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A mudrā (i//; Sanskrit: मुद्रा "seal", "mark", or "gesture"; Tibetan. ཕྱག་རྒྱ་, chakgya) is a symbolic or ritual gesture in Hinduism and Buddhism. While some mudrās involve the entire body, most are performed with the hands and fingers. A mudrā is a spiritual gesture and an energetic seal of authenticity employed in the iconography and spiritual practice of Indian religions and traditions of Dharma and Taoism.
In yoga, mudrās are used in conjunction with pranayama (yogic breathing exercises), generally while seated in Padmasana, Sukhasana or Vajrasana pose, to stimulate different parts of the body involved with breathing and to affect the flow of prana in the body.
Mudrā 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") mudrās. Mudrā 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 Nāṭya practice of Hinduism. Each mudrā has a specific effect on the practitioner. Common hand gestures are to be seen in both Hindu and Buddhist iconography. In some regions, for example Thailand and Laos, these are different from each other, but related iconographic conventions are used.
In Indian classical dance the term "Hasta Mudra" (hasta is Sanskrit for hand) is used. The Natya Shastra describes 24 mudras, while the Abhinaya Darpana gives 28. 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 circa 900. Sanyukta mudras are mudras that use both hands, and asanyukta mudras are mudras that use only one hand words.
The main sources for the mudras are the Gherandya Samhita and the Hathyoga Pradipika. The Gherandya Samhita is written by Sage Gherandya and the Hathyoga Pradipika is written by Swami Swatmarama. Later there was more work on this topic by Swami Satyanand Saraswati, the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga. Mudrās are a fundamental form of yoga practice; the most famous book published by the Bihar School of Yoga is called Asana, Pranayama, Mudrā, Bandha.
The thumb and forefinger on each of the hands are jointed, forming a zero. The rest of the fingers are extended. The hands are placed palms-up on the thighs or knees while sitting in Vajrasana. This mudrā activates the diaphragm, making for deep "stomach-breathing" as the diaphragm pushes out the internal organs when it descends towards the pelvis on inhalation. Slow rhythmic breathing in a 5-2-4-2 rhythm (5 being the exhalation, and 4 is the inhalation) makes prana flow in the pelvis and in the legs.
The thumb and forefinger are the same as in Chin Mudrā. The rest of the fingers are folded into a fist. The non-folded part of the forefinger and the middle finger should still be touching. As in Chin Mudrā, the hands are placed palms-up on the thighs while sitting in Vajrasana. This mudrā activates the ribs, making them expand sideways on inhalation. Slow rhythmic breathing in a 5-2-4-2 rhythm (5 being the exhalation, and 4 is the inhalation) makes prana flow in the torso and in the throat.
The thumb is folded into the palm, touching the base of the small finger. The rest of the fingers are folded over the thumb, to create a fist. The hands are placed palms-down on the thighs while sitting in Vajrasana. This mudrā activates the pectoral muscles, making the chest expand forward on inhalation. Slow rhythmic breathing in a 5-2-4-2 rhythm (5 being the exhalation, and 4 is the inhalation) makes prana flow in the throat and in the head.
The hands are as in Adi Mudrā, but the palms face upwards and are located at the level of the navel, with the left and right knuckles and first finger joints touching. This is done while sitting in Vajrasana. Breathing becomes full: in inhalation, the diaphragm descends, the ribs then expand, and then the pectoral muscles move forward. Exhalation works in the same order, which creates a "wave" or ripple effect.
A complicated Mudrā combining hand gestures, synchronized movement from gesture to gesture within the breath cycle, and meditation. The mudrā is practiced sitting in Siddhasana. Even a single breath cycle of this Mudrā can significantly stimulate the body. It is described in the book, Theories of the Chakras, by Hiroshi Motoyama.
The Abhaya mudrā ("mudrā of no-fear") represents protection, peace, benevolence, and dispelling of fear. In the Theravāda, it is usually made with the right hand raised to shoulder height, the arm bent and the palm facing outward with the fingers upright and joined and the left hand hanging down while standing. In Thailand and Laos, this mudrā is associated with the walking Buddha, often shown having both hands making a double Abhaya mudrā that is uniform. The mudrā was probably used before the onset of Buddhism as a symbol of good intentions proposing friendship when approaching strangers. In Gandhāra 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. The gesture was used by the Buddha when attacked by an elephant, subduing it as shown in several frescoes and scripts. In Mahāyāna, the northern schools' deities often paired it with another mudrā using the other hand. In Japan, when the Abhaya mudrā is used with the middle finger slightly projected forward, it is a symbol of the Shingon sect. (Japanese: Semui-in; Chinese: Shiwuwei Yin)
The "earth witness" 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. This represents the moment of the Buddha's enlightenment. Just before the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, realized enlightenment, it is said the demon Mara attacked him with armies of monsters to frighten Siddhartha from his seat under the bodhi tree. But the about-to-be Buddha did not move. Then Mara claimed the seat of enlightenment for himself, saying his spiritual accomplishments were greater than Siddhartha's. Mara's monstrous soldiers cried out together, "I am his witness!" Mara challenged Siddhartha—who will speak for you? Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself roared, "I bear you witness!" Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.
