For the curious observer of art and culture, a study of religious icons is both a visual and intellectual feast.
Over millennia, the world’s dominant organized religions — with the clear exception of Islam — have relied heavily on the use of iconography as a teaching tool to reinforce their respective belief systems.
In my world-wide wanderings, I’ve observed local believers performing personal rituals and exhibiting varying levels of reverence for such icons found in churches, temples and shrines. As a lover of all handcrafted objects, I’ve also scrutinized the colors, textures and forms used to influence the faithful.
Religious icons can elicit emotions that run the gamut from uplifting and serene to shocking and psychologically disturbing. The latter is particularly true of Christian icons representing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in all its graphic horror.
In Catholicism the priesthood has traditionally been the conduit through which the masses were taught religious dogma while the descriptive (and ornate) statues and paintings placed in churches have reinforced their teachings.
Buddhism, on the other hand, has chosen a slightly less confrontational and more philosophical approach by using highly stylized and symbolic paintings and sculptures of an imagined historical Buddha demonstrating various hand gestures (mudras), physical attributes and postures (sitting vs standing) that carry profoundly symbolic meaning.
Buddhist iconography isn’t intended to approximate the historical Buddha’s (Buddha Shakyamuni or Gautama Buddha) physical features, rather the symbols used are meant to depict the Buddha’s expanded range of knowledge and awareness after enlightenment.
Symbols in Buddhist Iconography
While this post focuses on hand gestures, additional elements of Buddhist iconography to be aware of while viewing the following photos are:
- Lotus blossoms and leaves — In Buddhist iconography, the lotus is a a symbol of enlightenment, the state of freeing oneself from the cravings of our physical and material world as well as from the cycle of birth and rebirth as taught in Hinduism which preceded Buddhist thought.
- The Naga — As the story goes, during the historical Buddha’s internal journey to enlightenment, he was protected from the elements by a Naga (serpent in Sanskrit), often portrayed as a seven-headed snake. Despite being highly stylized and having multiple heads, the serpents’ intimidating hood flares — expanded necks forming a sort of hood — remind me of the common cobras found all over Southeast Asia.
- The eyes on Buddhist figures are often slightly open with a downward gaze, indicating a state of internal meditation while still remaining aware of the outside world.
- Conversely, an icon’s eyes may be looking outward, representing the historical Buddha’s compassion for all sentient beings in our earthly realm as well as depicting the Buddha as a teacher who was fully engaged with his students.
- The shape of an icon’s head — In most Buddhist traditions, figures representing the historical Buddha have a protuberance (an Ushnisha in Sanskrit) crowning the top of the head. This protuberance represents knowledge and wisdom and may range in size and general shape from one part of East Asia to another.
- Long earlobes — Indicate the Buddha’s great willingness and ability to hear the cries of other sentient beings.
A mudra — a specific positioning of the hands — is used in Buddhist art (as well as in practice) to evoke a particular state of mind. Indeed, many scholars refer to Buddhism as a ‘science of mind’ with little of the religious dogma inherent in other world religions.
Some mudras are easily recognizable due to the international proliferation of Buddhist icons and various forms of meditation made popular in Western culture over the past few decades, while other mudras convey a deeper level of teaching and philosophical understanding.
The Dhyana Mudra
The Dhyana mudra is commonly used as a hand gesture in yoga and Buddhist meditation practices. It is predominantly seen on figures sitting cross-legged in what we commonly call the lotus position.
In this mudra, the hands are placed on the lap with the fingers of the right hand extended and resting directly on the outstretched fingers of the left hand. The thumbs of each hand are typically, although not always, touching.
The Dhyana mudra is particularly important as it represents the prolonged period of deep meditation the historical Buddha undertook in order to reach enlightenment.
The Abhaya Mudra
The Abhaya mudra is formed with the figure’s right arm bent and the hand held at shoulder height. The palm of the hand is open with fingers extended. The left hand is held down in a more relaxed position.
This mudra — both indicating fearlessness and blessing — represents the protection, peace, benevolence and dispelling of fear offered to practitioners who study the teachings (dharma) and actions of the historical Buddha.
While the Ushnisha is high and sharply pointed on Buddha sculptures found in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, the more rounded shape of the head crown on the Burmese Buddha in photo #2.1 shows the stylistic influences of nearby China.
The Bhumisparsa Mudra
The Bhumisparsa mudra is also known as the ‘touching the Earth’ mudra and represents the moment of the historical Buddha’s awakening as he claims the earth as the witness of his enlightenment. It is formed with the right hand held on the right knee, reaching toward the ground with the palm inward, and often touching the lotus throne on which the Buddha traditionally sits.
The Uttarabodhi Mudra
The Uttarabodhi Mudra denotes the supreme enlightenment by connecting oneself with divine universal energy. It is performed by joining both hands, placed at the heart with the index fingers touching and pointing upwards and the remaining fingers intertwined.
Chinese Buddhas (above) are often depicted with blue hair, a color which signifies the concept of loving kindness. Note the round shape of the head on the Buddha figure in the center of the trio in contrast to the high, pointed crown depicted on Buddha sculptures in much of Southeast Asia.
The Dharmachakra Mudra
The Dharmachakra mudra signifies teaching, and is usually interpreted as ‘the turning of the wheel‘ of the dharma. This gesture also represents a great and revolutionary change with universal consequences.
This mudra is performed by holding the hands at the level of the heart with index fingers and thumbs touching and forming circles.
Considering the demon’s mouth that forms the doorway to the Golden Temple — directly below the sitting Buddha — in photo 5, perhaps the following mudra would also be appropriate here.
The Karana Mudra
The Karana Mudra symbolizes the expelling of demons. In the following photo, we can see how different mudras may be combined in order to strengthen the message represented by a Buddha icon.
The Buddha’s right hand forms the Abhaya (protection) mudra, while the left hand approximates the Karana mudra. Therefore, this Buddha statue radiates both protection and the expelling of demons.
Varying traditions and schools of Buddhist thought also help explain the use of multiple symbols in Buddhist icons. Note the circle in the center of Buddha’s right palm in photo #6 which represents the wheel of dharma.
The Vitarka Mudra
The Vitarka mudra symbolizes intellectual argument and discussion. This gesture is configured with the palm facing forward and the index finger and thumb touching, which then form a circle.
Historical Buddhist teachings encourage intellectual argument and discussion. In Tibetan Buddhism, debate is considered the key to dispelling misconceptions and establishing a defensible view of the dharma.
Like other great world religions, the origins of Buddhist teachings are themselves debatable.
In 2001, I had the opportunity to hear one of the foremost academics in Buddhist studies speak. After the lecture, I sidled up beside the professor and timidly asked what the research had indicated about the origins of the teachings of the historical Buddha.
The highly respected academic smiled and noted that none of the historical Buddha’s teachings were written down and codified until approximately 300 years after his death. By that time, the expert emphasized, there were already 11 different ‘schools’ of Buddhist thought.
So, perhaps it’s best to enjoy the art and cultural significance of religious icons without attributing too much validity to the messages such icons carry.