The Profound Language of Mudras in Buddhist Art and Practice

In the tapestry of Buddhism’s rich history and intricate symbolism, mudras stand as silent but profound communicators. These intricate hand positions, known as “mudras,” are not mere gestures but bridges between the mundane and the divine, the outer and the inner, the physical and the spiritual. They adorn Buddhist art and are integral to the practices that bring practitioners closer to enlightenment. Each mudra, rooted in symbolism and purpose, narrates a story.

Understanding the Essence of Mudras

Mudra, a Sanskrit term translating to “seal” or “sign,” encapsulates a fusion of gesture and intention. These hand positions are not arbitrary but deeply rooted in Buddhism’s teachings. Every mudra embodies an outer/symbolic and an inner/experiential purpose. It’s a language that simultaneously speaks to the practitioner and the observer, revealing facets of the enlightened mind.

Buddhism Mudras
Symbolic Representation of Mudras as a fusion of gesture and intention

The Iconic Mudras and Their Meanings

Dhyana Mudra (Samadhi or Meditation Mudra)

Also referred to as the Samadhi or Yoga Mudra, the Dhyana Mudra is characterized by two hands resting on the lap. The right hand is gently placed on the left with fingers extended and the thumbs facing upward, while the other fingers of both hands rest upon each other. This serene gesture graces the figures of Buddha Shakyamuni, Dhyani Buddha Amitabha, and the compassionate Medicine Buddha, embodying their profound connection to meditation and inner contemplation.

Buddha in Dhyana Mudra, circa 200-400 CE, Kushan Period, Pakistan, Gandhara School of Art, housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Statue of Buddha in Dhyana Mudra

Vitarka Mudra (Teaching Mudra)

Positioned at chest level, the right hand faces outward with the thumb and forefinger forming a circle. The left-hand points downward or rests palm-up in the lap, signifying the teaching act and the continuous knowledge-sharing cycle.

Sculpture showing the Vitarka Mudra
Sculpture showing the Vitarka Mudra

Dharmachakra Mudra (Wheel-Turning Mudra)

The thumbs and forefingers of both hands form circles that touch. The left hand faces inward, while the right-hand faces outward. Held at heart level, this mudra represents the turning of the Wheel of the Teaching, perpetuating the cycle of the Dharma.

In Sanskrit, Dharmachakra translates to “Wheel of Dharma.” This mudra represents one of the most significant occasions in the life of the Buddha: the Deer Park at Sarnath, where he delivered his first speech to his companions following his Enlightenment. The Wheel of the teaching of the Dharma is said to have been set in motion by this occasion.

Dharmachakra Mudra Representation
Representation of the Dharmachakra Mudra

Bhumisparsha Mudra (Earth-Touching Mudra)

In this mudra, the left-hand rests in the lap with the palm facing upward, while the right-hand rests palm-down on the knee. It signifies Buddha’s victory over the forces of illusion and temptation, summoning the earth to witness his enlightenment.

The Buddha sitting in bhūmisparśa mudrā. Birmany. White marble with traces of polychromy. Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière
Buddha Statue in Bhumisparsha Mudra

Abhaya Mudra (Fearlessness or Blessing Mudra):

With the right hand raised and facing outward, this gesture radiates reassurance and protection. Buddha employed it after his enlightenment, projecting a sense of fearlessness and compassion.

Abhay Mudra Buddha at Mindrolling Monastery which  is a prominent Buddhist monastery located in the picturesque city of Dehradun
Buddha Statue in Abhay Mudra at Mindrolling Monastery in Dehradun

Varada Mudra (Generosity Mudra)

The right-hand points downward with the palm facing outward. This mudra embodies the spirit of giving and signifies generosity and compassion.

Varada Mudra Representation
Varada Mudra Representation

Bodhyagri Mudra (Mudra of Supreme Wisdom)

Here, the right forefinger is enclosed within the fist of the left hand. This mudra holds various interpretations, including the union of wisdom and appearances or the protection of the practitioner by the elements.

Bodhyagri Mudra Representation
Bodhyagri Mudra Representation

Anjali Mudra (Greeting Mudra):

Universally recognized as a gesture of respect and greeting, the Anjali Mudra is formed by pressing the palms together at the heart level. The fingertips point upward, connecting the heart and the mind in a respectful salute.

Anjali Mudra, also called Namaskar Mudra
Anjali Mudra, also called Namaskar Mudra

Beyond the Physical: Mudras in Practice

Mudras are more than artistic elements or aesthetic embellishments; they are gateways to altered states of consciousness. In the Vajrayana school, mudras intertwine with mantras and visualization, unlocking esoteric realms. Though relatively austere in ritual, Zen Buddhism embraces the Dhyani and Anjali mudras, underscoring their enduring significance.

In the hands of the Buddha and the practitioner alike, mudras unravel layers of meaning and open doors to understanding. They are the bridge connecting the external world to the realm of the enlightened mind. Through the language of mudras, Buddhism’s timeless wisdom flows from generation to generation, whispering truths that words alone cannot convey.

Buddhist writer and scholar enlightening minds with insightful articles.

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