What is a Mandala?

Mandalas are circular designs that represent wholeness that goes beyond the human body to the vast universe and all it contains. It derives its name from the Sanskrit word for circle. In the western world, a mandala often comes in the form of printed design on paper or depicted in artwork that is admired for it’s intricate details and vivid colors. What a mandala means depends on the context in which it is used.  From modern-day coloring pages and stress-reduction drawings to eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, the world of mandalas is rich in symbols and meanings.

How to Pronounce Mandala

The proper pronunciation of mandala is: \ˈmən-də-lə\. it’s official definition from the Merriam Webster Dictionary is ” a Hindu or Buddhist symbol of the universe”. It explains that the image typically depicts a square inside a circle that contains a deity on each side of the square.

Mandalas in Buddhism

Mandalas are considered sacred in Tibetan Buddhism and are used in religious rituals. It is thought of as a “container of essence”.  A completed mandala is believed to become a holding area for deities and the forces of the universe. During meditation, one mentally enters the center of the mandala where he is guided through the universe to discover reality.

One type of mandala used in Buddhist rituals is the sand mandala. A sacred sand mandala is a physical representation of the universe and is not simply drawn on paper or etched in stone. It contains colored sand and may contain stone or bronze figures. Only monks who have undergone extensive study are allowed to create a sacred mandala. Traditionally, four monks work together to make a mandala. Once the center dot is placed, lines are drawn from the center dot to the four corners of an outer design which forms the kingdom. Gates are created for each quadrant and the design extends through a series of concentric circles until it reaches the outer edges of the design. The number of circles and their content is typically prescribed ahead of time so that all members fully understand the task. Each of the four sections is called a quadrant and is assigned to one of the four monks.

The four monks then begin to work from the center outward, always working sections in concentric circles until the entire mandala is completed. Once completed, the mandala is destroyed and the sands are poured into a nearby river to release the positive energy. The process of making the mandala is considered a sacred experience. This ritual represents the “impermanence of all things”.

Mandalas in Hinduism

In Hinduism, mandalas are traced on sacred grounds with water colors and erased after rituals are completed. This mandalas follow a specific symbolic format that includes an outer ring of fire that symbolizes the burning of impurities and ends with a center ring of lotus flowers to represent entering a pure area. Various deities occupy the center of the mandala. One who enters the mandala is thought to absorb the compassion, wisdom and skills of the deities.

Modern Mandalas

Modern mandalas typically refer to any design that contains a central circle with concentric circles radiating from the center. They may contain squares, triangles and other geometric designs. Personal mandalas may contain images to symbolize personal traits or characteristics. They are even used by organizations to develop a core set of images to symbolize their values and standards.

Many types of mandalas can be found depicted in artwork, found in children and adult coloring books or made from a variety of materials and sold at craft fairs and art shows. Some unique instances of mandalas in modern life are the work of Kathy Klein who makes mandalas from nature by using flowers, seeds and pods and Andres Amador who sketches intricate designs in the sand on the beach. While neither are examples of traditional mandalas, they illustrate the scope of designs that Americans may refer to as mandalas.

Mandalas have existed since ancient times and have served as symbols of oneness with the universe. They are also thought to symbolize the mind and body connection and to represent new age concepts such as that the everything in the universe in intertwined and connected on a cosmic level.