Cultures & Traditions
Mudras are specific hand gestures characteristic of buddhas and bodhisattvas that symbolize various meanings. They appear in Buddhist and Hindu images and are also practiced during meditation.
The historical Buddha’s various mudras can refer to specific times in his life, activities, or characteristics. Identifying mudras and understanding their meanings allows the viewer to contextualize the works of art and assign the proper narrative.
It is important to note that the mudras of the Buddha found in Southeast Asian representations don’t always carry the same meaning as those in Indian art.
Abhaya mudra - This mudra, in which the Buddha extends one or both of his palms forward, is a gesture of reassurance and blessing. It is meant to provide calm and dispel fear in the viewer. This is the gesture of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Buddha Sakyamuni [2006.21].
Bhumisparsha mudra - This mudra, in which the Buddha’s right hand is pointing down towards the earth, is also known as the earth-touching mudra. Here the Buddha is calling the earth to witness as he is tempted and threatened by Mara, a demon of ignorance. This gesture initiates the Earth Goddess’s appearance and aid in the destruction of Mara and his armies. [1998.65]
Dhyana mudra - In this particular mudra the Buddha’s hands are placed in his lap, palms up. This gesture indicates absolute balance and the Buddha’s meditative state.
Vitarka mudra - The thumb and forefinger of the hand are brought together to create this gesture, which signifies discussion, teaching, and intellectual argument. The circle formed by the joining of the fingers represents the wheel of law (dharma).
Dharmacakra mudra - In this common gesture, the Buddha intertwines both hands before his chest, joining thumbs and index fingers. This symbolizes the turning of the wheel of law (dharma) and his first sermon after achieving enlightenment.
Lesovsky, A., DMA unpublished material, May 3, 2013.
- Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Learn more about how mudras function in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain visual arts.