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Mudras of the Great Buddha: Symbolic Gestures and Postures
Article of the Month - August 2001 by Nitin Kumar Email the author

Lama Gyaltsab JeMudras are a non-verbal mode of communication and self-expression, consisting of hand gestures and finger-postures. They are symbolic sign based finger patterns taking the place, but retaining the efficacy of the spoken word, and are used to evoke in the mind ideas symbolizing divine powers or the deities themselves. The composition of a mudra is based on certain movements of the fingers; in other words, they constitute a highly stylized form of gestureal communication. It is an external expression of 'inner resolve', suggesting that such non-verbal communications are more powerful than the spoken word.

Many such hand positions were used in the Buddhist sculpture and painting of India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. They indicate to the faithful in a simple way the nature and the function of the deities represented. Mudras are thus gestures which symbolize divine manifestation. They are also used by monks in their spiritual exercises of ritual meditation and concentration, and are believed to generate forces that invoke the deity.

 

 

Bharatnatyam Mudra

But a mudra is used not only to illustrate and emphasize the meaning of an esoteric ritual. It also gives significance to a sculptural image, a dance movement, or a meditative pose, intensifying their potency. In its highest form, it is a magical art of symbolical gestures through which the invisible forces may operate on the earthly sphere. It is believed that the sequence itself of such ritual hand postures may have eventually contributed to the development of the mudras of Indian Classical dance.

Another interesting meaning is given to the idea of the mudra. It reveals the secret imbibed in the five fingers. In such an interpretation, each of the fingers, starting with the thumb, is identified with one of the five elements, namely the sky, wind, fire, water, and the earth. Their contact with each other symbolizes the synthesis of these elements, significant because every form in this universe is said to be composed of a unique combination of these elements. This contact between the various elements creates conditions favorable for the presence of the deity at rites performed for securing some desired object or benefit. That is, mudras induce the deity to be near the worshipper.

While there are a large number of esoteric mudras, over time Buddhist art has retained only five of them for the representations of the Buddha. Images of the Buddha which exhibit mudras other than these are extremely rare. The significance of these mudras can be gauged from the fact that each of the five transcendental (Dhyani) Buddhas is assigned one of these mudras, and they are invariably depicted in visual arts with this particular mudra only.

These five mudras are:

1. Dharmachakra mudra

Gautam Buddha

 

Dharmachakra in Sanskrit means the 'Wheel of Dharma'. This mudra symbolizes one of the most important moments in the life of Buddha, the occasion when he preached to his companions the first sermon after his Enlightenment in the Deer Park at Sarnath. It thus denotes the setting into motion of the Wheel of the teaching of the Dharma.

In this mudra the thumb and index finger of both hands touch at their tips to form a circle. This circle represents the Wheel of Dharma, or in metaphysical terms, the union of method and wisdom.

The three remaining fingers of the two hands remain extended. These fingers are themselves rich in symbolic significance:

 

 

Gautam BuddhaThe three extended fingers of the right hand represent the three vehicles of the Buddha's teachings, namely:

  • The middle finger represents the 'hearers' of the teachings
  • The ring finger represents the 'solitary realizers'
  • The Little finger represents the Mahayana or 'Great Vehicle'.

The three extended fingers of the left hand symbolize the Three Jewels of Buddhism, namely, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Significantly, in this mudra, the hands are held in front of the heart, symbolizing that these teachings are straight from the Buddha's heart.

This mudra is displayed by the first Dhyani Buddha Vairochana. Each of the five Dhyani Buddhas is associated with a specific human delusion, and it is believed that they help mortal beings in overcoming them. Thus, Vairochana is believed to transform the delusion of ignorance into the wisdom of reality. By displaying the Dharmachakra mudra, he thus helps adepts in bringing about this transition.

