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Mandala bodies: a torrent of terminologies

To continue my examination of representations of mandalas, I will now turn to the problem of terminology – and how restrictive definitions of terms (a problem highlighted in this post) can limit one’s understanding of mandalas. In order to do this, one has to abandon the phenomenological representation of mandalas of which Jung’s presentation is an example (and as I hope to discuss at a later date, many occult/new age discourses are rooted in) which privileges individual “inner experience” over traditional/textual/cultural particulars and turn instead to matters of historical texts and their scholarly interpretation.

In my previous post, I outlined Jung’s perspective on mandalas and his interpretation of the Sanskrit term mandala as a “circle” – and his subsequent identification of almost any example of circular sacred iconography (i.e. Navaho sand paintings, Christian imagery, Alchemical diagrams) as examples of the mandala class. However, the translation of mandala as circle in this sense is limited, if only because a reading of Sanskrit texts indicates that the term has much wider usage. A more nuanced presentation of the term mandala (widely referenced in scholarly texts) is given here. A Buddhist exposition of the term sometimes given is that mandala means “that which receives an adornment” (mand – “to adorn”; -la – “receives”).

Whilst “mandala” does suggest a ring or circle, it is also used to indicate a region, a domain – such as a region of the body or a terrestrial province, an assembly or group – of elements, people (in the sense of a particular social group) or a group of deities. As I have noted in the wiki entry, the Rg Veda’s books of mantric hymns are divided into mandalas. The term also appears in geopolitical contexts – for example the relation of a king surrounded by a mandala of tributary neighbours or enemies as found in Kautalya’s Arthashastra. and numerous inscriptions. Kadambari, a prose work by the 7th century court poet Bana uses mandala in the sense of a loose social circle – “the circle of the clever”. Mandala patterns have also been related to the layout of cities and temples, and to the structuring of formal relationships between a ruler and his court. Scholars such as Ronald Inden and Jeffrey Lidke have advanced arguments that the tantric understandings of the mandala concept emerged out of earlier ritual (i.e. Vedic) and political usages.I will return to some of these themes in more depth in due course.

Needless to say, there are many examples of mandalas which are not circular in design and not all of them have a single deity in the centre – the latter being a core feature of Jung’s view of mandalas.

A further complication is mandalas vs yantras (and chakras) – there’s a commonly-found proposition that mandala refers to Buddhist (or Tibetan) diagrams and Yantras to Hindu examples – or that mandalas are primarily for meditation and yantras for “worldly” or magical purposes. The term “chakra”, of course, is popularly thought as referring to subtle body formations. However, it is well-nigh impossible to arrive at a one-size-fits-all definition, and some texts use mandala, yantra, and chakra as synonyms of each other. Furthermore, shapes, structures and applications of mandalas and yantras differs according to particular traditions, their intended usage, and the relationships betweeen the divinities within them. Discussion of and explanation of what mandalas are is also tradition-dependent and subject to wide variations by particular authors within a tradition, and not uncommonly, within a particular text. Just as there is no universal explanation of mandalas across different tantric traditions (be they Buddhist, Hindu or Jain for example) there is a wide variety of usages within those traditions.