In 563 BCE, in foothills of the Himalayas, a holy man prophesied that the king’s newborn son, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, would either become a great ruler or a great spiritual teacher. The king, favoring the first outcome, shielded his son from religious practices and reared him in sheltered opulence.
When he was twenty-nine, the prince traveled for the first time outside the palatial compound to the surrounding towns and countryside. Upon seeing old age, sickness, and death, Siddhartha realized that his privileged status and extravagant life could not protect him from the inevitable fate of all humans. He left his family and inheritance and began a spiritual quest to gain a fuller understanding of existence. Living as an ascetic, he only came to know pain and self-mortification. He studied under great teachers, but his questions remained. Seeking a Middle Path, a way of living between self-indulgence and asceticism, he sat under a sacred fig tree in the town of Bodh Gaya, India and began to meditate.
As dawn was about to break, he was attacked by the demon Mara, whose name means “destruction”. Mara’s continued offerings of delusive temptations were unable to weaken Siddhartha’s commitment to self-discipline. Frustrated and angered, Mara mocked Siddhartha by telling him that his attempts to reach enlightenment were all vain, since no one was there to witness the achievement. Siddhartha responded by touching the earth with his right hand and proclaimed that the earth itself would be his witness. As the earth trembled in response, Mara was defeated.
At this moment, Siddhartha attained enlightenment and was freed from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. He entered a peaceful state of awareness called nirvana and became known as the Buddha (Sanskrit, “one who is awake”), the historical person who founded Buddhism. A buddha is another being who has achieved enlightenment.
The Buddha reconciled with his family and began to teach and attract followers. The spread of Buddhism from India to the Tibetan plateau and into China, Korea, and Japan was accompanied by a visual culture of various art forms that illustrated its practice. The earliest Buddhist art originated in India and avoided figurative depictions of the Buddha. It wasn’t until hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death in 483 BCE that images of him began to appear. For Buddhists, these are not meant to be natural representations of what the Buddha looked like but are instead spiritual emanations of his teachings. Images of the Buddha share several distinguishing elements:
Symbols of radiance, such as a halo or a flame surrounding the body or head
Ushnisha, a large bump atop his head; represents knowledge and wisdom
Urna, either a small bump or tuft of hair between the eyes; symbolizes divine vision
Long Earlobes, stretched from the heavy jewelry he once wore as a prince, are a conscious rejection of material wealth
Monk’s robe, symbolizes humility
Mudras (moo-DRAHS; Sanskrit for “seal” or “sign”), a fundamental element in Buddhism iconography, are hand and finger gestures that communicate aspects of an enlightened mind. In their highest form, they are the vehicles through which spiritual forces may be evoked on the earthly sphere. The Buddha is always depicted performing a mudra.
The Most Common Mudras of The Buddha
The right hands of the figure of the Buddha above and two below express the abhaya (Sanskrit for “fearlessness”) mudra, which denotes protection, peace, and reassurance. It is said that the Buddha made this gesture immediately after he defeated Mara and gained enlightenment. When the right hand is in the abhaya mudra, the left hand usually hangs loosely at the side of the body and makes the varada mudra, or gift-giving gesture. (Below – Left: Buddha, 800s; Made in Korea; gilded bronze and Right: Buddha Seated in Abhaya Mudra, 600s; Made in Pakistan; copper alloy with silver inlay)
In the dyana mudra of meditation, the back of the right hand rests on the upturned palm of the other and the tips of the thumbs lightly touch. The top hand symbolizes enlightenment; the bottom hand, the world of appearances. The mudra suggests the supremacy of the enlightened mind.
The dharmachakra mudra recalls the Buddha’s first sermon, when the wheel of dharma (universal truth or law) began to turn. Placed at chest level, the fingers of each hand form a circle, or wheel. The left palm turns toward the body, the right palm away. The fingertips of both hands touch to represent the union of upaya (doing what helps others reach enlightenment) and prajna (wisdom).
The most iconic image in Buddhist art represents the moment of the Buddha’s awakening. In the bhumisparsha (“earth witness”) mudra, his left palm faces up and rests on his lap in the meditative position to represent prajna; the fingers of his right hand point down to the earth as witness of his enlightenment and represent upaya. The bhumisparsha mudra symbolizes the transformation from rage and anger to wisdom.
There are many other mudras and countless variations, not only in Buddhism, but in also in Hinduism, in conjunction with yoga, and in the classical dance of India.
The oldest Indian mudra is never depicted by any buddha and is only seen in images of bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who, out of compassion, forgo nirvana in order to help others. In the anjali (“two handfuls”) mudra, the palms of both hands are joined together at chest level, the fingers touch and point up. This gesture of respect is also known as namaste, “the divine in me bows to the divine in you.”
One of the many intriguing aspects of Buddhist art is that something seemingly simple has multiple levels of interpretation that has evolved over time and in diverse cultures. Created by artists who were inspired to produce works that are both beautiful and moving, they survive as reminders of a profound teaching of great wisdom and compassion that has survived for thousands of years.
All of these sculptures are in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
*Sinéad O’Connor, A Perfect Indian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4KxXCmjx6I&feature=youtu.be
Art History, Volume 3, 3rd Edition; Marilyn Stokstad; Chapter 9
Mudra – A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture; Dale Saunders, Princeton University Press (1985); https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv39x65z.8