Definition of "Mudra"

The Vedic Hymns, Mantras and Mystical Syllables are the Life- and Light-giving Forces of the Vedic Culture. The recitation of the Hymns, Mantras and Mystical Syllables are sometimes accompanied by hand gestures and hand movements. These hand gestures are called "Mudras".

Some people are of the opinion that the word "Mudra"  is denoting a "seal", meaning hereby, that the hand gesture places a seal or puts a finishing touch to the Mantra, with which it is linked.

Others say that it comes from the Sanskrit word "Mud", meaning "Joy"  or "Bliss". This Bliss is attained through the divine powers of the Mudras or hand gestures, which emphasize and intensify the concentration on the Divine and attract the Blessings of the Divine.

Sri Vidya Upasakas know, that certain sacred hand gestures or Mudras are a Source of Joy not only for themselves, but also for the Divinities worshipped.

The Mudras, performed along with the Mantras or Mystical Syllables, combine elegance with Mysticism. They purify, energize and divinize the spiritual aspirant in a similar way as the recitation of Mantras.

Mudras in Indian Classical Dance

Mudras play a very important role in the Indian Classical Dance.

There are single hand gestures, called "Asamyukta Hastaah"  (hands, not united), which can be executed either by the right hand only, or the left hand only, or by both hands simultaneously (without combining the two hands).

There are also gestures, which are formed by uniting both the hands, they are called "Samyukta Hastaah" (united or combined hands).

Two "Alapadma" - hands crossed above the head
depict the sun or the abode of Gods.
Soma showing the parrot. This holy bird
symbolizes the Divine Wisdom of the Vedas.

According to the ancient scripture "Abhinaya Darpana"  (Nandikeshwara) there are 28 single hand gestures and 24 united hand gestures. All these different hand gestures or Mudras are frequently used in Indian Classical Dance forms, specially in Bharatanatyam. There are even special hand gestures or Mudras which denote all the Gods and Goddesses (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Saraswati, Lakshmi, etc.), the four different castes (Brahmana, Kshatriya, etc.), different relations (mother, daughter, etc.), the nine planets (sun, moon, etc.), rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, etc.), animals (lion, deer, etc.) and so many things more.

Any sincere student of Indian Classical Dance has to learn by heart all the 28 single and 24 combined Mudras. Each of these Mudras has a Sanskrit name. When a student is showing the Mudras, he or she also has to recite the corresponding Sanskrit names along with them. It is like learning an audiovisual alphabet or a language. Since the Mudras can convey myriads of meanings, the "Viniyoga"  (Usage) of each Mudra should be practised, so that one gets the knowledge of how Mudras are used in different contexts and thereby acquire different meanings. When a dance student has learned and understood all the different Mudras and the many meanings, which they can express, he or she can immediately make out the meaning of any performance of Indian Classical Dance, without having been told in detail, which story the dance unfolds.

Children, learning Indian Classical Dance and Mudras during their summer holidays in Omkarananda Ashram Himalayas
from Kumari Somashekhari. From left to right: Neha (from Omkarananda Nagar, Muni-ki-Reti, Rishikesh),
Prachi (from Lucknow), Pinky (from Omkarananda Nagar, Muni-ki-Reti, Rishikesh) and Samyukta (from Chennai).
Here the children demonstrate the Mudra "Ardhachandra", which means "Half-Moon". If the fingers of the right hand
in "Ardhachandra"  are pointing upwards, this Mudra is also called "Abhaya Hasta", the fear-removing, blessing and
protecting hand gesture, and if the fingers of the left hand of the same Mudra are pointing downwards, it is called "Varadaa",
the hand gesture of granting boons, material and spiritual wealth. Often Parvati Devi is depicted with these two hand gestures.

Here is a short example of how Mudras in Indian Classical Dance can be used:

The first hand gesture in the alphabet of the Mudras is "Pataaka", which means literally "Flag". It is called "Flag", because it actually looks like that and so it is easy for the students to remember and make that Mudra if the teacher orders them to show "Pataaka". In the Mudra "Pataaka"  all fingers are straight and extended and close together. Only the thumb is slightly bent towards the base of the index finger. By moving the right hand or the left hand or both hands simultaneously in the "Pataaka"  Mudra, many different meanings can be expressed in the dance, like: "the beginning of dance", "clouds", "forest", "night", "river", "wind", "entering a street", "waves", "opening the door", "taking an oath", "to bless somebody", and many other things. With only one single hand gesture a dancer can convey so many things!

