Glossary: Hand Gestures & Mudras

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In Himalayan art most hand gestures are simply unnamed depictions of a hand, a hand at rest, an active hand, or a hand holding some object. Not all hand gestures are important and not all hand gestures have names. In Sutrayana Buddhism most gestures do not have names except for the very few specific gestures associated with the life story of the Buddha: meditation gesture, earth touching, turning the wheel of Dharma and performing miracles. These gestures are narrative based.

Gestures that are taught in the Buddhist Tantras, Vajrayana Buddhism, are called mudra and have symbolic meaning either common to Tantra in general or have a symbolic meaning that is specific to a particular Tantra text and Tantric meditational system. In Tantric Buddhism there are many different kinds of mudras, for example in the Sarvadurgati Parishodhana Tantra and subsequent mandala and ritual practices they boast of over 100 different mudras that must each be known in sequence with proper execution. Luckily very few actual Tantric gestures (mudras) are represented and depicted in Himalayan art.

As already mentioned, from the position of Tantric Buddhism not all hand gestures are mudras. Mudras are only those gestures that are taught and described in the Buddhist Tantra literature. Now, for example the wrathful gesture commonly associated with the mahasiddha Virupa is not technically classified as a mudra as it is not taught in the Tantras. The wrathful gesture is merely the universal human gesture of pointing the index finger of either hand in an accusatory way. That is the basis for the wrathful gesture found in Buddhist Tantric art.

(Update: see the article Questions Regarding the Word Mudra, A Preliminary Survey of Gestures on Indian Icons and their Designation by Richard Smith, published September 09, 2015).

The list below contains the names of the principal buddhas, deities and Indian mahasiddhas that have either a unique hand gesture or are especially known for a specific gesture - such as Virupa and the wrathful gesture used to stop the sun in the sky. Also, images of Tibetan and Himalayan teachers will generally be depicted using the gestures of Shakyamuni Buddha or one of the Five Symbolic Buddhas. For example Vairochana is depicted with the gesture of Teaching the Dharma. This same gesture is used as the iconic gesture for Sakya Pandita, Buton Tamche Kyenpa, Bodong Panchen Chogle Namgyal, Tsongkapa, Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo and a number of Karmapas.

Ninety-nine percent (99%) of all gestures found in Himalayan art are represented in these examples below.

Shakyamuni Buddha - Gestures:
1. Meditation
2. Earth Touching
3. Turning the Wheel of Dharma
4. Display of Miracles

Five Symbolic Buddhas - Gestures:
1. Vairochana - teaching the Dharma (turning the wheel)
2. Akshobhya - earth touching
3. Amitabha - meditation
4. Ratnasambhava - generosity
5. Amoghasiddhi - blessing

Miscellaneous Buddhas - Gestures:
1. Buddha Nagaraja - nagaraja gesture
2. Medicine Buddha - generosity & holding a medicinal plant
3. Thirty-five Confession Buddhas - various gestures (some unique)
4. Vairochana - essence of Enlightenment gesture

Miscellaneous Tantric Gestures (Mudras):
1. Vajradhara - vajra embrace gesture
2. Humkara - humkara gesture
3. Bhutadamara Vajrapani - subduing demons gesture
4. Green Tara - protection gesture
5. Mahasiddha Virupa - wrathful gesture
6. Mahasiddha Jalandhara - flaming, or dakini gesture
7. Avalokiteshvara, Chaturbhuja - prayer, respectful (anjali) gesture

Gestures in Alphabetical Order:

Blessing, or explication of the teaching: with the right hand raised to the level of the heart and the first finger and thumb touching and the three remaining fingers pointing upward. Alternately the gesture is sometimes depicted as simply the open palm facing out and the thumb and index finger do not touch. This is the hand gesture of Amoghsiddhi Buddha and also for many depictions of Tibetan teachers. Many depictions of Tibetan teachers have the right hand held up with the first finger and thumb touching to represent the spout of an initiation vase. The three up raised fingers represent the peacock feathers (see examples of an initiation vase).

Demon subduing gesture: with the two ring fingers interlocked at the level of the heart. Generally only found with the deity Bhutadamara Vajrapani. There are also different versions of the mudra based on varying descriptions in the Tantric commentary literature.

Display of Miracles: a gesture of Shakyamuni Buddha where the right arm is held out slightly to the side with the palm open and the extended fingers pointing upward.

Earth touching: originating with Shakyamuni Buddha, the right hand is extended across the knee withe fingers bent down touching the earth.

Essence of Enlightenment gesture: originating with Vairochana Buddha, the right hand grasps the upward pointing left index finger.

Flaming, or dakini gesture: arising from the Chakrasamvara Cycle of Tantras, the first fingers and thumbs of the two hands are touching and thew palms are facing out. The gesture is performed at the forehead.

Generosity: associated with Ratnasambhava Buddha and then more commonly with the deity Green Tara. The right hand is placed across the right knee with the palm facing out and the fingers extended downward.

Humkara gesture: a special gesture associated exclusively with the wrathful deity Humkara. The gesture is not clearly described and can appear differently in painting and sculpture. It does however seem to be visually related to the Demon Subduing gesture.

Meditation: with the two hands placed in the lap, right over left, palms up. The Bon religion places the hands palm left over right.

Nagaraja gesture: exclusive to Nagaraja Buddha, the two hands are placed at the heart making a fist with the two index fingers pointing straight up.

Prayer, respectful (anjali) gesture: with the two hands joined together at the heart with the palms touching. In the Buddhist tradition the palms should be curved to create an open space with only the fingers, thumbs and heel of the palms touching.

Protection gesture: with the right arm resting on the right knee and the open hand with the palm facing out - slightly raised.

Teaching the Dharma: a gesture originating with Shakyamuni Buddha, the two hands are placed at the level of the heart with the thumb and index finger of each hand touching and the three outstretched fingers of each hand roughly making the shape of a circle - symbolizing the eight spoked wheel.

Vajra embrace gesture: most commonly associated with the primordial Buddha Vajradhara and Heruka Vajrasattva, with the two hands crossed at the heart - often holding a vajra and bell.

Wrathful gesture: with the right or left hand making a pointing gesture with the index finger. This gesture is most often associated with the Indian mahasiddha Virupa.

Jeff Watt, July 29th, 2010