So I told him that he'd better shut his mouth
And do his job like a man.
And he answered "Listen, Father,
I will never kill another."
He thinks he's better
than his brother that died
What the hell does he think he's doing
To his father who brought him up right?

Take your place on The Great Mandala
As it moves through your brief moment of time.
Win or lose now you must choose now
And if you lose you're only losing your life.

Tell the jailer not to bother
With his meal of bread and water today.
He is fasting 'til the killing's over
He's a martyr, he thinks he's a prophet.
But he's a coward, he's just playing a game
He can't do it, he can't change it
It's been going on for ten thousand years


Tell the people they are safe now
Hunger stopped him, he lies still in his cell.
Death has gagged his accusations

We are free now, we can kill now,
We can hate now, now we can end the world
We're not guilty, he was crazy
And it's been going on for ten thousand years!

Take your place on The Great Mandala
As it moves through your brief moment of time.
Win or lose now you must choose now
And if you lose you've only wasted your life.

Lyrics submitted by Nonfactor

The Great Mandella (The Wheel of Life) song meanings
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  • +3
    General CommentI can't say enough about this song. It's absolutely haunting. It tears my heart out and leaves me shaken. The phrasing and the chord progression is unique and disturbing and lovely. But it is the story that is devastating.

    A man of principle, a man of peace and dignity, gives up everything he has to effect change. Like so many have. He dies alone in a jail cell for his principles, without a friend, estranged from family, not appreciated or understood, an "enemy of the people". And ultimately there is no indication his sacrifice matters in the least: the killing continues unabated, he not a martyr for his cause. He was never thanked or supported and he will never know if he made the right decisions.

    We can feel certain the man was admirably in the right. The songwriter clearly agrees values this man's principles and courage, even if the 3 speakers in the song do not. We see him as a lonely prophet being cut down by the runaway train of cruelty and ignorance and fear that is our society. Like so many have. But he is never celebrated, never martyred. He is forgotten or reviled. An utterly purposeless tragedy.

    He has taken his place on the great mandala. For good or ill. The wheel of time doesn't notice.
    And so have the others in the song: the father, the jailer, the ruler, and the people. They take their places beside his. And the wheel rolls on, until they aren't even a memory.

    Is change even possible? The wheel metaphor suggest that ultimately it is not. As the second singer says, "He can't do it. He can't change it. It's been going on for 10,000 years." From this perspective, the man is misguided. He threw away his life for a hopeless cause. He's has "lost" and wasted his life.

    But knowing the songwriter as we do, this is not the intended message. We know he disagrees with the second singer, because he's been fighting for change his whole life. The losers are really the people who choose to rationalize their own views and refuse to accept the man's message, because they are creating exactly the dystopia they think is unavoidable. Like so many have.

    So we are forced to ask: what place will we ourselves take on the wheel? Consciously or not, we all choose our place on the great mandala. We have this brief moment to choose who we will be and what we will stand for. And, we are forced to confront the possibility that all our hopes and efforts will amount to nothing. I find it both excruciating and sublime that even the song refuses to reward the man for his sacrifice. Because the great mandala won't reward you either. The song ends on the disturbing thought that "if you lose you've only wasted your life." It's very ambiguous who the loser is here. And as frustrating as that is, that's exactly as it should be. You must decide for yourself.

    Groujoon September 01, 2011   Link
  • +2
    General CommentIn some versions of this song, there's an additional verse, between "Tell the jailer" and "Tell the people" which goes as follows:

    what's the rumbling? in the courtyard?
    Seven thousand faces - are turned to the gate?
    What's that they're saying? kill the traitor.
    Kill the traitor. kill the traitor. kill the traitor.
    la la la la la la la la la la la
    JesseWon April 11, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentFits pretty nicely. Need to find that version.

    But the song is about a man making a morally unpopular choice (existential) and giving his life for it no matter what his father or the public says. In my opinion it's one of the best anti-war songs ever written.
    Nonfactoron June 30, 2007   Link
  • 0
    MemoryFor many years, I thought this song had something to do with Nelson Mandella being imprisoned for 25+ years. He was a martyr while imprisoned. I'm kind of disappointed to learn that its really not about him after all.
    LizzPon July 03, 2010   Link
  • 0
    Lyric CorrectionHuge error. The song title is "The Great Mandala", not the great Mandella. It refers to the great circle of time in Hindu/Buddhist belief.…

    It does not refer to Nelson Mandella. Funny the chorus is right. How do we get the title to change?

    Groujoon September 01, 2011   Link
  • 0
    General CommentTo Groujo: Wow! Your comment was incredibly written. You have a great talent.
    hattison September 02, 2011   Link
  • 0
    General CommentAnyone who appreciates "The Great Mandala" should like the following movies:
    "There Be Dragons",
    "The Blue and the Grey"
    vbanoon February 19, 2012   Link
  • 0
    Song MeaningI've been playing this song on the guitar since it was first written and for all these years I believed, and still believe that the song wasn't about a draft resister from the Vietnam War but a song against capital punishment.
    "So I told him that he'd better, shut his mouth and do his job like a man..." means go to his death in the electric chair without complaining.
    "And he answered, listen father 'I will never kill another'..." is what he was saying to the priest and means he was remorseful about the death he caused.
    "He thinks he's better than his brother that died..." means he thinks he doesn't deserve what happened to the 'brother' he killed.
    "What the hell does he think he's doing to his father who brought him up right..." means how could he have done this to his family.

    Read in this context, the remaining lyrics are talking about him fasting until dying before he could be executed and of course, the 10,000 years is how long capital punishment has been a mainstay of civilization. The last verse refers to us, the people, who, since we are now free of the executed man, can resume the wanton sanctioning of state killing because, after all, he was crazy and this is the way it's always been going on for over 10,000 years.

    I don't know if Peter Yarrow is still alive or whether he has ever written anything about this song but that was always my take on it from the moment I first heard it. Another reference from the era is Phil Och's 'Iron Lady' which is also about the electric chair (before lethal injection became the way the state killed).

    beafishon October 24, 2011   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI also, at first, thought this song was about Nelson Mandela. But then, some verses looked very odd: (But he's a coward, he's just playing a game). Then I payed more attention, concluded it was about drafting to vietnam war. Now I see this other interpretation, by Groujo that seems also very pertinent. About the second comment from Groujo, I just went to whe PP&M web site ( and in the list of lyrics, this song is listed as: The Great Mandala (Mandella).
    By the way, Mandela (Nelson), spells with a single l...
    ribason June 21, 2013   Link
  • 0
    Song MeaningSome of you are really close. First of all, in this sense, Mandala and Mandella are interchangeable. If you look up illustrations of a mandala, it is a wheel and it represents your place on this great wheel of life, Mandella.
    The song is about a conscientious objector of the Viet Nam war. NOW that you know the real meaning, listen to the song again or at least reread the lyrics.
    I was there.
    1EarthMotheron March 19, 2015   Link

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