The symbolic hand gestures displayed by deities can help us identify them. In most descriptions from auction houses, museums and books they are referred to as mudras although their is some controversy as to whether the term is used appropriately.
One particular deity may display different gestures at the same time and several types of gestures may be associated with a particular deity. The gestures normally displayed by a particular deity may differ from one region to the other. Although some are normally done with the right or the left hand, this may vary too (i.e. the photo is not necessarily the wrong way round). Deities with a peaceful appearance may do a gesture normally associated with a wrathful deity and vice-versa.
The gesture of meditation (dhyana)
It may be displayed by the left hand only.
Dhyana mudra with both hands.
or by both hands. For instance, Amitabha always displays it with both hands to hold a begging bowl. Amitayus always does it to hold a vase of longevity (as above). Vairocana in his four-head and two-hand form does it to hold an attribute, wheel of the Law or double thunderbolt. Shakyamuni sometimes display this gesture to hold a begging bowl.
The gesture of calling Earth to witness (bhumisparsha)
The vast majority of sculptures depicting Shakyamuni seated have him doing this gesture.
It is normally done with the right hand and in conjunction with the meditation gesture. Buddha Akshobhya always does these two gestures.
The gesture of supreme generosity (varada)
Varada right hand.
This gesture is often done with the right hand but may it be done with the other, especially in the case of deities with multiple pairs of hands.
There may be an incised or embossed symbol in the palm of the hand, such as an eye in the case of White Tara, a lotus in the case of Avalokiteshvara, a wheel in the case of Shakyamuni, a jewel in the case of Ratnasambhava, etc.
The fear-allaying or blessing gesture (abhaya)
It is displayed by various buddhas and bodhisattvas (especially Avalokiteshvara in his padmapani form), usually with the right hand. The palm is out and may be incised or embossed with a symbol such as the diamond above.
Buddha Amoghasiddhi usually does it with his right hand while doing the meditation gesture with the other.
The gesture of discussion or debate (vitarka)
It may be displayed by either hand individually or by both hands together.
Not to be confused with the gesture used to hold a rosary or a lotus, in which the middle finger touches the thumb, as above. Such gesture is called ‘shuni’ and is associated with bestowing patience.
This buddha, possibly one of the 35 confession buddhas, does this gesture of patience with both hands, without holding anything in them.
The ‘turning the wheel of law’ gesture (dharmacakra)
This consists in the right hand doing the vitarka mudra at heart level and the other hand doing the same gesture next to it or in front of it, with the palm inwards. Apart from Shakyamuni, other peaceful deities use it (for instance Maitreya, when seated).
One variant consists in the right hand with the ring finger touching the thumb and the left hand being placed below, palm out. Other variants show the forefinger of the right hand touching a finger of the left hand, which may be the forefinger, the middle finger or the little finger.
The gesture of salutation (anjali)
It is displayed by donors and devotees, and a similar gesture with the palms slightly apart is done by various deities, especially Shadakshari Lokeshvara and the eleven-head form of Avalokiteshvara, to hold a wish-granting jewel.
In ‘Mudra in Pan-Asian Buddhism – Part I’, John Huntington reminds us that in Asia it is a gesture of deferential greeting, not prayer.
The gesture to ward off evil (karana)
It is displayed by many deities with a wrathful appearance. the forefinger and the little finger are erect like yak horns.
A similar gesture but with the tip of the index meeting the thumb is used when the deity holds a lasso wound around the left hand.
The gesture of protection or refuge (kartari)
Green Tara very often does this gesture with her left hand at heart level to bestow refuge. It is similar to the previous gesture but this time it is the tip of the ring finger that presses the thumb.
The stem of a lotus usually passes through her hand.
The gesture to subdue demons (bhutadamara)
It is displayed by a four-arm form of wrathful Vajrapani with the same name, and sometimes by Humkara (who has a specific gesture, shown further down). Perhaps for this reason, this gesture is sometimes wrongly called the Vajrahumkara mudra. The wrists are crossed and the hands held palm out, with the little fingers linked.
