Interpretation of Hand Signs in Buddhist Art

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • Interpretation of Hand SignshisKev

    , Annealth

    impotama,sciplinmudtheseury ADir mesopyrig

    ra, sig


    spscisimchmake a questioning gesture as helpful locals calmhim with a simple touch. People may start relation-ships with a simple handshake or end them with agomu











    and his teachings form the core of Buddhist philos-ophy. Early Buddhist artists believed that because theBuddha had passed on, he should not be represented

    91odbye wave. The use of hands in nonverbal com-nication is not specific to the modern age. Hand

    stures in Buddhist art symbolize stories that impartre moral principles of the discipline. This paperll examine hand postures in Buddhist art to revealir meaning for the betterment of human kind.Sidharta Gautama founded Buddhism in the 6thntury BC.1 He had a privileged birth as a prince of

    Sakya tribe in 556 BC in Lumbini (modern Ne-l).1 When Gautama was an infant, a priest is said tove noticed 32 auspicious signs that predicted heuld either become a powerful king or an ascetic.1deter Gautama from becoming an ascetic, his

    her prevented him from witnessing any humanffering and surrounded him with pleasures. How-er, at the age of 29, Gautama ventured beyond thenfines of his palace and witnessed an old man, ak man, and a dead man.2 This exposure to suffer-

    in earthly forms.3 Therefore, symbols such as charka(wheel), footprint, halo, umbrella, lotus, and treewere used to depict the Buddha.3 However, Bud-dhism evolved to be less monastic and attracted newfollowers. This mass appeal created a need for im-ages of the founder, and artists started to representthe Buddha in human forms.3 Statues of the Buddhabecame important, and his hand signs became themedium of conveying important moral lessons.

    Hand Signs in Buddhist ArtHands have symbolic meaning in Buddhism. Gener-ally, each finger of the hand is associated with anatural element as follows4:

    Thumb: waterIndex finger: spaceMiddle finger: earthRing finger: fireLittle finger: airin BuddAhmer K. Ghori, BA,

    From the University of Michigan School of MedicineDepartment of Surgery, The University of Michigan H

    Hand signs (called mudras in Sanskrit) play anspecific events from the life of Sidharta Gausymbolize moral principles important to the didhyana mudra, (2) varada mudra, (3) abhayamudra, and (6) bhumispara mudra. The use ofuniversities in India around the 4th or 5th centbehind the six main hand signs and reveal thesociety. (J Hand Surg 2007;32A:918922. CSurgery of the Hand.)Key words: Buddha, Buddhist art, hand, mud

    he popular proverb you dont value what youhave until it is gone is especially applicableto the human use of hands in nonverbal com-

    nication. We use our hands to express a wideectrum of emotions, yet we are not always con-ous of it. A mother may calm her crying child byply patting his or her back or reprimand a mis-

    ievous one by raising her finger. A lost tourist may8 The Journal of Hand Surgeryt Artin C. Chung, MD

    Arbor, MI; and the Section of Plastic Surgery,System, Ann Arbor, MI.

    rtant role in Buddhist art. They representthe founder of Buddhism. These eventse. There are six important hand signs: (1)ra, (4) vitarka mudra, (5) dharmachakrahand signs was popularized by Buddhist. This paper will examine the symbolismsage, which will be valuable for modernht 2007 by the American Society for


    motivated him to abandon his luxurious lifestylesearch for the meaning of life. He gave up allrldly pleasures and meditated under a tree in Gayaodern Benares, India) until he attained bodhi (anskrit term that means enlightenment).1 Afters incident, Gautama is addressed as the Buddhanlightened one) in Buddhist philosophy.The Buddha shared his enlightenment with people,

  • en





    Dhyana MudraInHiea







    Ghori and Chung / Hand Signs in Buddhist Art 919Contact between fingers signifies union of differ-t elements. This union reflects the Buddhist belieft all matter is composed of varying proportions offive basic elements. The right hand is symbolicmale quality, which in Buddhism is the ability tophysical work.4 The left hand is symbolic for theale quality of wisdom.4 Contact between right

    d left hands represents a union of the active maleect with the contemplative female aspect.4