2. Bhumisparsha mudra

Shakyamuni Buddha with Two Disciples

Literally Bhumisparsha translates into 'touching the earth'. It is more commonly known as the 'earth witness' mudra. This mudra, formed with all five fingers of the right hand extended to touch the ground, symbolizes the Buddha's enlightenment under the bodhi tree, when he summoned the earth goddess, Sthavara, to bear witness to his attainment of enlightenment. The right hand, placed upon the right knee in earth-pressing mudra, and complemented by the left hand-which is held flat in the lap in the dhyana mudra of meditation, symbolizes the union of method and wisdom, samasara and nirvana, and also the realizations of the conventional and ultimate truths. It is in this posture that Shakyamuni overcame the obstructions of Mara while meditating on Truth.

The second Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya is depicted in this mudra. He is believed to transform the delusion of anger into mirror-like wisdom. It is this metamorphosis that the Bhumisparsha mudra helps in bringing about.

Crowned Buddha

 

 

3. Varada mudra

This mudra symbolizes charity, compassion and boon-granting. It is the mudra of the accomplishment of the wish to devote oneself to human salvation. It is nearly always made with the left hand, and can be made with the arm hanging naturally at the side of the body, the palm of the open hand facing forward, and the fingers extended.

 

 

 

 

 

Gautam Buddha

 

 

The five extended fingers in this mudra symbolize the following five perfections:

  • Generosity
  • Morality
  • Patience
  • Effort
  • Meditative concentration

This mudra is rarely used alone, but usually in combination with another made with the right hand, often the Abhaya mudra (described below). This combination of Abhaya and Varada mudras is called Segan Semui-in or Yogan Semui-in in Japan.

 

 

Dhyani Buddha Ratnasambhava

 

 

 

 

Ratnasambhava, the third Dhyani Buddha displays this mudra. Under his spiritual guidance, the delusion of pride becomes the wisdom of sameness. The Varada mudra is the key to this transformation.

 

 

 

 

4. Dhyana mudra

Medicine Buddha

 

 

 

The Dhyana mudra may be made with one or both hands. When made with a single hand the left one is placed in the lap, while the right may be engaged elsewhere. The left hand making the Dhyana mudra in such cases symbolizes the female left-hand principle of wisdom. Ritual objects such as a text, or more commonly an alms bowl symbolizing renunciation, may be placed in the open palm of this left hand.

 

 

 

 

 

Meditating Buddha

 

 

When made with both hands, the hands are generally held at the level of the stomach or on the thighs. The right hand is placed above the left, with the palms facing upwards, and the fingers extended. In some cases the thumbs of the two hands may touch at the tips, thus forming a mystic triangle. The esoteric sects obviously attribute to this triangle a multitude of meanings, the most important being the identification with the mystic fire that consumes all impurities. This triangle is also said to represent the Three Jewels of Buddhism, mentioned above, namely the Buddha himself, the Good Law and the Sangha.

 

 

 

 

Under The Bodhi Tree

 

 

 

The Dhyana mudra is the mudra of meditation, of concentration on the Good law, and of the attainment of spiritual perfection. According to tradition, this mudra derives from the one assumed by the Buddha when meditating under the pipal tree before his Enlightenment. This gesture was also adopted since time immemorial, by yogis during their meditation and concentration exercises. It indicates the perfect balance of thought, rest of the senses, and tranquillity.

 

Amitayus- the Buddha of Endless Life

 

 

 

 

This mudra is displayed by the fourth Dhyani Buddha Amitabha, also known as Amitayus. By meditating on him, the delusion of attachment becomes the wisdom of discernment. The Dhyana mudra helps mortals achieve this transformation.

 

 

 

5. Abhaya Mudra

Standing Buddha

 

 

Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness. Thus this mudra symbolizes protection, peace, and the dispelling of fear. It is made with the right hand raised to shoulder height, the arm crooked, the palm of the hand facing outward, and the fingers upright and joined. The left hand hangs down at the side of the body. In Thailand, and especially in Laos, this mudra is associated with the movement of the walking Buddha (also called 'the Buddha placing his footprint'). It is nearly always used in images showing the Buddha upright, either immobile with the feet joined, or walking.

