical writing to reinterpret the function of mandalas, as he felt the urge to draw mandalas occurred during times of personal growth. Thus, Jung believed creating mandalas helped to stabilize and re-order one’s inner life.
The modern understanding of mandalas resurfaced in Western culture through the West’s fascination with Eastern Asian spirituality and religion. The resulting popularization of mandala drawing is used as both a spiritual symbol for interconnectedness of living things, as well as a meditative tool to help bring about inner calm. Mandala art is further popularized by American visionary artist Alex Grey, a Vajrayana practitioner who believes the practice of artistic creation facilitates enlightenment. Mandala artwork is commonly seen in various tattoo designs, paintings, and home furnishings.
- Represent the universe
- Architecture: floorplans for places of worship/protection
- Offerings to deities/teachers
- Represent common teachings (e.g. Sand Mandalas)
- Politics: model for power in historical regions of S.E. Asia
- Represent inner stability
- Meditation: focal point to achieve enlightenment