is to understand a rich language of vibrant colors, intricate jewelry, and symbolic gestures. One facet of its sweeping lexicon, mudras
, or hand gestures, offer a framework to begin to unpack the nuanced visual culture of one of the world’s most widely practiced religions.
The term mudra
literally translates to “seal,” like a stamp, explained Elena Pakhoutova, curator at the Rubin Museum
, in an interview with Artsy
. But the primary function of these gestures is not a visible one. Mudras are “an embodiment of internal processes that can also be externally observed,” Pakhoutova said, adding that depictions of mudras are easily understood by people who practice Buddhism and are familiar with the states of mind the gestures indicate.
Ranging from the poetic and complicated Wheel of Dharma mudra to the prosaic, universal prayer symbol, mudras reference anecdotes from the historical Buddha’s life and convey elements of Buddhist practice like meditation and teaching. Some gestures, like the meditation mudra, may be familiar to those who practice yoga.
Buddhism was founded in the 6th century B.C.E. by Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in present-day Nepal. After his enlightenment, he became known as Shakyamuni, or the historical Buddha. (A common misconception is that there is only one Buddha; Shakyamuni is but one of several significant Buddhas, including Amitabha
and Amoghasiddhi.) Over the millennia, his teachings spread across East Asia, evolving into multifaceted sects along the way. Today, about 488 million people
around the world practice Buddhism, most in one of the three major traditions: Theravada, Mahayana, and Esoteric.
Esoteric sects, found largely in Tibet and Japan, use mudras most extensively, both in practice and in art. Hand gestures are used by Buddhas, monks, practitioners, and bodhisattvas—beings who have delayed enlightenment to help guide those on earth in attaining it. Bodhisattvas appear only in imagery from the Esoteric and Mahayana traditions. In the Theravada tradition, which is common in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, mudras are usually limited to the gestures associated with Shakyamuni.
Of the hundreds of extant mudras and their myriad readings across cultures, here, we describe seven of those most commonly found in Buddhist art. The names of the gestures are given in Sanskrit, the language of early Mahayana Buddhist texts, and are accompanied by English translations.