A mudra (/muˈdrɑː/ (About this sound); Sanskrit "seal", "mark", or "gesture"; Tibetan: ཕྱག་རྒྱ་, THL: chakgya) is a symbolic or ritual gesture in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.[1] While some mudras involve the entire body, most are performed with the hands and fingers.[2] A mudrā is a spiritual gesture and an energetic seal of authenticity employed in the iconography and spiritual practice of Indian religions.

In hatha yoga, mudras are used in conjunction with pranayama (yogic breathing exercises), generally while in a seated posture, to stimulate different parts of the body involved with breathing and to affect the flow of prana, bindu (male psycho-sexual energy), boddhicitta, amrita or consciousness in the body. Unlike older tantric mudras, hatha yogic mudras are generally internal actions, involving the pelvic floor, diaphragm, throat, eyes, tongue, anus, genitals, abdomen, and other parts of the body. Examples of this diversity of mudras are Mula Bandha, Mahamudra, Viparita Karani, Khecarī mudrā, and Vajroli mudra. These expanded in number from 3 in the Amritasiddhi, to 25 in the Gheranda Samhita, with a classical set of ten arising in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

The Chinese translation is yin (Chinese: ; pinyin: yìn) or yinxiang (Chinese: 印相; pinyin: yìnxiàng). Both these Chinese words also appear as loanwords in Japanese (as in and inzō or insō, respectively) and Korean (as in and insang, respectively). Two other Chinese-based compounds, 印契 (read as ingei or inkei in Japanese and as ingye in Korean) and 密印 (read as mitsuin or mitchin in Japanese and as mirin in Korean), are also used. In Japanese, the former compound may also be used with the order of the characters reversed (i.e. 契印 keiin).

Mudra is used in the iconography of Hindu and Buddhist art of the Indian subcontinent and described in the scriptures, such as Nātyaśāstra, which lists 24 asaṁyuta ("separated", meaning "one-hand") and 13 saṁyuta ("joined", meaning "two-hand") mudras. Mudra positions are usually formed by both the hand and the fingers. Along with āsanas ("seated postures"), they are employed statically in the meditation and dynamically in the Nāṭya practice of Hinduism.

Hindu and Buddhist iconography share some mudras. In some regions, for example in Laos and Thailand, these are distinct but share related iconographic conventions.

According to Jamgön Kongtrül in his commentary on the Hevajra Tantra, the ornaments of wrathful deities and witches made of human bones (Skt: aṣṭhimudrā; Wylie: rus pa'i rgyanl phyag rgya) are also known as mudra "seals".[3]

In Indian classical dance, the term "Hasta Mudra" is used. The Natya Shastra describes 24 mudras, while the Abhinaya Darpana of Nandikeshvara gives 28.[4] In all their forms of Indian classical dance, the mudras are similar, though the names and uses vary. There are 28 (or 32) root mudras in Bharatanatyam, 24 in Kathakali and 20 in Odissi. These root mudras are combined in different ways, like one hand, two hands, arm movements, body and facial expressions. In Kathakali, which has the greatest number of combinations, the vocabulary adds up to c. 900. Sanyukta mudras use both hands and asanyukta mudras use one hand.[5]

The classical sources for the mudras in yoga are the Gheranda Samhita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.[6] The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states the importance of mudras in yoga practice: "Therefore the [Kundalini] goddess sleeping at the entrance of Brahma's door [at the base of the spine] should be constantly aroused with all effort, by performing mudra thoroughly." In the 20th and 21st centuries, the yoga teacher Satyananda Saraswati, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, continued to emphasize the importance of mudras in his instructional text Asana, Pranayama, Mudrā, Bandha.[6]

The yoga mudras are diverse in the parts of the body involved and in the procedures required, as in Mula Bandha,[7] Mahamudra,[8] Viparita Karani,[9] Khecarī mudrā,[10] and Vajroli mudra.[11]

Mode of action of mudras, serving to trap energy-fluids (breath, prana, bindu, amrita) and thus help to unblock the central sushumna channel

