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Paintings > Batik > Mandalas, or the Geometric Vision of Cosmos
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Mandalas, or the Geometric Vision of Cosmos

Mandalas, or the Geometric Vision of Cosmos

Mandalas, or the Geometric Vision of Cosmos

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Mandalas, or the Geometric Vision of Cosmos

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In Indian mystic tradition a 'mandala' has great symbolic significance. Basically a 'mandala' stood for the orbit of a heavenly body, the sun, moon, or any other planet. It is also equated with Lord Vishnu's disc, coil of the great serpent Shesha, revolution of the earth, circular course of time, halo around a divine entity, globe, sphere, orb, the vault of sky and the amphitheatre, or the dancing ring of Lord Krishna. A 'mandala' is one of the earliest geometrical innovations. It is rather the proto-form for all forms are born of it. It is hence that tantrikas used 'mandalas' for their several mystical diagrams wherein they innovated multiform within the 'mandala'. Jains used 'mandalas' for elaborating their cosmological vision. The ancient architect used a 'mandala' for casting the roof of his temple and the sculptor for devising the 'chhatra', halo and the 'padmasana' pedestal of his deity. In paintings the early examples of 'mandalas' are seen in Jain Kalpasutras.

In this cloth painting the artist has rendered three 'mandalas'. The circumference of all three 'mandalas' has the same diameter. They have an alike inner central circle, an 'upamandala' in the centre. Save a difference in colour scheme the 'mandalas' on two sides have similar 'upamandalas' but the 'upamandala' of the middle 'mandala' has an altogether different pattern. The zodiac consisting of this 'upamandala' has been divided into nine squares or their part. It has a surmounting frill of black with yellow flowers rotating around. In the 'mandalas' on two sides each of these inner circles constituting zodiac are divided by rotating discs with eight leaves and the ninth division as the circular centre. Thus, zodiac form has in all 'mandalas' nine divisions.

All 'mandalas' have an alike inner pattern consisting of a square which has on all four arms temple like projections and all four corners of each one are surmounted by a couple of painted horns. The temple and horn motifs symbolise the good and evil in man. This square on the left has saffron base, which represents the process of disillusionment leading to renunciation. It depicts the stage when the self attempts detachment from both good and evil. The square of the central 'mandala' has red base, the colour of love. The self, after it has attained detachment from both good and evil, unites with the Supreme in perpetuity. The white base of the third square indicates 'moksha', the salvation, attainment of the supreme goal of self. In tantrika system this scheme of 'mandalas' may be elaborated with a difference. The white is suggestive of 'dhyana', the meditation and yellow of 'yoga' and the both, conjointly and independently, may lead to union with the Supreme, which by itself is the salvation for a tantrika.

This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture. the Miniature Paintings Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi.

The word mandala is derived from the root manda, which means essence, to which the suffix la, meaning container, has been added. Thus, one obvious connotation of mandala is that it is a container of essence. As an image, a mandala may symbolize both the mind and the body of the Buddha, but images of deities are not necessary. They may be presented either as a wheel, a tree, or a jewel, or in any other symbolic manifestation.

The origin of the mandala is the center, a dot. It is a symbol apparently free of dimensions. It means a 'seed', 'sperm', 'drop', the salient starting point. It is the gathering center in which the outside energies are drawn, and in the act of drawing the forces, the devotee's own energies unfold and are also drawn. Thus it represents the outer and inner spaces. Its purpose is to remove the object-subject dichotomy. In the process, the mandala is consecrated to a deity.

Construction of a Mandala

Before a monk is permitted to work on constructing a mandala he must undergo a long period of technical artistic training and memorization, learning how to draw all the various symbols and studying related philosophical concepts. At the Namgyal monastery (the personal monastery of the Dalai lama), for example, this period is three years.

In the early stages of painting, the monks sit on the outer part of the unpainted mandala base, always facing the center. For larger sized Mandalas, when the mandala is about halfway completed, the monks then stand on the floor, bending forward to apply the colors.

Traditionally, the mandala is divided into four quadrants and one monk is assigned to each. At the point where the monks stand to apply the colors, an assistant joins each of the four. Working co-operatively, the assistants help by filling in areas of color while the primary four monks outline the other details.

