NEW YORK - Our upcoming exhibition on 16 September, Images of Enlightenment: Devotional Works of Art and Paintings , traces the development of Buddhist art across Asia, providing an interesting glimpse at how the iconography evolved, and at the same time retained distinctive elements.
The role that portable Buddhist imagery played in the spread of this emerging new religion cannot be underestimated; in pre-literate and semi-literate cultures, art was indispensible as a means of communication of ideas. And hand gestures, or mudra in Sanskrit, developed as an important tool to convey specific meanings to 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 Thangka Depicting White Tara, Tibet, 19th Century. (right) Detail.
Varada Mudra: One of the most recognizable mudras, this is the gesture of compassion and generosity, typically associated with images of bodhisattvas and peaceful deities, such as White Tara above, and is made with the palm held outwards, the fingers extended down. Also called the boon-granting gesture, it expresses spiritual, emotional and physical abundance. The five extended fingers in this mudra symbolize the perfection of morality, patience, exertion, meditative concentration and generosity.
(left) A Gilt-Bronze Figure of Shakyamuni Buddha, Tibet, 16th/17th Century. (right) Detail.
Bhumisparsha Mudra: This gesture of contemplation will be familiar to practitioners of Eastern meditation. It is unique to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, such as the above, and depicts the moment of his Enlightenment during which he called upon the earth as witness to his profound realization.
(left) A Gilt-Copper Figure of Thangtong Gyalpo, Tibet, 16th Century. (right) Detail.
Vitarka Mudra: The gesture of explaining the dharma, or Buddhist teachings, demonstrated in two Tibetan sculptures depicting Thangtong Gyalpo, and the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, 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.