This mudra, which initially appears to be a natural gesture, was probably used from prehistoric times as a sign of good intentions - the hand raised and unarmed proposes friendship, or at least peace; since antiquity, it was also a gesture asserting power, as with the magna manus of the Roman Emperors who legislated and gave peace at the same time.

 

 

Gandhara BuddhaBuddhist tradition has an interesting legend behind this mudra:

Devadatta, a cousin of the Buddha, through jealousy caused a schism to be caused among the disciples of Buddha. As Devadatta's pride increased, he attempted to murder the Buddha. One of his schemes involved loosing a rampaging elephant into the Buddha's path. But as the elephant approached him, Buddha displayed the Abhaya mudra, which immediately calmed the animal. Accordingly, it indicates not only the appeasement of the senses, but also the absence of fear.

In Gandhara art, this mudra was sometimes used to indicate the action of preaching. This is also the case in China where it is very commonly found in images of the Buddha, mainly in the Wei and Sui eras (fourth to seventh centuries).

The Abhaya mudra is displayed by the fifth Dhyani Buddha, Amoghasiddhi. He is also the Lord of Karma in the Buddhist pantheon. Amoghasiddhi helps in overcoming the delusion of jealousy. By meditating on him, the delusion of jealousy is transformed into the wisdom of accomplishment. This transformation is hence the primary function of the Abhaya mudra.

But it is not just the divine Buddha who is credited with making mudras. Every position assumed and every gesture performed by our mortal body may be said to imprint its seal on the Ether, and sent forth a continuous stream of vibrations that impress the atmosphere. But to be really effective there must be a deliberate and intended arrangement of the body or parts of the body. Such an arrangement is nothing but the yoga of mudra. It is interpreted as being able to bring the physiological system in harmony with the cosmic forces and so form a magical microcosm through which the macrocosm can be represented, channelled, and utilized. The mudra in all its variations is, therefore, a traditional body pattern; an archetypal posture of performed occult significance.

We perform mudras in every action, every moment of the day. Each action is a symbol of our underlying mental and physical condition and results because of the various energy patterns forming within our being. These patterns determine our personality character and mannerism and expressions. Thus our every moment is an expression of our inner-nature. Consciously performing mudras allow us to become more aware of inner energy and to control it so that we make the most of each moment. The effect is total, at once subtle but powerful. In this way, we learn to integrate our dissipated thoughts and actions, so that life becomes a graceful flow of energy and understanding. Our whole being can then become a mudra, a gesture of life within, reflecting into our external life.

We hope you have enjoyed reading the article. Any comments or feedback that you may have will be greatly appreciated. Please send your feedback to feedback@exoticindiaart.com.


This article by Nitin Kumar
Editor
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Article Reviews

  • Road to the Truth can be found at the following address: truenewworld.com
    (attention, it is not the ad of the site - it is the ad of the Truth).
    - humanetigor
    2nd Jun 2011
  • Thank you.Article is very good-explicit in its contents. If we could somehow ask about other mudras that have not been talked about here would be great.
    - Sharmila Bucha
    26th Feb 2009
  • I am very interested in following up on Mark's comments as I am wanting to find out more about the energetic usage of mudras.
    - Francesca
    18th Oct 2008
  • I find your article very interesting and educative. would you mine giving me some of your sources of this wonderful article? Thanks!
    - Roger Slawon
    8th Oct 2008
  • Your article on the Mudras is very beautiful and informative. For some reason, I will not acknowledge it as a strange reason, I was guided to learn the art of Mudras. Your article is a great introduction into this art and has brought me great excitement for the journey I am about to embark on. I'm very grateful for you
    wisdom and for you sharing your knowledge regarding this art. You are wonderful.

