A look at the universal symbol of the divine
By Benjamin Howard, Columnist
The circle is a primordial shape and is the basis of the mandala, a form of art that has aided in meditation and relaxation since antiquity. Mandalas come in many forms: they can be found in paintings, architecture, and nature. It is an archetypal form found across cultures. However, the mandala is found primarily in the art of the Indian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism.
It’s not surprising then that the word “mandala” (circle) is derived from Sanskrit: from manda, meaning “essence,” and la, meaning “container.” Certainly the mandala is held sacred by many, because it is said to be a manifestation, or microcosm, of the universe.
The mandala is simple, yet complex—perhaps that’s why it’s so pervasive throughout nature and culture. Besides the many paintings of mandalas made by Buddhists and Hindus, mandalas can also be found in Native American, Celtic, and Christian art. Some Native American mandalas are the medicine wheel, the dreamcatcher, and the famous “Man in the Maze.” The Celts made complex mandalas that imitated knot‑work, most notably the Celtic cross. Mandalas can also be found in the stained‑glass windows of Gothic cathedrals such as Notre Dame, and in the oculus of the Roman Pantheon. They can be found just about anywhere: the spider’s web; the rippling, concentric circles of a pond; or the spiral shape of the Milky Way galaxy.
I myself own a mandala in the less common, three‑dimensional form of a wire frame: a collapsible sphere, linked together by various wires that form overlapping circles. The wire frame can be easily manipulated into over 30 different shapes. The first time I used it, only vaguely aware of its purpose, it mesmerized me. I had planned on going to bed, but nonetheless for nearly an hour I was in a trance‑like state, fascinated by the many interconnected, symmetrical shapes that could be made. It was much better than a stress ball, I can tell you that.
But playing with a wire‑frame mandala is not the only means to relaxation. Drawing a mandala or contemplating one, such as gazing at a painting of it, is a form of meditation as well. In fact, the psychologist Carl Jung used mandalas with his patients to help open up the subconscious and work out psychological issues. Jung has credited much of his personal healing to his use of mandalas.
It’s a shame that the mandala’s ancient form has been nearly forgotten by the West. A little more meditation in the world might do some good.