A mudra is a bodily posture or symbolic gesture. InHindu and Buddhist iconography every Buddha isdepicted with a characteristic gesture of the hands. Suchgestures correspond to natural gestures (of teaching,protecting, and so on) and also to certain aspects of theBuddhist teaching or of the particular Buddha depicted.
The origins of the word mudra are uncertain as is theprecise evolution of its meaning. At a very early periodin the post-Vedic literature of India the term mudradesignated the idea of a seal or the imprint left by aseal. Somewhat later usage takes on the meaning of“way of holding the fingers”, designating very preciselya ritual gesture. The Pali word for mudra, muddika,derives from mudda, meaning authority. There is thus adeveloping inter-relationship in these meanings of agesture enhancing and authenticating the spoken wordwith mystic and magical values. The gesture is a sign, aritual seal; seal implies authenticity. As Buddhismspread to China a further usage of the term came toidentify mudras as ‘marks of identify’ of the deity beingpersonified.
The symbolic hand gestures called mudras are of twogeneral types. First, the most ancient form of mudras,dating from pre-Buddhist times, are those presentedwith the purpose as signs symbolic of the metaphysicalaspect of Esoteric ceremonies. Mudras used in this senseare of significant importance in the rites of TibetanTantrism, Chinese Chen-yen and Japanese ShingonBuddhism. This, of course, is within the larger context ofTantric meditation where the Three Mysteries, or theforces of the spirit, speech, and the body are directed atthe one and only goal: enlightenment.
Mudras, along with asanas (reflecting the body), mandalas (reflecting the spirit) and mantras(reflecting speech) all provide expedient means in achieving enlightenment. Apart fromacknowledging this important aspect of the ritualistic use of mudras in certain schools ofBuddhism and the importance of Tantrism in contributing to the expanded use of mudras, ourattention is instead directed to the other general type of mudra, the purely iconographic, asrepresented in Buddhist/Hindu sculpture and painting.
The use of the mudras is quite common in the Hindu Poojas, Tantric worships, Yoga and also inClassical Indian dances. In Hindu iconography, the deities are often depicted with their handsmaking various mudras – like the twin gestures of dispelling fears and granting boons. Variousdeities have several specific mudras which are associated with them. They are used by thepractitioner for various purposes – like activating the various nerve centers, to convey a feeling orto appease a deity etc.
Something to keep in mind, in Natya Sastra (classical dance) and in Yoga also there are severalsimilarly named mudras which are at times quite different from the Pooja mudras. For examplethe Yoni mudra used in Yoga is totally different from the Yoni mudra used in Pooja.
Each finger represents one of the five elements—the thumb is agni (fire), the forefinger is vayu(air), the middle finger is akash (ether), the ring finger is prithvi (earth) and the little finger is jal(water).
There are two types of mudras, single-hand and double-hand. The single-handed mudras number28 and are called Aasanyukta. There are 23 double-handed mudras called Sawyakta.
ABHAYA (ABHAYAPRADA): Gesture of fearlessness and granting protection.The Abhaya, or fearlessness gesture is one of the most commonlydepicted mudras, representing benevolence and the absence of fear. Thegesture confers onto others the same freedom from fear, so this mudracan also be interpreted to mean “fear not”. The gesture is made with theright hand raised to shoulder height, with the arm bent and the palmfacing outward. A Buddhist legend tells of when the historical Buddha wasbeing attacked by an angry elephant, he simply held up his hand in thefearlessness gesture and calmed the raging animal.
ADHARA: Perineal mudra.
AHAMKARA: Self-confidence and self-assertion. For counteracting fear and timidity.Bend index fingers slightly and put the upper phalanx of the thumb to theside of the middle phalanx of the index finger, at the upper part. Otherfingers are straight.
AHAYA VARADA: Beckoning to bestow a favor.
AKASH (AAKASH / AKASHI): Sky posture.The sky has an attribute – recess or space. Another attribute is sound.Sound is regarded as the eternal spirit. Sound travels in waves, which arescattered in the sky. By catching the sound waves, we are able to hearthese on radio. As the sky provides space outside, so is the sky spreadsinside. The lack or excess of elements in the sky outside leads toimbalance. The third attribute of the sky is vacuum or nothingness. This isthe attribute that fills the sky. The sky can be filled only when it hasnothing. How can already filled sky be filled? The yoga helps practicemeditation in the inner space. Emotions get purified when oneconcentrates in the heart. The middle finger and the heart areinterrelated.
Thumb and middle finger are joined. Index, ring, and pinky fingers areextended. Mana (head) mudra. Mana mudras form an integral part ofkundalini yoga because they utilize eyes, ears, nose, tongue and lips.
ALA PADMA (ALAPADMA): Opened Lotus.
AMALAKA: Amalaka Tree. The Samyama Nayaka hand, i.e., the forefinger and the second fingertogether in the middle of the palm, the rest of the hand extended.
ANGARAKHA: Mars.Left hand Shuchi, right hand Mushthi.
ANJALI (GASSHO / HRIDAYA / NAMASKARA): Gesture of greetingand adoration, veneration, honor or celebration, the diamond handclasp.The gesture of two palms pressed together and held near the heart,means to “honor or celebrate”. It is our Hindu greeting, two joined asone, the bringing together of matter and spirit, the self meeting the self inSawyakta DoubleHandall. This mudra is reserved for praying figures, which often accompany astatue of the Buddha in the art of India or South East Asia. The Anjali ismade with two hands joined vertically in front of the chest, as in theattitude of prayer. This mudra evokes an offering of good feelings of onetowards another. This mudra can also indicate veneration if it is made atthe level of the face. Hasta (hand), meditative mudra. Redirects theprana emitted by hands back into body.
Universally used by people in India and South-East Asia for salutation, itevokes an offering of good feelings, of one’s person, etc. and alsoindicates veneration if it is made at the level of the face.
ANJALI MUDRA: Both hands are held above the head, the heels of the palms are touching,the fingers and thumbs spread outward and upward. Frequently an objectis held, e.g. an image of Amitabha is held by a tantric form ofAvalokiteshvara with this mudra.
ANKUSHA (ANKUSA): The Ankusha mudra is the mudra of the goad or curved sword, whichsymbolizes prodding seekers on towards their ultimate goal, or cuttingdown the iniquities of the ego.
ANUSHASAN: Discipline posture.Discipline is the vital element of meditation. Without discipline, meditationis not successful. The practitioner can maintain discipline through his owndiscretion. He must remain under the discipline of the Guru (teacher), solong as his wisdom does not become awakened and he is not enlightened.
Keep the index finger straight. Join the remaining three fingers with thethumb.
APANA (APAN): Gives energy and makes one more self-confident. The tip of the secondand the third fingers should be slightly pressed against the inner part ofthe tip of the thumb as shown. The other two fingers should be keptstraight. Improves the excretory system by cleaning the waste from thebody, cures constipation and stomach aches caused due to which.
APAN MUDRA (APAAN): Flatus posture.Relaxation, heart, physical and mental. Helps in clearing the body byelimination of waste matter from the mouth, eyes, ears, nose etc. Helpswhen urine is obstructed, reduces constipation. The tip of the thumb istouched to the middle and ring finger.
APAN VAYU (MRITSANJEEVINI): First aid for heart attacks. The tip of the index finger should be pressedslightly against the root of the thumb and second and the third fingershould touch the inner tip of the thumb. Cures palpitation of the heart,strengthens the heart and is good for heart patients.
APAVIDHDHA: Osprey.THe Suchi hand relaxed.
ARAALAM (ARALA / ARELE): Bent or crooked hand.Deva Vayu right hand.
ARALA-KATAKAMUKHA: Giving pieces of betel leaf.
ARDHA CHANDRA (ARDHACANDRA): Half moon.Deva Saraswati’s left hand. Both hands of Deva Parvati, left up, rightdown (abhaya and varada, fear not and charity).
ARDHA PATAKA: Half flag.Deva Vayu left hand.
ARDHA RECHITA: Invitation.
ARDHA SUCHI: half-needle.
ARJUNA: Arjuna Tree. Simhamukha hand.
ASHOKA: Ash Tree. Pataka hands crossed, i.e., touching at the wrists and moving freely toand fro.
ASHWINI (ASHWANI / ASHWATER): Mule.Nagabandha hands directed upward indicating cow-ear. Contraction ofanal sphincter.
ASVATHTHA: Pipal Tree.Alapadma hands waving the fingers.
AVAHANA (AVAHANI): The Avahani mudra is the mudra of invitation. It is used to invoke thedeity into the presence of the worshiper.
AVAHITTA (AVAHITHA): Dissimulation.