Mudra refers to a seal, a closure, or a gesture. It is a form of non-verbal mode of communication and a means of self-expression that may encompass the use of an entire body or just a simple hand position.
Despite the fact that mudra is a very old and widespread tradition, its origin is unknown. Mudras were used by the ancient Egyptians, as well as the Romans, Greeks, Persians, Ancient Indians, Ancient Chinese, Africans, Turks, Fijians, and Mayans, to name a few.
Mudras are frequently depicted in the imagery (iconography) of deities and are practiced in their teachings and rituals. The formation of hand gestures is common in rites and ritual practices of religions such as Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Mudras are also used extensively in yoga and meditation. They are used in conjunction with breathing exercises to enhance the flow of energy and stimulate different parts of the body. Kundalini Yoga and Hatha Yoga are examples of such practices.
Similarly, Mudras are practiced in traditional medicine such as Ayurvedic medicine as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tibetan Medicine, and Traditional Korean Medicine. Hand postures and gestures are said to have healing and therapeutic properties.
Mudras are also used as a gestural language in classical dances to convey and intensify the feelings and emotions of a dancer.
Popular Mudras of Hindu and Buddhist Art
1. Anjali Mudra (Atmanjali or Namaskara)
This is the gesture of a greeting, prayer as well as devotion, that is made in front of the chest, face, or head. This mudra is often referred to as the Atmanjali or Namaskara mudra.
Both hands are joined together to make Anjali Mudra. While making this gesture, generally, the tips of the fingers and the heels of the palms of both hands touch together with a gap in between. In Hindu as well as Buddhist art, devotees are depicted performing this gesture.
2. Dhyāna Mudra
Dhyāna Mudra literally means a posture or a gesture of meditation. It represents absolute harmony of thought, senses, and peace. It is also known as Samadhi or yoga mudra. This gesture is made with both hands or just one hand (usually the left) and is usually held over the lap or at the level of the stomach.
This gesture is made by placing the right hand over the left hand, with palms facing upwards and fingers extended and touching each other. In some cases the thumbs of both hands may touch at the tips, thus forming a triangle configuration (an auspicious symbol). A bowl is usually placed over the palm as a symbol of the head of a family.
Dhyāna mudra is performed by Buddhist deities such as Amitabha Buddha, and Amitayus Buddha.
3. Bhūmisparsśa Mudra
Bhūmisparsśa literally translates as “the earth touching gesture”.
This is the gesture generally depicted by the Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya and Buddha Shakyamuni. It is also known as the earth witness mudra, performed by Buddha Shakyamuni to invoke the Earth as a witness to his enlightenment.
Bhūmisparsśa is formed by the right hand, where the palm is turned inward and all fingers are naturally extended downward to touch the ground. This mudra is always accompanied by the left hand in a gesture of meditation.
4. Jñāna Mudra
Jñāna is the gesture of consciousness and knowledge.
This Mudra is made by joining the tips of the thumb and forefinger while extending the rest of the fingers outward. This hand gesture is generally rested over the knee where the palm faces upward.
Jñāna mudra is made with both hands or just one (mostly right). This is a common gesture in Hindu Art.
5. Chin Mudra
Chin Mudra is the gesture of spiritual understanding.
It is similar to Jnana Mudra, however, it has a distinct stance. Like Jnana mudra, This mudra is made by connecting the tips of the thumb and forefinger together and spreading the remaining fingers outward, but the palm is facing down to the Earth.
Chin Mudra like Jnana, is also made either by both the hand or just a single hand. It is also popular in Hindu Art.
6. Vitarka Mudra
Vitarka Mudra, yet another one similar to the Jñāna Mudra; however, its positioning is different, as in the case with chin mudra.
This gesture is held at the chest level where the tip of thumb and forefinger are touched together to form the ‘Wheel of Dharma’, while the other fingers are fanned upward with the palm facing the front.
Vitarka mudra is also known as Vyakhyana mudra a gesture of discussion or teaching. It is made with either one or both hands.
It is frequently portrayed in Buddhist art, generally with Taras, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas.
7. Dharmachakra Mudra
The Dharmachakra Mudra is also known as the ‘Wheel of Dharma’.
In this gesture, both hands are held against the chest. The index finger and thumb of both hands touch at their tips to form a wheel, while the remaining fingers are spread upward. The left hand is turned inward and covered by the right hand, which is turned outward.
This is the distinct gesture of Dhyani Buddha Vairochana and Buddha Shakyamuni (associated with his first sermon at Sarnath), and symbolizes the union of method and wisdom.
8. Abhaya Mudra
Abhaya literally means fearlessness therefore is it a gesture of fearlessness and protection, usually portrayed by the right hand.
This posture is held over the chest or shoulder level, with the palm facing outward and the fingers extended upward and joined.
Abhaya Mudra symbolizes assurance, blessing, and protection too. This gesture is applied by both Hindu and Buddhist Art equally.
In Buddhist art, Abhaya mudra is displayed by Dhyani Buddha Amoghasiddhi. Similarly, Lord Vishnu, among other protective gods and goddesses, performs a similar gesture in Hindu imagery.
9. Varada Mudra
Varada Mudra is a gesture of Charity, bestowing boon, generosity, compassion and mercy too. Varada Mudra is generally posed by both hands. Here, the palm is facing outward and the fingers loosely hanging down naturally.
This gesture is frequently depicted with Hindu deities. Buddhas such as Dhyani Buddha Ratnasambhava, and Dipankara Buddha, display this gesture.
Similarly, various Taras and Bodhisattvas such as Vasudhara (bestower of wealth), Green Tara, White Tara, Padmapani are among others displaying this gesture.
10. Tarjani Mudra
Tarjani is the gesture of threatening or warning commonly depicted by wrathful or guardian deities. It is also the gesture of expelling demons and illusions.
The mudra is made by raising the index finger that represents ego, while the others are clinched to form a fist.
The gesture is made by either hand and associated with Mahasiddha Virupa.
11. Karana Mudra
Karana is a gesture of expelling demons, overcoming negativity, sickness and obstacles.
It is made by raising the index and the little finger vertically, while the other two middle fingers are folded inwards to the center of a palm. The folded middle finger is slightly touched by the tip of the thumb on the side.
This gesture can be seen in Buddhist artwork depicting Vajrapani, the protective deity, and other wrathful deities such as Ekajati and Yama.
12. Uttarabodhi Mudra
Uttarabodhi Mudra signifies supreme enlightenment. It is also known as the gesture of complete detachment.
This gesture is depicted with both hands clasped together, while the index fingers extended straight upward and the remaining fingers intertwined together. Frequently, Shakyamuni Buddha as a liberator of the Nagas presents this mudra.
Some of the other hand gestures seen in the Buddhist and Hindu art are Kshepana mudra, the gesture of sprinkling nectar; Vajrahumkara mudra, the gesture of deity Humkara; Bhutadamara Mudra, the evil subduing gesture of Bhutadamara Vajrapani; Manidhara Mudra, the gesture of Avalokiteshvara holding the Jewel; Buddhashramana Mudra, the gesture of renunciation and so on.
- Jansen, R. E. (2002). The Book of Buddhas-ritual symbolism used on Buddhist Statuary and ritual objects. New Ages Books.
- Short Description of Gods, Goddesses and Ritual Objects of Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal. Handicraft Association of Nepal.