The mandala is an interesting construct found in many cultures. It has potential for use in both art therapy and in ritual, and it’s applications and occurances are infinite.
The word mandala is a Sanskrit term which means literally “circle”, or metaphorically, “completion”.
Pagans and witches usually gather in ‘circles’, a word used to describe the gathering of souls to do a working or observe a sabbat. Circles have connotations of equality, where everyone is of equal voice and import. We also cast circles to do workings, which reflect movement of the sun, the moon and the planets in the solar system (as above, so below!). Circles and circular movements are found throughout pagan practice. Casting circle, and opening the circle, is one of my favourite aspects of ritual.The circle is a powerful form.
The mandala can be interpreted as another representation of circular energy at work. It can be used to add greater depth to the intepretation of ‘the circle’ in pagan practice.
The mandala is fundamentally a visual construct which is easily grasped by the eye, for it corresponds to the primary visual experience as well as to the structure of the organ of sight. The pupil of the eye itself is a simple mandala form. The purest, simplest, yet most encompassing form is the circle. The most rudimentary, yet ever-evolving experience of organisms is that of light, this visible source of which is the sun.
The mechanism of the mandala is a depiction of the structure of the eye, the centre of the mandala corresponds to the focal ‘blind spot’. Since the blind spot is the exit from the eye to the visual system of the brain, by going “out” through the centre, you are going into the brain. The Yogin finds the mandala in his own body. The mandala is an instrument for transcending the world of the visually perceived phenomena by first centring them, then turning them inward.
Whatever science has been able to tell us the eyes of flesh, it has been less certain about speaking of the inner visual capacities. Whether called memory, dream, prevision, clairvoyance, hallucination, or intuition, there is no satisfactory answer to the causes and qualities of these phenomena. The tradition of the Perennial philosophy speaks of the third eye, the eye above and between the eyes of the flesh. It is the eye to which Christ refers, and which, in the Hindu tradition, is called Ajňa, the eye of wisdom, or the eye of knowledge. This is the vision of the eye of the Mandala. Go to the centre and know the whole. Follow this path. Turn inward and see with the eyes of fire the Mandala that is the whole.
From Arguelles, J & M. Mandala(1995).
The mandala representation we are probably most familiar with is from various Buddhist traditions. These are painstakingly and carefully created as either a support or guide for contemplation during meditation, a vision of Buddha attained in an enlightened state, or a representation of the universe itself. They are also created as a representation of the inner self.
Carl Jung observed that these mandalas from Eastern traditions follow an unmistakable style or structure despite being allegedly free or individual in their nature- however the very idea/symbol of concentric circles and imagery systematically implanted within is an archetypal one that occurs across cultures. Jung saw it as a representation of the unconscious self and believed his paintings of mandalas enabled him to identify emotional disorders and work towards wholeness in personality.
To interpret the term broadly as Jung has, the mandala is seen to be rampant throughout nature & culture, and can be detected, analysed, and broken down within the fields of botany, physics, chemistry, geology, anthropology, art, poetry and theology (plus many more!)
Mandalas in Nature
On a microcosmal level, mandalas are absolutely everywhere if we care to look. Visible to the eye, mandala patterns can be found in eyes (as mentioned above), flowers, fruit, leaves, spiderwebs and fungi. Beyond the power of the eye we have atoms, particles, snowflakes and crystals. The circular pattern adds a majesty and beauty to the inherent forms.
On a macrocosmal level, mandalas take on a grander scale. Weather patterns such as the cyclone or hurricane spiral, planets, solar systems and galaxies- the universe itself could be interpreted as a giant mandala. Fractal mandelbrot sets found in mathematics form infinite and complex mandala shapes.
Mandalas in Ritual and Religion
In Wicca the circle is rampant. The circle that is cast for ritual, the wheel of the year, the pentagram, the seven pointed star and the cone of power are all mandalas. Astrological charts, the zodiac wheel and faery rings also form beautiful mandalas.
The mandala can be found in Native American traditions across both continents. The medicine wheel and dream catchers, and the Aztec and Mayan calendars could be said to form mandalas. In Celtic tradition, the Celtic Cross, the helix of energy and the triple spiral are mandalas of their own; and the labyrinth form (found across Europe) is a very physical and mythologically significant mandala form. Indigenous Australian art often features mandala-like forms; traditional art, bora rings and water holes for example.
The halo as seen in Renaissance art and religious iconography is an empowering mandala-form. Mandalas can be found in art from cultures in Asia, India and Africa, aswell as Pacific island nations.
In Part 2, I will explore how mandala forms can be used in ritual for a creative form meditation, reflection and healing.