Recognize symbolic gestures

- through Fabrice Groult

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Inventory of all these gestures that translate Buddhism into images.

When we decided to represent the Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha in human form, at the beginning of the Christian era, symbolic gestures were associated with the main episodes of his life. In this way, despite the apparent uniformity of the representations, one could clearly identify the event which was thus evoked. Some of these mudras are well known, such as the mudra of "taking the earth as a witness" or that of meditation, which symbolize the different episodes of the night of Awakening, the setting in motion of the "Wheel of Law", associated with the first teaching of the Buddha at Sarnath, or the mudra of "the absence of fear" as well as that of the gift.

Thereafter, many other gestures will be added to the Buddhist iconography bringing to more than fifty those that can be observed in the various figures of the pantheon, and up to one hundred and eight for gestures specific to rituals. tantric: for example the gestures of “threat”, associated with “wrathful” deities, or the “fist of wisdom”, characteristic of certain forms of the “primordial” Buddha Mahavairocana.
Nowadays, the ritual mudras, associated with attitudes, seats, colors and body signs, make it possible to identify the various Buddhas, bodhisattvas and great figures of the Buddhist pantheon.

The hand gestures called mudras are not specific to Buddhism alone: ​​they belong to the Indian cultural fund. Some are already described in one of the oldest known texts on the performing arts, the Naṭyasastra, probably before the beginning of our era. This treatise cites twenty-four gestures performed with one hand (chap. IX, & 4-7), thirteen performed with two hands (chap. IX, & 8-10) and twenty-nine dance-related gestures (chap. IX, & 10-17); gestures specific to performing art are called abhinaya, while the term mudra is reserved for ritual gestures, from Buddhism or Hinduism.
They are generally classified into four categories: gestures associated with deities, demons and great figures, Hindus and Buddhists; those related to tantric practices – Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan; meditation gestures yoga ; and finally those relating to the performing arts.

The use of mudras can be found in the oldest representations of Buddhist iconography from the beginning of the Christian era, in the statues made in Gandhara (on the current territory of Afghanistan and Pakistan) and in Mathurā (in the current state of Uttar Pradesh, India). They will then be “exported” to Central Asia and the Far East, then to Tibet, as Buddhism spreads. A sheet of sketches detailing mudras, dated to the 17th century, was found in cave XNUMX of the Chinese site of Dunhuang – it is currently kept at the British Museum in London. The use of mudras will thus contribute to unifying Buddhist iconography throughout Asia.

Earth witness gesture: bhumisparsa-mudra

The right hand is hanging down, the palm turned towards the Buddha, the elongated fingers touch the ground.
Just before his Awakening, Shakyamuni, seated under the bodhi tree, was attacked by the "regent" of saṃsara, Mara (also called Papiyan, the "worst"). Fearing to lose his ascendancy over beings dominated by the passions, he first sends his armies, whose arrows turn into flowers as soon as the future Buddha looks at them! Annoyed, Mara then proudly declares that he owes his distinguished position to the very many merits he has accumulated during his previous lives and denies the future Buddha to have as many as he does...

The master then touches the ground to prove his unshakable determination to stay on the spot and to call the earth-goddess Sthavara (or Prithvi) to witness. The latter appears, pays homage to him and, twisting his hair, extracts all the water accumulated over the cosmic eras, each time a libation has been made during a gift from the bodhisattva. This water is so abundant that it carries away the armies of Mara!
The Buddha of the past Vipasyin performs the gesture of touching the earth.

If the main gestures are originally attributed to Shakyamuni, the other great figures of Buddhism will also adopt some of these gestures; such is the case of the eastern jina, Aksobya, identified, in addition to the gesture of calling the earth to witness, by the vajra placed on the base of the statue.

Meditation or concentration gesture: dhyana-mudra ou samadhi-mudra

The two hands are placed on top of each other, palms up, fingers stretched out, they rest on the legs of the seated figures.

This gesture is characteristic of two periods of meditation during Shakyamuni's life: during his period of extreme fasting, and under the tree of bodhi before his Awakening; this gesture is also attributed to Amitabha Buddha and, occasionally, to the Bodhisattva Manjusri as well as to the Medicine Buddha Bhaisajyaguru.

Gesture of teaching, of setting in motion the wheel of the law: dharmacakra-mudra

The right hand is vertical, palm facing forward, thumb and index finger touching; the left hand is inclined and at an angle, the palm is turned inwards, the thumb and the index finger are touching; the fingers of the left hand touch the right hand.

After his Awakening at Bodh-Gaya, Shakyamuni goes to Sarnath, near Benares (Varaṇasi), and delivers his first public teaching in front of his five former ascetic companions whom he meets in the deer park (Mṛgadava) of Sarnath. This gesture, called “setting in motion the Wheel of the Law (dharmacakra)” symbolizes this first sermon. This gesture is also attributed to the Buddha of the past Visvabhu, the Buddha Vairocana and the Buddha of the future, Maitreya.

Gesture of argumentation, explanation of the Law: vitarka-mudra

The right hand is raised, palm forward, fingers turned outwards, the tips of the thumb and index finger are touching. The left hand can also be represented symmetrically according to the illustration on the right.

This position is complementary to the dharmacakra-mudra, it symbolizes the explanation, the argumentation of the doctrine; in addition to the Buddha Shakyamuni, it is found in the Buddha of the past Sikhin, in the future "buddhadu" Maitreya and in the bodhisattvas Ksitigarbha and Akasagarbha.

