Mudras are a set of hand gestures and finger positions that serve as symbols in Buddhist art, representing the Buddha’s various roles and states of mind. Mudras were first seen in statues from Gandhara in the first century, and appear to have been codified by the third century (mudra means “seal” or “sign” in Sanskrit).
The fingers of the hand are thought to represent five levels of consciousness needed to attain buddhahood, therefore various gestural configurations are seen as syntheses of these factors. Mudras also represent the dominant themes in particular episodes of the Buddha’s life, making the gestures useful as narrative and pedagogical devices for viewers familiar with the symbolism. They are typically shown being performed by figures of religious authority such as the Buddha and bodhisattvas.
Of the large number of gestures that had subsequently evolved, the five primary mudras are the
- the abhaya mudra (the most common)
- the dharmachakra mudra
- the bhumisparsha mudra
- the varada mudra
- the dhyana mudra
Also common in Buddhist iconography are the vitarka mudra, the bodhyagri mudra, and the vajrapradama mudra, and anjali mudra (also discussed in this essay, #6)—all variations or derivations of the five main mudras.
Mudras are also found in Hindu and Jain iconography, albeit to a lesser extent and only after being established in Buddhism. Classical dance forms, particularly those in India that have emerged in association with religion, also feature a repertoire of mudras.
1. The abhaya mudra
One of the five commonly depicted mudras in Buddhism, the abhaya mudra is associated with the fifth Dhyani-Buddha, Amoghasiddhi. The gesture symbolizes peace and friendship, and denotes the acts of pacification, reassurance or protection. It is performed using either the right hand or both hands, with the fingers outstretched, with the palms slightly cupped and facing the viewer. When it is performed using only the right hand, the left hand usually hangs loosely by the side of the body or assumes the varada mudra.
This mudra is one of the most widely used symbolic and ritual gestures across Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Across Southeast Asia, depictions of deities, saints, great teachers, or gurus, show them in the benevolent abhaya mudra, making it a recognizable gesture and an indicator of divine associations.
It appears most significantly within Buddhist art, in murals, sculpture, thangkas, and popular prints, lending particular symbolic meaning to its context. When it is made with the left hand, as is common in Theravada Buddhism, it is thought to denote a warning or a command to halt. This interpretation is based on a popular Buddhist story in which the Buddha stopped the advances of a rampaging elephant released by a spiteful Devdutta—his nephew and disciple—by extending his hand in the abhaya mudra. In another incident, the Buddha uses the mudra to resolve a water dispute within a family.
There have been minor inflections in how the mudra is represented across different periods. In Gandharan art, for instance, the hand forming the gesture is held up at the shoulder level, but in later periods, from the fifth century C.E. onwards, the hand begins to dip until it is at hip level. Though primarily seen in representations of the standing Amoghasiddhi, it is also associated with the walking Buddha in the Theravada sects of Thailand and Laos.
2. The dharmachakra mudra
The most common of the five main mudras in Buddhist art, the dharmachakra mudra is used across various sects and is associated with the first Dhyani-Buddha, Vairochana, who is one of the five aspects of Buddha according to the Tibetan concept of the five-Buddha families.
The mudra gets its name from its association with the eponymous dharmachakra or “wheel of law,” and is a reference to the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath. It is formed by arranging the fingers and hands in a particular way in order to evoke particular spiritual states as well as values that the Buddha taught. Both the hands are held at the chest level, with the thumbs of each hand touching the respective index fingers to form a wheel-like shape. The tips of these two wheels in turn touch each other in such a way that the palm of the left hand faces inwards, while that of the right hand, held slightly higher, faces outwards.
When displayed by Vairochana, this mudra is meant to convey the dispelling of ignorance with the wisdom of reality, represented by the action of setting the dharmachakra into motion through the act of teaching. According to some interpretations, the three extended fingers of the right hand are believed to represent the three vessels, or yanas, of the Mahayana Buddhism tradition, while those of the left hand are thought to denote the capacities for following these yanas. The symbolism is further extended to the open palms, of which the right suggests the method of conveying teachings and the left suggests the gaining of wisdom through the internalization of these teachings. When the left hand is shown holding a corner of the robe, as in early iconic representations, it symbolizes renunciation.