Mula Bandha, the Root Lock, consists of pressing one heel into the anus, generally in a cross-legged seated asana, and contracting the perineum, forcing the prana to enter the central sushumna channel.[7]

Mahamudra, the Great Seal, similarly has one heel pressed into the perineum; the chin is pressed down to the chest in Jalandhara Bandha, the Throat Lock, and the breath is held with the body's upper and lower openings both sealed, again to force the prana into the sushumna channel.[8]

Viparita Karani, the Inverter, is a posture with the head down and the feet up, using gravity to retain the prana. Gradually the time spent in the posture is increased until it can be held for "three hours". The practice is claimed by the Dattatreyayogashastra to destroy all diseases and to banish grey hair and wrinkles.[9]

Khecarī mudrā, the Khechari Seal, consists of turning back the tongue "into the hollow of the skull",[10] sealing in the bindu fluid so that it stops dripping down from the head and being lost, even when the yogi "embraces a passionate woman".[10] To make the tongue long and flexible enough to be folded back in this way, the Khecharividya exhorts the yogi to make a cut a hair's breadth deep in the frenulum of the tongue once a week. Six months of this treatment destroys the frenulum, leaving the tongue able to fold back; then the yogi is advised to practise stretching the tongue out, holding it with a cloth, to lengthen it, and to learn to touch each ear in turn, and the base of the chin. After six years of practice, which cannot be hurried, the tongue is said to become able to close the top end of the sushumna channel.[13]

Vajroli mudra, the Vajroli Seal, requires the yogi to preserve the semen, either by learning not to release it, or if released by drawing it up through the urethra from the vagina of "a woman devoted to the practice of yoga".[11]

A Buddha image can have one of several common mudras, combined with different asanas.

Buddha images in different mudras, Indian Museum, Calcutta, from Sarnath (9217863543)
Korea's National Treasure 119. The right hand shows abhaya mudra while the left is in the varada mudra.

The Abhayamudra "gesture of fearlessness"[14] represents protection, peace, benevolence and the dispelling of fear. In Theravada Buddhism it is usually made while standing with the right arm bent and raised to shoulder height, the palm facing forward, the fingers closed, pointing upright and the left hand resting by the side. In Thailand and Laos, this mudra is associated with the walking Buddha, often shown having both hands making a double abhaya mudra that is uniform.

This mudra was probably used before the onset of Buddhism as a symbol of good intentions proposing friendship when approaching strangers. In Gandharan art, it is seen when showing the action of preaching. It was also used in China during the Wei and Sui eras of the 4th and 7th centuries.

This gesture was used by the Buddha when attacked by an elephant, subduing it as shown in several frescoes and scripts.[15]

In Mahayana Buddhism, the deities are often portrayed as pairing the Abhaya Mudrā with another Mudrā using the other hand.

The Buddha sitting in bhūmisparśa mudrā. Birmany. White marble with traces of polychromy. Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière

The bhūmisparśa or "earth witness" mudra of Gautama Buddha is one of the most common iconic images of Buddhism. It depicts the Buddha sitting in meditation with his left hand, palm upright, in his lap, and his right hand touching the earth. It represents the Buddha asking Pṛthivi, the devi of the earth, that she witness his enlightenment when he was threatened by demon king Mara.[16]

The Bodhyangi mudrā, the "mudrā of the six elements," or the "fist of wisdom,"[17] is a gesture entailing the left-hand index finger being grasped with the right hand. It is commonly seen on statues of the Vairocana Buddha.

The Buddha preached his first sermon after his Enlightenment in Deer Park in Sarnath. The dharmachakra Pravartana or "turning of the wheel"[18] mudrā represents that moment. In general, only Gautama Buddha is shown making this mudrā except Maitreya as the dispenser of the Law. Dharmachakra mudrā is two hands close together in front of the chest in vitarka with the right palm forward and the left palm upward, sometimes facing the chest. There are several variants such as in the Ajanta Caves frescoes, where the two hands are separated and the fingers do not touch. In the Indo-Greek style of Gandhara, the clenched fist of the right hand seemingly overlies the fingers joined to the thumb on the left hand. In pictorials of Hōryū-ji in Japan the right hand is superimposed on the left. Certain figures of Amitābha, Japan are seen using this mudra before the 9th century.