There is another Mudra from the Mudra alphabet which I want to mention here, "Suchi". "Suchi"  means literally "Needle". This Mudra exactly looks like a needle. The index finger is extended and straight and all the other fingers, including the thumb, are bent towards the palm. Many things can be shown with the "Suchi"  Mudra: "searching something", "to contemplate", "scolding somebody", "making a hair braid", "playing a temple drum",  etc. Even highly mystical or metaphysical things can be expressed with this simple "Suchi"  Mudra, for example, when one or both hands in this Mudra are held a bit over the head level and the wrists execute soft, circular movements, the creating or sustaining Divine Power of the wondrous universes, the galaxies, is depicted.

When the right hand in the "Suchi"  Mudra is held in front of the chest (in front of the "spiritual heart" ) and moved slowly up above the head level, this Mudra indicates "Paramashiva"  or "Parabrahma", the Undivided, the One without a second, the Absolute.

Showing "Alapadma", the fully blooming Lotus, with both hands,
and arms stretched upwards, can depict "the sky", "happiness", etc.
The children practise a variety of "Katakaamukha", a Mudra, which is often used to depict Lakshmi or Parvati Devi.

The Creative and Educational Aspect of Mudras

Samyukta from Chennai learns the graceful style of walking from Kumari Somashekhari, using "Dola Hasta"  with the right hand
and "Mrgashirsha"  or "Chatura Hasta"  on the left shoulder.
Children as well as adults enjoy the multitude of things, which can be shown by using the Mudras. With a few changes of finger positions a flying bird can be shown or a swimming fish, a dancing peacock, a honeybee hovering over a flower, the tender waves of a calm river or the ferocious waves of the ocean, clouds, the sun, the rain, lightning, the beauty of the moon, the tenderness, grace and beauty of women, playing of various music instruments, and so many things more.

If dancers have thorough knowledge of Mudras and sufficient experience, how to apply them in dance, they can choreograph easily new dances to Bhajans, Vandanas or any subject of their choice and they can understand to a great extent Indian Classical Dance items of other artists, even if they see them for the first time.

The Healing Powers of Mudras

Mudras have definitely healing powers. By stretching or bending the fingers or exerting pressure on fingertips or palms, unbalanced energies in body and mind, causing diseases, can be balanced, tensions can be released. By practising Mudras properly, blocked energy can be released and flow freely. Hereby accumulated toxins are removed and the bodily system is purified and harmonized.

The Mystical Aspect of Mudras

From the statues and pictures of the Gods and Goddesses we can see that Their hands are all formed in beautiful definite Mudras. The hand expressions of the Divinities are never casual or in an ordinary human way. One can take the example of any Divinity, be it Lord Shiva or Ganeshji or Lakshmiji or Parvati Devi, etc.

Mudras play a most important role in Sri Vidya, the worship of the Supreme Divine Mother, Shri Lalita Mahatripurasundari, the Goddess of Infinite Love, Infinite Purity, Infinite Beauty, Power, Sweetness and Tenderness. When the Goddess is worshipped and invoked through special Bija Mantras, corresponding hand gestures have to be performed. These sacred Mudras multiply the effects of the Bija Mantras. The combination of Mantra recitation and simultaneous performance of the corresponding Mudras helps the sincere and pure-hearted devotees to progress very fast on the spiritual path till the aim, the spiritual union with one's Ishta-Devata, is reached. The Bija Mantras and their corresponding Mudras are secret and can be learned only after special initiations. The conditions for learning these Mantras and Mudras are utmost outer and inner purity, otherwise the sacred Mantras and Mudras will have an adverse effect. If they are practised with low, selfish, sensual and passionate motives, they will lead fast to one's destruction.

Often we get glimpses of the mystical aspect of the Mudras in the Indian Classical Dance, too, specially where the different Gods and Goddesses are depicted, but also in the purely rhythmic, so-called abstract portions of the Indian Classical Dance. Here the emphasis is on powerful foot-work and graceful body-movements. No special story is told, but Mudras are used to beautify the rhythmic and graceful movements in this abstract form of dance.

