MUDRĀ . Mudrā in Sanskrit means seal or stamp of authority. In ordinary Sanskrit this meaning has always been in use. For instance, a political play written by Viśākhadatta (c. 7 ce) is called Mudrā-rākṣasa (The signet [ring] of Rākṣasa). Rākṣasa was the chief minister of the Imperial Nandas, the enemies of Candragupta Maurya, king of Magadha, and this ring was his seal of office.
However, in the medieval Brahmanic tradition, especially in religious practice, another meaning of the term mudrā became prevalent. In this context mudrā is a symbolic representation of a concrete form, or an idea, presented through gestures (hastas) and, sometimes, facial expression. It thus becomes closely associated with hand gestures used in dance and acting. Mudrā can also refer to hand gesture in an iconographical context, though this is a late innovation (see Colas). For example, in the Buddhist Tantra the term mudrā is sometimes used to describe hand postures found in images of the Buddha and Bodhisattva. Some esoteric Buddhist Tantras, such as the Guhyasiddhi written by Padmavajra during the seventh century, call the adept's female partner mudrå. According to the Siddha Tantras, supreme Sakti who is nameless (anakhya ) is designated as mudrå. As the term means divine authority and as Sakti is indeed the manifest divine authority, it is correct to call her mudrå. Tantric's partner is taken in rituals as a representative of the supreme Sakti and thus the divine authority incarnate (White, 2003).
In early Indian religious understanding, the term mudrā refers exclusively to ritual hand gestures symbolizing a variety of meanings and conferring legitimacy on a ritual act. The Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa, a famous early work on iconography, interestingly associates mudrā with esoteric rituals (rahasya-mudrā). In book III (the book on dance), it describes techniques of dance, including hand gestures (nṛtta-hasta). Not until the middle of the book does it turn to a discussion of the mudrā hand gestures (mudrā-hastān vyākhyāsyāma), which are presented as being in a separate category from the other hand gestures. Although the whole section on the performing arts in this Purāṇa concerns ritual worship, the mention of "esoteric" (rahasya) in relation to the mudrā-hastas clearly indicates that such mudrās were reserved for esoteric worship and not intended for use in the forms of public worship that incorporated dance along with gestures and mimesis. This esoteric quality becomes obvious when one takes into account the sorts of things that are represented by mudrā-hasta s. Often these are abstract ideas like the mystic syllable "Oṃ" or the esoteric use of the vowels (Beyer, 1973, pp. 101–102). The same Purāṇa introduces a type of mudrā known as śāstra-mudrā (3.33.15–16). These gestures depict deities in the special characteristic postures described in the mantras associated with them. Śāstra-mudrās also include a not particularly esoteric group of gestures used to represent the vehicles of these deities.
It is clear that a gesture is called mudrā when it accompanies a mantra and has an explanatory mimetic connection with what the mantra expresses. It may mime some salient features of the deity of the mantra, or it may mime the abstract idea expressed in the mantra; for example, the mantra "aḥ," which depicts the deity of the primal point of creation, must be uttered along with prescribed hand gestures. Mudrā also is seen as an agent that invests the mantra with the energy of its associated deity, and thus invests the worshipper with that deity's power. During the ritual investment of divine power, a process known as nyāsa, the ritual hand gestures indicate the divesting of power from each part of the deity's body to the corresponding part of the worshipper's body. Finally, one may deduce from the Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa that mudrā not only refers to a type of hand gesture but also symbolizes the seal of approval of the deity whose mantra the mudrā accompanies. It seals the mantra' s efficacy with divine authority.
The formulation of mudrās in a ritual context has been elaborately systematized. Indeed, all the major religious systems of classical India record the correct formulation of these hand gestures in their canonical texts and exegetical works. Mudrās are divided into three categories, each associated with different stages of a ritual. The first consists of mudrās associated with ritual purification of the worshipper's person, of the place of worship, and of the ingredients of offerings. These are called purificatory gestures, and are used at the beginning and end of a ritual. The second category is made up of those hand gestures known as saṃskāra mudrā. These are associated with the part of a ritual in which the worshipper envisages a cosmogonic sequence through which the deity gradually assumes a personal form and takes up residence in the worshipper's innermost core. This is the adept's heart conceived as a lotus, the seat of the deity, and is known as the lotus-heart. The worshipper invites the deity to emerge from his lotus-heart to sit upon the divine pedestal set up in front of the worshipper, so that offerings may be made. The third category of mudrās, pūjā-mudrā, comes into play when the worshipper makes offerings and imagines them being received by the deity. The final offering is of the worshipper's own self. A ritual ends with the worshipper envisaging the deity taking leave and being reabsorbed into the worshipper's heart.
The Mudrās form a secret system of sign or symbolic language known only to sectarian participants in various rituals. Buddhist, Śaiva, Śākta, and Vaiṣṇava tantric sects each have some sets of mudrās that are different from those used by other sects. In fact, members of one tantric sect can communicate with each other secretly by using mudrās unknown to an enemy sect.
In general, though, when the same type of object is being referred to, sectarian variation in mudrā use is not extreme. Furthermore, some mudrās do not vary, at least significantly, from sect to sect. For example, the mudrā used to welcome a deity (extrapolated from the everyday gesture used to welcome a revered guest) is almost the same in the Śaiva, Śākta, and Vaiṣṇava sects. Likewise, all sects use an identical mudrā called surabhī when a jug of water or other drink that is being offered to the deity is mentally identified with divine nectar. (The name of this mudrā is derived from the celestial cow Surabhī, whose milk is nectar.)
Ritual hand gestures are acts of elaborate mimesis. An act of warning toward any malevolent agent is played out either by imitating a weapon, for instance an arrow, or by making an explosive sound by snapping fingers or clapping hands. The ritual worshipper is an actor creating a totally supernatural world of religious reality through focused meditation, vivid imagination, and total understanding of his religious ideology and aims. That is why his gestures carry an authority invested by long religious tradition.
Beyer, Stephen. The Cult of Tārā: Magic and Ritual in Tibet. London, 1973.
Colas, Gérard. "Variation sur la pâmoison dévote: A propos d'un poème de Vedânta Deshika et du théâtre des araiyar." In Images du corps dans le monde hindou, edited by Véronique Bouillier and Gilles Tarabout, pp. 275-314. Paris, 2002.
Ghosh, Manomohan, ed. and trans. Bharata's Nāṭya-śāstra. Calcutta, 1967. See chapter 9.
Gupta, Sanjukta, Dirk Jan Hoens, and Teun Goudriaan. Hindu Tantrism. Leiden, Netherlands, 1979.
Janaki, S. S., ed. and trans. Mudrālakṣṇam, Cited in Nirmalamaṇi's Commentary on Aghora śivācārya-paddhati. Madras, India, 1986.
White, David Gordon. Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in Its South Asian Contexts. Chicago, 2003.
Sanjukta Gupta (2005)