Mudras and Postures seen in Indian Iconography

Studying the murtis created in the past helps in understanding a great deal of the social history of that times, and the local cultures from where the murtis originated. The dress, jewellery, weapons, etc., depicted on a murti is a direct reflection of what was in vogue among people living in that era. Varahamihira in his book explains the same by saying the dress and ornaments worn by people in a country are similar to the ones shown on the bodies of the deities worshipped (Desanurupabhusanavesalankara-murttibhih karya).

Besides the dress and ornaments, these deities are shown in various postures and poses (mudras). This article will explore these hand poses and postures using their iconographic terminologies.

12th-century Japanese scroll showing different mudra gestures

Mudras and Hastas

The various poses in which the hands of the murtis are shown are generally termed as mudras. Sometimes the word hasta is also used for some of the hand poses. However, the term hasta is used generally for referring to a pose where the whole of the arm along with the hand is depicted in a certain posture, such as, dandahasta, gajahasta, katihasta, etc. Mudras are more involved with palms and fingers and the way they are depicted, such as cin mudra, abhaya mudra, yoga or dhyan mudra, etc. Hasta can also be used for referring to what is held in the hand, such as padmahasta (carrying a lotus), gada hasta (carrying a gada or a mace), pustaka hasta (carrying a book), etc. Sometimes the terms may also have a double meaning, as for example, suci means a sewing needle; however, the same word also means pointing at something or the act of pointing. So when an image is said to be suci-hasta it could mean that the murti is holding a sewing needle in his or her hand, or it could also mean the pointing pose. Similarly danda hasta may mean carrying a club, or it could also relate to a specific gesture (the word daṇḍahasta in iconography is used to denote the arm and hand thrown forward and held straight like a stick or like the trunk of an elephant – refer to the two images below).

Minanatha and Bhairavanatha seated on their vehicles, Shrisailam, Andhra. Minanatha wearing the rudrakshamala in his neck, his left hand in a danda-hasta mudra posture is resting on the yogadanda which is placed on the fish; his right hand is resting on the tail of the fish in a katya valambita mudra; his left leg is folded and rested on the fish and his right leg is hanging in lalitasana pose. Similarly, Bhairavanatha is also in a lalitasana pose whose right leg is folded and resting on the scorpion and the left leg is hanging. He is wearing some necklace like ornament; his left hand in a danda-hasta mudra posture resting on the yogadanda,

Gorakshanatha (Boganandishvara temple, Nandi, Karanataka) in ardhapadmasana. His left hand is resting on the left knee in a katya valambita mudra and the right hand and right leg on the tiger’s back in danda hasta mudra.

Mudras and hastas indicate action in which the god or other figures are engaged in, where the gesture expresses the action in the form of an idea. While humans are gifted with the power of speech to express themselves, it is also often necessary to express thoughts and ideas through gestures, which give a greater impact than just speech. In our daily lives too, we often find that sometimes a simple gesture of the hands or any other limb expresses thoughts better than volumes of long speeches. So when a sculptor creates his deity, who is otherwise mute, he adds these gestures to express the idea symbolised by the deity. Even in prehistoric India we find expressive poses on seals, amulets and in other figurines.

Seated male in namaskara mudra, Harappa, 2700-2100 BCE, National Museum

Some mudras of a highly developed type as seen in later deities (medieval period- seen in Shiva and Vajrayana deities), and described in drama based works such as Natyasastra, Abhinayadarpana, etc., don’t form a part of the daily lives; however, most of the earlier murtis are devoid of such highly technical mudras. R.K. Poduval in his Administrative report to the Archaeological department of the Travancore State categorizes three basic types of mudras- Vedic, Tantric, and Laukik. According to Poduval there are ’64 mudras in Art and 108 in Tantra.’ The Vedic mudras mostly relate to finger gestures for controlling rhythm, stress, and intonation while chanting the Vedic strotrams. Poduval has listed as many as 45 mudras which are described as anjali, vandani, vainayaki, hrdaya, siras, sikha, astra, netra, etc.; five types of pranahuti ( likely denoting the five pancha pranah, of five vital breaths- prana, apana, samana, udana, and vyana); and many others such as pushpa, gandha, dhupa, dipa, matsya, naivedya, etc. If one carefully studies these names he will find that the names are associated with the deities to be worshipped, some with the devotees, while some are related to upacaras used in pujas. Poduval draws a parallel between the pose outlined by the fingers and hands and the by the name in which they are referred to as, such as sankha-mudra denotes a conchshell, vainayaki mudra denotes the elephant head of Ganesha, harina-mudra denotes a deer with antlers, kapala mudra is a skull, etc. Among the 45 Tantric mudras listed by Puduval, there are few that are seen in the deities and their associates from their early representations, such as abhaya, varada, anjali. Other popular mudras or hastas include yoga or dhyan mudra, jnana, dharmachakra, katihasta, vyakhyana, suci, kataka, tarjani, bhusparsa, etc.

