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The Symbolism and Meaning of the Buddha's Hands

 The Symbolism and Meaning of the Buddha’s Hands

In the annals of Buddhist iconography and images of particular eloquence is the gesture of the hand of the Buddha, known as the `mudra' in Sanskrit. Indeed, this alone can represent the entire Buddha image, and it is not uncommon to see isolated hands, as for practical reasons the hands were carved or cast separately from the main body, and so not infrequently become detached. The hand mudras are symbolic movements and positions of the hand that were originally used by monks in meditation and other spiritual exercises as a way of creating spiritual energy.

There are about half a dozen commonly used Buddha hand gestures in Thailand, and all refer back to an incident in the life of the historical Buddha. Nowadays, however, the hand mudras are restricted to Buddha images, and in Thailand two of them are seen much more often than any other. They are the abhaya mudra for dispelling fear and the bhumisparsa mudra of calling the earth to witness. The upturned palm posture of the hand is known as the  abhaya mudra—nearly always made with the right hand, occasionally with both, and on standing or walking Buddhas. It refers to the time when the Buddha's cousin, Devadatta, who was full of envy at the greatness and success of the Enlightened One, sent a fearsome elephant, who was known to be a man-killer, to attack him. As the elephant, called Nalagiri, charged and all the disciples fled except Ananda, the Buddha raised his hand, and with the strength of his compassion, calmed the animal and stroked its trunk. He said: "Do not approach the Buddha, elephant, with the idea of harming him, for that will cause you suffering. A killer of the Buddha will find no good state either here or after death."

Even more widely represented is the hand gesture of the seated Buddha known as bhumisparsa mudra, in which the right hand rests on the right knee (the Buddha being seated in lotus position) and the fingertips just touching the ground. It refers to a pivotal moment in the Enlightenment. Gautama the man, on the verge of Buddhahood, seated himself cross-legged under a great pipal tree and resolved to achieve full understanding of the cessation of suffering (the key to Enlightenment), saying: "I shall not change this my position so long as I have not done what I set out to do." With success in sight. the future Buddha was cajoled and finally attacked by Mara, the Tempter, and his demons, using thunderbolts. However, the Buddha dispersed the army of temptations with love compassion and wisdom.

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See also our Blog Entry on the Buddha's Hands 

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