Mandalas: In Search of a Perfect Circle

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
a black and white photo
Buddhist monks from the Namgyal Monastery in India begin work on a Kalachakra Sand Mandala at the Museum of Natural History in 1989. Photograph by Paul Chinn

"Each person’s life is like a mandala – a vast, limitless circle. We stand in the center of our own circle, and everything we see, hear and think forms the mandala of our life." –Pema Chodron

The Mandala is a sacred symbol used in many different Eastern traditions. At its most basic level the word mandala translates from Sanskrit to mean circle but a deeper examination leads to multiple interpretations and meanings. The origin of this symbol is debated amongst scholars but one of its most prevalent and unifying characteristics is a circular geometric design. Mandalas are utilized for many different purposes including meditation, prayer and ceremonies.

Mandalas are most commonly seen in a two dimensional format and can be made from various substances such as paint, wood or metal. Common structural features include: incorporation of a lotus design, usually one or more centrally placed god, and a symmetrical pattern that represents elements of the universe. In certain Buddhist traditions mandalas are created on a flat surface with different color sands and are destroyed after completion of a ritual. The destruction of these sand mandalas is meant to demonstrate the finiteness of the human existence and the cyclical pattern of life and death.

Mandala of Vishnu, Painting; Pata/Paubha, Mineral pigments on cotton cloth. Made in Nepal. From the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Museum Associates Purchase.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While there are many unifying design features of mandalas there are certain unique qualities specific to different religions. In Hinduism a mandala is often constructed with at least one god in the center of a circle, which can subsequently be surrounded by more gods and in some instances even more than a thousand. Individuals will use these mandalas when praying to their god and believe that they are invoking them during prayer.  In Buddhist traditions a depiction of the Buddha is often at the center of a mandala and is utilized for meditation and to help achieve enlightenment.

Buddhist Mandala. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Mandalas have continued to gain popularity in Western society and have been studied by psychologists such as Carl Jung during his analysis of patients. Jung was interested in mandala creation for his patients as he believed it tapped into their consciousness. In more recent times, interest in mandalas has grown in appreciation of their beauty and artistic value. If you would like to learn more about mandalas visit the Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department at the Central Library.

For Further Reading

Top photo from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. Mandala photos from Wikimedia Commons.