Mandala is a beautiful art form that originates in Asia but has quickly spread all around the world. The simple yet beautiful nature of it makes it universally appealing, and easy to incorporate in all types of designs and purposes.
The Sanskrit word ‘mandala’ literally translates to ‘circle’, and the images under this name usually show a series of concentric circles filled with intricate details.
However, mandalas also have a deeper, spiritual meaning – representing the entire universe, but also harmony, wholeness, and unity.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- Mandala Meaning
- Mandala Origins
- Mandalas in Different Cultures
- Mandala Symbolism
- Mandala Uses
- How To Include Mandalas In Your Practice?
Mandalas are spiritual symbols in Asian cultures.
Mandala has two main meanings: the first is external, as it represents the entire universe. The second is internal, representing Asian practices that lead to enlightenment, such as meditation.
The exact practice depends on the tradition, but both Hinduism and Buddhism talk about slowly entering the Mandala and moving toward the center.
This movement represents the transformation of life or the universe from suffering into happiness.
Traditionally, the creation of mandalas begins with rituals and ceremonies where it is blessed with chants and music. Although, there are also mandalas that are painted on paper and other surfaces, the most intricate are, of course, the sand mandalas.
In this Buddhist practice, the monks spend 10 days pouring colored sand into metal funnels with which they “paint” the mandalas. This process is believed to purify the temple and its residents.
Almost as soon as the mandala is finished, the monks will destroy it. This symbolizes the impermanence of all things.
Although some say they are even older, the use of mandalas has mainly been developed through Buddhism.
We don’t know exactly when Siddhartha Gautama or the founder of Buddhism was born, but it is estimated it was around 560 B.C. After attaining enlightenment, he established the first Buddhist community of monks.
They traveled through different parts of Asia, carrying scrolls with mandalas on them and spreading the practice of painting them.Since they already had mandalas with them at the time, we can safely assume they were already present in Asian culture. Still, the Buddhists were the ones who truly popularized the art form.
However, the mandalas are present in other cultures as well, and through this, we will further explore both their origins and their meaning.
Mandalas in Different Cultures
In Buddhism, creating mandalas is seen as a type of meditation, in which the meditator projects themselves onto paper. Each detail in the mandala has a meaning and symbolizes something.
The artists go through long training to learn all meanings of mandalas. This knowledge helps the person to release all questions during the painting process and facilitates them entering a meditative experience.
Some artists use the colored sand method we mentioned above, while others use paint. The painters also show their detachment, by never signing the work.
Most Tibetan Mandalas represent a temple and depict a deity in the center.
The first three successive circles in the Mandala represent the flames that consume all demons and sins of the meditators, as well as the purification of their soul.
The inner circles speak about the mastery of chakras and nadis which leads to attaining enlightenment.
The meditator visualizes the central deity and sometimes also paints the secondary deities. They will often repeat mantras and perform mudras in the process.
The most common mandalas of Hinduism are yantras.
Unlike the round Buddhist mandalas, yantras are square. They have four ‘gates’ and there is a circle in the middle. Yantras represent different cosmic and spiritual truths through different geometric shapes and symbols.
These geometric compositions are then incorporated into meditative rituals, prayers, and daily spiritual practice.
Native American Culture
Mandalas weren’t present only in Asia, but in other cultures as well. One of the most prominent is the Native American culture.
There, the mandala is called a ‘medicine wheel’ and represents everything in the world. That doesn’t only refer to nature, but their daily lives as well.
Circles are an important part of their philosophy representing things like the daily cycles, the councils where people sat in circles so everyone has the same value, and the dances around the fire which also talked about the wheel of life.
The medicine wheel itself is based on the number four – which talks about the four directions, seasons, and elements. Some complex wheel images contain within them the symbols for the entire cosmos.
These paintings originated from sand paintings which were used by medicine men in their healing ceremonies.
Within South America, the Aztec Sun Stone is also a mandala that represents the universe.
The rosette is the mandala of Christianity.
