Significance of Mandalas in Asia

Significance of Mandalas in Asia

By Radhika Srinivasan

(Author of The Lotus Unfolds- A Study of Asian Art and Thought)

A single source word that can provide a key to the understanding of Asian artistic creations is “Mandala”, a diagrammatic matrix through and from which flow a succession of changes within a certain order. In Sanskrit, the term means a circle and a centre, a continuum, a universe; like a wheel and the hub that rotates it, yet remains fixed. It has appeared as a symbol of continual change, creation, preservation, transformation and dissolution. Inherent in the cosmic movement in space and time, the concept of Mandala has pervaded Indian speculative thought, construction, art, ritual and philosophy.

Although Mandala reflects eternal change, there is order in that change, called “Rta”, provided by the centre space or the axial pole when it extends into a three dimensional structure. Full of complex symbolisms, mandalas are metaphors that go well beyond their meanings, into mystery, magic and meditation through sounds, structures and sacred drawings.

Four basic properties can be discerned in a Mandala; a center, a symmetry, a square, a triangle or a circle and cardinal points. The first property is fixed, while all the others may vary according to the purpose and nature of a specific Mandala. The cardinal points, for instance, may be four or multiples thereof or none at all. A Mandala could be very basic drawing of a circle and a square or designed very elaborately, creating an architectural replica of the universe, with all its shades of colors and creatures, heavens and hells, letters and gestures, time and space.

The centre of a Mandala is the constant, representing the sacred, beyond space and time. It is the Adhara shadja in the swara mandala, Dhruva murthi in the Garbhagraha of a temple mandala, Mandalasthanam (in Kathakali) or Ardhamandala (or araimandi as its known in Bharathanatyam) in dance, the Bindu is Sriyantra and Sama in talachakra and so on. Between the relativity of the past and future, heaven and hell, the cyclical chain of action and reaction, the symmetry of time and space captured in circles and squares, is the here and now, a moment of eternity that is beyond space, the seed source of all that there IS.

The lotus finds a prime place in any mandala, for it symbolizes prosperity, auspiciousness and multiplicity of life. Stylistically, it is meant to suggest the created universe upon earth. Its pericarp is the centre of the earth where the seeds of creation are stored and its stem, the axis pole of the universe, brilliantly captured in the Dhwajasthamba in the temple mandalas. Finials on temple structures, reliefs and murals, ritual objects and our own spine representing Merudanda around which arise six padmas or energy centres are laden with deep symbolic significance. These inverted padmas, as it were, become chakras, when activated, culminating in the thousand petal lotus at the crown, to suggest enlightenment of man.

According to ancient shastras on Shilpa, Vastu, Agama, Natya and Vedas, a deity can be invoked and brought to life in a yantra (instrument), mantra (chant), mudra (gesture) mandala (diagramatic or artistic representation) or vigraha (image). Sri Sudarshana homa in a Hindu temple, for instance, creates a mandala arrangement with bricks based on shadkona yantra, a six-cornered star-like arrangement. It consists of a circle with 360 (days) or 28 (stars) bricks and two inverted triangles within, both converging at the sacred centre-space, where homa is offered. Fresh lotuses are placed in cardinal directions and Agni Bhagawan (fire) is invoked by offering butter, honey, sandalwood etc amidst chants. By transferring momentarily the energies of the Sun, this ritual seeks the Supreme Energiser’s grace to protect and preserve life on earth. At the end of the ritual, the structure is dissolved to symbolize transience, but the sesha, the remaining holy ash is received as sacred, that which establishes continuity.

The integration of ritual, beauty and knowledge is an important feature of any Mandala, which in itself, conveys deep transformative message to the receptive. A Tibetan sand mandala, originating from the floral kolams drawn on purified floors, has reached highest levels of perfection and piety, to represent the palatial abodes of the Cosmic Being, with portals or gates, protective circles of fire, clouds and vajra (thunderbolt) and the innermost lotus circle to represent the seat of enlightenment (Bodhimandala).

In the Tibetan Buddhist cosmology, there are five transcendent Buddhas called Panchdhyani Buddhas, eternally in the state of Buddhahood, whose manifestations are the Bodhisattvas. They descend upon earth from time to time in the form of Manusi Buddhas to redeem humanity from ignorance. The floor-plan of all the Hindu-Buddhist structures of Asia are in fact, mandalas that capture directional gods at the four or eight corners or multiples thereof and the center to house the sacred icon.

The famous Borobodur in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, is a classic three-dimensional architectural mandala. It has five square bases, superimposed on which are the three circular terraces, capped by a central Stupa. The squares represent the five storeys of Mt. Sumeru (identified with the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space). The three circular platforms above symbolize the Bhu, Bhuvar and Suvar lokas (sphere of the mortal, purified and divine souls). The aerial view of Borobodur shows a square framework with jagged edges, giving the impression that it is constantly in motion, expanding and contracting, like our breath; a feature common to all temples. Tantra texts call this “shishirita” or a shiver. For, the Body of God, which is the temple or Stupa in this case, is trembling with creative force, as it were! It’s a truly classic devise to translate movement in architecture.

In terms of performing arts, “SA” or shadja is the fixed sacred note or Adhara, around which six or more notes keep ascending and descending to create mandalaic sound patterns and eventually return to SA. The notes move in tala chakra which is the beat cycle, beginning and ending in “Samam” and create Raga mandala, indicative of the seasonal cycles, moods and emotions. The devout, who chant AUM (Bija mandala) invoke their ishta deva (gods of their choice), begin and end in Bijamandala, a mandala puja could signify a cycle of 108 or 48 or 12, depending on the purpose it is meant to serve.

Siva’s dance is Prabha mandala, the universe of light, represented by the aureole of fire, whose centre is eternity perpetually in motion. Like the Sun mandala, Siva’s movement produces intense energy and light, transforming everything; constructive during his joryous dance (ananda tandava) , destructive in his samhara tandava. Yet, Siva dances in total darkness, for He is His own Light. It is impossible to overlook the paradoxical poesy in this metaphor!

A parallel to Nataraja is Krishna’s cosmic dance of Rasa mandala, symbolizing love and life. Here, Krishna multiplies into as many forms as the cowherd maidens, gopis desire, sublimating Ananda or pure joy. And hence, the centre of a mandala could either indicate the seed source of creation or the return of all that is created back to the source, depending on expansion or contraction.

So pervasive was the Mandala principle that kings identified themselves as the centre or axial pole of their political power and created Raja mandalas by dividing their region into multiples of four states or districts; they even married four, eight or sixteen wives. Interestingly, President Suharto’s youngest son is called Hutomo Mandala putra!

It is the interconnectedness of life and the multiple layers of deep mystical symbolism that lies beneath the Asian worldview which never looked at anything in a linear or monolithic fashion. It is believed that any mandala one creates awakens the spiritual consciousness of the aesthete; both of the transience of life and the need for detachment from the cycle of life and death. It also emphasizes that all phenomena in the relative universe, good or bad, order or chaos, silence or sound, stasis or movement, are two sides of One Reality which is That or TAT! AUM TAT SAT.