The monks memorize each detail of the mandala as part of their monastery's training program. It is important to note that the mandala is explicitly based on the Scriptural texts. At the end of each work session, the monks dedicate any artistic or spiritual merit accumulated from this activity to the benefit of others. This practice prevails in the execution of all ritual arts.

There is good reason for the extreme degree of care and attention that the monks put into their work: they are actually imparting the Buddha's teachings. Since the mandala contains instructions by the Buddha for attaining enlightenment, the purity of their motivation and the perfection of their work allows viewers the maximum benefit.

Each detail in all four quadrants of the mandala faces the center, so that it is facing the resident deity of the mandala. Thus, from the perspective of both the monks and the viewers standing around the mandala, the details in the quadrant closest to the viewer appear upside down, while those in the most distant quadrant appear right side up.

Generally, each monk keeps to his quadrant while painting the square palace. When they are painting the concentric circles, they work in tandem, moving all around the mandala. They wait until an entire cyclic phase or layer is completed before moving outward together. This ensures that balance is maintained, and that no quadrant of the mandala grows faster than another.

The preparation of a mandala is an artistic endeavor, but at the same time it is an act of worship. In this form of worship concepts and form are created in which the deepest intuitions are crystallized and expressed as spiritual art. The design, which is usually meditated upon, is a continuum of spatial experiences, the essence of which precedes its existence, which means that the concept precedes the form.

The mandala appears as a series of concentric circles. Each mandala has its own resident deity housed in the square structure situated concentrically within these circles. Its perfect square shape indicates that the absolute space of wisdom is without aberration. This square structure has four elaborate gates. These four doors symbolize the bringing together of the four boundless thoughts namely – loving kindness, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity. Each of these gateways is adorned with bells, garlands and other decorative items. This square form defines the architecture of the mandala described as a four-sided palace or temple. A palace because it is the residence of the presiding deity of the mandala, a temple because it contains the essence of the Buddha.

The resident deity of this mandala is Bhaishajyaguru, the medicine Buddha. There are usually considered to be eight brother Medicine Buddhas, one of whom is Shakyamuni Buddha, who transformed himself into a blue Buddha, sending out healing rays of light.

He wears the monastic robe, and is seated with the legs crossed. His left hand, lying in his lap in 'meditation' mudra, holds a bowl containing medicine nuts, while the right, hand in 'charity' mudra, holds the branch of the myrobalan, a medicinal plant found in India and other tropical countries.

He sits on a moon disk on lotus petals.

The Bhaishajyaguru sutra (written before the sixth century) makes this Buddha far more than a healer of either the body or the spirit. He is conceived, rather, as a supreme and cosmic figure who illuminates the entire world and possesses infinite knowledge. It is also interesting to note that the sutra places considerable importance on the worship of the healing Buddha's image. The worshipper should "bathe, and with a pure mind try to be friendly to all beings. After this he is to circumambulate the image with music…" The Chinese translation further states that " if one makes an image of this Buddha, or if one recites the text of the sutra, he will escape from the nine ways of death"

The visualization and concretization of the mandala concept is one of the most significant contributions of Buddhism to religious psychology. Mandalas are seen as sacred places which, by their very presence in the world, remind a viewer of the immanence of sanctity in the universe and its potential in himself. In the context of the Buddhist path the purpose of a mandala is to put an end to human suffering, to attain enlightenment and to attain a correct view of Reality. It is a means to discover divinity by the realization that it resides within one's own self.

-------------------------------------------------------------

This description by Nitin Kumar, Executive Editor, Exotic India.

References:

Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999.

Chakraverty, Anjan. Sacred Buddhist Painting. New Delhi: Roli Books, 1998

Fisher, Robert E. Art of Tibet. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Getty, Alice. The Gods of Northern Buddhism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1978.

Leidy, Denise Patry, and Thurman, Robert A.F. Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Pal, Pratapaditya. Art of Tibet. Los Angeles: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990.

Rhie, Marylin M. & Thurman, Robert A.F. Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Of Related Interest:

Article: The Buddhist Mandala - Sacred Geometry and Art

Sterling Silver Jewelry: Coral Mandala

Thangka Painting: Kalachakra Mandala

Book: Symbols of Art, Religion and Philosophy

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