In Eastern philosophical and religious thought, as in its Western counterparts, there is a wealth of metaphorical visual imagery. This imagery symbolizes ideas and concepts from different schools of thought. In other words, images are just as important in Eastern religions as in Western ones – perhaps even more so, owing to the lower historical rates of literacy in Asian societies compared to European and Western ones. These images, laden with meaning, helped people understand and remember complex teachings and delivered those teachings in relatively simple and digestible packages. And, as in the West, Eastern cultures drew inspiration from the natural world around them for their visual symbols. The Cintamani (also known as chintamani) is one such widespread symbol.
The word itself – made up of two words, “cinta” and “mani” – means “wish-fulfilling jewel”. Its Western equivalent could be considered the “philosopher’s stone” that medieval alchemists wrote about and searched for, made famous in recent pop culture by the first book of the Harry Potter series.
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The Buddhist and Hindu Stone of Prosperity and Fulfillment
The stone features in Hindu and Buddhist traditions and their mythical stories. In Buddhist tradition, it is one of several Mani jewels, which are mentioned in many scriptures and other literature as metaphors for Buddhist concepts or as mythical relics. Some depictions of the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Ksitigarbha show them holding the Cintamani, to symbolize their ability to fulfill the wishes of sentient, suffering beings.
The Cintamani also features on Tibetan prayer flags in the form of Lung Ta – “Wind Horse” – who carries the Cintamani on its back, symbolizing a vehicle for bringing peace, good fortune, and enlightenment. In Tibetan Buddhist folk tradition, prayer flags (sometimes referred to themselves as “windhorses”) flapping in the wind carry prayers to heaven, symbolizing Lung Ta itself flying in the wind with the Cintamani. Reciting the dharani (a form of ritual speech similar to mantra) of Cantamani was said to be able to turn suffering into Bodhi, or understanding of the true nature of things, which in turn leads to awakening and enlightenment.
A Magical Tibetan Relic
In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the cintamani is sometimes referred to as a magical relic that fell from the sky in a chest (along with three other relics). The cintamani was found by a Tibetan king, who kept it and the other relics. Years later, two strangers came to his court and explained the relics, and these four relics were the bringers of the dharma, or Buddhist truth about the law and order of existence, to Tibet.
A Jewel in a Fish’s Forehead
The Cintamani features in Hindu tradition as well, although not as prominently. It is associated with the Hindu gods Ganesha and Vishnu, and is sometimes depicted as originating from the forehead of Makara, a mythological water creature that was part mammal, part crocodile or fish, with a long proboscis. In Hindu mythology it symbolizes the chaos out of which the world’s order is created and to which it returns. The Cintamani in the Makara’s forehead is the enlightened truth originating from chaos and which is essential for order to be possible.
The Cintamani, in short, is one of those old and beautiful symbols that grew naturally out of folk traditions and stories told by people living in India, Tibet, and the wider region. It has deep roots in their understanding of the world and philosophical traditions. Its visual representation takes the form of jewels and precious stones, which in Hindu and Buddhist traditions represent the teachings that bring inner wealth and prosperity to people in the form of knowledge of how things are and the order of the world. A round stone, after all, is exactly what our world is.