Just like the mandala, the rosette shows a symmetrical illustration inscribed in a circle.
Although there are paintings and drawings of rosettes, it is most common in Christian architecture – used in circular windows and as designs for pavements, for example.
The rosette is also present in mosques and synagogues.
The symbols in mandalas traditionally weren’t put in there haphazardly – each has a meaning, representing a certain aspect of spirituality or the universe. Here we will mainly talk about Buddhist symbolism.
The central point, called bindu, represents the core of the universe or the “seed of life”. It also represents the beginning of devotion and contemplation, the place of no dimensions.
From there, other symbols are arranged, including geometrical and flower-like shapes.
The outer circle represents the never-ending circle of life, but also the interconnectedness of all things. Buddha is also often hidden within the mandala, often symbolized with a wheel, flower, jewel, or tree.
Other parts of a mandala might include:
- The wheel represents the perfect universe. It often has eight spokes which symbolize the eightfold path of Buddhism, the collection of practices that lead to enlightenment.
- A bell symbolizes the emptying of the mind which brings clarity and wisdom.
- Circles symbolize the circle of life, but also unity, and completeness.
- Squares symbolize balance, stability, and integration of two polarities.
- Upward facing triangle represents action and energy, and a downward-facing triangle represents creativity and the search for knowledge.
- Lotus petals represent spiritual purification, balance, and awakening.
- Mandalas also include pictures of deities, animals, angels, and other symbols. These figures also represent specific forces, qualities, or energies within the universe and humans.
- If the mandala is colored, the colors used also aren’t picked randomly. For example, blue can represent wisdom and peace, and red represents passion and energy.
Ultimately, the process of mandala creation is a symbol in itself.
Starting from the center and expanding outward, the mandala shows the flowering nature of life and the spiritual path: layer by layer, bit by bit.
Life itself, and indeed our consciousness, is constantly expanding; in this way, the mandala represents the path of self-growth and discovery.
We already explored an aspect of mandala uses in the previous sections, but we want to delve a bit deeper.
Here are the other main uses of mandalas:
1. Teaching mandala
Each shape included in the teaching mandala symbolizes a particular aspect of philosophy. The student uses the mandala to symbolize everything they have learned, creating an intricate mind map for themselves.
2. Healing mandala
The creation process is more intuitive, as the mandala is used for meditation. The intention is to calm the practitioner and increase their focus and concentration.
3. Sand mandala
Present both in Buddhism (painted with sand) and Native American culture (painted into sand), sand mandalas were used as a part of religious and shamanic rituals, teaching about the impermanence of life.
Mandalas are often used in yoga studios to create a sacred protected space. In Native America, dream catchers were a type of mandalas used in decor, with the purpose of protecting one during their sleep.
Mandalas, are often used for their sheer beauty alone, invoking a sense of beauty and awe in those who see them.
Carl Jung and, today, the practitioners of his school of therapy, have used mandalas in the therapeutic process of healing and self-knowledge, and as a way to explore one’s unconsciousness.
How To Include Mandalas in Your Practice?
There are two ways in which you can incorporate mandalas into your own practice: you can meditate on them or draw them (or both).
How To Meditate On A Mandala?
- Find a mandala that you like and resonate with.
- Place it about an arms-length away from you, so it’s close to eye level.
- Sit on the floor in a meditative posture or in a chair.
- Take deep breaths, slowly calming the mind.
- Start gazing at the mandala, and relax your eyes so that the image goes out of focus.
- Slowly begin to concentrate on the images, observing the shapes and details. If thoughts come up, bring your attention back to the mandala.
- Perform your meditation for 5 to 15 minutes (or more if you like). Like with all types of meditation – consistency is key.
How To Draw Mandalas?
Drawing mandalas can be just as meditative as observing them.
We gathered a couple of instructional videos everyone can follow to inspire your artistic and meditative journey:
If you’ve enjoyed this article on the mandala meaning and you’re interested in the connection between art and spirituality, check out this article, too: