BUDDHIST ICONOGRAPHY: MUDRAS and AUSPICIOUS SYMBOLS
There is a rich iconography associated with images of Buddha. There are specific bodily features, stylised poses [mudras/ gestures], and there are auspicious symbols.
An interesting facet is that the large free-standing iconic images of the Buddha so prominent now-a-days in Buddhist art, are not found in the earliest period. The Aniconic and Iconic phases of depiction of Buddha is explained separately.. click here..
This post is on Mudras [gestures] and Auspicious Symbols.
Mudra means a symbolic gesture. It is a common knowledge that Buddha sculptures are found in different mudras, or hand gestures. I had a rough idea about a few of them. I have long wanted to learn more. For me, the best way to learn to to write, so here is the post.
Mudras are a non-verbal modes of communication and self-expression. While some mudras involve the entire body, most are performed with the hands and fingers. It is important to clarify that there are Yoga mudras, and Classical dance Mudras, but here I am exploring only the common Buiddhist mudras found in sculptures and paintings. Many such mudras have been used in the Buddhist sculpture and painting of India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan.
The commonly used hand gestures in Buddhism:
Gesture of calling earth to witness – Bumiparsa Mudra
Gesture of preaching the Dharma – Dharmacakra mudra
Gesture of meditation – Dhyana Mudra
Gesture to assuage fear – Abhaya Mudra
Gesture of welcome or to make offering – Varada Mudra
Gesture of reasoning – Vitarka Mudra
Bhumisparsa Mudra: Earth Touching, Calling the Earth to Witness, or The Victory Over demon king Mara.
Bhumisparsa Mudra literally means “Touching the Earth” Mudra. Bhumi means earth, and sparsa means touch.
It depicts the Buddha sitting in meditation with right hand hanging over right knee, palm inward, with fingers touching earth; while left hand positioned on lap with palm up.
This gesture symbolizes the Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree, when he touched the earth goddess Prithvi to “call the earth to witness” his attainment of enlightenment, and victory over temptation during his battle with demon king Mara.
Dharmachakra Mudra: Teaching Preaching, Turning the Wheel of Dharma
Dharmachakra Mudra is “Turning the Wheel of Law” Mudra. Dharma means law and chakra means wheel.
It refers especially to teaching of the Wheel of Law [Dharma] and the preaching of the Buddha.
Dharmacakra mudra is two hands close together in front of the chest in vitarka with the right palm forward and the left palm upward, sometimes facing the chest. There are several variants such as in the Ajanta Caves frescoes, where the two hands are separated and the fingers do not touch.
This mudra symbolizes one of the most important moments in the life of Buddha, the occasion when he preached to his companions the first sermon after his Enlightenment in the Deer Park at Sarnath. It thus denotes the setting into motion of the Wheel of the teaching of the Dharma.
Dhyana Mudra: “Meditation” Mudra.
Dhyana means to meditate or concentrate.
The two hands are placed on the lap, right hand on left with fingers fully stretched, four fingers resting on each other and the thumbs facing upwards towards one another diagonally, palms facing upwards; in this manner, the hands and fingers form the shape of a triangle, which is symbolic of the spiritual fire or the Triratna (the three jewels).
It symbolizes the Buddha in a state of meditation. This mudra was extremely popular in Asia. Important to note that this mudra was used long before the Buddha, as yogis have used it during their concentration, healing, and meditation exercises.
Abhaya Mudra – “Fear Not” Mudra / Protection, Reassurance, Blessing
Bhaya means fear, and Abhaya means absence of fear.
The gesture represents protection, peace, benevolence and the dispelling of fear.
This gesture is usually made – while standing, and with the right hand – with right bent and raised to shoulder height, the palm facing forward, the fingers closed, pointing upright and the left hand resting by the side. In Thailand and Laos, this mudra is associated with the walking Buddha, often shown having both hands making a double abhaya mudra that is uniform.
This mudra is often paired it with another mudra, typically – Varada Mudra – using the left hand.
This gesture was used by the Buddha when attacked by an elephant, subduing it as shown in several frescoes and scripts. In
This mudra was probably used before the onset of Buddhism as a symbol of good intentions proposing friendship when approaching strangers. In Gandharan art, it is seen when showing the action of preaching. It was also used in China during the Wei and Sui eras of the 4th and 7th centuries.
Varada Mudra: “Charity”, or “Compassion” Mudra.
It signifies offering, welcome, charity, giving, compassion and sincerity.
Varada means bestower or giver of blessings.
It is nearly always shown made with the left hand. It can be made with the arm crooked and the palm offered slightly turned up or in the case of the arm facing down the palm presented with the fingers upright or slightly bent.
The Varada Mudra is rarely seen without another mudra used by the right hand, typically Abhaya Mudra. This combination of Abhaya and Varada mudras is called Segan Semui-in or Yogan Semui-in in Japan.
Vitarka Mudra: Intellectual Argument, Debate, Appeasement
“The Gesture of Debate” or “discussion” Mudra.
Tark means argument and Vitark means counter argument.
The tips of the thumb and index finger touch, forming a circle. All other fingers are extended upwards.
