NEW YORK - 'Footsteps of the Buddha', Sotheby's new selling exhibition in New York, traces the development of Buddhist art across Asia in the centuries following the death of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, in the 5th century BCE, providing an interesting glimpse at how the iconography evolved, and at the same time retained certain elements.

The role which portable Buddhist imagery played in the spread of this emerging new religion cannot be underestimated; in pre-literate and semi-literate cultures, art was effectively literature. And hand gestures, or mudra in Sanskrit, developed as an important tool to inform the viewer. See below for a quick guide to some of the most important mudras, and several terrific examples of their use in the exhibition.  

(left) A Gilt Copper Alloy Figure of Udayana Buddha, China, Qianlong period. (center)A Gilt Bronze Figure of Seated Buddha Korea, Unified Silla period, 8th century. (right)A Silver and Gilt Copper Stupa, Nepal, 18th century.

Abhaya Mudra: One of the most recognizable mudras, this is the gesture of fearlessness, typically associated with images of the historical Buddha and made with the palm held outwards, the fingers extended upwards and the arm held at chest level. Also called the fear-dispelling gesture, it expresses the benediction of the Buddha, as well as the protection from the fear of the karmic cycle of death and rebirth.

(left) A Gilt Bronze Figure of the Arhat Chudapanthaka, Tibeto-Chinese, Qianlong period. (right) A Copper Alloy Figure of Atisha, Tibet, 18th century.

Dhyana Mudra: This gesture contemplation will be familiar to practitioners of Eastern meditation. Both hands rest lightly on the lap, with the right hand atop the left; the touching thumbs represent the Buddhist ideal of the union of wisdom and compassion. This gesture represents the attainment of nirvana, or enlightenment.

Vitarka Mudra: The gesture of explaining the dharma, or Buddhist teachings, demonstrated in the Tibetan sculpture of Atisha above, is made with the thumb and forefinger touching. This mudra is commonly used for historical figures renowned for their mastery of Buddhist philosophical literature and contributions to intellectual discourse.