Maṇḍalas: Hindu Maṇḍalas

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The maala, a complex geometric design, is used in Hindu rituals in order to involve the whole cosmos in the ritual act. Maala s were first described in Tantric texts, but they already appear there in such detail and in such highly evolved forms that an earlier, unrecorded tradition of maala construction must be assumed.

The interest of the early Hindus in geometric designs with cosmological implications is attested by the careful construction of Vedic altars mentioned in the Taitti-rīya Sahitā (5.4.11) and in the Baudhāyana Śulvaśāstra and the Āpasthamba Śulvaśāstra. The best-known design is the falcon-shaped altar for the Agnicayana ritual. In this design, well-defined places are demarcated as seats for the gods during the ritual. Other geometrically shaped altars were in the forms of triangles, wheels, and so forth. They all developed out of a basic design, called caturaśraśyenacit, a fire altar "resembling a falcon [constructed] from squares." The shape of a particular maala depends on the special purpose of the sacrifice.

Another description of the geometrical designs for ritualistic purposes is found in the Vastuśātras, the handbooks on architecture. Instead of an outline in reduced scale, the Indian architect used a square (vastumaala ) consisting of a grid of 64, 81, or more small squares as the starting point of a temple construction. Such a vastumaala was regarded as the body of the cosmic being (vastupurua ) in whose various parts the main deity, auxiliary deities, and temple guardians resided. The vastumaala is often closely connected with the actual design of the building and assures the builder of the presence of the gods.

Square forms, in contrast to the circular plans of Hindu and Jain cosmology, are also the basis for Hindu maala s used in Pāñcarātra (Vaiava Tantra) as well as Śaiva and Śākta Tantric rituals. The most elaborate designs to appear in the Pāñcarātra ritual are described in the Lakmī Tantra (c. tenth century ce), which contains a whole chapter on maala construction, and in the earlier Jayākhya Sahitā.

These texts prescribe at the beginning of the worship the construction of a square, which is divided into 256 small squares. The 16 small squares at the center and 8 squares of identical size at the margins are filled with one lotus each. The great square has gates and is surrounded by śobhās (ramparts; literally, "ornaments") and koas ("corners"). This maala is called Navapadma Maala ("maala of nine lotuses." The texts state that no matter whether the deity is worshiped in an image, in a pitcher, or under any other circumstances, the worshiper should always "recall to his mind the nine lotuses" of the maala, "which contains the whole world and is the exalted home of all gods, which encompasses all [other] loci and is the paramount abode" (Lakmī Tantra 37.22, 37.25). The Pañcarātrins also used a Cakrābja Maala ("maala having a lotus circle"), in which a large lotus fills the entire great square. A third form, the Navanābha Maala ("maala of the nine navels") has the great square divided into nine smaller squares, in each of which is a seat (bimba ) for one of the nine manifestations of Lakmī (i.e., Vāsudeva, Sakaraa, Pradyumna, Aniruddha, Nārāyaa, Virāt, Viu, Narasiha, and Varāha).

In several North Indian Tantric Śaiva and Śākta texts, maala worship is mentioned along with the dīkā ("initiation") ceremony, (e.g., Prapañcasāra Tantra 5.3670). The similarities in preparation and designs with those of the Pāñcarātrins is striking: in both traditions a pavilion must be erected over the prepared ground on which the maala is to be constructed. Of four maala s, mentioned in Tantric texts, the first, called Sarvatobhadra Maala ("maala that is auspicious on every side"), is identical with the Navapadma Maala; the second is only its smaller variant. The third, the Navanabha Maala, is identical in form with the maala of the same name of the Pāñcarātrins, but instead of the nine seats for deities it has five lotuses and four svāstikas. The fourth maala is identical with the third but has only five lotuses and no svāstikas. Therefore, it is called Pañcābja Maala ("maala of five lotuses"). During the initiation ceremony among the Pāñcarātrins and among Tantrics, the blindfolded adept is led to the maala and throws flowers upon it. The deity on whose seat the flowers fall will provide him with a name or will become his special object of worship.

In their daily and thus more private rituals, Tantrics of all denominations start the ritual with the drawing of geometrical designs in vermilion or red sandalwood paste on a purified surface. For the devotee, these diagrams are a source of cosmic power and the place on which the deity dwells during the ritual. Although such diagrams are also often called maala s and their function of providing a proper abode for the deity is the same as in the dīkā rituals, it has become customary to call the simpler designs for daily worship yantras, and to reserve the term maala for the larger ones in public ceremonies where the whole cosmos has to be present.

Hindu maala s have attracted the curiosity of modern symbolists and psychoanalysts such as Mircea Eliade and C. G. Jung. However, as their interpretations are not always based on the evidence of the available texts, the explanatory value of these studies is limited. A definitive history of the geometric designs used in Hindu rituals has yet to be written.

See Also

Tantrism; Temple, article on Hindu Temples; Yantra.


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New Sources

Bühnemann, Gudrun. Mandalas and Yantras in the Hindu Traditions. Leiden and Boston, 2003.

Peter Gaeffke (1987)

Revised Bibliography