A mandala.

The Mandala: Mapping the Cosmos and the Soul

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Human cultures are replete with ways to depict or represent some aspect of the universe. Calendars, ordinary maps, star charts, and other diagrams are all examples of ways to make sense of or map part of reality. The calendar is a way to understand time just as the map is a way to understand geography. Even ancient temples were designed to be a model to make sense of the cosmos. One type of map or diagram is the mandala - which could be thought of as a map of reality itself.

Mandala is a Sanskrit word which simply means circle. It is used within many Indian religions for meditation or to invoke the power of a deity. Within Hinduism, a common type of mandala is the yantra which usually depicts a circle with a deity with which it is associated at its center.

Mandala of Chandra, God of the Moon. Nepal (Kathmandu Valley), early Malla period.

Mandala of Chandra, God of the Moon. Nepal (Kathmandu Valley), early Malla period. ( Public Domain )

Types of Buddhist Mandalas

A typical Buddhist or Hindu mandala consists of a square with four gates representing the cardinal directions with a circle circumscribing it. The circle can contain elements which represent physical aspects of the universe such as the elements (earth, fire, water, etc.) and can also include symbolism of a more directly religious or spiritual nature.

One Buddhist mandala contains an outer circle with fire representing charnel grounds where corpses would be left unburied to decompose. The inner circle within a square represents the boundaries of the realm outside of the samsara where gods and enlightened ones, or buddhas, dwell. The realm outside of the samsara is the abode of those who have achieved enlightenment and have successfully broken free of the reincarnation cycle. The symbols representing the charnel grounds are meant to remind people of the brevity of human life and how nothing lasts and to remember not to become too attached to anything lest it lead to suffering.

Painted 19th century Tibetan mandala of the Naropa tradition, Vajrayogini stands in the center of two crossed red triangles, Rubin Museum of Art.

Painted 19th century Tibetan mandala of the Naropa tradition, Vajrayogini stands in the center of two crossed red triangles, Rubin Museum of Art. ( Public Domain )

Another Buddhist mandala, called the cosmic mandala, consists of a fiery red outer circle and an inner circle containing spiral lines. The inner circle of the mandala represents the “first movement” of the universe. Extending between the inner and outer circles are symbols representing the elements which the makers of the symbols believed composed the universe.

Chinese K'o-ssu depicting Mount Meru. Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). This elaborate tapestry-woven mandala, or cosmic diagram, illustrates Indian imagery introduced into China in conjunction with the advent of Esoteric Buddhism.

Chinese K'o-ssu depicting Mount Meru. Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). This elaborate tapestry-woven mandala, or cosmic diagram, illustrates Indian imagery introduced into China in conjunction with the advent of Esoteric Buddhism. ( Public Domain )

A Map of the Cosmos and Soul

Although mandalas feature prominently in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and other Indian religions, symbols similar to the mandala can also be found in the Christian world. The dromenon is a diagram on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France which represents the soul traveling from the outer world into the sacred, inner world where God dwells.

Northern rose window of Chartres cathedral.

Northern rose window of Chartres cathedral . ( Public Domain )

Although the mandala is a map the cosmos, it can also be map of the soul; based on the belief in many traditions that the inner life of the soul mirrors the outer life of the cosmos. This is seen in the earlier example of the Buddhist mandala. The outer edge of the mandala typically represents the beginnings of a person’s spiritual journey. The center of the mandala represents the core of reality where a person’s spiritual journey culminates. In Buddhism, it culminates in nirvana and the realm of enlightened ones beyond the temporary world or samsara. In Christianity, the center of the mandala would be the place where God dwells and where the traveler finds God and discovers the true meaning of life and becomes what he or she was intended to become.

Tawang Monastery Doorway Mandala.

Tawang Monastery Doorway Mandala. (D. momaya/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Political Usage of the Term Mandala

In addition to its religious meanings, modern historians and anthropologists have also used the term “mandala” to describe the nature of political institutions in Southeast Asia. European scholars studying the region noticed that statecraft in ancient Southeast Asia differed considerably from either the Western or Chinese conception of the state. Rather than centralized states with defined borders and an established bureaucracy, polities of Southeast Asia consisted of a network of tributary states and satellite kingdoms which were internally autonomous but required to pay tribute to a central power.

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Kalash girls with traditional clothing.
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An Ulfberht sword displayed at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany
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Kalash girls with traditional clothing.
The Kalash (known also as the Kalasha) are an indigenous people living in what is today Pakistan. Although Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, with more than 95% of its population being adherents of Islam, the Kalash hold on to their own religious beliefs, along with their own identity, way of life, and language.

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