    The Buddhas hand gestures are called mudras,ich means seal, mark or sign in Sanskrit.4 Mu-s are used to represent specific events from theddhas life that illustrate key principles of Bud-ism.5 Their systematic use did not emerge in Bud-ist art until the 4th or 5th century AD.5 Initially,re was a single general purpose mudra.5 In this

    sture, the right hand is at shoulder level and thelm faces out with fingers slightly bent. This wased to symbolize all events in the Buddhas life:aching sermons, blessing people, and so forth.5

    ith artistic evolution, new mudras were incorpo-ed. Eventually, six important mudras were attrib-d to the Buddha.5 These are:

    Dhyana mudraVarada mudraAbhaya mudraVitarka mudraDharmachakra mudraBhumispara mudra

    ure 1. (A) Dhyana mudra. (B) Buddha statue in dhyanadra. (C) Buddha statue in dhyana mudra, Phra Pathomedi style.this pose, the Buddha sits with hands in his lap.s palms face up with fingers extended and touchingch other (Fig. 1A).5 The Buddha is said to have satthis position while meditating for enlightenment.swore that even if my flesh and blood should be

    ed up, and there should only be left one vein ande nerve, unless I receive supreme knowledge, Ill not leave this couch.5 This mudra empowered

    to overcome worldly temptations and he wasle to attain bodhi. Therefore, Dhyana mudra rep-ents disciplining the mind through meditation

    ig. 1B, C).4 The right hand always rests on top ofleft hand.4 This means that male skillful qualities

    ght hand) are supported by the female quality ofsdom (left hand).4

    rada Mudrathis pose, the palm is held out and fingers looselyng down (Fig. 2A).5 The right hand is usually used

    ure 2. (A) Varada mudra. (B) Buddha statue in varadadra, Gupta style, found at Sarnath, India. (C) Buddhatue in varada mudra, found in Nakhon Pathom, Nationalseum Bangkok.

  • for this gesture.5 The Buddha initially resorted toex














    920 The Journal of Hand Surgery / Vol. 32A No. 6 July/August 2007treme self-denial in his quest for enlightenment.1ter he gave this up for a middle path. Upon re-uncing self-denial, the Buddha accepted gifts in

    form of rice pudding5 for food and eightndles of newly cut grass5 for a seat. He is said tove used this hand position to accept these gifts.erefore, varada mudra represents generosity (Fig., C).4 The five fingers of the right hand representnerosity, morality, patience, energy, and concen-tion.4 The center of the palm represents wisdom.4

    haya Mudrathis pose, the palm is held outward and fingers aretended up (Fig. 3A).5 It is usually made with theht hand.5 This mudra represents various eventsen the Buddha averted calamities.5 For example,is said to have used this gesture to prevent his

    atives from fighting over water rights, to stop aod, or to stop a charging animal. The abhayadra represents absence of fear and protection (Fig., C).4 In many statues, the hand is elevated to the

    ure 3. (A) Abhaya mudra. (B) Tenth to 12th century Songnasty Buddha in abhaya mudra. (C) Buddha in abhayadra.est level, and this is supposed to mean that bless-s and protection come directly from the Buddhas


    tarka Mudrathis pose, the thumb touches the index fingerming a circle and the other fingers are extended up

    ig. 4A).5 This mudra is attributed to occasionsere the Buddha taught correct ways in life5; for

    ample, the first time the Buddha explained the fourble truths and the miracle at Sravasti where heealed his divine form to skeptics. Therefore, thearka mudra represents giving instruction (Fig. 4B,.4 Initially, it was depicted using the right hand,t since the 8th century AD, it has also been shownth the left hand.

    armachakra Mudrathis pose, the index finger and thumb form a circleboth hands (Fig. 5A).5 Then the left hand is placed

    ure 4. (A) Vitarka mudra.(B) Phra Pathom Chedi Buddhavitarka mudra. (C) Seventh to 11th century Dvaravati styleddha in vitarka mudra.

  • inou







    occasion when the Buddha was tempted by a demonna








    Ghori and Chung / Hand Signs in Buddhist Art 921the palm of the right hand. The right palm facest, whereas the left palm faces in. In some statues,

    hands are raised to chest level. This gestureresents the important discourses from the Bud-

    as life.5 For example, the Buddhas discourses inrnath, Ragagriha, and Sravasti. The circles formedthe index finger and thumb represent knowledge.4e use of circles to symbolize knowledge impliesce one attains knowledge, he or she is obligated toare it with others. The orientation of the palmsmbolizes two different ways Buddhist philosophyy be transmitted: (1) The outward-facing right

    lm represents imparting Buddhist teachings on oth-; (2) the inward facing left palm symbolizes self-lization of Buddhist principles.4 The placement ofleft hand on top of the right hand symbolizes the

