Mandala of Amitayus, artist unknown (19th century Tibetan school). Paint on wood. Currently held in the Rubin Museum of Art. A classic mandala featuring circles, squares, gates, centre point and images of the Buddha. Photo credit: wikimedia commons
The mandala may be described as a concentric diagram representing the universe, and as holding both spiritual and ritual significance. Important especially to Buddhists and Hindus (although different kinds of mandalas may be found in every faith, including Native American teachings, Judaism and Christianity), the word is a Sanskrit one meaning having essence, containingor circle.
The basic physical form of most mandalas is a square containing or being contained by a circle with four gates or openings at the cardinal points. However mandalas can be far more complex depending on their intended meaning, incorporating concentric rings, geometric shapes and Mandelbrot-type repetitions. They may be painted on any material including paper, wood, stone or cloth, be fashioned from precious metals and worn as jewellery, or painted as murals on walls. Mandalas can also be created from transient materials such as butter, pigment dust and sand. In some south eastern cultures they are considered so important that entire temples and even building complexes may be modeled on the shape of the mandala.
Historically, the concept of the mandala as a circle of significance goes back to the earliest origins of human civilisation. In the Rigveda (1500 and 1200 BCE), one of humankind’s oldest surviving texts, the word mandala signifies a chapter or a collection of verses chanted in religious ceremonies. As Nitin Kumar states:
The universe was believed to originate from these hymns, whose sacred sounds contained the genetic patterns of beings and things, so there is already a clear sense of mandala as world-model.
Mandalas first start to be seen as visual representations in ancient Tibetan writing and sketches during 8th-9th CE and in paintings and on the walls of religious sanctuaries in the 11 th – 12th CE. The use of the mandala has permeated every southeast Asian culture since then.
The very beautiful Taima Mandala. Japan, Kamakura period (1185-1336), 14th century
Hanging scroll, ink, colours, and gold on silk. Currently in the Honolulu Museum of Art.
The creation and contemplation of mandalas can serve several purposes. They may be used to focus attention, as a spiritual teaching tool, to establish a sacred space or as an aid to meditation or trance induction. When made out of transient materials they become an offering, created to assist in the attainment of enlightenment, the seeking of liberation from samsara (cycle of birth and rebirth), or the development of attributes such as compassion and wisdom.
Every detail of a mandala is fixed in cultural tradition and has specific symbolic meanings, often on several complex physical and spiritual levels. Circles represent different levels of the cosmos, while squares represent earthly planes. The centre represents the self, devotion and contemplation of the divine. Other geometric shapes such as triangles and crosses may refer to specific deities or concepts, while important attributes such as purity, positive energy or wisdom are referenced by objects such as the lotus, wheel of fire, labyrinth, thunderbolt sceptres (vajras) and graveyards. Colour also plays an important role in nuanced meanings of the mandala. The entire universe, every metaphysical concept of self and the relationship between all living beings can be represented within the confines of a single mandala, no mean feat for this deceptively simple device.
A simple mandala. Or is it? The Chinese K'o-ssu depicting Mount Meru . Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). Silk tapestry. This elaborate tapestry-woven mandala illustrates Indian imagery introduced into China in conjunction with the advent of Esoteric Buddhism. At the center is the mythological Mount Meru, represented as an inverted pyramid topped by a lotus, a Buddhist symbol of purity. Traditional Chinese symbols for the sun (three-legged bird) and moon (rabbit) appear at the mountain’s base. The landscape vignettes at the cardinal directions represent the four continents of Indian mythology but follow the conventions of Chinese-style “blue-and-green” landscapes. The dense floral border derives from imagery of central Tibet, particularly from monasteries with ties to the court of the Yuan dynasty. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons
References and Further Reading
Kumar, N 2000.Mandala – Sacred Geometry in Buddhist Art. Exotic India
Mandala. Wikipedia. Accessed 15 th June 2017 .
Mandala Symbols. Mandalas for the Soul .Accessed 15 th June 2017
Thorp, CL 2017. Tibetan Sand Mandalas. Ancient History Encyclopaedia
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