The serene smile of the Buddha is his most distinguishing feature. Along with this, the viewer’s attention cannot help but be drawn towards the Buddha’s graceful hands, displayed in a variety of gestures. What do they mean?
Each of these gestures is called a “mudra”. In Sanskrit, the word “mudra” (literally, “seal” or “mark of identity”) is a form of non-verbal communication that refers to symbolic gestures imbued with varied spiritual meanings. Common to both Hindu and Buddhist iconography, mudras are typically expressed with the hands and fingers and sometimes with the whole body.
In Buddhist iconography, mudras invoke specific aspects of Sakyamuni or other Buddhas (for example, as a teacher, protector). They are extensively used during prayer rituals and mantra recitations. It is believed that mudras enable the practitioner to experience a connection with the Buddha being invoked.
The significance of hands
In the Buddhist Tantric tradition, the right hand represents skillful, focused method of action and the active male principle. The left hand symbolizes wisdom, emptiness and the contemplative female principle. Thus, we find many images of the Buddha where his right hand is portrayed in gestures actively signifying teaching, protection and granting blessings, while his left hand reposes meditatively upon his lap.
Dhyana Mudra – Meditation Mudra
This gesture predates Buddhism, having been used for long by Hindu yogis to develop powers of concentration and healing.
In this mudra, the seated Buddha is seen with hands placed on his lap, right hand over left, palms facing upward and fingers stretched in a relaxed pose. The right hand represents enlightenment, while the left is the illusory nature of existence. Alternatively, this positioning of the hands signifies skillful action (or “method”) as arising from a state of inner calm.
Sometimes, this mudra is displayed with both thumb tips touching each other, forming a triangle. This figure represents the Three Jewels of Buddhism – the Buddha, the Sangha and the Good Law(Dharma). The coming together of the thumb tips also indicates the union of two psychic channels in the body, as represented by the male and female principles that exist in every sentient being.
Dhyana mudra is said to have been practiced by Sakyamuni as he meditated under the pipal tree before attaining enlightenment. It is typically seen in icons of the primeval Adi-Buddha, Samantabhadra and Amitabha Buddha.
Bhumisparsha Mudra – Touching the Earth
The left-hand lies palm facing up on the seated Buddha’s lap. The right-hand lies curved over the Buddha’s crossed knee, fingers just touching the ground. This gesture finds frequent expression in Thai Buddhist shrines. There’s a story behind it:
When Sakyamuni was deep in meditation, he was tormented by the demon Mara who would try and distract him with storms or tempt the Buddha with his three daughters. The hand pointing downwards was Buddha’s call to Sthavara, the Goddess Earth. Rising from within the ground, she wrung her hair dry of water – an action that caused floods and washed away Mara and his demon army.
This mudra is commonly associated with the blue Buddha known as Akshobya.
Abhaya Mudra – No Fear
Often seen on standing, sitting or walking statues of the Buddha, the Abhaya Mudra conveys protection from all the fears that beset us in material life. With the arm bent, the palm of the right hand is raised to shoulder level, facing outward, with fingers straight and pointing upward.
Thai Buddhas often have both palms raised in this gesture. In its pre-Buddhist form, the mudra may have represented a cordial greeting to a stranger, a non-threatening approach. Sakyamuni is often represented in frescoes employing this mudra to calm and reassure Devadatta, an attacking elephant.
The Abhaya Mudra is closely associated with the green Buddha known as Amogasiddhi. Interestingly, this mudra parallels the Magna Manus or the ‘great hand’ of Christ depicted in early Christian art.
Varada Mudra – The gesture of giving
This mudra denotes the act of charity and benevolence, with the associated emotions of sincerity and compassion. It is conveyed with the left arm extending downwards, palm facing in an outward direction. Varada Mudra typically accompanies another gesture like the Abhaya Mudra and is usually seen on images of deities who enrich, grant boons and pacify their followers.
Fourth and fifth-century figures of the multi-headed Avalokiteswara often display this mudra, wherein nectar flows from one of his open palms to assuage the thirst of ancestral spirits (pretas). Varada Mudra is also typical of Buddhist iconography from Southeast Asia. Deities who are bestowers of wealth are depicted cupping a fruit or jewel in their right hand
Varada Mudra is also known as the distinguishing mark of Ratnasambhava.
Dharmachakra Mudra – from the heart of the Buddha
Sakyamuni’s first sermon on the Four Noble Truths, delivered after attaining enlightenment at Sarnath was a moment of seminal importance. The occasion signifies his setting in motion the Wheel of Dharma, an event captured by the Dharmachakra Mudra.
The tips of the index fingers and thumbs touching each other form a circle that represents the Wheel – a metaphysical union of right action and wisdom. The three extended fingers of each hand are also rich in symbolism. On the right hand, the middle finger represents the Buddha’s audience, the ring finger stands for the few who realize his teachings, while the little finger is the Great Vehicle (Mahayana). The fingers of the left hand represent the Buddha himself, the law of Dharma and the Sangha.
The Buddha’s hands are held in front of his chest, signifying that his teachings come straight from his heart.
Other Buddha forms who display the Dharmachakra Mudra are Maitreya, Dipankara, and Manjugosha. Indian and Tibetan Buddhist masters who are distinguished by this mudra are Atisha, Tsongkhapa, Asanga and Sakya Pandita.