The vajra embrace gesture (vajrahumkara)
This is the mudra displayed by buddha Vajradhara and by meditational deities who hold two thunderbolts (vajras) or a thunderbolt and a bell at heart level or across the back of their consort. The wrists are crossed and the hands are palm inwards.
The salutation gesture (buddhasramana)
It symbolises enlightenment and is also known as vandana mudra
Ushnishavijaya in her eight-hand form displays it with her top right hand, in which she usually holds a buddha seated on a lotus (especially in Tibet) or a visvajra.
The wrathful gesture (tarjani)
This threatening gesture is often used by wrathful deities such as Achala and some forms of Vajrapani, for instance.
Vasudhara, in her six-hand form, holds her top right hand at head level in a gesture accomplishing music. In yoga this is known as ardha chandra or half moon.
This gesture of supreme enlightenment is associated with buddha Vairocana in his one-head form (who occasionally does the dharmacakra mudra instead).
The forefinger of the left hand is either completely wrapped by the right hand or it is partly showing.
The historical buddha’s gesture
Shakyamuni is the only standing buddha shown with one end of his robe in his left hand.
This buddha’s specific gesture consists in all the fingers being knitted except for the forefingers.
Milarepa always holds his right hand to his ear.
Mahasiddha Virupa often raises an arm with the index finger straight, to stop the Sun in its course. The middle and ring fingers rest over the thumb.
He may do this gesture with either hand.
Exclusive to this deity, this is a defensive gesture with the little fingers interlocked and the palms out as in the bhutadamara mudra but with the forefingers erect and the thumbs folded. In some regions outside the Himalayas, Humkara’s gesture is done with the wrists tightly closed.
Another gesture exclusive to this deity (but not always displayed) consists in the foregingers of the upper hands being placed on each side of his mouth.
The commonest leg position for (male) buddhas, lamas, and to a lesser extent for bodhisattvas and other peaceful characters is the vajra position (vajrasana in sanskrit), also called meditative pose (dhyaanasana) or lotus position (padmasana) (although this applies more to yoga). It consists in the legs being folded and crossed at ankle level with the soles of the feet upwards; the right foot normally rests over the left leg.
Maitreya often sits with both legs pendant (bhadrasana), in the ‘European fashion’. The historical buddha and Dharmata (attendant to the arhats) may also sit this way.
Green Tara always sits with a leg pendant, the foot resting on a lotus attached to the base, the other leg folded towards her. This pose is known as lalitasana and many peaceful characters are depicted this way.
A variant called ‘at royal ease’ (Rajalilasana) consists in one leg being folded while the knee on the other side is raised. This nonchalant manner of sitting is not as common as the previous one for bodhisattvas, who normally have one arm resting over the knee and the other stretched and placed on the lotus base (especially Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri), but it is a standard one for mahasiddhas, whose arms may do a wide variety of gestures.
Mahasiddha Dampa Sangye may be depicted with both knees loosely raised and the legs crossed at ankle level.
Mahasiddha Saukarika and Dharmata sometimes sit with both knees raised in front of them.
When riding a mule, donkey or other animal, wrathful characters may sit with one leg on each side of the mount (left) but they usually ride sideways (right).
Peaceful characters occasionally stand straight (Western Tibet especially) or with their head tilted to one side and their torso leaning towards the opposite side, one leg brought slightly forward and bent at knee level. This pose is known as tribhanga (triple bend).
Some aspects of Vajrayogini, especially Vajravarahi, and some dakinis stand in what is usually called a ‘dancing pose’ (ardhaparyankasana), standing on tiptoes with one foot while the other leg is folded and held up.
The usual pose for wrathful characters is one of combat (alidhasana), with one leg stretched and resting firmly on the ground (or on a victim) and the other bent as if to give a powerful kick (alidha). The pose also applies to male meditational deities. Some deities usually step to the right (right knee bent) others to the left (left knee bent).
The most common way of depicting paired deities in a standing pose is to show the male stepping to the left (alidhasana) and his consort with the left leg stretched and the other wrapped around her consort’s waist. In Tibet, Vajravarahi may have both legs around Chakrasamvara’s waist (Luipa tradition).
Normally associated with Blue Achala, this pose consists in kneeling with one leg and crouching with the other.