    Sincerely,
    - Dawn Moore
    14th May 2008
  • Indiana?
    - j paser
    16th May 2007
  • Purely academic and uninformed about the deeper significance behind mudras.
    Aside from their symbolic meaning they have a very practical energetic usage. Using combinations of mudras you affect your body's energy field. This is done via the acupuncture meridians or nadis running to each finger, 6 meridians run to each hand. These (from thumb to little finger) are: Lungs, Large Intestine, Pericardium, Triple Burner, Heart & Small Intestine. By enhancing particular energies and reflecting them into the body at the level of different chakras there are a number of subtle effects that can enhance and support meditation. The basic principle is that whichever finger is closed with the thumb is enhanced by the thumb's Lung energy.
    - mark
    31st Jan 2007
  • What were your sources of information? You have not cited anything.
    Also, would you happen to know any other sources of information on the intranet for more academic explanations of Buddhist mudras?
    - A
    29th Nov 2006
  • I really appreciate your hard work.But if u could mention where did you find or pick up from then it would be very helpful for a person like me who is in research.I mean the name of book or sutra where you had pick up such definations.
    - Nabin (nabin_bajrach2000@yahoo.com)
    31st Oct 2006
  • Good article, many thanks. I needed this information for work in a novel I'm preparing. Once again, many thanks.
    - Steven
    18th Oct 2006
  • Amazing Article.
    - Aakash (aimboy_2003@yahoo.co.in)
    9th May 2006
  • Very informative page for my project on Buddhism as a Chirstian college in England. Thanks
    - D Whetham
    11th Mar 2006
  • Wonderful interpretations. Thank you for making this available on the web.

    I can see teaching symbols such as these to children to communicate with them in a spiritual way in private when in public. A parent could communicate subtle reminders to children without embarassing them with a public reprimand.

    Thank you again for sharing your beautiful interpretations - wonderfully written.

    Anna
    - Anna Summers (AnnaSummers9@bellsouth.net)
    6th Jan 2005
  • Very informative and inspiring to me. This is helping me in enhancing my day today life at Saudi Arabia.
    - Venaktesh R Peddi
    18th Dec 2004
  • A very beautiful informative article, after using mudras daily and describing them to some friends, who kept forgeting them. I resolved to do some searches and to identify for him my common mudras. If a person can only understand what I mean with my hands, it can calm them quickly. Your site was one of the best. I have copied several phrases to send to him and my other friends.
    - Michael
    10th May 2004
  • It is with joy and pleasure I read your articles ever since I have discovered them.They show erudition as well as a spiritual approach to the subjects.I am very interested in your articles and comments.Good luck and...keep going the same way!!!
    - Acanthe
    8th Mar 2004
  • This is very informative and it has taught me exactly what I wanted to know: now I can do my school project!
    - M.Ismail
    24th Feb 2004
  • Por Valerie - articulo sobre las mudras que he encontrado en el internet...

    Saludos
    Daniela
    - Valerie
    17th Feb 2004
  • very informative, I work at an Asian gift store that sells the Buddha in various forms , nice to know what they mean!!!
    - april wiltzius
    7th Apr 2003
  • What I was looking for. I have a small Buddha statue, and I hadn't since seen another one with the mudras this one has. Much to my delight, I now know that the image of Budhha has the Bhumisparsha mudra and the left hand, empty, in the dhyana meditation mudra.

    The second Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya description, in which he is believed to transform the delusion of anger into mirror-like wisdom, is a great gift to me today. One of the dominant themes of this life's path for me has been the engagement of my anger and understanding it.

    Thanks again for a great article!
    - Rainey Lamey
    30th Jan 2003
  • Really interesting, informative, and holistic. Learnt a great deal from the article. Good to have explained the layers of meaning and spiritual purpose to mudras, that hadn't known about before.

