Mandalas – Ritual and Psyche
Kolams are a tradition that originated in rural, village India – a Hindu women’s ritual of painted prayers. Each morning at dawn women make freehand drawings of singular beauty and symmetry in the dirt outside their dwellings. Often they are mandala shaped. They are made of wet and dry rice flour, sometimes colored with dyes, although the very traditional are white only.
Kolams are thought of as either protective, evocative of blessings, or both. Some are dedicated to specific goddesses, often Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, luck and good fortune, or Buhdeva, goddess of soil and earth. For special occasions and feast days they may cover the whole courtyard or street.
Imagine yourself stepping outside and your sidewalk or street is adorned with ephemeral lace-like drawings. You walk on these on your way to work or to jog or to get your morning coffee. Your footfalls and those of many others will wear them away as the day passes. But they will reappear tomorrow morning.
In Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung talks about how he had painted his first mandala after writing Seven Sermons. Then he recounts how from 1918-1919 while on military duty he sketched every morning in a small notebook. He describes what he drew as “a small circular drawing, a mandala, which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time. …My mandalas were cryptograms concerning the state of the self which were presented to me anew each day. In them I saw the self – that is, my whole being – actively at work” (1961, p. 195). To Jung “my whole being” meant his consciousness plus the unconscious – “actively at work” – that is, the mandala was being produced from a source other than his conscious will or ego and yet it was showing him how his personality was coming to a new order. Jung began to understand the primacy of the unconscious and the relativity of the ego vis-à-vis the ordering principle of the Self. He said,
I had to abandon the idea of the superordinate position of the ego. …During those years…I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. … I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had attained what was for me the ultimate. Perhaps someone else knows more, but not I. (MDR, p. 196) (my italics)
Then eight years later in 1927 Jung had his Liverpool dream which he says crystalized his earlier insights about mandalas. In his dream, although he was with friends, only Jung could see the illuminated, magnificent center in the midst of an otherwise dark and dank cityscape. He said this dream made him realize, “The center is the goal, and everything is directed toward that center. Through this dream I understood that the self is the principle and archetype of orientation and meaning. Therein lies its healing function (MDR, p. 197) (My italics). He went on to make a painting of this dream in abstract mandala form which he called “Window on Eternity.”
In 1930 Jung gave a seminar which included his mandalas and in 1933 he first published “A Study in the Process of Individuation.” This work followed the art work drawn spontaneously as active imagination from the unconscious of a woman patient. Twenty-three out of her twenty-four paintings are mandalas. Jung’s writing narrates how the paintings show a progression from a chaotic to an ordered psychic state, a reorganization of the woman’s psychic being. Indeed, mandalas were significant enough for Jung to take the time twenty years later in 1950 to write up and publish his 1930 seminar and edit and revise his essay of 1933.
We sometimes experience interminable times of seemingly impossible conflict. If mandalas appear then in your dreams, active imaginations, or otherwise in your “regular” life, they let you know that there is an organizing principle at work amid what feels like chaos. Psychic reorientation is at hand. Your whole attitude and outlook upon life is changing.
In his essay “Concerning Mandala Symbolism” Jung writes:
The Sanskrit word mandala means ‘circle.’ It is the Indian term for the circles drawn in religious ritual. In the great temple of Madura, in southern India, I saw how a picture of this kind was made. It was drawn by a woman on the floor of the mandapam (porch), in colored chalks, and measured about ten feet across. A pandit who accompanied me said in reply to my questions that he could give me no information about it. Only the women who drew such pictures knew what they meant. The woman herself was non-committal; she evidently did not want to be disturbed in her work. (CW 9i, para 629, pp 355-356)