From left to right: Neha in the pose of Lakshmi Devi, Somashekhari
in the pose of Parvati Devi and Pinky in the pose of Saraswati Devi
Soma and her students Neha and Pinky with the "Anjali Mudra"  through which the Divine is worshipped and glorified

Usually dance experts are of the opinion that in the pure rhythmic portion of Indian Classical Dance (like in Jathiswaram, Tillana, etc.) Mudras do not convey any special meaning, but have just decorative purpose. I do not fully agree with this view. Of course, Mudras in the rhythmic part of dance have definitely an aesthetic charm and appeal, but they also exert subtle energies on the physical as well as the spiritual level. Here a strong parallel can be observed between the role of the Mudras in the Sri Vidya worship and in the Indian Classical Dance, which is also a form of worship.

In ancient times, Temple Dancers used to dance in front of the Deities to the recitation of Bija Mantras. Unfortunately, the practice of these sacred dances has come out of vogue. The Mudras, which the dancers have performed along with the Bija Mantras, may have resembled the sacred Mudras, which are used for example in the Sri Vidya Upasana.

Pinky with the "Kapittha Mudra", depicting Lord Ganesha

Sometimes glimpses of these Mudras can still be seen in the so-called abstract or rhythmic portions of Bharatanatyam Dance. I want to give one practical example for this:

When the finger tip of the index finger of the "Suchi"  Mudra is slightly bent a Mudra, called "Ankusha", is derived. This Mudra is not specially mentioned in the Dance-Mudra-Alphabet, though it resembles the "Taamrachuda"  Mudra. "Ankusha"  Mudra has a great importance in the rhythmic, non-story telling dance part. "Ankusha"  Mudra is a mystical Mudra, used specially by Sri Vidya Upasakas, since the most beautiful, enchanting Goddess, Shri Lalita Maha¬≠tripurasundari, is holding one "Ankush"  (goad) in Her right hand. It is an important Mudra, which attracts material and spiritual success and influence. In the rhythmic portions of Bharatanatyam Dance sometimes this Mudra is used at the shoulder, near the face. It looks really attractive and charming.

I want to throw light upon another practical example for the mystical or metaphysical aspect of Mudras in the rhythmic "abstract"  portions of Indian Classical Dance, this time from the North-Indian Temple Dance, Kathak. Very often a special Mudra is used in the Kathak Dance, which is called "Kamal ghumaanaa", which is Hindi and literally means "to turn around the Lotus".

For this one has to make "Araala Mudra"  with both hands, combine the wrists of both hands in front of the chest (in front of the spiritual heart) and turn them around continuously in a soft manner. The Heart Lotus, situated on a very subtle level, is not static, but consists of brilliant, moving light waves, sound and fragrance, and can be shown on the material level with the Kathak Dance Mudra "Kamal ghumaanaa".

I feel, that in the so-called abstract, purely rhythmic part of the Indian Classical Dances, the Mudras, used along with the rhythmic steps and the graceful poses, execute and transmit a certain spiritual power.

Though these Mudras don't convey a specific story in this context, they radiate an irresistible charm and a dignified, divine beauty. Here, in this context, we may compare the abstract, non-story telling Mudras with the Bija Mantras, which can not be easily translated into human words or human conceptions, but still are real and are fully charged with divine powers.

Guru-Bhakti-Ratna Kumari Somashekhari performing dance during Omkarananda Mahotsava Celebrations.

Many facts about the metaphysical meanings of the Mudras in the Indian Classical Dance have been forgotten over the centuries. The dancers are often taught these Mudras along with the movements and rhythmic steps without learning the deeper meanings behind them. They execute the beautiful Mudras along with the dance movements just for the beauty sake. But some of the dancers may be intuitively aware, even if they are not specially taught about it, that certain Mudras or dance gestures generate a considerable divine, subtle power or energy, besides looking elegant and beautiful. This is what makes our Indian Classical Dance so special and differentiates it from other dances in the world.

The Mantras and Vedic Hymns are the language of the Gods and the Mudras are the hand gestures of the Gods. OM.

The Hamsaasya or Chin-Mudra

Soma in a classical Kathak Dance pose using
the "Hamsaasya Mudra"  with both hands
Somashekhari while performing dance in Omkarananda-
Kamakshi-Devi Mandir, is showing the "Hamsaasya Mudra"
or "Chin Mudra", depicting infinite Truth, Bliss and Beauty

One of the most important Mudras, from the spiritual standpoint, is the single-hand Mudra "Hamsaasya". The meaning of the Sanskrit word "Hamsa"  is "swan", that beautiful majestic bird, but in the philosophical context of ancient India "Hamsa"  means also the "Soul". "Aasya"  (Sanskrit) means "mouth"  or "face". So the meaning of this Mudra is "Face (mouth) of the Swan"  or "Face of the Soul".