A variant and possible derivative of the dharmachakra mudra is the vitarka mudra, also a “teaching” mudra. In forming this gesture, the right hand is held at the chest level, palm turned outwards, and fingers upwards with the thumb touching the index finger (a representation of the wheel of law), while the left hand lies on the lap with the palm upturned. In some versions, the left hand is also held at the hip level with fingers pointing downwards, palm outwards and the thumb and index finger forming the symbolic dharmachakra.
3. The bhumisparsha mudra
A symbolic gesture in Buddhist iconography and practice—and one of five common mudras in Buddhist art—the bhumisparsha mudra symbolizes the moment of inception of the Buddha, when the prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment under the pipal tree (also known as the bodhi tree). Literally translated to “earth touching mudra,” it is also often referred to as the “earth witness” and is usually associated with the Dhyani-Buddha Akshobhya.
The figure depicting the mudra is always shown in the seated position, with the right hand reaching over the knee so that all five fingers extend downwards to touch the earth. Representing unshakability, the bhumisparsha mudra is symbolic of the triumph of the spirit over matter and its liberation from worldly trappings. The gesture is believed to be an invocation of the earth goddess, who witnessed the Buddha’s ascendance to the state of enlightenment. When this gesture of the right hand is combined with the placement of the upturned left hand on the lap, in the dhyana mudra, it is thought to signify the union of skillful means, or upaya, and wisdom, or prajna.
The mudra is also thought to proclaim the defeat of temptation and evil intention, personified by the demon king Mara, and challenge his supremacy. The defeat of Mara is an important episode in Buddhist art canon and is a popular narrative. According to the story, Mara tried to frighten and distract Siddhartha with armies of demons and the seductions of his daughters. Claiming the throne of enlightenment for himself, Mara produced his army as witnesses to this claim. In response, Siddhartha reached out and touched the ground in a gesture that declared the earth as his witness. The moral triumph over evil is also therefore built into the symbolism of the mudra.
Some traditions hold that the bhumisparsha mudra was used by Akshobhya to transform the delusion of anger into the mirror of wisdom. This signification is borne out in Buddhist teachings, in which a mastery over one’s senses and emotions is often emphasized as a means to achieve true awakening. The bhumisparsha mudra is an important mudra, as it refers to the very moment of achievement of buddhahood.
4. The varada mudra
One of the five common mudras in Buddhist art, the varada mudra is associated with the third Dhyani-Buddha Ratnasambhava and is seen extensively in statues of the Buddha across Southeast Asia. It is depicted or performed in both the sitting and standing positions and is commonly known as the “boon-granting” mudra, or dana mudra. In India, this mudra makes its earliest appearance in depictions of Avalokitesvara during the fourth and fifth centuries.
Although the varada mudra is popularly thought to denote generosity or the fulfilling of boons or vows, it is also linked to the aspect of salvation and deliverance due to its frequent depiction in divine personages whose purpose is the liberation of humankind from greed, anger and delusion.
The mudra is almost always depicted using the left hand, with the palm and all five fingers angled downward and facing the viewer.
When displayed in the standing position, the left arm is extended downwards and slightly away from the body, and bent at the elbow, with the mudra performed at waist-height. In the seated position, the gesture is usually depicted at the level of the chest. In some interpretations, the extended fingers also have symbolic value, connoting the five perfections (paramitas) of generosity, morality, patience, perseverance and meditative focus.
When rendered as a two-handed gesture, the accompanying mudra performed with the right hand is typically the abhaya mudra. As a composite, this gesture is thought to imply the conceptual union of the female and male aspects of wisdom and agency respectively.
