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 dharma chakra 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 internalisation of these teachings. When the left hand is shown holding a corner of the robe, as in early iconic representations, it symbolises 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.
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