Many variants of Vitarka mudra that have been observed. In one of the variants of this mudra, the palm of the left hand is rested upward in lap with the right hand raised to the shoulder lever with the thumb and index finger forming a circle. Similarly, in another variant, the index and the little fingers on the both hands can be seen extended with the middle and ring fingers curved slightly inwards. The left hand in this variant can be seen pointing up while the right hand is pointing down. Sometimes the middle finger and the thumb are seen touching each other which is taken as the mudra of great compassion. Similarly, the touching of the thumb and ring finger expresses the gesture of good fortune.
Vitarka mudra is a common gesture among the Buddha statues from in Thailand. This mudra is also sometimes, substituted for Dharmachakra Mudra. Vitarka mudra can be seen in both the sitting and standing Buddha statues.
Anjali Mudra / Namaskara Mudra: Greeting people and prayer.
Pressing the palm together to the center of chest, fingers pointing towards the sky.
It is a gesture of salutation, a symbol of respect and devotion to a higher being. The gesture of Namaskara is a hand gesture which is practiced throughout many countries in Asia and used as a sign of respect and greeting in countries like Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, etc.
Reclining Buddha: Resting Buddha /Nirvana Buddha
It is important especially to note the difference in position of the right hand. If supporting the head of the Buddha, the image denotes that the Buddha is resting. If the right arm is lying down next to the body, the image denotes that the Buddha has entered into Nirvana (has passed away).
Resting Buddha: Why are reclining Buddha images so large? Well it likely relates to a ‘story’ of the life of the Buddha. The giant Asurindarahu wanted to see the Buddha, but was reluctant to bow before him. The Buddha, while lying down, presented himself as much larger than the giant. He then showed him the realm of heaven with heavenly figures all larger than the giant. After all this, Asurindarahu, the giant, was humbled, and made his obeisance to the Buddha before leaving.
Nirvana Buddha: Nirvana in Buddhism means liberation from the endless cycle of birth – death – rebirth [known as samsara].
Nirvana Buddha: In this pose, the Buddha is always depicted lying on the right hand side on top of a resting table.
BUDDHISM SYMBOLS: EIGHT AUSPICIOUS SYMBOLS
Information from the Buddhist e-Library.. click here..
1. Right-coiled White Conch: The white conch which coils to the right symbolises the deep, far-reaching and melodious sound of the Dharma teachings, which being appropriate to different natures, predispositions and aspirations of disciples, awakens them from the deep slumber of ignorance and urges them to accomplish their own and others’ welfare.
2. Precious Umbrella: The precious umbrella symbolises the wholesome activity of preserving beings from illness, harmful forces, obstacles and so forth in this life and all kinds of temporary and enduring sufferings of the three lower realms, and the realms of men and gods in future lives. It also represents the enjoyment of a feast of benefit under its cool shade.
3. Victory Banner: The victory banner symbolises the victory of the activities of one’s own and others body, speech and mind over obstacles and negativitities. It also stands for the complete victory of the Buddhist Doctrine over all harmful and pernicious forces.
4. Golden Fish:The golden fish symbolises the auspiciousness of all living beings in a state of fearlessness, without danger of drowning in the ocean of sufferings, and migrating from place to place freely and spontaneously, just as fish swim freely without fear through water.
5: Dharma Wheel: The golden wheel symbolises the auspiciousness of the turning of the precious wheel of Buddha’s doctrine, both in its teachings and realizations, in all realms and at all times, enabling beings to experience the joy of wholesome deeds and liberation.
6. Auspicious Drawing: The auspicious drawing symbolises the mutual dependence of religious doctrine and secular affairs. Similarly, it represents the union of wisdom and method, the inseparability of emptiness and dependent arising at the time of path, and finally, at the time of enlightenment, the complete union of wisdom and great compassion.
7. Lotus Flower: The lotus flower symbolises the complete purification of the defilements of the body, speech and mind, and the full blossoming of wholesome deeds in blissful liberation.
8: Vase of Treasure: The treasure vase symbolises an endless rain of long life, wealth and prosperity and all the benefits of this world and liberation.
Eight Auspicious Symbols:
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BUDDHISM RELATED LINKS
Basic Understanding of Buddhism
Life of Buddha.. click here..
Schools of Buddhism and Bodhisattva.. click here..
Buddhist Iconography: Aniconic versus Iconic representation of Buddha.. click here..
Buddhist Iconography: Mudras and Auspicious Symbols.. click here..
PERSONAL NOTE: As a kid, I have spent many summer vacations at Bodh Gaya. It is my maternal grandparents place. I still have many relatives living there. So I have special affinity with Gaya. Now, living in Chicago, I wanted to dig deeper into my favorite childhood vacation destination. Bodh Gaya is the birth place of Buddhism. Buddha was born in Lumbini [Nepal], but Buddhism was born in Bodh Gaya. But I get boggled by the so many terms associated with Buddhism: like the Four Sights, Four Noble Truths, Eight-Fold Path and Four Holy Pilgrim Sites. Then Buddhist Iconography is full of symbolism associated with different mudras and objects. Also, there are various Schools of Buddhism. And then, the concept of Bodhisattva, and the names like Avalokitesvar, Tara, and Maitreya. I needed a better understanding of these names, terms and concepts. So a few posts covering these aspects.