Mudra and Visual Imagery

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With the exception of the earliest phases of Indian Buddhist art, when the presence and achievements of the Buddha were represented by symbols, such as a stŪpa (burial mound), footprints, or an empty throne, the study of Buddhist art is generally that of figural representations. Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities are invariably depicted as idealized anthropomorphic images, and their physical perfection—defined differently in various places and times—reflects their spiritual advancement. Indian images of the Buddha emphasize intellectual concepts, represented by, for example, the wide breast and narrow waist of a lion, or the long legs of a gazelle. In addition, physical marks, such as the u ṣṇīṣa (a cranial protuberance), the ūrṇā (a tuft of hair or "third eye" between the eyebrows), webbed fingers, and wheels on the soles of the feet, further distinguish a buddha from other beings. Symbols such as the lotus, emblematic of purity, or the wheel, indicative of preaching, are ubiquitous in Buddhist art.

The first anthropomorphic images of the Buddha stressed his role as a teacher, showing him wearing the monk's long skirt covered by a full shawl. By the eighth century, crowned and bejeweled buddhas were also represented. Such icons, which parallel monastic practices in which a crown was placed on the head of a monk during initiation, are one way of representing the numerous transcendent buddhas of the later pantheon. Like the earlier icons, bejeweled buddhas are physically perfect. Gestures, postures, and implements are used to distinguish them from one another.

Mudrās in Buddhist imagery

The enthroned Buddha seated in a meditative or lotus posture (padmāsana) on a tenth- or eleventh-century Indian sculpture holds his proper right hand in a gesture of meditation and his proper left in the gesture of touching the earth (bhūmisparśamudrā [Figure 1, d]). The earth-touching gesture illustrates a specific moment in Śākyamuni's sacred biography when he was challenged by MĀra, the personification of evil. To defend his right to seek enlightenment, the Buddha-to-be ŚĀkyamuni reached down to touch the ground, calling upon the earth as witness to validate the propriety of his quest. The earth responded thunderously, and Māra was vanquished. Known generically as mudrās, such gestures, which have long roots in Indian culture, may derive from early dance traditions or from other forms of physical communication. Śākyamuni is known to have used one in an early jĀtaka tale (a story detailing one of the lives he lived before he become a buddha) in order to communicate with a potential wife. Sixteen such gestures are listed in an early Buddhist text, while three hundred are found in a later work.

The four smaller standing buddhas on this same sculpture illustrate additional moments in Śākyamuni's life: Moving clockwise from the lower left are Śākyamuni's descent from the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods (Trāyastriṃśa), which he visited to preach to his mother; the first sermon; the story of a monkey's offering of honey to the Buddha; and the taming of the mad elephant Nālāgiri, sent by his evil cousin Devadatta to kill him. These events, from a standardized group of scenes called the Eight Great Events in a buddha's life, can be interpreted both as historical records and as paradigms for the process of enlightenment. For example, the taming of the mad elephant is sometimes understood as a symbol of the mastery of certain aspects of the self that must be disciplined.

The specific historical moments illustrated by the four smaller buddhas are identified by the postures of the figures, the objects they hold in their hands, and their hand gestures or mudrās. For example, the gesture of fearlessness (abhayamudra [Figure 1, a]) often identifies the moment when Śākyamuni tamed the mad elephant. In this mudrā, the right hand is held upward with the palm facing outward, illustrating the act of teaching and signifying the Buddha's ability to grant fearlessness to his followers.

Most of the mudrās found in Buddhist texts are not used in the visual arts, but instead are performed in personal devotions and as an aspect of ritual. In general, deities with their hands held up and open are actively engaged in the cosmos, while those with closed hands, or hands held close to the body, are in a transcendent state. The gesture of appeasement or argumentation (vitarkamudrā [Figure 1, b]) in which the thumb and index, middle, or ring finger of the upraised right hand are shown touching, indicates teaching, and is one of the most common in visual imagery. Teaching is also defined by upraised hands with the thumb and index fingers of both hands touching each other, a gesture known as "turning the wheel of the law" (dharmacakramudrā [Figure 1, f]). Hands placed on the lap, one above the other, with palms upward (dhyānamudrā [Figure 1, e]) indicate concentration or meditation. Donors and other devotees have clasped palms, a universal symbol of prayer, known as the gesture of worship (añjalimudrā [Figure 1, c]).


Hand gestures and postures are also used to identify the innumerable bodhisattvas found in the Buddhist pantheon. In early Buddhism, the term bodhisattva is used to define an individual who, like Śākyamuni, is on the path to enlightenment. The aristocratic clothing and jewelry worn by these figures indicate their active engagement in the world, while the same accoutrements worn by the great bodhisattvas in later traditions suggest their transcendence. These later figures, a primary theme in the visual arts, are revered for their decision to remain accessible to and guide the devout.

Maitreya is a bodhisattva in the present age, and will become a buddha in the next. As a bodhisattva, he is identified by the stūpa that is found in his headdress, which indicates that he carries on the legacy of the current buddha Śākyamuni. The white lotus he holds and the small figure of the Buddha AmitĀbha in his headdress identify Avalokiteśvara, the personification of compassion. Mañjuśrī, the personification of wisdom, rides a lion and holds a blue lotus that bears a copy of a "perfection of wisdom" (prajñāpāramitā) text. Mañjuśrī is sometimes paired with Samantabhadra (whose name means "universal kindness") on an elephant. In addition, Kṣitigarbha, or the Bodhisattva of the Earth


Womb, who is generally portrayed as a monk, plays an important role in Central and East Asia, where he is revered as a guide to paradise, a protector from the torments of hell, and, at times, the special guardian of travelers, and women and children.

