The Hindu mandala, or mandala, in various languages has different terms: Sanskrit, “circle”; Chinese, man-ta-tao; Japanese and Korean, mandara; and Tibetan, dkyil ‘khor. The mandala is a symbolic pictorial representation of the universe, originating in India but is prominent in Tibetan Buddhism (Buddhism), and which is visualized in context of the Tantric ritual (Tantrism). Although mandalas are commonly founds on scrolls as water paintings, for important rituals the practice is to trace the mandala onto consecrated ground using water colors that can be erased upon the termination of the ritual. In meditation, they can be visualized without physical representation.
All mandalas follow a precise symbolic format. Their circular shape, indicating an all-including pervasion, consists first of an outer ring of flames. This gives the area a protective nature, and as the yogin visualizes his entry into the mandala, his impurities are symbolically burned. A second circle consists of a ring of vajras, symbolizing the indestructible quality of enlightenment, Especially in mandalas of wrathful divinities, there is a third circled of eight cemeteries, in which die eight superficial modes of consciousness which would distract the yogin from his required concentration. A final ring of lotus petals signify the purity of the land which the yogin now enters. Having in his visualization crossed these boarders, the yogin stands outside of a “pure palace” (vimana) which by representing the four directions in its four walls adorned with auspicious symbols, and its four opened gateways (dvara), is understood to include within itself the entire external would, and its own center is seen as the axis mundi. Around the divinity inhabiting this central spot as “Lord of the World,” whose nature is puresunyara and with whom it is the goal of the yogim to identify, various other deities represent the emanating tendency of the center, and thus also represent the relationship of samsara to nirvana as the insubstantial display of an a-spatial, a-temporal “basis.” By visualizing his entire body as the mandala, the yogin sees the universe contained within himself as the microcosm, and by identifying with the central deity the yogin places himself in the ultimate state where the coincidence of nirvana and samsara is seen. In absorbing the compassion, wisdom, and skillful means of that deity, the yogin effects a transmutation of his own mundane personality which will outlast the duration of the ritual itself.
In Hinduism, mandalas are described in great detail in the Tantras and Agamas. For example, the Pancaratra text, Laskmi Tantra (37. 3-19) describes a mandala of nine lotuses. This is composed of a series of squares with nine lotuses within the central square, upon which various deities are situated, namely, Narayana with Laksmi in the central lotus, surrounded by divine emanations (vyuthas) and other deities on the petals. Further emanations of Shakti are located upon the other lotuses. Thus this represents a model of cosmogony, the source of manifestation symbolized by the central deities from whom emanate the cosmos and other deities.
In liturgy (puja) the mandala is the place where a deity is invoked by the mantra. The placing of mantras upon the mandala (nyasa) gives it life, and then the mandala is then regarded, like the mantra, as the deity itself, and not merely representing the deity. A mandala is also visualized (dhyana) by the yogin whose aim it is to merge with the deity. Visualization is accompanied by the mantra repetition and the practice of mudra, a sign of power, through the body, especially the hands, for the control of mind, speech, and body. The mandala is sometimes identified with the yogin’s subtle body (linga/suksma sarira), thereby identifying the individual subject with the cosmos. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 610