    Thanks.
    - Cath McFarlane
    6th Jan 2003
  • excellent and informative article
    - ann gleig
    28th Jun 2002
  • I am very happy and impressed by the artcles that you keep emailing me on various aspects of Indiana nd Tgibetn iconograpy.

    While some of them display tremendous erudition, others miss fine points of attention and detail.

    For instance, in the article on Buddhist Ritual Implements, you have offered the Sanskrit and Tibetan names of all the implements except the curved knife or the Chopper. Could you please clarify from your Indology expert, what is this implement known in Sanskrit as well as Tibetan?

    I also have a question unrelated to iconography and was wondering if you could find the answer for me? What are the ten agnomens of the Indian renunciate? They are known as the `dashanaamis' - I know a few like `Sagar', `Teerth', `Giri', `Aranyaka', and 'Puri' but the others I have no idea of. If you can enquire and let me know the others, it would be a great favor.

    Thank you very much and please DO keep up the good work!
    - Smarth
    26th Aug 2001
  • Thank you for the wonderful article on Mudras of the Great Buddha and the printer friendly version. The article was informative, well written, and contained beautiful illustrations. Please keep me on your email list.
    - Dr. Sherry Crowell
    26th Aug 2001
  • I love all your articles and the integration of the ideas of spirituality and
    metaphysics with different art forms that express these. Will you ever do any
    articles expanding on the mudras? I am very interested in these, especially
    those that are common to India's spiritual traditions. I have been studying
    with/following after (not sure of exact right word to use) Shree Maa and
    Swami Satyananda Saraswati. I have seen pictures of Shree Maa with her hands
    in mudra positions which are beautiful. At a retreat this summer, I had a
    blessed opportunity to attend a fire ceremony and to learn some elements of a
    short version of then Durga Puja. I was amazed at the many hand gestures and
    mudras Swami used during the homa. Anyway, I am always interested to learn
    more about this, and your newsletter is a wonderful and rich forum for one
    like me. Namaste and thank you
    - Linda Talbott
    26th Aug 2001
  • I had first seen your site 2 months back while searching for miniature art references to bejewel my desktop.

    I must admit that i was struck at the beauty of the paintings and sculptures. Maybe, one day i can amass a little to purchase them, though I am just at the beginning of my career.

    I was delighted to read the interpretation of the various mudras that were used by the buddha which gave me such a detailed insight into the much ignored matter (so far, by me)

    I congratulate you on hosting such a beautiful and informative website.

    From

    An Avid Fan of Exotic India
    - Nehal Vyas
    25th Aug 2001
  • Once again I continue to be amazed at these newsletters! This is actually what I was asking about, sort of, one month ago. I save these newsletters, I find them enjoyable to re-read. I certainly hope you can continue these, I don't know how big your reader base is, or how much support you receive, but I for one look forward to these every month.
    - Jason B.
    19th Aug 2001
  • This article is so interesting! Thanks! I'm going to take a paper copy of it home with me this evening and re-read it so that I can absorb the material.
    <p>
    In the West, the Cistercians (monks and nuns) have hand communciation that reminds me of Eastern mudras . However, these gestures are only used because of the rule of silence; they need a way to signal each other. It's not used in the art work.
    <p>
    Thanks again for a very readable and fascinating article.
    - Adele A. Chatelain
    18th Aug 2001
  • In great thanks to you in behalf of all the Greta's in the world thanks for such a piece. I will keep it with knowledge, in a safe place.
    - Christina, Poinciana, FL
    18th Aug 2001
  • Most excellent article on Mudras. Great service. Thank you.
    - Rob Arnon
    18th Aug 2001
  • Your articles continue to be both educational and excellent in content and writting. I find them to be of such a high value that I link all of them and your site to mine.
    - Ward K. Jones
    18th Aug 2001
  • You bring not only great learning to your e-mail essays, you bring wisdom and deep understanding as well, and that is what makes reading your essays both such a pleasure and a stimulus to further research and meditation.
    - John Dash
    18th Aug 2001
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