The dhyāna mudrā ("meditation mudra") is the gesture of meditation, of the concentration of the Good Law and the sangha. The two hands are placed on the lap, left hand on right with fingers fully stretched (four fingers resting on each other and the thumbs facing upwards towards one another diagonally), palms facing upwards; in this manner, the hands and fingers form the shape of a triangle, which is symbolic of the spiritual fire or the Three Jewels. This mudra is used in representations of Gautama Buddha and Amitābha. Sometimes the dhyāna mudrā is used in certain representations of Bhaiṣajyaguru as the "Medicine Buddha", with a medicine bowl placed on the hands. It originated in India most likely in Gandhāra and in China during the Northern Wei.

It is heavily used in Southeast Asia in Theravada Buddhism; however, the thumbs are placed against the palms. Dhyāna mudrā is also known as "samādhi mudrā" or "yoga mudrā", Chinese: 禅定印; pinyin: [Chán]dìng yìn; Japanese pronunciation: jōin, jōkai jōin.

The mida no jōin (弥陀定印) is the Japanese name of a variation of the dhyāna mudra, where the index fingers are brought together with the thumbs. This was predominately used in Japan in an effort to distinguish Amitābha (hence "mida" from Amida) from the Vairocana Buddha,[19] and was rarely used elsewhere.

The Varadamudrā "generosity gesture" signifies offering, welcome, charity, giving, compassion and sincerity. It is nearly always shown made with the left hand by a revered figure devoted to human salvation from greed, anger and delusion. It can be made with the arm crooked and the palm offered slightly turned up or in the case of the arm facing down the palm presented with the fingers upright or slightly bent. The Varada mudrā is rarely seen without another mudra used by the right hand, typically abhaya mudrā. It is often confused with vitarka mudrā, which it closely resembles. In China and Japan during the Northern Wei and Asuka periods, respectively, the fingers are stiff and then gradually begin to loosen as it developed over time, eventually leading to the Tang dynasty standard where the fingers are naturally curved.

In India, varada mudra is used in images of Avalokiteśvara from the Gupta Empire (4th and 5th centuries). Varada mudrā is extensively used in the statues of Southeast Asia.

The Vajra mudrā "thunder gesture" is the gesture of knowledge.[20] An example of the application of the Vajra mudrā is the seventh technique (out of nine) of the Nine Syllable Seals.

The Vitarka mudrā "mudra of discussion" is the gesture of discussion and transmission of Buddhist teaching. It is done by joining the tips of the thumb and the index together, and keeping the other fingers straight very much like the abhaya and varada mudrās but with the thumbs touching the index fingers. This mudra has a great number of variants in Mahayana Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the mystic gesture of Tārās and bodhisattvas with some differences by the deities in Yab-Yum. Vitarka mudrā is also known as Vyākhyāna mudrā ("mudra of explanation").

The gyāna mudrā ("mudra of wisdom") is done by touching the tips of the thumb and the index together, forming a circle, and the hand is held with the palm inward toward the heart.[21]

The karana mudrā is the mudra which expels demons and removes obstacles such as sickness or negative thoughts. It is made by raising the index and the little finger, and folding the other fingers. It is nearly the same as the Western "sign of the horns", the difference is that in the Karana mudra the thumb does not hold down the middle and ring finger. This mudra is also known as tarjanī mudrā; Japanese: Funnu-in, Fudō-in.

Some Asian martial arts forms contain positions (Japanese: in) identical to these mudras.[22] Tendai and Shingon Buddhism derived the supposedly powerful gestures from Mikkyo Buddhism, still to be found in many Koryū ("old") martial arts Ryū (schools) founded before the 17th century. For example the "knife hand" or shuto gesture is subtly concealed in some Koryu kata, and in Buddhist statues, representing the sword of enlightenment.[23]