One of the stylised 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 BCE. 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.
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