[Note: This paper contains images which may be seen as originally published at our website]
When we study Eastern philosophies, beliefs, culture, and the pragmatic yogic methods of Hinduism and Buddhism, we often come across practices of systematic hand gestures. The rites, rituals, initiations, dances, and spiritual disciplines of these Oriental religions and traditions are replete with multifold forms of hand gestures with symbolic meanings and empowering virtues. In Sanskrit these gestures are called mudra. Mudra means “seal,” or “symbol.” The word has various connotations or definitions in Yogic and Tantric philosophies. In Hatha yoga, mudras are special physical asanas, or body-postures; they are also certain exercises or processes that arouse into activity one’s innate energies. The ancient yogic text, the “Gheranda-Samhita,” describes twenty-five of these mudras among which are: ashvini-mudra, bhujangini-mudra, kaki-mudra, khecari-mudra, maha-mudra, manduki-mudra, matangi-mudra, nabho-mudra, pashini-mudra, sahajoli-mudra, shakti-calani-mudra, shambhavi-mudra, tadagi-mudra, vajroli-mudra, viparita-karani-mudra, yoni-mudra, etc.
The above yogic manual advises us that these mudras are to be kept secret with great care and not to be conveyed to anyone unfit for their reception as these mudras could confer tremendous power and psychic abilities called siddhis. Those without the right spiritual qualifications could cause untold harm to themselves and others should they engage in these exercises and be successful in unfolding occult faculties. The psychic powers acquired therefrom would be misapplied, misused and abused for egoistic purposes–and this is potentially fatal for one’s evolutionary growth. These mudras were therefore esoteric in nature and reserved for the chosen few–the true spiritual aspirants, and not for the worldly-minded or the overly spiritually ambitious. This doctrine “for the few” was observed carefully by mostly all spiritual traditions. In one ritualistic text of the Vajrayana Tantra concerning an initiatory teaching, the chela or student is enjoined to,
” . . . spread this teaching with great caution. It should be kept secret from both sinful and Dam Med (oath-breakers) persons; from sophisticated and foulmouthed persons. This teaching should not be given to skeptical and defamatory persons; it should not be bestowed upon heretical and insincere persons. It should not be given to the thief of Dharma [spiritual doctrines] or to those who do not observe the precepts. Keep this sacred teaching from such persons is a rule you should observe.”
In his manual on yoga, which consists of 195 Sutras, Patanjali never once mentioned mudras, nor the serpent force, or kundalini for that matter. Perhaps he considered these teachings esoteric and not meant for general circulation.
Aside from the possible acquisition of paranormal powers as one result of the awakening of the kundalinic force lying latent at the base of the spine, the mudras described by the Gheranda-Samhita also results in rejuvenation, and the sought for liberation from the mortal, human condition. Intense and constant practice of these mudras in conjunction with other spiritual exercises is said to have the power to transform man into a living god. Hand mudras, we believe, do have this kind of effect.
Hindu Tantrism has a different understanding of mudras. To the practitioners of Tantra, the term refers to a shakti, a human female participant in the maithuna, or sexual rites; or even to the parched grain as one of the five ingredients used in the panca-tattva rite because of its physical resemblance to the yoni, the female genitalia. Shaktis are called “mudras” because in the process of ritualistic and yogic coitus they have an effect similar to body and hand mudras. Mudras awaken dormant psycho-physical centers and purifies certain subtle channels allowing for the circulation of energies to take place; Mudras facilitates concentration, and are a powerful means of communing with the forces and divinities lying within man’s inner nature; women have a great access to psychic energies; thus, the sexual yogic act, when properly conducted, does the same thing. Being highly respected, a woman proficient in the Tantric arts is referred to as a “mudra,” or to be more specific, “Karma mudra,” of which there are five kinds, categorized according to various psycho-physical characteristics.
In another sense, “closed electrical-circuits” of the subtle channels in the physical and etheric bodies are also known as “seals,” or mudras.
In passing, we should mention that the large earrings worn by members of the Kanphata Order in India are likewise called “mudra.”
The Kagyu sect of Vajrayana Buddhism uses the suffix “maha” meaning “great” in association with the term “mudra.” Thus, the conjoined word mahamudra means “the Great Seal,” or “the Great Symbol.” In this context, the word refers to a state of direct realization and experience of the ultimate nature of the Mind or Reality where all dualities and sense of separateness from All that Is are transcended.
Putting aside complexities, the definition of mudra is simply “symbolic gesture.” Chogyam Trungpa in his book, “Mudra,” defines the word as,
“a symbol in the wider sense of gesture or action. It is the inspiring color of phenomena. Also it is a symbol expressed with the hands to state for oneself and others the quality of different moments of meditation, such as touching the earth with the right hand as a witness to Buddha’s freedom from emotional and mental frivolousness.”
