A note on mudras
by Phil Hine (2004)
In ritual practice, a mudra is an intricate configuration of the fingers of one or both hands; in yogic practice, it is an inner "hydraulic" seal effected through breath control and other techniques. In Hindu Tantra, mudra is one of the five makaras: in this context, the term is often translated as "parched grain." In Buddhist Tantra, mudra is one of the terms used for a male practitioner's female consort. The thick hoop earrings of the Nathas are called mudras.
Tantra in Practice, David Gordon White (ed), Princeton, 2000, p630
The nature of mudras and their use in tantric sadhana is something I've known about for a long time, but their versatility is something that I've only really begun to appreciate fairly recently. For the 2002 Summer Solstice, a group of UK Naths held a weekend retreat, partly to mark Vishvanath's (who had initiated some members of the group) was about to emigrate to New Zealand. One morning, we had rather an acrimonious exchange of views round the breakfast table, and Vishvanath, acting as an arbitrator, talked about the qualities of effective communication in terms of dispelling fear and granting boons for each other - and at the same time gave the mudras of these actions. Now these were mudras that I had seen many times before as they feature strongly in the iconography of popular Hindu deities such as Ganesha or Lakshmi, and deities are often invoked in terms of both dispelling fear and granting boons for their devotees. But at that moment, listening to Vishvanath talk about how we can grant boons to each other in conversation - in the sense of giving space to another person's point of view and making the gesture, I was suddenly struck, in a way I had never been before, about how a mudra - a simple gesture, can eloquently demonstrate a much more complex idea, and one that can be seen to apply to a wide variety of situations.
The term mudra - usually translated as 'seal', has, like many other Tantric terms, a multitude of meanings, dependent on the context in which it appears.
In Shakti and Shakta, Sir John Woodroffe gives three meanings of the term:
- In ritual, it refers to the elaborate use of gestures.
- In Yoga, it refers to postures in which not only the hands, but the whole body takes part.
- In the 'secret worship' of the 5 'm's it refers to various kinds of parched cereals.
One explanation of the term is that it is a joining of mud (bliss) and dra (dissolving). Mudra is that which dissolves duality (i.e. between worshipper and deity) and thus 'seals' the relationship. Mudras bring the chosen deity closer to the practitioner, and vice versa. Mudra has also been described as 'finger play' - echoing, on the human level, the divine play or lila of Shiva-Shakti.
Gestures are an important part of non-verbal communication and have a powerful and immediate impact. In Tantric practice, mudras express directly the form of a devata, quality or inner state. Mudras have become incorporated into the iconography of sacred art; into martial arts and Indian dance forms. Some mudras are said to have therapeutic qualities and Georg Feuerstein has noted that they indicate an overlap between Tantra and Ayurvedic medicine.
Tantric deities have particular mudras associated with them, and practitioners may develop their own mudras as part of their continuing practice. Mudras often represent the interaction or relationship between different categories of existence. For instance, if the five fingers are equated with the five elements, then mudras become the expression of the relationship between those elements.
Mudras are also used extensively in ritual in building up the practitioner's subtle form of the chosen deity. Sanjukta Gupta, in her article The Worship of Kali according to the Todala Tantra notes how, whilst a practitioner utters the litany of the goddess - giving her special attributes - the practitioner also, at the same time, makes gestures which recall and express those attributes described in the mantra. Having recently seen mudras employed in such a way by a Hindu Tantrika in the performance of a Devi puja, I can certainly attest to their efficacy. The priest seemed to 'sculpt' Devi from the air, using a series of traditional mudras to reinforce the attributes of the Goddess he was invoking through mantra, shaping her form and associations so that her form was readily apparent to his audience. The experience demonstrated for me how mudra (gesture); mantra (speech/thought) and yantra (form) are interrelated in Tantrik practice and expressed through puja.
Such ritual mudras can also have multiple meanings within the context of a puja. For example, one of the special attributes of Lalita is that in some of her aspects, she holds a book. So in a ritual, one could make the gesture of opening a book. But here, one is not simply stating just that Lalita holds a book, but also bringing to mind that Lalita acts with that book in the sense that she grants vidya (direct knowledge or revelation) to her devotees. So, an apparently simple gesture can simultaneously refer to many shades of meanings within the context of a ritual.
The following quotation from Arthur Avalon's Shakti & Shakta illustrates this further:
We all know how in speaking we emphasize and illustrate our thought by gesture. So in welcoming (Avahana) the Devata, an appropriate gesture is made. When veiling anything, the hands assume that position (Avagunthana Mudra). Thus again in making offering (Arghya) a gesture is made which represents a fish (Matsya Mudra) by placing the right hand on the back of the left and extending the two thumbs finlike on each side of the hands. This is done as the expression of the wish and intention that the vessel which contains water may be regarded as an ocean with fish and all other aquatic animals. The Sadhaka says to the Devata of his worship, "this is but a small offering of water in fact, but so far as my desire to honor you is concerned, regard it as if I were offering you an ocean." The Yoni in the form of an inverted triangle represents the Devi. By the Yoni Mudra the fingers form a triangle as a manifestation of the inner desire that the Devi should come and place Herself before the worshipper, for the Yoni is Her Pitha or Yantra.
During a period of Sri Vidya practice with the Earth Square of the Sri Yantra, I developed a series of eight mudras to represent the eight Siddhis or accomplishments. My intention here was to use each mudra to 'invoke' the siddhi - at least my ideations related to that Siddhi - into the Earth Square Yantra I was using, in order to reflect on each siddhi, and its relationship to the other elements of the Yantra.
Overall, a mudra can be understood as the outward expression of inner resolve, the performance of which intensifies one's resolve.
Tantra: the path of ecstasy Georg Feuerstein, Shambhala Publications, 1998
Tantra in Practice David Gordon White (ed), Princeton, 2000
Shakti and Shakta Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe) Dover Publications, 1978
The Roots of Tantra K.A Harper & R.L Brown (eds), SUNY, 2002