Written by Laura | 6th February 2020 | Updated April 21 2023
Buddhism has a range of different cultures and traditions on both a local and national level. But even though the style of Buddha statues might vary regionally, they can be recognised by their hand gestures, or mudras, which each convey a spiritual meaning. There are over 100 different mudras – all of which have different values – but what do all of them mean? Eric Piffret, our Expert in Asian Art and iBuddhism, lists the most common Buddha statues so you can decipher what each statues’ hands stand for.
Buddha statues are commonplace in Buddhist cultures. Whether they're golden, fat, laughing or simply giant, these Buddha statues can be found indoors and outdoors, in gardens and in homes. While these silent, omnipotent and watchful figures might be everywhere, less is known about the actual meanings of their particular gestures. Each one, however, based on its hand and seating position, can mean something incredibly specific – as this guide reveals.
The bhumisparsha Buddha is always depicted in a seated position, with its right hand resting on its knee and fingers pointing towards the earth. The left hand rests on its lap with the palm facing upwards. ‘Bhumisparsha’ means ‘touching the earth’ or ‘calling the earth to witness’. This mudra represents the moment when Buddha became enlightened underneath the Bodhi tree.
Bhumisparsha is a symbol for enlightenment
The dhyana Buddha statue shows both hands resting in its lap. The back of its right hand is leaning on the palm of its left hand. Often the thumbs are touching each other, forming the mystic triangle. This is the meditation mudra, which symbolises wisdom. The Buddha used this gesture during his final meditation under the Bodhi tree when he attained enlightenment.
This mudra symbolises wisdom
The abhaya gesture shows the Buddha with its right hand raised, the palm facing outwards and the fingers upwards, while the left arm is next to the body. The Buddha can be depicted either in a standing or seated position. The mudra is the gesture of fearlessness. It shows the stage of the Buddha’s life immediately after achieving enlightenment.
The abhaya mudra symbolises fearlessness
The right arm of the varada statue falls downwards, with the palm facing towards the viewer. The five extended fingers represent the five perfections: generosity, morality, patience, effort and concentration. The varada mudra stands for compassion and charity and is often combined with other mudras.
The varada mudra represents compassion and charity
The karana gesture has its index finger and little finger pointing straight upwards, while the other fingers fold into the palm. The karana Buddha can be depicted both seated and standing. The meaning of this gesture is to ward off evil and to get rid of demons and negative energy.
If demons are abound, the karana mudra is said to help
This mudra shows the tip of the middle finger on one hand, touching the tips of the thumb and index finger of the other hand, forming the mystic circle near the heart. This gesture represents setting the Wheel of the Dharma into motion. After the Buddha achieved enlightenment, he gave his first teaching to a companion in the Deer Park of Sarnath, and therefore it represents teaching.
This mudra represents setting the Wheel of Dharma into motion
In the Vitarka Mudra, the tips of the thumb and index finger touch each other and form a circle. The right hand is held up to the viewer and the left hand is resting in the lap. The Mudra symbolises the teaching phase in the life of Buddha and the circle stands for a never-ending flow of energy.
The vitarka mudra is said to represent the teaching phase and endless flow of energy in life
The statues all have a different significance to an event in the life of the buddha and carry an important message or lesson. Which one speaks to you the most?
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