Mudras in Buddhist Art
A set of hand gestures and finger positions that serve as representational and symbolic devices in Buddhist art and practice, developing around the third century CE, mudras, mean “seals” or “signs” in Sanskrit. These gestures have been adapted in various spiritual and religious systems — such as in Hatha yoga, in Tantric panchamakara observances and as ear-ornaments for the Hindu Kanphata cult, for different interpretative purposes. In Buddhist visual culture, they serve primarily as a mode of expression of implicit or abstract concepts to the lay follower or practitioner, and also illustrate the key principles that were invoked during specific events from the Buddha’s life. After having come into systematic use following their integration into the Buddhist canon, mudras began to assume a variety of stylised forms as the religion itself spread across south and southeast Asia.
The origin of the use of mudras as expressive devices is neither datable nor ascribable. They are believed to signify the subtle manifestations of the Buddha’s states of realisation. The fingers of the hand are thought to represent the five factors that constitute the physical phenomena (elements), experiences, types of awareness and levels of consciousness entailed in attaining buddhahood, so that the various gestural configurations helped realise a synthesis of these factors. Likewise, the positioning of the hands is also imbued with symbolic qualities — the right hand representing the male principle of agency, or samsara, and the left representing the female principle of wisdom, or nirvana. The constant changing of gestures and hand movements during liturgical practices therefore allowed for a range of mental states to be achieved and meanings to be conveyed. The depiction of mudras in sculptural art came into prominence around the fourth and fifth centuries CE with their increasing appearance, such as in the Ajanta and Ellora caves, temples and monastic complexes, and their articulation in the texts of Mahayana Buddhism.
Of the large number of gestures that had subsequently evolved, the five most common hand gestures depicted became the focal mudras of Buddhism: they are the dharmachakra mudra, the bhumisparsha mudra, the varada mudra, the dhyana mudra, and the abhaya mudra. Also common in Buddhist iconography are the vitarka mudra, the bodhyagri mudra, vajrapradama mudra and the anjali mudra — all variations or derivations of the five main mudras.
The symbology of mudras and their modes of use differ across different branches of Buddhism. For example, some esoteric sects in Tibet and Japan use them extensively and in association with both the Buddha and the bodhisattvas — typically, Tara, Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya; whereas their use is more restrictive in the Theravada sects of Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where mudras are associated strictly and exclusively with the Buddha.
Besides playing a central role in Buddhist pedagogy and art, mudras also constitute the visual vocabulary and practical repertoire of Hinduism and Jainism. In fact, they developed to such a high degree in religions that they have also lent their symbolic language to the performing arts, particularly classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam, which emerged in association with them.
Richie, Cristina "Symbolism in Asian Statues of the Buddha." Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 5, no. 1 (2014). https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/imwjournal/vol5/iss1/3.
Beer, Robert. 2003. The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Boston: Shambhala.
Beer, Robert. 1999. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Boston: Shambhala.
Ables, Kelsey. n.d. “The Complex Meanings behind Hand Gestures in Buddhist Art” Artsy. Last Accessed July 8, 2020. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-complex-meanings-hand-gestures-buddhist-art
Kossak, Steven. 2011. “The Arts of South and Southeast Asia” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin LI, No.4.
Behrendt, Kurt. 2014. “Tibet and India Buddhist Traditions and Transformations” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin LXXI, No. 3.