Vajra Mudra – Mudra of Enlightenment
In this mudra, the extended forefinger of one hand is enclosed within the fist of the other, a Tantric gesture more common to Buddhism in Japan and Korea than India. One interpretation is that the erect finger represents Knowledge cloaked in the illusion of the material world. Another version has it that the index finger is the man, while the five enclosing fingers of the other hand are the elements of earth, air, fire, water, and ether.
The mudra is commonly associated with the radiantly white Vairochana Buddha.
Vitarka Mudra – Teaching
The Buddha’s hand held close to his heart with thumb and forefinger tips touching symbolizes the transmission of the knowledge he has gained after attaining enlightenment. Another name for this gesture is Vyakhyana Mudra or the “mudra of instruction”. The circle formed by the fingers touching each other signifies perfection, with no beginning or end, like the law of Dharma itself,
There are many variations. The Buddha may be seated or standing while gesturing thus. In other poses, both his hands may display the Vitarka Mudra.
Karana Mudra – Sign of the Horn
A mudra to head off demons and keep negativity and disease at bay! This is symbolized by extending the index and little finger upward, with the middle and ring finger folded over the thumb. The hand faces outward.
Buddhapatra Mudra – The Begging Bowl
This mudra is closely associated with Sakyamuni. The Buddha’s hands in horizontal position lie one over the other at chest level, bearing an actual or figurative bowl for collecting alms. Some statues are shown with the Buddha holding Chintamani, the wish-granting jewel or a small treasure chest.
Anjali Mudra – Mudra of Offering
Anjali Mudra is also known as Namaskara Mudra, the oldest of Indian gestures. The word “Anjali” means “two handfuls”, derived from the cupping of both hands together as if holding something within.
The mudra is displayed by Bodhisattvas and lesser personages who attend upon or pay homage to the Buddha. It is a gesture of salutation, a symbol of respect and devotion to a higher being. The palms of both hands are joined together at chest level, with the right thumb placed over the left in a universal gesture of homage and prayer.
The two hands placed against each other symbolize two inseparable spheres of existence, the spiritual and material. In Buddhist tradition, they are known as Vajradhatu (diamond world) and Garbhadhatu (matrix world). The Anjali Mudra is often seen on images and statues of the many-armed Kannon in Japan.
Anjali Mudra is employed during prostrations when the joined and cupped hands are placed against the forehead, throat, and heart to indicate the purity of the mind, speech, and body.
Sharagamana Mudra – Refuge giver
The mudra of protection or refuge-giving is commonly seen in Tibetan art on the various images of Tara and Avalokiteswara.
The gesture may be made in several ways – with the palm facing upwards and outwards, or downwards so as to subdue the object that is the cause of fear. In another variation, the index, middle or ring finger may be joined with the thumb tip to form a circle, with the remaining three extended upwards. Taking refuge is the union of the male and female principle, while the other fingers represent the Buddha, dharma, and sangha (The Three Jewels).
The varied images of Taras are typically shown holding a lotus in their left hands in the circle of thumb and fingertip.
Humkara Mudra – Victory Mudra
A mudra that is seen often on wrathful Buddhist deities, the Humkara Mudra is gestured with both forearms crossed over the heart, right forearm in front of the left. The fists are loosely clenched, with the tips of the middle and ring fingers connecting with the thumb. The index and little fingers extend upwards gracefully. In his crossed hands, the deity is shown holding a vajra (diamond) and a bell representing skillful action and wisdom.
Emanations from the blue Akshobya Buddha such as Kalachakra, Chakrasamvara, and Vajrahumkara are distinguished by this mudra. In some depictions, Vajrahumkara is shown with his hands triumphantly crossed over his head, a variation known as Trilokavijaya Mudra (Victory over Three Worlds).
Bhutadamara Mudra – Subduing Spirits
This aggressive, threatening mudra is specifically seen on Bhuta-Damara or Subduer of Spirits, the wrathful, four-armed aspect of Vajrapani.
Arms crossed over the chest, the palms face outwards, with the little fingers forming a chain link. The middle and ring fingers curve downwards or connect with the thumb tip. The index fingers point outward, to produce a menacing effect! The gesture is believed to have the power to drive away all evil spirits. It bears a resemblance to Garuda, the mythological bird from Hinduism.
Mandala Mudra – Offering the universe
This lesser-known mudra is not employed by deities; rather it is a part of the Buddhist practice involving visualization, known as “mandala offering”. The Mandala Mudra is not only complicated but rich in symbolism.
The upright ring fingers are placed together facing away from each other. The second and fourth fingers lie horizontally crossed over the palms. The thumbs are made to extend over the palms and touch the tips of the little fingers. The index fingers curve back and press the tips of the middle fingers.
The two upright ring fingers represent Mount Meru (in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, a golden mountain that is the center of the universe). The crossed middle and little fingers are the four continents around Mount Meru, while the thumbs and forefingers are the salt oceans. Seven golden ranges and lakes are said to encircle Mount Meru. In mandala practice, these are represented by a rosary held within the palms and coiled around the upward pointing ring fingers.
The Cunda Mudra distinguishes the multi-armed female Boddhisattva known as Cunda. In a gesture similar to the Anjali Mudra, the palms of both hands face each other at heart level. The index fingers of one hand press the middle fingers of the other at mid-point, while the thumb tips make contact with the base of the index fingers.