Mandala Sanskrit term meaning sacred circle, refers to a geometric design used primarily as an aid to meditation in Tantric ritual practice. Mandalas appear in early Tantric texts such as the Buddhist Mavjushrimulakalpa (c 750 AD), although there is precedent for them in some elaborate constructions of Vedic rituals including the fire altar (agnichayana). Mandalas are used in both Buddhist and Hindu tantricism, the latter also using other types of geometric designs including the yantra and chakra.
Mandalas are found in different media: they may be described in texts, painted on silk, drawn with coloured powder, constructed in three dimensions out of rock, or simply visualized in the imagination of the ritualist. Incorporating ancient cosmological and physiological symbolism, mandalas typically place a particular deity at the centre, surrounded by an entourage at the various directional points. Frequently in Tantric Buddhism, the deity is depicted embracing his female consort. Such scenes represent the unity or integration of worldly existence (sangsara) and liberation (nirvana), which is reflected in numerous other symbols on the mandala. The ritual practitioner seeks to realize this absence of duality by evolving and reabsorbing the mandala in internal contemplation. When the insight of non-duality arises, even the fierce deities prevalent in Tantric Buddhist mandalas are understood to have the nature of emptiness (shunyata). [Robert A Yelle]