Buddhist Mudras

Images of the Buddha can be grouped into three general categories: stories of his former lives, known as Jataka Tales; Episodes from the life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni; and portrayal of a variety of celestial or cosmic Buddhas, who are considered to reside in numerous heavenly realms, beyond the bounds of this world.

Shakyamuni Buddha

Shakyamuni Buddha is generally portrayed as the central figure, seated on a throne and wearing his distinctive patchwork monk's robes, flanked by either paired Bodhisattvas or by disciples, and surrounded by mythical creatures and elaborate decorative, especially, floral motifs. He is further identified by the inclusion of the thirty-two sacred marks or lakshanas that are considered characteristic of Buddha alone. The Buddha displays a number of gestures (mudras) like: enlightenment (bhumisparsha), teaching (dharmachakra), and contemplation (dhyana). He is enclosed by a variety of devices to indicate his transcendent stature. Generally he is seated upon a double lotus throne.

Celestial Buddhas

The five celestial Buddhas, also called Tathagatas (Dhyani or Contemplation) Buddhas – literally meaning one who has gone into, or realized the ultimate reality – occupy an auspicious position in the Buddhist pantheon. The identity of each of them is conveyed through specific characteristic such as the attributes, colors and gestures. They are frequently arranged symmetrically with one at the center, usually Vairochana, and the other four assigned to the cardinal directions. They are typically shown seated on a lion throne, adorned with crowns and jewels, and most often displaying gestures of enlightenment or teaching.

The five transcendent Buddhas or Tathagatas are:

Vairochana: His name literally means the ‘Shining One'. He is white in color and his element is ether. He has the lion as his vehicle and the wheel (chakra) is his symbol. He is seen in a teaching gesture (dharmachakra) and he is believed to transform ignorance and delusion into the wisdom of the perfect reality of the universal law.

Ratnasambhava: His name means the one with a ‘precious birth'. He is yellow in color and his element is earth. He has the horse as his vehicle and the jewel as his symbol. He is seen in a gesture of charity (Varada mudra), and is believed to transform pride and avarice into the wisdom of equality.

Amoghasiddhi: His name means the one who is unfailingly accomplished. He is seen in a re-assuring gesture (abhay mudra) and is green in color. His element is the air and vehicle is garuda. He has the double-crossed thunder or vajra as his symbol, and is believed to transform envy and greed into the broad wisdom of accomplishment.

Akshobhya: Akshobhaya means imperturbable. The Schools of the ‘Vajra Vehicle' equipped Akshobhya with their emblem – the Vajra or diamond scepter of Indra, the Lord of the Indian Gods. This concept of the Vajra was borrowed from Hinduism and symbolizes diamond like perfection and indestructibility of the Buddha doctrine. He is blue in color and his element is water. The elephant is his vehicle and he sits in the earth-witness gesture (Bhumisparsha mudra). He transforms anger and hate into the wisdom of purity.

Buddha Amitayus (Buddha Amithaba ): His name means ‘infinite light' and his element is fire. He symbolizes long life, merit and wisdom. He is seated in Virasana (crossed legs with turned out heels) with hands in Dhyanamudra (meditative gesture). He wears bracelets, armlets and large yoke collar with pectoral and Buddha Bhumisparsha sacred chain covering most of the torso. He is crowned with a tri-partite crown beginning at the hairline, and has a simplified usnisa (topknot) that ends in a smooth, conical flame. Amitayus is the principal Buddha for overcoming the power that death and ignorance have over human beings. Amitayus' body is said to be like a ruby mountain, shining like a pure jewel. His symbol is the begging bowl and vehicle is peacock. Generally, he is depicted as having a red body and holding a lotus or nectar vase with his hands. The nectar vase, filled with the subtle life-energy (nectar) demonstrates the immense power of this element. He is seated on a lotus that symbolizes pure intentions of all Amitayus Buddha


The concept of Bodhisattvas, the savior figure of the Buddhist pantheon, evolved into a dominant feature of Mahayana Buddhism and was carried from India across Northern Asia in the early centuries of the first millennium. A bodhisattva is any being who has achieved a level of purity and enlightenment that results in Nirvana. But a compassionate Bodhisattva postpones his personal salvation and devotes as mane lives as needed to save all the other beings from ignorance and suffering. The Bodhisattvas are portrayed in resplendent, celestial surrounding that include a host of supporting deities. The Bodhisattva image was further enhanced by attributing him with a thousand arms or eyes. In India, the earliest portrayal of Bodhisattvas appeared at about the same time as those of the Buddha, since the Buddha was not represented in a humanoid image for the first several years after his death. Initially the Bodhisattvas were side figures flanking the larger, seated Buddha. The Bodhisattvas were generally depicted with crowns and jewelry,Medicine Buddhasuggesting princely status.

