Mudras and their Meanings
Mudra, a symbolic gesture or a pose.
Hand gestures and poses are more than just visually appealing. The next time you look at a statue or thangka, look at the hands and notice the figures are holding their hands, or are seated, in a very specific pose. These different poses are called mudras, and are commonly seen in Hindu and Buddhist art. The most common mudras that we see here at Oakridge are the hand gestures for the dhyana mudra and bhumisparsha; the vitarka mudra, and karana mudra are less common, but just as interesting. These mudras all have different meanings and history behind them.
The dhyana mudra, also known as the meditation mudra, is one that is most commonly depicted. Traditionally, the ideals that are related to dhyana mudra are meditation, concentration on the Good Law, and the attainment of spiritual perfection. It is perhaps most famous in relation to Guatama Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion. Many believe that when he reached enlightenment he was practicing dhyana mudra.
To identify the dhyana mudra, look for a figure that is sitting cross legged with their wrists resting on their thighs and the left hand on top of the right with palms facing up. This is the basic mudra, to expand on this, look for a figure with thumbs extended diagonally to the center creating a triangle. This hand position is meant to represent the three jewels of Buddhism. The three jewels are Buddha, Dharma, and Sanga; or the Buddha himself, the teachings, and the community.
Figure 1: Lot 246, Gilt-Bronze Buddha, 18th Century, in our upcoming May 2020 Asian sale.
The literal translation of bhumisparsha is ‘touching the earth,’ but it is commonly referred to as the earth witness mudra. This mudra is supposed to represent summoning the earth goddess to witness attainment of enlightenment, it may also signify steadfastness and the union of skillful means. This mudra can be identified by a figure seated in a cross legged position with their right hand by the right knee and extended to the ground. It is commonly depicted in conjunction with the figure’s right hand in the dhyana mudra.
Figure 2: Lot 420, Framed Tibetan Thangka, Ming Dynasty, in our upcoming May 2020 Discovery sale.
The vitarka mudra symbolizes teaching and intellectual discussion. Originally, this mudra was only portrayed with the right hand. However, later representations of this mudra show both hands being used. This is a mudra that can be seen in seated positions and standing positions. This mudra can be identified by a figure with a raised hand by their shoulders with the thumb and forefinger curled together to form a circle, while the other three fingers should be left pointed up, with the palm facing out.
Figure 3: Lot 256, Bronze Buddha, Ming Dynasty, circa 1544, sold for $10,000 USD, from our Fall 2019 Fine Asian Art & Antiques sale.
The last mudra is the karana mudra, a less common mudra often paired with a wrathful figure. The karana mudra is a gesture to ward off evil, negative thoughts, and sickness. To identify this mudra, look for a figure with their right hand at the chest and their palm facing forward. The thumb is curled up, touching the two middle fingers; with the pinky and forefinger extended up.
Figure 4: Lot 453, Gilt Bronze Figure of Yamantaka, 17th Century, from our Spring 2018 Fine Asian Art & Antiques Day 1 sale, sold for $40,000.
While these are only a portion of the mudras that are used in Hindu and Buddhist art, these are some of the most commonly used. These are also what we see most often here at Oakridge Auction Gallery. If you are interested in acquiring any of the pieces that have been mentioned in this blog, or any pieces similar to these, keep an eye out for our upcoming auctions!
About the Author
Alison Eubanks joined Oakridge in the fall of 2019. She received her Master's degree in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester, during which time she developed practical experience working with historic collections at the Hampton Court Palaces in England.