Just got back from my 6th annual yoga retreat. This year’s theme was “Embracing Change,” and I got to help create part of the curriculum. I was asked to come up with a learning activity that involved mandalas, so I proposed a Gayatri Yantra visualization since everyone in the group had been chanting the Gayatri Mantra together for several years.
What’s the difference between the mantra, a yantra, and a mandala?
A mantra is a group of syllables, pronounced in Sanskrit, that expresses a particular concept. You can repeat the syllables as part of a meditation to calm the mind and create focus.
The yantra does the same thing, but is perceived with the visual instead of the auditory channel. A yantra is specific pattern that symbolizes a specific concept within the Sanskrit tradition.
A mandala can be purely decorative, it may or may not have a symbolism or a built-in design logic, but a yantra always has a highly specific symbolism expressed with blatant math, geometry, lines, curves, ratios and proportions. A yantra has a specific function. A mandala may or may not have a function; it could just be a pretty picture.
When I researched the origins of yantra patterns, it reminded me a lot of what I learned when I researched Tarot imagery: Nobody knows for sure where it came from, or exactly when it came. We just know that the images are old, and they seem to tap into some sort of archetypal vein. There is some sort of magic quality that emanates from the images.
If you’re curious about yantras, I recommend getting a copy of Yantra: Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity by Madhu Kanna. Not only are the pictures fabulous and mysterious, but if you’re a yoga or meditation practitioner, I’m sure you’ll see some Sanskrit words that you recognize. If you study yoga, you can’t avoid gaining a Sanskrit vocabulary, but sometimes it’s hard to remember what all the words mean. To me, having this book as a reference is like being able to “put a face with the name.” Every Sanskrit word does not automatically have a yantra, and every yantra is not pertinent to yoga, but there are definitely some overlaps.
Today’s image is the Gayatri Yantra, sourced from Madhu Kanna’s book.