The Cultural (and Religious) Significance of the Mandala Craze
by Jusleen Basra
There’s no doubt that mandalas have been making it big these past few years. From dream catchers and adult coloring books to tapestries and flash tattoos, the mandala could very well be crowned the queen of pop culture for the decade! But these ornate circular patterns have more to offer than just beauty- they possess a cultural and religious significance that are simply bound to augment your appreciation for them.
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, mandalas are colorful circular patterns with intricate details that wind inwards to create a unifying center.
In Sanskrit, the word “mandala” loosely translates to “circle”. They are meant to represent wholeness as a cosmic diagram, and to remind us that we are a part of the infinite; that the world lies both within and outside of our minds and bodies. Pretty deep, right? It gets better.
Mandalas, in the Tibetan Buddhist religion, are used as a form of meditation to heal and enlighten minds. Buddhist monks practice a ritual involving the creation of mandalas out of colored sand, beginning in the center and working concentrically outwards, using metal tools called chak-pur to carefully place each grain of sand in the correct spot. Because these mandalas are made of sand, and even a subtle draft of wind could irritate the design, the monks often wear masks. (Imagine how much chaos an innocent sneeze could create!) But while this meticulous process is in itself incredible, it’s the ending that’s the most interesting. After spending hours creating these elaborate works, the monks use a paintbrush to destroy the sand patterns, dragging the brush from the perimeter of the circle to the center. Why? To represent an essential ideal: that life is impermanent.
Similar to the Tibetan Buddhist interpretation, Hinduism also utilizes the mandala as a way of connecting to the outer world. Mandalas have been painted on paper, buildings, wood, stone, and fabric since ancient times, and to this day hold a sacred meaning.
Aside from the interpretations of these two religions, (and those of other religions as well), Carl Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst, is often credited for bringing these interpretations to Western culture, and for studying the psychological effects of mandalas. After spending multiple days “drawing his feelings” on paper in the form of mandalas, he instructed his patients to do the same. Jung found that the mandalas began to look extremely similar, and he concluded that they attract the same level of unconscious being in everyone. In Jung’s words, “This is evidently an attempt at self-healing on the part of Nature, which does not spring from conscious reflection but from an instinctive impulse.”
Mandalas clearly play an important role in cultures all around the world, and act as a symbol of wholeness- something we often forget in our hectic lives. But the popularity of mandalas amongst the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life tells us that humanity still craves something: a connection to the infinite.