Indian Arts and Culture Buddhism The Meaning of Mudras in Buddhist Art Share Flipboard Email Print Buddhism Origins and Developments Figures and Texts Becoming A Buddhist Tibetan and Vajrayana Buddhism By Barbara O'Brien Zen Buddhism Expert B.J., Journalism, University of Missouri Barbara O'Brien is a Zen Buddhist practitioner who studied at Zen Mountain Monastery. She is the author of "Rethinking Religion" and has covered religion for The Guardian, Tricycle.org, and other outlets. our editorial process Barbara O'Brien Updated July 15, 2018 Buddhas and bodhisattvas often are depicted in Buddhist art with stylized hand gestures called mudras. The word "mudra" is Sanskrit for "seal" or "sign," and each mudra has a specific meaning. Buddhists sometimes use these symbolic gestures during rituals and meditation. The list that follows is a guide to common mudras. Abhaya Mudra The Tian Tan Buddha of Lantau Island, in Hong Kong, displays the abhaya mudra. © Wouter Tolenaars / Dreamstime.com The abhaya mudra is the open right hand, palm out, fingers pointing up, raised to about the height of the shoulder. Abhaya represents the accomplishment of enlightenment, and it signifies the Buddha immediately after his realization of enlightenment. The dhyani buddha Amoghasiddhi often is depicted with the abhaya mudra. Very often buddhas and bodhisattvas are pictured with the right hand in abhaya and the left hand in the varada mudra. See, for example, the Great Buddha at Lingshan. Anjali Mudra This buddha displays the anjali mudra. © Rebecca Sheehan / Dreamstime.com Westerners associate this gesture with prayer, but in Buddhism, the anjali mudra represents "suchness" (tathata) -- the true nature of all things, beyond distinction. Bhumisparsha Mudra The Buddha touches the earth in the bhumisparsha mudra. Akuppa / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License The bhumisparsha mudra is also called the "earth witness" mudra. In this mudra, the left-hand rests palm up on the lap and the right-hand reaches over the knee toward the earth. The mudra recalls the story of the historical Buddha's enlightenment when he asked the earth to bear witness to his worthiness to become a buddha. The bhumisparsha mudra represents unshakability and is associated with the dhyani buddha Akshobhya as well as with the historical Buddha. Dharmachakra Mudra A Buddha at Wat Khao Sukim, Thailand, displays the dharmachakra mudra. clayirving / flickr.com, Creative Commons License In the dharmachakra mudra, the thumbs and index fingers of both hands touch and form a circle, and the circles touch each other. The three other fingers of each hand are extended. Often the left palm is turned toward the body and the right palm away from the body. "Dharmachakra" means "dharma wheel." This mudra recalls the Buddha's first sermon, which is sometimes referred to as the turning of the dharma wheel. It also represents the union of skillful means (upaya) and wisdom (prajna). This mudra also is associated with the dhyani Buddha Vairocana. Vajra Mudra This Vairocana Buddha displays the mudra of supreme wisdom. pressapochista / flickr.com, Creative Commons License In the vajra mudra, the right index finger is wrapped by left hand. This mudra also is called the bodhyangi mudra, the mudra of supreme wisdom or the fist of wisdom mudra. There are multiple interpretations for this mudra. For example, the right index finger may represent wisdom, hidden by the world of appearances (the left hand). In Vajrayana Buddhism the gesture represents the union of male and female principles. Vajrapradama Mudra This statue's hands are in the vajrapradama mudra. © Onion / Dreamstime.com In the vajrapradama mudra, the fingertips of the hands are crossed. It represents unshakable confidence. Varada Mudra A buddha with a right hand displaying the varada mudra. true2source / flickr.com, Creative Commons License In the varada mudra, the open hand is held palm outward, fingers pointing down. This may be the right hand, although when the varada mudra is combined with the abhaya mudra, the right hand is in abhaya and the left hand is in varada. The varada mudra represents compassion and wish-granting. It is associated with the dhyani Buddha Ratnasambhava. Vitarka Mudra A Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand, displays the vitarka mudra. Rigmarole / flickr.com, Creative Commons License In the vitarka mudra the right hand is held at chest level, fingers pointing up and palm outward. The thumb and index finger form a circle. Sometimes the left hand is held with fingers pointing downward, at hip level, also with palm outward and with the thumb and index finger forming a circle. This mudra represents discussion and transmission of Buddha's teachings.