Curious About Mandalas? Here's What To Know About Their History, Cultural Significance & More
Mandalas are geometric symbols traditionally used in everything from ceremonies to meditation practices. Nowadays, you may also see them as decor, printed on clothing, or even tattooed.
Here’s what mandalas symbolize, the different ways they're used, and how to integrate them into your life, according to spiritual experts.
What is a mandala?
Mandalas are typically circles with repeating symmetrical shapes, and are considered a sacred symbol. In Sanskrit, mandala translates to “sacred center” or “circle.”
They are believed to have originated in the fourth century B.C. by Buddhist monks, and are used in various regions throughout Asia, including Bhutan, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Nepal, and Tibet. For buddhists, mandalas represent the universe in an ideal form and highlight the transformation of suffering into joy.
“Mandalas are known as Buddhist devotional designs used in spiritual practices,” explains Anne-Marie Emanuelli, meditation teacher and founder and creative director of Mindful Frontiers LLC. “Tibetan monks are well known for their elaborate mandalas created using colored sand and used as a ceremonial activity,” she says.
One of the fundamental principles in Buddhist practice is the idea that everything is temporary. Mandalas take a lot of time to create, and then are transformed or released during ceremonies. Mandalas represent the process, not the end result.
“These intricate images that take days to create are temporary, and after the ceremony, they are let go into a river or stream,” Emanuelli tells mindbodygreen, adding, “A mandala in its ceremonial form represents the transformation of a universe of suffering into one of joy.”
The geometric patterns within the mandala itself are also filled with important symbolism. As licensed clinical psychologist Avigail Lev, Psy.D. notes, “Mandalas symbolize unity, harmony, and the interconnectedness of all things. They serve as spiritual tools for meditation, self-reflection, and achieving a state of balance and wholeness.”
Cultural and historical significance in spiritual practices
Mandalas in Tibetan Buddhism
In Tibetan Buddhism, according to licensed clinical psychologist Shannon Dobbs Psy.D., mandalas are created as a form of meditation to gain a deeper understanding of the universe and the self. “Sand mandalas are intricately made using colored sand and are eventually destroyed to symbolize the impermanence of life,” she explains.
Mandalas in Hinduism
In Hinduism, mandalas are often used in rituals and meditation practices, Dobbs notes. “They represent the universe and the interconnectedness of life," she says, "often depicting deities within geometric patterns.”
Mandalas in Native American spirituality
In Native American spirituality, something called a medicine wheel (similar to a mandala), is used as a symbol of harmony and the interconnectedness of all elements in life, according to Dobbs. “It is also used for meditation and ritual purposes," she adds.
Mandalas in Christianity
While Christianity doesn't feature the same kinds of mandalas as we see in eastern traditions, Christian churches often have rose windows, which resemble mandalas, Dobbs explains. These "[symbolize] the unity and infinity of the universe as seen through the lens of the Christian faith,” she notes.
Meaning & symbolism of a mandala
The patterns, shapes, and colors of a mandala are all symbolic. As Dobbs explains, “Circles can represent wholeness, squares can symbolize the physical world, and intricate patterns might represent the complexity of the universe."
The patterns and colors that a person uses can also be meaningful and have cultural significance, with certain colors representing different feelings or ideas based on the focus or purpose of the mandala. “In general," Dobbs says, "red can symbolize strength, blue can represent calmness, yellow can represent learning or wisdom, and green can symbolize nature or healing."
Creating a mandala can be a form of self-expression and connecting with one’s self on a deeper level. As Lev notes, “The process of creating or coloring a mandala allows individuals to channel their emotions, thoughts, and experiences into a tangible form, fostering a connection between the inner and outer worlds."
And sometimes, coloring or designing a mandala can even be a healing experience. When mandalas are used as a healing modality, they are often referred to as "healing mandalas." A healing mandala is designed to promote psychological and spiritual healing, according to Dobb, with Lev adding, “By focusing on the intricate patterns and colors of a mandala, individuals can redirect their attention inward, promoting self-reflection and a sense of inner safety.”
For Emanuelli, she tells mindbodygreen that she actually uses mandalas in the mindfulness programs she leads. “While coloring mandalas, I lead the group through a meditation practice that welcomes all five senses, which helps the practitioner focus the mind on an activity that has no purpose or destination,” she explains.
Being present and relaxed allows the person to hone in on the activity. “They can just let their mind go and color in the present moment however their spirit feels called," Emanuelli adds.
How to benefit from a mandala
Whether you hang up a print of a mandala or spend time mindfully drawing one, they can be a great addition to your self-care practice.
If you’re feeling stressed out and need a relaxing activity, coloring a mandala can be an easy way to calm the mind and act as a type of meditation. “A person may also simply print out a mandala and color it as a way to relax, focus attention on the present moment, or just allow the mind to settle after a long day of work,” says Emanuelli.
With mandalas, the repetitive patterns help a person relax. “The mind is relaxed by this kind of repetitious activity that doesn't require analysis or deciphering,” she adds.
You can always create the design yourself or solely focus on coloring one in, but either way, it's still an act of self-expression. “It's in the eye and heart of the artist that the expression or intention is created," Emanuelli says, adding that elaborate mandala art can be compared to sacred geometry.
And if you’re wondering how to draw a mandala, they can be as simple or intricate as you’d like. “Starting from the center, the artist will begin with a central design,” Emanuelli tells mindbodygreen. “From there, they will add layers of designs in a regular circular pattern, adding layers until they have achieved the size they desire.”
These cool geometric designs can also be used in interior design as a decorative piece. “Mandalas are used as decorative elements, as they are aesthetically pleasing and can create a sense of peace and harmony in a space,” Dobbs notes.
What does a mandala symbolize?
Mandalas symbolize harmony and unity. They also represent that everything is connected.
How to draw a mandala?
Anyone can draw a mandala. All you need is a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Start by drawing a small circle, then, from the center of the circle, you can start drawing a simple or elaborate design with repeated patterns around your base circle.
What do the colors of a mandala mean?
Mandala colors can carry cultural significance, as well as personal meaning. Blue often represents tranquility, green relates to nature or healing, yellow is about wisdom and red typically relates to strength.
Mandalas have a rich history and are an important part of a number of different traditions and spiritual practices. Whether you draw your own or color one in, they can be a great tool for art therapy, meditation, stress relief, self-expression, and more.
Lauren David is a Chilean-American freelance writer. She writes about gardening, food, health and wellness, and sustainability. She has been published in Allrecipes, Greatist, The Healthy, The Kitchn and more.
When she's not writing, she enjoys spending time in her garden, experimenting with ingredients in the kitchen, or spending time by the ocean. See her portfolio on her website.