Yoga teachings in general explain that mudras denote the hand gestures and movements used in the performance of dances, rituals, rites, and while engaging in spiritual exercises such as meditation. Mudras symbolically express inner feelings and inner psychological states; they also generate various qualities such as fearlessness, power, charity, and peace in the practitioner and to on-lookers.
In another ancient text called Soma-Shambhu-Paddhati, a great number of these hand mudras are described. Perhaps the best known by yogic practitioners and students are abhaya-mudra, anjali-mudra, cin-mudra, dhyana-mudra, and jnana-mudra. Some of these mudras are known by other names, especially in other cultures and spiritual traditions. It is this latter understanding of mudra that we shall be dealing with in this series of articles.
To sum up, we present Nik Douglas’ definition of “mudra” to be found in the glossary of his book, Sexual Secrets:
(Mudras are) “mystic hand gestures used to focus subtle energy, transmit teachings through symbols and confer psychic protection. As an aid to Tantric meditation, mudra can also mean woman in her role as Yogini. The same term is sometimes used to refer to cereal grains used in Tantric rites. “
The Origin of Mudras
It is not quite known when or where systematized and stylized gestures originated. Almost all ancient cultures made use of hand signs in one form or another. Hand Signs were employed even in earliest times in religion, in the rhetoric art, in social intercourse, in builders’ and trade guilds, etc. The operative Masons–the Comacines, the builders of Europe’s finest cathedrals, and the hoary trade guild known as the Dionysiac Artificers–who were responsible for the construction of ancient buildings and structures–all made use of hand signs as a system of communication and protection of their conclaves or secret meetings against unauthorized entry.
In Hinduism, as well as Buddhism, hundreds of mudras were formed for yogic purposes, for ceremonies, drama, and dance. Most of these were symbolic in nature, others, however, had metaphysical virtues. There are literally hundreds of mudra-gestures formed by the ancient yogis and sages; however, they are all based on four basic hand positions: the open palm, the hollowed palm, the closed fist, and the hand with fingertips together.
In the Occident, the study of hand gestures in ritual and its spontaneous movements is called cheironomy. It particularly relates to gestures used in esoteric symbolism and certain forms or signs used in religious ritual. In occultism, each hand gesture has certain significance as well as embodying a certain force. Ritual gestures were an important part of religious ceremonies in most ancient cultures. They were said to have the power to call upon the gods, to unfold powers, and to affect the surroundings in various ways.
The ancient Egyptians regarded the hand poses of their god-incarnate pharaohs as highly potent, even if it is just a pictorial representation. While depicting these pharaohs in murals or while forming statues of them, artists were careful not to misrepresent the mudras assumed by their sovereign for fear that it would evoke an unwanted force.
Power in the Hands
The hands when used systematically in mudra exercises result in a wealth of benefit for the practitioner. Not only does it improve one’s health, they also generate the energies that would empower one to live a dignified life as a child of God. Specific hand gestures assist the unfoldment of one’s divine potentials, or inner divinity lying dormant within one’s being.
Mudras facilitate the awareness of our inner nature, the reality of Spirit, the oneness of the Cosmos. It arouses the spiritual heart to expand and express itself with effulgent radiance. Through love, selfless love, unconditional love, divine love, it is possible to conquer all things. It is with love that we approach God, not through fear; fear will never take us to the divine throne. To express love is the beginning of wisdom.
By practicing hand gestures we eventually find ourselves communicating with Nature, for some of her esoteric languages are signs and symbols. Mudras generate structured magnetic fields with forms that resemble computer fractuals and images. Abstract forms reach the higher planes of life where angelic forces reside. Thus, by performing mudras we may eventually find ourselves socializing with cherubim and seraphim.
According to scientists we use about 10% of our brain potential. Mudra practices may change all that, for the energies that it awakens clears all of the vessels–physical and non-physical–of obstructions and blockages that prevent the brain from being nourished and developed. New synapses between neurons are formed when the brain receives a good supply of chi or prana. An increase in I.Q., a strong memory retention, improved learning ability, and mental alertness, are some of the results of cleared energy channels. When empowered the brain forms new connections with the etheric brain. These connections resemble and function as miniature sutratma, which is the link between the lower quaternary of the microcosm and the higher components that we normally refer to as “the Spirit” of man. The more links between the etheric and physical brain, the more powerful and intelligent the brain becomes.
Mudras awaken the power of the hands to act therapeutically and magically. The psychic centers in the palms and fingertips are activated to their optimal level by the consistent application of mudras. This eventually facilitates the free outflow and influx of cosmic forces that may be utilized for various occult purposes. With such power, even a mere touch may mesmerize, enchant, fascinate, or quicken the “dead.” Hands with such power would definitely be an asset not only to the metaphysical practitioner but also to those involved in social and business affairs.
Copyright © 2006 Luxamore