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
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
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:
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
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:
three extended fingers of the right hand represent
the three vehicles of the Buddha's teachings,
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
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.
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.
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
The five extended fingers in this
mudra symbolize the following five perfections:
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
tradition has an interesting legend behind this
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.
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