    erdependence of wisdom (left hand) and physicalility (right hand) (Fig. 5B).4

    umispara Mudrathis pose, the right hand hangs down and the

    gers touch the ground (Fig. 6A).5 The left handually rests in the lap.5 This mudra symbolizes the

    ure 5. (A) Dharmachakra mudra. In this mudra, the indexger and thumb form a circle in both hands. Then the rightnd, with its circle, is placed on the left hand. Therefore, thecle formed by the left hand may be partially covered. (B)ddha in dharmachakra Mara while he was meditating for enlighten-nt.5 She offered him riches, power, sensual plea-

    res to break his concentration.5 The Buddhaght these temptations and used this hand sign tooke Sthavara, the goddess of Earth, to bear wit-

    ss to his will power.5 Therefore, this gesture sym-lizes the power of concentration over worldly

    ptations (Fig. 6B, C).4

    iscussione use of hand signs, or mudras, became importantBuddhist art around the 4th or 5th century AD.5ey represent specific events from the Buddhas lifet teach important principles. Their origin can beced to a general-purpose mudra that evolved intomain mudras. The use of these mudras was pop-

    rized by Indian Buddhist universities, and Na-da was an important one of these universities.ddhism began to spread out of India and thisuenced Buddhist art.4 Chinese pilgrims visited

    ure 6. (A) Bhumispara mudra. (B) Fifteenth century Suko-ai Buddha in bhumispara mudra. (C) Bhumispara mudraddha at Wat Mahathat, Sukothai Historical Park.

  • Indian Buddhist centers as early as the 4th centuryAD.4 Thailand and Cambodia were exposed to Bud-dhism by Indian missionaries in the 6th century AD.4Buddhism was introduced to Tibet by trade contactswith Nepal and China in the the 7th century AD.4Japan started accepting Buddhism around AD 552.4These countries generally adopted the six main mu-dras and introduced new mudras to reflect theirunique artistic and social traditions. For example,Thailand introduced the concept of a mudra for everyday of the week.5 Despite new additions, the six mainmudras predominate in statues throughout the Bud-dhist world.

    Hand gestures are equally important in Bud-dhism as they are to us today. For example, just asa mother may calm her baby with her hands, theabhaya mudra calms millions of Buddhists seekingbodhi (enlightenment) and nirvana (peace). Theuse of hands to comfort each other, express emo-tions, symbolically relate stories or moral princi-ples is a timeless phenomenon. The principles im-parted promote peace and fraternity amonghumans, and we can learn from them to halt thesenseless violence and cycles of human tragedythat pervade our world.

    Received for publication February 21, 2007; accepted in revised formMarch 7, 2007.

    No benefits in any form have been received or will be received froma commercial party related directly or indirectly to the subject of thisarticle.

    Corresponding author: Kevin C. Chung, MD, Section of Plastic Sur-gery, University of Michigan Health System, 2130 Taubman Center,1500 E. Medical Center Drive, Ann Arbor, MI, 48109-0340;

    Copyright 2007 by the American Society for Surgery of the Hand0363-5023/07/32A06-0026$32.00/0doi:10.1016/j.jhsa.2007.03.006

    References1. Thurman R. Buddhism: an overview. In: Embree A, ed.

    Encyclopedia of Asian history. Vol. 1. New York: CharlesScribners Sons, 1988:180184.

    2. Brewster EH. The life of Gotama the Buddha. In: Worldhistory: patterns of interaction. Boston, MA: McDougal Lit-tell Inc. Available at:

    3. Rowland, B. The evolution of the Buddha image. New York:Asia House Gallery, 1963:510.

    4. Beer R. The handbook of Tibetan Buddhist symbols. Chicago:Serindia Publications, 2003:221230.

    5. Matics KI. Gestures of the Buddha. Bangkok, Thailand: Chu-lalongkorn University Press, 1998:1325, 139195.

    6. Heller A. Tibetan art: tracing the development of spiritualideals and art in Tibet. Milan, Italy: Editoriale Jaca BookSpA, 1999:1315, 5153.

    922 The Journal of Hand Surgery / Vol. 32A No. 6 July/August 2007

    Interpretation of Hand Signs in Buddhist ArtHand Signs in Buddhist ArtDhyana MudraVarada MudraAbhaya MudraVitarka MudraDharmachakra MudraBhumispara Mudra



View more >