• Culture & Tradition
  • 11 December, 2020

Interpreting Hindu and Buddhist Deities

Interpreting Hindu and Buddhist Deities
Photo: Elen Turner

Sitting at the crossroads between Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Nepal is interspersed with temples in each neighborhood, village, and even high-altitude passes. Dedicated to the Buddha or a whole pantheon of Hindu deities, temples all over Nepal feature a wide range of religious statuary and iconographic depictions. Even though the number of combinations is overwhelming, there are some common postures and hand poses of both Hindu and Buddhist deities.

Mudras and asanas are seen on the hands and sitting poses of deities. Coming from Sanskrit, asana is a general term for a seated pose or a sitting posture for meditating, whereas mudra is a symbolic gesture made with the hands and the fingers. Intended to convey deep meaning, these postures and hand poses are used so that the deity speaks to us in a silent language through his sitting and hand positioning.

Interpreting Hindu and Buddhist Deities
Photo: Elen Turner

Sitting postures – asanas

1. Vajrasana, vajraparyanka, padmasana: a cross-legged sitting posture, placing each foot on the opposite thigh and the soles of the feet upturned (thunderbolt – vajra, or lotus – padma). It’s considered the best meditation posture as the body is centered, it relaxes the brain, and provides relief.

2. Pratyalidha: a heroic diagonal or hunter’s stance, with the left foot advanced and right retracted and stretched out behind (called alidha if the deity is lunging to the left). In Sanskrit it means a particular attitude in shooting, and it’s found in the representation of enemies, attacks, and release of missiles. It symbolizes destruction and is usually confined to deities in wrathful manifestations.

3. Rajalilasana, maharajalilasana: the right leg is bent vertically, while the left leg is folded horizontally on the same level as the sitting body, with the right arm rested on the raised knee. It’s the posture of royal ease, typically found in royal portraits or religious figures with “kingly” attributes.

4. Urdhvapada: a standing pose in which one leg points skyward (also called raised foot or raised-hand-to-foot pose). In Nepal, this pose is limited to the Buddhist Goddess Vajrayogini. It’s also used when Vishnu takes three giant steps in one of his incarnations.

5. Sattvasana, sattvaparyanka: the Buddhist “true sitting” or “noble attitude”, in which legs are folded but not crossed (known as virasana in the Hindu pantheon, vira – hero in Sanskrit). It’s a heroic posture that creates a sense of inner calmness and groundedness.

6. Nrtya, matyasthana: a traditional posture of Sattriya dance (a classical dance of India), featuring themes related to Hindu deities. Usually, it’s associated with wrathful manifestations of the deities.

7. Lalitasana, ardhaparyanka, lalitaksepa: one leg tucked inwards on the seat and the other hanging down to touch the ground or rest on a support (called vamardhaparyanka if the left leg is pendant). The figure sits on a lotus throne and bare feet are normal. It’s a seated posture of ease or relaxation.

8. Tribhanga: the triple-bend pose (or the tri-bend), consisting of three bends in the body: at the neck, waist, and knee. The body is oppositely curved at waist and neck, creating a gentle “S” shape. It’s one of the most elegant and graceful poses in Indian Classical dance forms, like the Odissi. It’s confined to deities in their benevolent manifestations.

Interpreting Hindu and Buddhist Deities
Photo: Elen Turner

Hand poses – mudras

1. Ksepana mudra: two hands together in the gesture of sprinkling ambrosia, the nectar of immortality (sometimes, also called anjali mudra). In Sanskrit it means to throw away, to let go, or to cast off.

2. Dhyani or samadhi mudra: the hands are relaxed in the lap and the tips of the thumbs and fingers touch. The overlying hands may support the vessel of immortality or a begging bowl (in this last case, it’s a sign of the head of an order). It’s the gesture of absolute balance, of meditation.

3. Vrada mudra: the right hand is held out with palm uppermost and the fingers pointing downwards. It symbolizes dispensing of boons, and it’s a gesture of charity or gift, as well as fulfillment of wishes.

4. Dharmacakra mudra: the hands are held level with the heart and the thumbs and index fingers form circles. It’s a gesture of preaching, usually interpreted as turning the Wheel (cakra) of Law (dharma). It refers to the Buddha’s first sermon in the Deer Park (Sarnath, India) when he set the law in motion.

5. Uttarabodhi mudra: two hands placed together above the head with the index fingers together and the other fingers intertwined. It’s the gesture of best perfection, the supreme enlightenment.

6. Namaskara mudra: the hands held at the heart chakra with the thumbs resting lightly against the sternum (sometimes also called anjali mudra). It’s a gesture of greeting, devotion or prayer, as well as adoration and respect made by those devoted to the path taught by the Buddha. However, Buddhas won’t be seen making this gesture because they don’t have to show devotion to anything.

7. Tarjani mudra: the index finger is pointed at the opponent, accusing ignorance or delusion, claiming wakefulness or mindfulness. It’s a gesture of menace, threat, or warning, used by wrathful gods.

8. Abhaya mudra: the right hand is held upright, and the palm is facing outwards. It’s a gesture of reassurance, protection, meaning “have no fear”. It also signifies benediction or blessing.

9. Vyakhyana or vitarka mudra: the circle formed by the thumb and index finger is the sign of the Wheel of Law. It’s a gesture referring to an intellectual argument, discussion, as well as an argument or explanation. When held at chest level, it means teaching, and it’s called jnana mudra.

10. Bhumisparsa mudra: Buddha sitting in lotus has the fingers of the right hand extended upon the right knee to touch the ground, while the left hand is held flat in the lap in dhyani mudra of meditation. It represents Buddha calling the Earth Goddess to witness his Enlightenment under the bodhi tree when the demon tried to disrupt his meditation. Also known as the ‘earth witness’, or ‘touching the earth’.

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