I first chanced upon mudras in my younger days, learning the classical dance form of Bharatnatyam. In a performing art style known for its richness of hand gestures, mudras were a keystone in communicating stories and folklore. I saw them rather literally as simple symbols as one would hand puppets; a cupped palm with splayed fingers as the moon, a deer head with a pinky and index erect. It is amazing that these gestures could convey scriptures in mere flexions and movements, even extolling in poetic descriptions and metaphors; one of my favourites was the description of Krishna's indigo skin as a thundering night sky. I can still remember my fingers waving gracefully overhead in an arc to denote that monsoon. In Bharatnatyam, mudras were meant to live and be seen - a cardinal Sanskrit poem states the order of affairs:
" Yatho Hasta Thatho Drishti
Yatho Drishti Thatho Manah
Yatho Manah Thatho Bhaava
Yatho Bhaava Thatho Rasa"
Where the hands go, the eyes follow
Where the eyes go, the mind follows
Where the mind goes, there is an expression of inner feeling
Where that feeling reveals itself, a mood or sentiment is evoked.
Outside of the arts, mudras are prevalent in more spiritual and religious arenas. The Sanskrit word is derived from two roots Mud + Dhra which equates to bliss + dissolving - relating to breaking down the barrier between devotee and deity. In Hindu Iconography, Gods and Goddesses are often depicted holding certain mudras, and some have specific mudras associated with them.
Yogic are another large proponent of mudras- the holding of a mudra during meditation, even in stillness is the cultivation of its power. Here, a mudra can activate energies within the body, soothe and stimulate endorphins in certain postures alongside breathing. Something as simple as having your palms lay facing upwards on your knees during your meditation practice can help facilitate energy flow. To get the full benefit and release of the mudra, holding the position for at least 15 minutes is recommended. A whole world of gestures abounds; across yoga & meditation, tantric worship/rituals and dance there are over 300 mudras. It is worth noting that certain poses exist with the same name between dance and worship, yet their meaning is different. Below are a few of my favourite mudras:
P R A N A M U D R A
Mudra of Life
Prana mudra is made by connecting the thumb to our pinky and ring finger. Each represents an element - the thumb symbolizing fire, the pinky reflecting water, and the ring finger for earth. The connection of the three is the intention of creating a balance between these three critical elements. An imbalance in these elements throughout the body can create physical and mental illness. The use of the mudra is intended to clear any blockages and enhance vitality.
K A T A K A M U K H A M U D R A
"Link in Chain"
There are actually two variations of the Kataka Mukha Mudra - my favourite is one that resembles a peacock (more so than the actual mudra used to denote a peacock, in my humble opinion) where the index finger folds over the top of the thumb, and the remaining fingers splay out at varying angles of 90 degrees from each other as shown in the picture; the middle finger folds down, the ring finger extends straight out and the pinky, up towards the ceiling. It was used to show the holding of the hem of a dress, to embrace, holding a mirror, and wearing of a veil.
V I T A R K A M U D R A
Gesture of debate, Discussion Mudra
Practice: Buddhism, Yoga
This mudra is one of the more ubiquitously known ones; it is often associated with Buddhist iconography, particularly the mudra that Buddha is most often depicted to hold. Formed by touching the index finger and thumb to form a circle, the palms face towards the sky with the three remaining fingers outstretched on each hand. Used as MUDRA's official logo, it represents discussion and the transmission of knowledge. In the context of meditation, it is the mudra used to be receptive to the teachings of Buddha.
Asamyukta Bharatnatyam Mudras: image by niruthafinearts.cjb.net
Remaining photos were taken by Renuka Ramanujam for MUDRA