Gesture of fearlessness, protection: abhaya-mudra

The right hand is raised, palm turned outwards, fingers are stretched upwards. A symbol of protection and fearlessness, this mudra evokes the episode when the Buddha was attacked by a furious elephant in the streets of Rajagrha. The animal, reputed for its bad temper, came from the stables of Ajatasatru, king of Magadha; he had been drunk at the instigation of Devadatta, the "bad cousin" of the Buddha, who thus wanted to assassinate him... But the elephant, having arrived in front of the Master, was overwhelmed by his serenity, stopped short and knelt down before him to pay homage to him. This gesture is also attributed to the past Buddha Dipamkara and Buddha jina Amoghasiddhi.

Gesture of giving: varada-mudra

The right hand is open and drooping, palm facing the viewer, fingers outstretched; a variation shows the ring finger and thumb joined according to the diagram on the right.

This gesture characterizes the gift, the welcome, the offering; the downward opening shows that the Buddha does not keep anything locked in his hand and that whatever is in it can spill out into the world.
In addition to the Buddha Shakyamuni, it is also found in the Buddha of the past Krakuccandra, in the Jina Ratnasambhava, in the bodhisattva Manjusri as well as in the Tara and the Buddha of medicine Bhaisajyaguru.

Gesture of offering or homage: anjali-mudra or namaskaram-mudra

There are several forms of gesture of offering; the most usual, that represented on the left (anjali), shows the two joined hands and directed upwards, the palms and the fingers touching; another shape shows both hands open as shown on the right. Both hands are joined and pointing upwards, palms and fingers touching.

This gesture is attributed to the bodhisattvas who pay homage to the Buddhas, it concerns in particular two of the four hands of Avalokitesvara (Saḍaksari-Lokesvara) and, in general, it is performed by the disciples in devotion.

The threatening gesture: tarjani-mudra

There are several representations of the threatening gesture; the most frequent, according to the example on the left, shows a clenched fist, a horizontal hand with an outstretched index finger; the hand can also be vertical. The example on the right, common in Tantric, Japanese, and Tibetan Buddhism, shows a vertical hand with the middle, ring, and thumb bent, and the other two fingers raised.

Nowadays, the ritual mudras, associated with attitudes, seats, colors and body signs, make it possible to identify the various Buddhas, bodhisattvas and great figures of the Buddhist pantheon.

The tarjani-mudra is one of the characteristic gestures of the angry deities of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet, Japan and China, the Vidyaraja. It symbolizes the fight against demons, it serves to frighten beings who persist in their false beliefs. The Vidyaraja are angry deities, with many faces, arms and legs; they hold weapons in their hands, are wreathed in flame and one of their arms presents the threatening gesture, often represented, in Tibet, by Marici.

The vajrahumkaram-mudra

Some mudras are associated with ritual objects, such is the case of the vajrahumkara-mudra. The hands are raised and crossed, the right hand passing in front of the left, the index and the little finger are raised, the three other fingers bent (left diagram); the thumb, middle finger and ring finger hold ritual objects consisting of a bell (ghaṇṭa) in the left hand and a double vajra in the right hand (right diagram). This representation is especially associated with the primordial Buddha Vajradhara, but also with Samvara.

La bodyagri-mudra

In this gesture specific to the seated Mahavairocana Buddha, both hands are in front of the chest, the left point is closed, except for the index finger raised and grasped by the closed right hand. Mahavairocana can also be depicted in dharmacakra-mudra.

The patra-mudra

In this mudra, the Buddha holds an alms bowl (patra), his hands positioned in dhyana-mudra support the patra; an iconographic variation presents the bowl enclosed with both hands, one above and the other below.

La civarahasta-mudra

This attitude is common in countries practicing Theravada, especially in Thailand and Laos, as in the example opposite; Gautama Buddha holds the monastic robe slightly raised or extends his outstretched hands to the ground, palms facing the body.

The kesahasta-mudra

This posture of Shakyamuni, hands above the head, refers to an episode of his life, detailed in particular in chapter XV of the Lalitavistarara-sutra. Seeking an explanation of the origin and mechanism of the suffering endured by human beings, Shakyamuni decides to become a wandering ascetic; but his father, King Suddhodana, prevents him from leaving the palace to carry out this project. So Siddhartha fled from the royal palace of Kapilavastu in the middle of the night, on his horse Khantaka, accompanied by his squire Chantaka. Arrived in the town of Anoumaineya, he sends squire and horse back, then cuts his hair and takes the habit of a wandering ascetic. The posture of the raised hands evokes the moment when he cuts his hair, the representations below represent him at this moment.

The mudra arms crossed-hands open on the chest or Jinacarita

Certain gestures adopted in the iconography of the historical Buddha are still debated today in the community of historians: such is the case of the mudra of the hands crossed on the chest that can be observed from the sixth century.

This gesture is represented on statues of devotees located in several sites of South India; it is also displayed by Gautama Buddha in Theravada countries such as Laos, Thailand, Burma, and, as in the two examples below, in Sri Lanka.

This gesture was successively considered as an attitude of devotion, sadness, meditation, impassibility, which reflected the hesitations of the experts. Nowadays, the commonly accepted interpretation is based on the legend of the animisacetiya taken up in the jinacarita, a late Sri Lankan text on the Master's biography: during the week following his enlightenment, he is said to have returned to see the bodhi tree and greeted it with respect and gratitude, a behavior which is manifested by the arms crossed and hands open on chest.

In partnership with the Institute of Buddhist Studies (

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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