Hand gestures

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.

 FREQUENT GESTURES

The  gesture of meditation (dhyana) 

Dyana mudra with left hand only.

Dhyana mudra with left hand.

It may be displayed by the left hand only.

Dyana mudra with both hands.

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)

Bhumisparsha

Bhumisparsha

The vast majority of sculptures depicting Shakyamuni seated have him doing this gesture.

bhumisparsha-with-dyana

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.

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.

Varada mudra with dharmacakra.

Varada mudra with dharmacakra.

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)

abhaya-right

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.

Abhaya with dhyana.

Abhaya with dhyana.

Buddha Amoghasiddhi usually does it with his right hand while doing the meditation gesture with the other.

 

The gesture of discussion or debate (vitarka)

Vitarka mudra

Vitarka mudra.

It may be displayed by either hand individually or by both hands together.

holding-rosary

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.

17th-18th century, Tibet, buddha, parcel-gilt copper alloy, private collection, photo by Bonhams.

17th-18th century, Tibet, buddha, parcel-gilt copper alloy, private collection, photo by Bonhams.

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 the Law’ gesture  (dharmacakra)

Dharmacakra mudra.

Dharmacakra mudra.

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).

dharmacakra-palm-out

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 prayer (anjali)

anjali-mudra

It is displayed  by Shadakshari Lokeshvara and other forms of Avalokiteshvara, amongst others.

 

The gesture to ward off evil (karana)

karana-mudra

It is displayed by many deities with a wrathful appearance. the forefinger and the little finger are erect like yak horns.

Karana mudra with lasso.

Karana mudra with lasso.

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)

Kartari mudra.

Kartari mudra.

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.

kartarilotus

The stem of a lotus usually passes through her hand.

The gesture to subdue demons (bhutadamara)

bhutadmara-mudra-vajrapani

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) 

vajrahumkara-mudra

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)

Buddhasramana mudra.

Buddhasramana mudra.

It symbolises enlightenment.

Buddhasramana mudra with buddha on lotus.

Buddhasramana mudra with buddha on lotus.

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)

Tarjani

This threatening gesture is often used by wrathful deities such as Achala and some forms of Vajrapani, for instance.

 Vasudhara’s gesture

Vasudhara's gesture.

Vasudhara’s gesture.

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.

Vairocana’s gesture

Vajramudra, locked.

Vajramudra, locked.

This gesture of supreme enlightenment is associated with buddha Vairocana in his one-head form (who occasionally does the dharmacakra mudra instead).

Vajramudra, unlocked.

Vajramudra, unlocked.

The forefinger of the left hand is either completely wrapped by the righthand or it is partly showing.

 

The historical buddha’s gesture

Shakyamuni holding his garment.

Shakyamuni holding his garment.

Shakyamuni is the only standing buddha shown with one end of his robe in his left hand.

 

Milarepa’s gesture

milarepas-gesture

Milarepa always holds his right hand to his ear.

 

Virupa’s gesture

Virupa's gesture, right hand.

Virupa’s gesture, right hand.

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.

Virupa's gesture, left hand.

Virupa’s gesture, left hand.

He may do this gesture with either hand.

Humkara’s gestures

Humkara's gesture

Humkara’s gesture – main hands

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 writs tightly closed.

Humkara, both gestures.

Humkara, both gestures.

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.