A mudra is a symbolic and ritualistic means of communication using hand gestures and finger postures. Associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, mudras simply and easily express to devotees in a recognizable way the nature, function and divine manifestation of deities portrayed. Most Buddhist mudras reflect and remind devotees of major events in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha and are used in representations of enlightened beings such as the Buddha, Guanyin, other Bodhisattvas and Lohans and are also used by monks for meditation and concentration. Starting with the thumb, each finger is identified with one of the five elements: the sky, wind, fire, water, and earth. When fingers touch in a mudra, it is believed they compose a unique combination of these elements creating favorable conditions and generating forces that invoke a deity’s presence at rites and in prayers to secure a desired action or benefit. Thus, mudras induce the deity to be closer to the worshipper. In the practice of yoga, mudras are used to rebalance energy and assist meditation and healing.
Although scores of mudras are used in ceremonies, dance, sculpture and painting, only 5 have a major presence in Shakyamuni Buddha images:
1. Dharmachakra: recalling the Buddha’s first teaching of the Dharma.
2. Dhyana: meditation and the attainment of spiritual perfection.
3. Bhumisparsha: Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree.
4. Varada: charity, compassion and boon-granting.
5. Abhaya: fearlessness, protection and the dispelling of fear.
For an excellent explanation of mudras see Exotic India, “Mudras of the Great Buddha Symbolic Gestures and Postures”, https://web.stanford.edu/class/history11sc/pdfs/mudras.pdf
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