The Dharmacakra mudrā represents a central moment in the life of Buddha when he preached his first sermon after his Enlightenment, in Deer Park in Sarnath. In general, only Gautama Buddha is shown making this mudrā, save Maitreya as the dispenser of the Law. This mudrā position represents the turning of the wheel of the Dharma. Dharmacakra mudrā is formed when two hands close together in front of the chest in Vitarka, having the right palm forward and the left palm upward, sometimes facing the chest. There are several variants such as in the frescoes of Ajanta, India where the two hands are separated, and the fingers do not touch. In the Indo-Greek style of Gandhāra 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 mudrā before the 9th century. (Japanese: Tenbōrin-in, Chikichi-jō, Hoshin-seppō-in; Chinese: Juanfalun Yin)
The Dhyāna mudrā ("meditation mudrā") is the gesture of meditation, of the concentration of the Good Law and the saṅgha. The two hands are placed on the lap, right hand on left 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 Triratna (the three jewels). This mudrā is used in representations of the Śākyamuni Buddha and Amitābha Buddha. 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 the Gandhāra and in China during the Wei period. This mudrā was used long before the Buddha as yogis have used it during their concentration, healing, and meditation exercises. It is heavily used in Southeast Asia in Theravāda Buddhism; however, the thumbs are placed against the palms. (Dhyāna mudrā is also known as Samādhi mudrā or Yoga mudrā; Japanese: Jō-in, Jōkai Jō-in; Chinese: Ding Yin.)
The Varada mudrā ("favourable mudrā") 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 mudrā used by the right hand, typically the Abhaya mudrā. It is often confused with the Vitarka mudrā, which it closely resembles. In China and Japan during the Wei and Asuka periods respectively the fingers are stiff and then gradually begin to loosen as it developed through time, eventually leading to the Tang Dynasty were the fingers are naturally curved. In India the mudrā is used in images of Avalokiteśvara from the Gupta Period of the 4th and 5th centuries. The Varada mudrā is extensively used in the statues of Southeast Asia. (Japanese: Yogan-in, Segan-in, Seyo-in; Chinese: Shiynan Yin.)
The Vajra mudrā ("thunder mudrā") is the gesture of knowledge. It is made by forming a fist with the right hand, index extending upward, and the left hand also making a fist and enclosing the index.[clarification needed] A good example of the application of the Vajra mudrā is the seventh technique (out of nine) of the Nine Syllable Seals, using the mudrā with mantras in a ritual application. Here is a video of a Sanskrit prayer to set the mind in a sacred state, followed by a quick version of the kuji-in ritual, using the Japanese kanji pronunciation (Sanskrit mantras are usually offered to the serious seeker).
The Vitarka mudrā ("mudrā 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 Abhaya and Varada mudrās but with the thumbs touching the index fingers. This mudrā has a great number of variants in Mahāyāna Buddhism in East Asia. In Tibet it is the mystic gesture of Tārās and Bodhisattvas with some differences by the deities in Yab-yum. (Vitarka mudrā is also known as Prajñāliṅganabhinaya, Vyākhyāna mudrā ("mudrā of explanation"); Japanese: Seppō-in, An-i-in; Chinese: Anwei Yin).
The Jñāna mudrā ("mudrā of knowledge") 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.
The Karana mudrā is the mudrā 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 gesture known as corna in many 'western' countries, the difference is that in the Karana mudra the thumb does not hold down the middle and ring finger. (This mudrā is also known as Tarjanī mudrā; Japanese: Funnu-in, Fudō-in).
Mudrās are arm, hand and body positions used in the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. The historic Buddha knew the use of mudrās and is often depicted using these ritual gestures. Various Kung Fu forms contain positions identical to these mudrās.
One of the more curious things that I encountered in my martial arts training was the use of mudra in combative arts. Mudra (Japanese: in), for those who aren't familiar with them, are these weird hand gestures that are derived from esoteric Buddhism (mikkyo), particularly the Tendai and Shingon sects. These gestures are supposed to generate spiritual focus and power which then are manifested in some way externally.
In any case, I had known of the use of mudra in koryu ("old" martial arts) since the time I was privy to a discussion with the training master of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, Otake Risuke, and the late Donn F. Draeger. Otake sensei described some of the mudra used in his school, which is one of the oldest martial ryu still in existence in Kanto (Eastern) Japan.
In relation to charting a historical tributary to mudrā within Japanese fighting culture, Muromoto (2003) incorporates Shintō, Samurai, Tokugawa government, Neo-Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, Kamakura period, Edo, Takuan and Hakuin:
The use of mudra and other aspects of mikkyo are found in many instances in many koryu, because mikkyo and Shinto were the religions of the samurai who founded those ryu that were created before the 1600s. Subsequent ryu developed after the imposition of the Tokugawa government were heavily influenced by Neo-Confucianism, and then later by Zen Buddhism. Although Zen was popularized among the warrior class in the Kamakura period, the 1300s, it did not greatly affect martial arts until the latter part of the Edo Period, with the writings of the Zen priests Takuan and Hakuin. And even at that, Edo Period (1600-1868) martial arts were equally influenced by Neo-Confucianism and even, in the latter part, mystical Shinto.
Muromoto (2003) textually maps the execution of the Shutō mudrā:
Mikkyo uses mudra most often in combination with various rituals, chants and so on. One common mudra is that of the "knife hand," or shuto. The first two fingers are extended while the thumb and other fingers are clenched. If you look closely, you may see this movement subtlely hidden in some koryu kata, especially by old schools such as the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, or in statues of divine Buddhist beings. This represents the sword of enlightenment, which cuts away all delusions. Sometimes the tips of the extended fingers are grasped in the fist of the other hand. There is a symbolic meaning for this, derived from mikkyo.
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