Among the commonest mudras is the Abhaya mudra, which Varahamihira in his Brhatsamhita referred to as santida while describing Vishnu murtis, and which Utpala described in his commentary as ‘the hand turned towards visitors (palm facing front) with fingers raised upwards,’ – drastura-bhimuka urdhvangulih santidah karah. This mudra is seen among almost all deities, the most common being on Buddha. It is a symbol of assurance, fearlessness, peace, and protection, which the deity gives to his or her devotee. Another popular mudra is the Varada mudra, which symbolizes benediction (anugraha) or giving boon to the devotee. Here the palm also faces outwards but the fingers point downwards. Varahamihira refers to this pose while describing Ekanamsa who is depicted showing this pose. Utpala in his commentary explains it as a pose in which the palm faces outward and fingers downwards (uttanodhon-gurlihasta varadah– Brhatsamhita, ch. 57, p. 780). The Anjali mudra, also known as Namaskara or Vandana mudra, is seen among the devotees or attendants of the deities, and is also one of the earliest mudras in Indian art, its antiquity going back to the Harappan times, where seals and figurines depict devotees with hands folded in worship. Kupiro yaksha (Kubera, the king of the yaksas and the directional god guarding the northern parts) is seen in Bharhut with his hands folded in namaskara mudra. Besides yaksas and devotees, nagas are also frequently seen with this mudra. Another important figure is that of Nandi, who when represented in human form has his front two hands always in the anjali/ namaskara mudra. Dhyan mudra is also another one of the earliest mudras in Indian art, as seen in the famous Harappan seal of a yogi in dhyan posture with his two hands stretched over the knees (proto Shiva- Pashupati). While it is the mulabandhasana that is depicted in the Harappan proto Shiva seal, the pose is also a form of dhyan posture that is still followed by ascetics in India even now.

Namaskara mudra

Given below are pictorial representations of the various mudras and hastas seen in our murtis (ref T. A. Gopinath Rao for mudras)

Figures 6 & 7 are a token of silence

Fig 1: katihasta or katisamsthita or katyavalambita hasta , a posture of ease where the arm hangs down loosely and the hand rests on the hip

Fig 6 : tarjani mudra, where the finger points up as if scolding or threatening someone. the opposite of this is the suci mudra, a rare mudra in iconography, where the finger points downwards.

Mudras are an important of yoga practice and natyasastra (dance)

These complicated hand mudras are mainly ritualistic in nature performed during sadhana by a sadhana or during worship by a bhakta. The eight mantras associated with with 8 hand poses are as follows:

  1. Om vajranalahandaha-pathamabhanjana hum 2. Om vajrapasa hrim 3. Om vajrapasa swaha 4. Om vajradvipe swaha 5. Om vajramkusa ja 6. Om vajranaivedya swaha 7. Om sarvvatathagatasiddhivajrasamaya tistha esastvam sharayami vajrasattava hi hi hi hi humiti 8. Om sarvvavit vajradhupe tram.

Here the 1,2, 3,7, and 8 are associated with different mantras; however 4, 5, and 6 are associated with a lamp, an elephant goad, and pot of offering. Here it must be noted that the priests when dedicating naivedya to the deity adopt the number 6 mudra, holding a flower with the tips of their index fingers of the two interlocked hands and then gently placing it on the naivedya. The waving flames of fire, hands tied by a noose, and offering of a palmful of flowers are expressed in 1, 2, and 3.

Explaining the Mudras and Hastas

(S.P. Gupta ” Elements of Indian Art, pp. 128-132)

Devi Sri in abhaya mudra, Java- Indonesia.
Nataraja, upper right hand in abhaya mudra
Ganesha showing varada mudra in his lower left hand.
Yoga Narayana, Vishnu in dhyan mudra or meditation.
Buddha in dharmachakra mudra. It is a combined representation of jnana and vyakhana mudra. He is in the act of spreading the Ultimate Knowledge.

Dakshinamurti Shiva in vyakhyana mudra (his lower right hand), which means explaining or expounding something
Jain tirthankara in dhyan mudra

Devi in kataka mudra. Generally a flower is inserted in the space formed by her thumb and forefinger
Buddha in bhumisparsha mudra

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Srinivas Duvvuri says:

    Very well compiled & explained… Excellent info

    Liked by 1 person

    1. moni1706 says:

      Thank you so much


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