By the sixth century, the major bodhisattvas had acquired multiple manifestations. For example, Avalokiteśvara, who eventually became the most widely revered deity in Asia, has both an eleven-headed form (Ekadaśamukha) and one with one thousand hands and one thousand eyes (Sahasrabhujasahasranetra). In Chinese culture, Avalokiteśvara occasionally takes female forms, which led to his misrepresentation as a Buddhist "madonna" in early Western studies of the religion. Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra also have manifestations distinguished by multiple arms and heads. The former, whose name means "pleasing to behold," is invariably depicted as a young prince, and often wears a necklace made of tiger claws, commonly used in India to protect children.

Some images show Mañjuśrī with one head and four hands, seated in a lotus posture. As befits his role as a bodhisattva, he is active, leaning slightly to the right. Mañjuśrī brandishes a truncated sword in his primary right hand, and a lotus supporting a text in his left. His secondary right hand once held an arrow that was paired with a bow in the left. The first two implements illustrate his capacity to defeat egoism, the second his ability to confound ignorance. Often called Tīkṣṇa-Mañjuśrī, this manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom is prevalent in the Himalayas and China, but not elsewhere in Asia.

Female deities found in later Buddhist traditions are sometimes understood as buddhas and sometimes as bodhisattvas. Of these, Tārā, who takes many forms, some green, some white, is the most prominent. She is frequently linked with Avalokiteśvara and is revered in Tibet. Others include Prajñāpāramitā, the personification of wisdom, and Uṣṇīṣavijaya, the embodiment of the cranial protuberance on the Buddha's head.

Guardians and other figures

A wide array of protectors is found in Buddhist iconography. The guardians of the four cardinal directions, derived to some extent from early Indian nature spirits known as yakṣas, are the earliest and most longstanding. After the sixth century, they are usually shown wearing heavy armor and carrying weapons and other attributes in the arts of Central and East Asia. Door or entranceway guardians (dvārapālas), on the other hand, are shown in active, almost threatening, postures, and wear only the dhoti, a skirtlike Indian garment. The five wisdom kings (vidyārāja), who manifest the powers of the transcendent Buddha Vairocana, are commonly found in East Asian traditions beginning in the eighth century. They are characterized by Indian clothing, weapons, and terrifying expressions.

Related figures, often based on Hindu Śaivism, such as Hevajra, Cakrasaṃvara, and Yamantaka-Vajrabhairava, are common in Tibetan traditions, where they serve as both protectors and the focus of individual practices. Yamantaka-Vajrabhairava is a terrifying manifestation of Mañjuśrī, whose benign head appears at the top of his stack of nine faces. His primary face, which is that of a buffalo, is a reference to Yama, the Hindu god of death, who rides this animal. Yamantaka-Vajrabhairava's adoption of this face illustrates his ability to transcend the state of death. He has thirty-four arms, many of which hold ritual implements, and sixteen legs. The garland of severed heads, and the human beings and animals that he tramples, illustrate negative states that must be conquered in the quest for enlightenment. His embrace of Vajravetali signifies the union of compassion and wisdom, the two penultimate Buddhist virtues. Known as father-mother, or yab-yum, such icons are common in Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhism preserves the use of a system of five buddha families to help structure the enormous pantheon that had evolved by the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Tibetan system derives from one used in eastern India (Bihar, West Bengal, and Bangladesh) during this period, and is loosely based on an earlier grouping of three families. Each family is headed by one of the five major transcendent buddhas: AkṢobhya, Amoghasiddhi, Vairocana, Amitābha, and Ratnasambhava. Each of the five buddhas and the various members of his family have an associated color, vehicle, attribute, gesture, and direction.

Sculpted and painted portraits of famous monks, both historical and semilegendary, are found in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. Other commonly portrayed figures include arhats, enlightened disciples of the Buddha who became popular in China in the ninth and tenth centuries, and spread from there to Korea, Japan, and Tibet. In addition to representations in sculpture and painting, arhats are often shown as a theme in the decorative arts. Found in groups of sixteen, eighteen, or five hundred, they are depicted either as gruesome figures or as handsome young men. The mahĀsiddhas, a group of semihistorical adepts often credited with the creation of the later esoteric traditions practiced in Tibet, are commonly found in paintings from that part of Asia.

See also:Bodhisattva Images; Buddha Images; Buddha, Life of the, in Art; China, Buddhist Art in; Himalayas, Buddhist Art in; Huayan Art; India, Buddhist Art in; Indonesia, Buddhist Art in; Japan, Buddhist Art in; Korea, Buddhist Art in; Robes and Clothing; Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in


Eliade, Mircea, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion, 16 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Mallmann, Marie-Thérèse de. Introduction a l'iconographie du tantrisme bouddhique. Paris: Librarie Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1975.

Saunders, E. Dale. Mudra: A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Snellgrove, David L., ed. The Image of the Buddha. London: Serindia; Paris: UNESCO, 1978.

Denise Patry Leidy

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Mudra and Visual Imagery

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