5. The dhyana mudra
Referring to the prince Siddhartha meditating under the pipal tree before he achieved enlightenment, the dhyana mudra is one of the five common mudras in Buddhist art. Dhyana, meaning “meditation” in Sanskrit, denotes a state of concentration and is most commonly associated with the fourth Dhyani-Buddha Amitabha. Also known as yoga mudra, it is thought to have developed as an iconographic element in Gandhara, although the gesture was prevalent in yogic practices much earlier.
The dhyana mudra is performed in the seated padmasana (cross-legged) position and is usually depicted using both hands, with the hands held at the level of the stomach and resting on the thigh or lap; the right hand, with all fingers fully extended is placed palm-up over the similarly placed left hand. The orientation of the thumbs differ in different traditions. In India, the thumbs are parallel to the other fingers and each other, while in the Wei Buddhist tradition of China, they are angled outwards slightly to form a triangle, which symbolizes the Three Jewels of Buddhism. The overlapping arrangement is meant to suggest that method or means (denoted by the right hand) can only arise out of the wisdom of meditation (denoted by the left hand). Some traditions also interpret the hand placed on top as signifying realization or enlightenment and the hand underneath as the world of appearances, suggesting that meditation is a means to achieve the former by transcending over the latter.
In certain instances, the mudra is made using the left hand, which is placed on the lap, with the palm facing upward and represents the principle of wisdom or meditative void. Occasionally ritualistic objects such as a text or a bowl of alms may be placed on the upturned hand—for instance, in certain representations of Bhaisajyaguru, or the “Medicine Buddha,” who has a medicine bowl in his hands.
Popular in Theravada Buddhism, it is also depicted and practiced in a variant form known as samadhi mudra, in which the index fingers and thumb of the overlapping hands are raised to meet each other.
6. The anjali mudra
One of the stylized hand gestures, or mudras, commonly found in Buddhist and Hindu iconography, the anjali mudra denotes respect and devotion. It is made by placing the palms together in front of the chest, with the fingers aligned vertically and, in some cases, the thumbs pointed backwards. Within Buddhism, the anjali mudra is particularly associated with the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. In his four-armed, eight-armed and thousand-armed forms, Avalokiteshvara is often depicted with his palms slightly opened and forming a cup shape during the anjali mudra.
In some cases, the anjali mudra may represent humility and surrender, especially when featured in Hindu narratives. Within Buddhist art, however, the anjali mudra depicts an act of devotion and great respect. It is, therefore, shown being performed by figures such as bodhisattvas and kings when they face the Buddha, but rarely by the Buddha himself. Furthermore, while the anjali mudra is visually akin to the namaste or namaskar gesture, there is a significant difference in the context of each gesture. The namaste is performed as a greeting in everyday life, conveying degrees of respect, and—unlike the anjali mudra—it does not always signify reverence or devotion. While the two terms are often treated as interchangeable, in the case of Buddhist art, anjali mudra is the more appropriate descriptor.
Representations of the anjali mudra have been largely consistent in sculpture and painting in the Indian subcontinent since at least the first century B.C.E. One variation, which is seen in some relief sculptures, features the wrists twisted in such a way that the back of the right palm faces the viewer. The significance of this variation remains unclear. In Vajrayana and other eastern forms of Buddhism, Shadakshari Lokeshvara (or the four-armed Avalokiteshvara) is believed to hold a gem—representing love and enlightenment—in the slight space between his palms during the anjali mudra. The gem is only visible to Shadakshari Lokeshvara when he performs it; the mudra’s concealment of the gem is believed to represent the deeply personal nature of enlightenment, and its invisibility to those who only perceive the world in material terms.
Robert Beer, The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols (Boston: Shambhala, 2003).
Robert Beer, The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs (Boston: Shambhala, 1999).
Steven Kossak, “The Arts of South and Southeast Asia,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin LI, no. 4 (2011).
Kurt Behrendt, “Tibet and India Buddhist Traditions and Transformations,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin LXXI, no. 3 (2014).
Based on articles written by our partner, The MAP Academy