The historical backdrop of circle/wheel imagery has pervaded many aspects of life in cultures throughout time with examples from religion, literature, psychology, politics, socio-economics, music and art. Speaking to profound contemplation is the mandala, an intricately designed geometric pattern of vibrant hues and textures and a tool used for reflection and edification in cultures throughout the world.
The world’s earliest religion, Hinduism, is itself representative of the circle. Although scholars pinpoint Hinduism’s beginnings at some point in the range of 2300 and 1500 BC, its followers, contend that the religion has no start and no closure, as a circle: a line of limitlessness. In Sanskrit, the language of Hinduism, mandala means disk or circle. Further, various sects of Buddhism use mandalas. Some use them to reach their common goal of enlightenment.
Tibetan Buddhist monks offer an interesting story… Before the creation of mandalas, monks spend up to three years in study of their design and philosophy. In the hours before they begin creation, they spend time in meditation and ceremony. The process of creation is itself a private, meditative and sacred one. It requires a harmonious effort by the group of monks making the piece. Only after it is finished is the public allowed to view it and take part in accompanying ceremonies. After spending weeks meticulously creating these artful masterpieces out of millions of tiny grains of dyed sand, they completely destroy the mandalas to signify the impermanence of all things. Yet, the mandalas essence and all it represents is indestructible.
It’s important to note that mandalas were not used just for religious purposes. Though somewhat anecdotal, the first Buddhist one was not made to be of a religious nature. It was a gift of reciprocity from one king to another for his gratefulness to the other for help in battle. When King Bimbisara wanted to thank King Udrayana for his help, he couldn’t think of anything of considerable enough value he might offer him. Bimbisara’s Prime Minister suggested a portrait of Gotama, the Buddha, residing within their realm. When the King went to Gotama to request it, and upon agreement with the King, instead of a portrait he commissioned many artists to create a mandala under his direction. Gotama designed the gift based on the symbolism of one of Buddhism’s key teachings, the Wheel of Dependent Origination, most easily understood to mean that if one entity exists, then another also must; if one of them ceases to exist so also will the other. This was the ideal gift in this situation!
There are other examples of the use of circle imagery in ancient politics. Political power, for instance, was often depicted on maps with circles, showing how the power structure was delineated in different regions.
Beyond Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism is another Asian religion that creates and uses mandalas for meditative purposes. The concentric circles in this rendition displayed at the British Library depict 24 Jinas, those having accomplished what according to their traditions is a perfect state. The most recent one having been given this honor is in the innermost circle with the others surrounding.
Evidence in Babylon
The concentric circle idea was introduced in the Bible by Ezekiel between the years of 593 and 571 BC. It’s a poetic piece of prophetic, sacrosanct composition, one that might even be better understood as an image.
“I looked up and saw four wheels beside the cherubim. One wheel was beside each of them. The wheels gleamed like topaz. All four of them looked alike. Each wheel appeared to be inside another wheel at right angles.” (Ezekiel 10:9-10 New International Reader’s Version)
We see the concept of a never-ending life with perfect vision as these wheels are filled everywhere with eyes (contextually accurate, though not specifically stated in this particular passage). They see everything there is to see, and they miss nothing. Whether some of the wheels turn forward or others turn in opposing direction, it makes no difference because they are wheels within wheels, their motion spinning through infinity with the wisdom of the ages.
The Halo and Crown of Thorns
The halo, though not original to Christianity, is often most associated with it. It was actually derived in pagan culture, related to sun adoration and, from the outset was avoided by Christians. This aura of light, or nimbus, gained popularity in the fourth century when emperors embellished portraits of themselves with halos. Following, Christian art began portraying Christ with a corona, often in the form of a cruciform nimbus, a halo with the cross at its center. As time went on, a nimbus was featured to enshrine the heads of angels and saints. Certain early Buddhists of China, Japan and later in Greece also used the halo to dignify their Buddha deities. Now and again, the halo encircled the entire body. The Catholic faith also sometimes pictures Christ with the all-encompassing halo.
Central to Christian belief is the crucifixion of Christ. The crown of thorns used to mockingly deride him as King of the Jews just prior to the event is an integral. It shows itself in many art forms. In 1238, the Emperor of Byzantium, Baldwin II, sold the supposed crown to King Louis XIV of France. During the period of the French Revolution, many artifacts of the Church were lost, but the crown remained, though far from its original condition by the time it made its way to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris where it was restored and remains today. By the way, the crown survived devastation in the April 2019, Cathedral fire.
Dante’s Divine Comedy and Other Circle Imagery of Medieval Europe
Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” based on medieval Christian beliefs, portrayed circle symbolism. Scrolling down a bit more than half the page, we can see the concentric circles in the funnel image as Dante explained it, the first being purgatory and eight more, each with worsening offenses as it descends. In each level is the place individuals who have committed similar sins end their days of transgression together. At the base, the concentric point, is where the worst of them end up with Satan himself. Likewise, the concentric spheres encompassing the earth make up Paradise.