The most popular Bodhisattvas are:

Avalokiteshvara: The Sanskrit epithet Avalokiteshvara literally means Worldward-looking Lord. Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of compassion. He guards this world in the interval between the historical Sakyamuni Buddha, and the next Buddha of the Future Maitreya. According to legend, Avalokiteshvara made a vow that he would not rest until he had liberated all the beings in all the realms of suffering. After working diligently at this task for a very long time, he looked out and realized the immense number of miserable beings yet to be saved. Seeing this, he became sad and his head split into thousands of pieces. Amitabha Buddha put the pieces back together as a body with very many arms and many heads, so that he could work with myriad beings all at the same time. Avalokiteshvara is visualized in many forms, with various numbers of faces and arms, and various colors and ornaments. The most usual form of Avalokiteshvara is the four-armed form in which the white male human form is seated holding up a mala (rosary) in his upper right hand, a lotus in the upper left and a jewel in his cupped hands. Avalokiteshvara

Bhaishajya Guru: Bhaishajya Raja, the ‘lord of the Medicaments' was one of important Bodhisattvas mentioned in the text of 'The lotus of the true Doctrine'. It is believed that the figure Bhaishajya Guru (Master of Medicaments) evolved from here. Bhaishajya Guru is shown in the act of offering with the right hand the fruit of elliptical shape of the myrabolan, a medicinal plant. The palm of the Buddha's left hand holds small bowl containing medicinal plants, while a vajra rests on the surface of the huge water lily on which he sits, aligned with his eyes rapt in deep meditation. The iconography of the image relates to Buddhist guru, Sakyamuni, whose doctrine heals from psycho-somatic suffering.

Vajrasattva: Vajrasattva can be related to Vajrapani (Vajra-in-hand) a deity in Hinduism. The statue shows Vajrasattva - bodhisattva holding a vajra placed vertically on the palm of the right hand and a bell in the left. In the Medicine Buddha Buddhist school 'vajra' symbolizes 'means'

Life Story understood, as the male element required for attaining the awakening or enlightenment while the bell is interpreted as the female element that represents wisdom or emptiness.

Manjushri: Manjushri, one of the important bodhisattvas, combines the role of keeper of the wisdom and teacher of the Buddhist doctrine. He is usually represented in the act of brandishing a flaming sword in his right hand cleaving the Buddha Vajrasattva darkness of ignorance. The esoteric schools of late Buddhism elaborated various forms of him, with multiple arms and heads.

Maitreya: Maitreya is the present Bodhisattva and the Buddha of the future. He resides in his special heaven waiting for his incarnation as the last Buddha. Maitreya was incorporated in all the major Buddhist systems as a connecting link to the future. From early times he was portrayed both at the side of Shakyamuni Buddha and as an individual image of worship. He is usually shown in a human form with the usual Bodhisattva adornments, and he typically displays his two primary emblems: a stupa Manjushri in his crown and a vase of elixir of immortality in his left hand. He is usually depicted as either standing or sitting with one of his legs hanging down, ready to descend to humanity.

  • Gautama Buddha:
    Gautama Buddha was one of the greatest religious teachers that the world has seen. Learn more about his life and attainment of Bodhi.
  • Buddhist Scriptures and Teachings:
    Buddhist scriptures carry the noble teachings of the Buddha. They explore and teach ways to lead a blissful life.
  • Buddha in Arts and Culture:
    Spread of Buddhism influenced the world of art in a remarkable way. Starting from sculptures to paintings, Buddhism gave rise to distinct Schools of art.
  • Buddha Mudras:
    Buddha mudras are specific gestures of the Buddha that have symbolic meanings.
  • Buddhist Pantheon:
    The various deities of the Buddhist pantheon are represented through sculptures and other artistic medium to convey different spiritual messages.

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