Mandala Series Part I: History and Cross-Cultural Use of the Mandala

Few topics intertwine concepts rooted in history, philosophy, psychology, theology, art history and mysticism like the mandala. Simultaneously at the most basic and most complicated level, the universe, our solar system, our earth and each microscopic cell in every living thing is a mandala. At a basal level, every living thing is comprised of billions of microscopic mandalas; mandalas are contained in our cell structures, the cell nuclei and even the atoms which make us living beings.

From a historical, anthropological and purely aesthetic point of view, the mandala is a complex instrument that has been used for centuries by peoples of various cultures worldwide. Though the use of the mandala, its purpose, meaning, symbolism, and overall aesthetic vary drastically from culture to culture, the underlying intention of the mandala as representation of the self seems to be universal.

To better understand the origins of the mandala, it is important to understand how the mandala has been used cross-culturally over time, as there are various translations of the term itself. Specifically within the field of art therapy, it seems the most commonly referenced definition of the term mandala is “sacred circle”. On an even more basic level, the Hindi definition of mandala, in Sanskrit is actually just “circle”. However, the Tibetan translation of the term mandala is more complex, sometimes meaning “center” and sometimes meaning “that which surrounds”, depending on the context in which the term is used.

The dualistic nature of the Tibetan translation of the word mandala is of particular personal interest because of its interconnectedness with the Samkhyan concepts of purusa and prakriti, or consciousness and unconscious. The very nature of purusa, for example, is “that by its very nature it appears as not what it is”. Similarly, from a Jungian perspective, the archetype is both man’s inner world (psyche) and the outer world (matter).

The dichotomous nature of the elements deeply rooted in psychology and philosophy; that which is conscious and unconscious, the psyche and all else is effectively summarized in a mandala. The mandala is both the internal world and the outer world; it is both psyche and matter.

Mandala – Historically, the term mandala has incorporated a variety of multicultural images, typically round in shape, which are used for various purposes; from rituals and religious practices to assessment tools and interventions used in psychotherapy.


Buddhist sand mandala. Image credit goes to the Google.

With roots dating back centuries and its use throughout various cultures, the practice of mandala making has evolved into a well-documented therapeutic intervention commonly used in art therapy practice. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung used mandalas in clinical treatment of those with various mental health issues and found that, not only is the process of creating a mandala therapeutic, but that the mandala is representational of the self and of subconscious (universal) archetypes.

The resulting image is a unique personal creation that is considered to be a mirror reflection of the archetypes of the subconscious, a visual representation of the psyche, a window to the soul.