Called a Rose Window, it’s really a circular window of Gothic architecture that was very common in France during this period but also had presence in other European churches and cathedrals. Very similar to the divine appearing in the center of Asian mandalas, these western mandalas often showed Christ or the Blessed Virgin in the center rosette. When they were constructed in the ceilings of churches and other sacred places, they signified a circle of light through which the spirit of God would be shining down upon them.
Interestingly, one of the most notable mandalas of Christianity, dating back to the 16th century, is the seal of Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran Church. The outer circumference succinctly expressed what were considered to be by the Roman Catholic faith his schismatic beliefs and those of the Protestant Reformation of this period.
Mandalas and the Mind
Anyone who has taken basic psychology courses is familiar with Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist famous for his theory of the collective unconscious. We’ve recapped this article to set the foundation indicating the significant role mandalas played in Jung’s evolution, which finally empowered him to present and implement his theory without concerns over cultural disparities, making the theory of the collective unconscious a landmark achievement in the field of psychology.
Jung was a student of Buddhism and eastern philosophies in the early part of the 20th century. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm for these subjects was exclusively in connection to how he, as a physician, might use that information, all the while maintaining his own strict mindset that the disparity between the cultures was not something that could be reconciled because of the distinctions in cultural conditioning of the people of the east and west.
As Jung began to explore his own psyche, he had to make it both the subject and object of his analysis. This was to enable him to help his patients understand how their minds functioned. Albeit unwittingly, he was using meditative processes to do this. It may have been the bigotry of the day, the idea that anything non-western was inferior, a concept he disdained, that was a catalyst for him to start considering how there actually may be some compatibility of these seemingly disparate minds while still embracing their differences. It appears that, in this way, a sense of spirituality assumed from his ethics, may have found its way into Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.
It was actually the concept of mandalas that finally allowed him to break through his mind’s barrier that eastern and western philosophies were too practically different for one to be of any significant use to the other in psychoanalysis. This statement he made summarizes this reformation in his thoughts on the issue: “In such cases it is easy to see how the severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder of the psychic state– namely through the construction of a central point to which everything is related, or by a concentric arrangement of the disordered multiplicity and of contradictory and irreconcilable elements. This is evidently an attempt at self-healing on the part of Nature, which does not spring from conscious reflection but from an instinctive impulse.” He finally realized that the irreconcilable elements were not irreconcilable due to that concentric point.
As we see here, Jung began getting his patients actively involved in the therapy of creating their own mandalas. He observed the similarities in their creations, evidence of his theory that significant elements of consciousness are common to everyone.
Native Americans and Medicine Wheels
Medicine wheels have a sacred connotation of hope and healing to the indigenous Plains tribes of North America. The outer circle represents the cycle of life and death. Among the various clans, there are uncommon and private, sacred implications applying to each, most of which remain unknown to outsiders. In fact, it is not uncommon for individuals to create unique medicine wheels of their own, sometimes products of an individual’s fantasies and visions. What we do know that is common to most of them is that the four bearings of north, south, east and west and also the four seasons are represented. Other common features of most medicine wheels can be learned here.
Five Examples of Modern-Day Circle/Wheel Imagery
- This is a brilliantly devised and comprehensive study of the entire Bible with the use of a wheel. The 66-book sequence starts at the outer edge of the circumference as it continues until the New Testament books, closest to the core of the concentric circles, complete the archival order. The spokes of the wheel correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
- Extinction Rebellion, established in the UK in 2018, uses this circle icon as its logo. Though not a spiritual group itself, those of this gathering with spiritual orientation, connecting them to their environmental concerns, might also be considered a part of the Eco spirituality movement.
- Eco spirituality continues to evolve in the 21st century, drawing people from many religions based on their common belief in the sanctity of nature and connections of personal spirituality to environmental issues that move them. The Deep Green Awakening uses what they have named as the Five Wings of the Heart in several mandalas, each partitioned into five wings, citing affirmations and offering thoughts for daily devotion and meditation.
- Wallerstein’s World System theory is a construct of three concentric circles, composing the inner core of the wealthiest nations, the middle core with less and the outer circumference with least composing the rest. His theory proposes that all not in the inner core vie to be there, and those in the inner core strive to remain there at the expense of the poorest. The sociological aspect of this economic theory is the interdependence activists hope to achieve to counteract this effect. Perhaps the Buddhist Wheel of Dependent Origination we mentioned above would help get their point across. This is by far not the only modern-day economic theory using a circle construct to explain itself. In the face of the current global economy, however, we find it one of the most interesting.
- We don’t think we can do justice to the significance of circle imagery in history without a passing reference to its role in music. Of the dozens we could have chosen, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 recording of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” was instrumental in attempting to unify an America divided over the Vietnam War and the genres of blue grass and rock in the music industry. For this, we found it most appropriate for our purposes here. The lyrics are actually to do with the death of a mother, something to which most people can relate, and death of a loved one is something to which all can relate.
Will the circle be unbroken? We hope you have enjoyed this journey through circles in time, and we leave you to ponder the question.