This Mudra is practically made like this: The tips of the thumb and the index-finger (fore-finger) of one hand are combined in such a way, that they form a round shape, a circle. The other three fingers, middle-finger, ring-finger and small finger are stretched straight and kept slightly apart from each other.

In the Indian Classical Dances this Mudra is used with both hands, if one wants to show the "tying of a necklace", "the flute", "tying of the marriage-thread", and for "meditation", "divine Wisdom", and, with the right hand only, for showing "initiation", "telling, that something is 'good or certain' ", "drawing"  or "painting", "speaking", "reading", "singing", "the Eternal", "Infinite Purity", "the Truth", "the Absolute"  and with one or both hands to depict "peacock feathers", "pearls", "gems", "drops of water", "sounds of the flute", "carrying garlands", "ecstasy"  and so many things more. Very beautiful and delicate, soft things can also be depicted with this Mudra.

This Mudra is very important because of its spiritual and mystical implication. It is contributed to Shri Dakshinamurti, a form of Lord Shiva, who conferred highest divine Wisdom to his disciples, without uttering any word, using this Mudra.

Therefore this Mudra is often shown in Indian Classical Dance for Meditation, divine Wisdom or showing Enlightenment.

In the field of spirituality this Mudra is called "Chin*-Mudra". It is the ideal Mudra to concentrate on and express the Infinite, the Truth, the Absolute, beyond time and space limitations.

My Sadgurudev H.D. Paramahamsa Omkarananda Saraswati mentioned in His many speeches the spiritual importance of this Mudra. This simple gesture can depict the Highest State, called "Turiya"  (the Fourth State) in the Upanishads. The circle, made by the combination of the thumb and fore-finger, depicts the Absolute, the undivided One, the Truth, beyond time and space, or "Turiya", "the Fourth State", consisting of infinite Peace and Bliss, which is our real Being and which can be experienced consciously, while living in this mortal body, when we receive the Grace of the Divine through the Sadguru. The other three fingers may represent the three gunas in our material time-space-world, or the three worlds, or the three States (Wakening State, Sleep-State and Deep-Sleep-State). Swami Omkarananda used to explain to us, that the circle, or dot, are the most ideal abstract forms to denote the Infinite, because there is no beginning and no end. Therefore, if we want to describe the timeless, spaceless, endless, eternal Being, or Truth, within this limited time-space world, the symbol of a circle or dot, is most ideal.

According to ancient Indian Science the thumb represents the individual self and the fore-finger represents the Guru, the One who removes the darkness of ignorance from our Soul and leads us to infinite Happiness, Wisdom and Immortality.

Therefore, if in the "Chin-Mudra", or "Hamsaasya"  Mudra, the fingers, representing the Guru and the individual self, are combined, it indicates the Enlightenment and final Liberation of the human being, which is explained in the Upanishads in different terms, like in one of the Mahavakyas: "Soham", which means "I am He", i.e. "I am this immortal Being", "I am this Infinite Truth".

This Mudra is used since thousands of years for concentration, meditation and imparting divine Wisdom.

I personally use this Mudra often, when I perform Temple-Dances, whenever I want to express infinite Truth, Divine Wisdom or infinite Divine Beauty. OM

Guru-Bhakti-Ratna Kumari Somashekhari

* "Chin"  comes from the Sanskrit word "Chit", which means in this context "Infinite Consciousness".
Because of a Sanskrit Grammar Rule ("Sandhi") "Chit"  changes to "Chin".

Guru-Bhakti-Ratna Kumari Somashekhari in front of her Sadgurudev
H.D. Paramahamsa Omkarananda Saraswati, showing the Mudras "Pataaka"  with
the left hand and "Tripataaka"  with the right hand, which means:
"Seeing oneself in the mirror and applying Tilak."
But the metaphysical meaning of this pose is:
"Seeing oneself as a Reflection of the true Self, the Absolute Truth, the Sadguru."
Copyright © 2016 Omkarananda Ashram Himalayas. All Rights Reserved by Omkarananda Ashram Himalayas.
Last modified: