Mudras: Hand Gestures Used in Yoga, Meditation and Dance Practices

Every little gesture of the hand, every Mudra has a deep meaning—the entire philosophy of life is contained in these gestures. They convey a whole history of God’s self-manifestation in the Universe.

Paramahamsa Omkarananda Saraswati 

Mudras, or gestures made by the fingers of our hands are an integral part of both Yoga and classical Indian dance practices. Based on the study of the five essential elements present in our body—fire, water, air, earth and space, the Mudras (Sanskrit) work as “spiritual or mystical gestures” and a source of pristine pleasure to both the human body and soul. If one tries to delve deep into the roots of ancient Indian philosophy, he will find out that the Mudras embody the energetic “seal of authenticity”, which is highly associated with the various spiritual practices of Indian religions. Vividly described in the ancient Indian scriptures like Nātyaśāstra (by Bharat Muni) that enlists 28 asaṁyuta (“separated”, or “one-hand”) and 24 saṁyuta (“joined”, or “two-hand”) Mudras, they are known to form the backbone of our Vedic hymns and Mantras (mystical syllables) and are also known to combine elegance with mysticism in our traditional classical Indian dance practices. In Nātyaśāstra, it is categorically stated that the Mudras, along with the āsanas (“seated postures”), are employed statically in meditation and dynamically in Natya practices of Hinduism. 

According to the ancient Tantrik school of thought, the word “Mudra” etymologically conveys the sense of supreme bliss, the bliss which is attained through the divine powers of the Mudras, and also which emphasizes and intensifies the concentration on the Divine and attracts the blessings of the Divine. The use of as many as 108 different Mudras in regular Tantric rituals is phenomenal while keeping in mind the explanation of their usage in the “Tantrasara”. There the Mudras have been defined as a cumulative source of pleasure to the Gods and a cause of freedom from the human defilements of sin and passion. There are also vivid symbolic and mystical interpretations of the various Mudras in the classical genres of Indian dance forms like Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Odissi and Mohiniattam, where traditional hand gestures are integral parts of the choreography. Together, the Mudras are said to purify, energize and add divine power to one who practices them, leading him/her to a mystical path. 

Mudras according to ancient Indian philosophy and Buddhist philosophy:

Mudra gautama hinduism hindu asanas vedic mantra

Ancient Indian philosophy has perceived the practicing of Mudras as religious gestures, rituals, which are bestowed with a deeper and greater symbolic meaning and power. Vastly and frequently utilized in Indian meditation, yoga, and devotional practices, apart from Indian dance, they have been regarded in Indian philosophy as some exquisite esoteric hand gestures which express specific energies of the human body and soul. Usually accompanied by precise visualizations, mudras are a vital element of ritual worship (puja), dance and Yoga. According to the ancient Indian philosophy, various asanas, mudras and pranayama are incorporated as integral parts of Yoga. Mudras used in ceremony and dance tend to be numerous, complicated, and often esoteric (the hasta-mudrās of Hindu classical dance can express about 500 different meanings, involving not only the hands and fingers but also the wrists, elbows, and shoulders, all in movement). Greatly regarded as seals between the three constituent parts of the human personality–spirit, mind and speech, the Mudras are described by Yogic Gurus as a link between the external and internal life of humans, and also as a link between the physical and the meta-physical, which lies at the very root of Indian philosophy. Thus, when the Mudras are performed as an essential element of ritual worship, emphasis is always given on correct performance, so that individuals participating in the ritual take great care to execute the Mudras with precision. Traditionally, they have imbibed the principle of exact imitation, which has been carried over for ages now, embodying the essence of Mudras in Indian dance, philosophy, Yoga, sculpture (inspired by the dance poses) and iconography. 

Again, in Buddhist philosophy and art, the Mudras are also regarded as a series of symbolic or ritualistic hand gestures, mostly describing the actions of the characters represented in the art. Just like the ancient Indian philosophy, Buddhist philosophy also embodies the same truth about Mudras—that they are vital positions of the human body, where mostly the hands and the fingers are held in some symbolic position, having subtle and deep influences on the energies of the body. Mudras have been in use in the East for thousands of years, particularly in Buddhism. The fact that the various Buddha statues are often depicted with subtle Mudras, having the hands in certain hand positions, explains the symbolic implications the Mudras have in the Buddhist philosophy. Mostly, they have been used as spiritual practices, as a way on the path to ultimate enlightenment (Bodhi), which forms the crux of Buddhist philosophy. 

Buddhist symbolism and philosophy describe at length the use of these Mudras and the various attributes that they stand for. For example, the Abhaya Mudra, made with the right hand raised to the shoulder`s height, the arm bent and the palm facing outward with the fingers erect and joined and the left hand hanging down on the right side in a standing position stands for protection, peace, generosity and the elimination of fear for the mind. The Dhyana Mudra, where two hands are stationed on the lap, right hand on the left hand, the fingers are wholly unfolded and the palms face upwards, shaping a triangle, represents the true spirit of meditation, the concentration of the Good Law and the spiritual fire or the Triratna (three gems that stand for the virtues of Buddhism). History says that Yogis in India have used this Mudra even long before the Buddha, for concentration, healing and to achieve the tranquillity and peace of meditation. Some other Mudras, like the Bhumisparsha Mudra and the Dharmachakra Mudra, have precise historical implications, apart from being symbolically rich and profound. While the Bhumisparsha Mudra literally represents the Buddha as taking the earth as witness, symbolically this Mudra represents the moment when Buddha took the earth as evidence after settling the problem of cessation of suffering when he was under the peepal tree at Bodh-Gaya. The Dharmachakra Mudra, again, represents a primal moment in the life of Buddha when he preached his first sermon after attaining his Enlightenment (Bodhi), in Deer Park in Sarnath. Besides, there are also Mudras in Buddhist philosophy which embody spiritual aspects of Buddhism, like the Vitarka Mudra, which, performed by joining the tips of the thumb and the index together, stands for the gesture of discussion and transmission of Buddhist doctrines. The Vajra Mudra, performed by making a fist with the right hand, conveys the message of knowledge. Most of these Mudras are perceived in Buddhist philosophy as integrals parts of ritualistic applications. 

meditation mudra health benefit

The relevance of practicing Mudras and their health benefits:

According to the ancient Indian philosophy, the five fingers in our hand represent five elements. The thumb represents the fire element, the index finger stands for air, the middle finger for space, the ring finger for the earth, and the little finger represents the water element. While practising the Mudras, an individual actually uses these different fingers to express emotions or form a complete picture of a story (as in the Indian classical dances). In Yoga, Mudras are practised with the objective to connect the brain to various organs of our body through the nerve endings of our fingers. In this way, the practising of Mudras (for example: in Yoga mudras, that direct the body’s energy by stimulating the nerve terminals) are very similar in nature to the Chinese art and science of Acupuncture, which aims to heal humans and eliminate a number of diseases with creating pressure on the nerves. The physiological objective of practising them is to send waves of energy through the body’s nervous system and to activate areas of the human body and brain by the stimulation of the nerve terminals, in the process. From this perspective, these subtle hand gestures are always recommended for practising along with ‘Pranayama’ practices (certain breathing exercises developed in the ancient orient) so that one can focus his/her energy, deepen the breath, and in the process, even strengthen the lungs. In fact, it has been said by various Yoga exponents that specific Mudras used in Yoga practices have the ability to stimulate energy pathways in our chest and lungs, eventually developing our familiarity with the sensation of the full Yogic breath. And Yogic breath, for that matter, teaches us to utilize the different anatomical parts of our lungs, with the practice of inhaling, retention and exhaling. The practise of Mudras along with Yogic breathing has been central to the concept of channelizing our body’s energy in order to alleviate a series of diseases and lead one to the spiritual path. The physical effect, thus, is sheer internal purification. The psychological effect, on the other hand, is the arousal of the internal, subtle and versatile mind by the vibration of the various Mudras, which in turns, harnesses the power of emotions and brings out the radiant spiritual being in those practising these rich, powerful hand gestures. This way, the Mudras form an integral part of ancient yoga, which was established while keeping in mind the theory of the universe as an ocean of energy. The process of performing Mudras in conjunction with mantras (hymns) serves to align all the levels of energies in the human body with a specific intention, “using the mind to free the mind”. 

The miracles of the Mudras and what modern science says: 

Very little is it known to the world that the Mudras depicted in ancient philosophy are actually based on the science of elements (part of the ancient Tatva Yoga) and thus, relates to the energy flow of meditation. While the language of hand movement is considered among the oldest languages capable of expressing ideas and suggesting symbols, various philosophers have agreed that they create an energy field in the human body that is capable of healing ailments. According to ancient oriental Yoga practitioners, Mudras like Mrit Sanjivani, Apan Mudra and Pran Mudra have the capacity to become life-saving devices, providing aid for severe heart attacks, cardiac complications and urinary problems by facilitating discharge of toxic elements, improving the vitality of the body in the process. Gyan Mudra, on its turn, is said to work as one of the best Yogic tranquilizers, ensuring mental equilibrium, concentration of the energy levels inside the body and an optimum of spiritual enhancement. Linga Mudra and Shunya Mudra, on the other hand, are Mudras described in ancient Indian philosophy, which are known to alleviate frequent cold, congested chest and ear aches within minutes, by strengthening the immunity system in the human body. Speaking about the miracles of the Mudras, ancient Yoga and Indian philosophy have agreed that they have extraordinary healing powers, bringing about instant, fundamental reversions of the destructive changes in the human body, thus culminating in miraculous change and improvement in human life. In fact, it is not for nothing that some of the divine individuals like Lord Mahavir, Gautam Buddha, Lord Shankaracharya and others used to remain in these Mudras. They are also integral parts of the Kundalini Yoga, which awakens the cosmic energy, guides energy flow and reflexes to the brain. Ancient scriptures like Tantra Shastra, Upasana Shastra and Nritya Shastra have provided detailed descriptions of the Mudras uniting the human consciousness with the inner Supreme Soul. However, this can only be attained if the Mudras are practiced along with Pranayamas, Asanas, Japa (reciting ritualistic hymns) and other Yogic activities. 

Significant scientific researches in recent times have been conducted globally to evaluate the science and symbolism behind the practice of Mudras. While the quintessential philosophy and science of Mudras are based on the study of the five basic elements of our body: fire, air, ether, water and earth; the practice of every individual Mudra emphasizes that each finger, while in the gesture, has its own connection with a particular element, from which specific energy or ‘aura’ oozes out. This has conceptual parallels to modern science, which agrees that each of our fingertips generates electro-magnetic waves, which are strengthened by these meaningful hand gestures. It is a fact that modern medical systems which are only some 250 years old have acknowledged the therapeutic benefits of the 5,000-year-old philosophy of the Mudras when practised as a complimentary therapy alongside other regular therapies. While Indian philosophy is based on the belief of the human body as the microcosm of the universe, several ancient health systems are based on the concept that the balance of the five essential elements of our body is responsible for maintaining and sustaining the equilibrium of our body. The practise of Mudras is one of them, and so modern science cannot but acknowledge the science of Mudras, based on the retention and maintenance of the natural balance in our lives. Today, the science and essential philosophy behind the Mudras is considered by modern scientists and researchers alongside other therapeutic practices like Naturopathy, Pranik Healing and Reiki. Over the years, they have discovered that these are precise, exact and scientific Yogic functions which have the ability to develop or even change the internal and external dispositions of individuals, which can either be mental, spiritual or physical. Various scientists today have agreed upon the definition of Mudras as “closed electrical circuits” of the subtle channels in physical and ethereal bodies. Altogether, the Mudras, Pranayamas, Asanas and Mantras which originated in ancient India, represent a world of supreme bliss and tranquillity, and these dynamic ancient sciences are being re-oriented every day to suit today’s sociological, physical and psychological needs of individuals. 

References:

Laura Susan Henry: Mind/Body Fitness: article: Yoga mudras for a complete breathing

Savitri Nair: Hands that speak volumes (published in UNESCO Courier, Sept 1993 

Symbolism in Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy

Mudras by Gertrud Hirschi, published by Red Wheel Weiser, by Kim Trimmer 

Gertrude Hirschi: Basic Yoga for everybody

Vijay K. Bansal: MUDRA VIGYAN: The science of finger postures 

Kundalini Yoga: Swami Sivananda

Classical Indian dance: Wikipedia.com  

Mudra: Wikipedia.com 

2 comments

  1. Mudras are too little known by us, whereas it has a vast expanse and effects, as I read in Mahayana Buddhism…
    Still, this article enlightened so many sides of its effects including dance form and most importantly its uses and effects in Buddhism..
    Too informative post indeed

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