In his first speech as Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi on Monday invoked the abhaya mudra, the gesture of the raised open palm that is commonly understood as conveying reassurance and a freedom from fear.

He portrayed the government as a regime based on fear, and stressed that the culture of fear is alien to the Hindu religion and Indian civilization.

“The first idea in this image that we defend is the idea of ​​confronting our fear and never being scared,” Rahul said. The abhaya mudra, he said, was a common thread in the depictions of Lord Shiva, Guru Nanak, and Jesus Christ, and also figured in Islam, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Historically and philosophically, what is the abhaya mudra? Where does it originate from, and what does it symbolize?

Mudras in Buddhism

In Sanskrit, the term mudra could mean a seal, mark, sign, or currency, but in the Buddhist context, it refers to “hand and arm gestures made during the course of ritual practice or depicted in images of buddhas, bodhisattvas, tantric deities.” , and other Buddhist images” (Buswell and Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 2013).

Festive offer

Mudras are most commonly associated with visual depictions of the Buddha (or Buddharupa), with different gestures conveying different moods and meanings, signifying the subtle manifestations of the Buddha’s states of realization.

For about 500 years after the Buddha, who lived in the 6th or 5th Century BCE, the person of the great teacher was not depicted in the form of an image or sculpture. At Sanchi, for instance, the Buddha is symbolized by a vacant throne or a footprint.

The earliest depictions of the Buddha in physical form date to roughly around the turn of the first millennium. Depictions started appearing in the Gandhara art from the northwestern edge of the Indian subcontinent (present day Pakistan and Afghanistan), which drew on Hellenistic influences, and later in the art of the Gupta period, in the Gangetic plains.

In the earliest depictions of Buddharupa, four mudras can be found: the abhaya mudra, or “gesture of fearlessness”; the bhumisparsha mudra, or “Earth-touching gesture”; the dharmachakra mudra, or “gesture of the wheel of dharma”; and the dhyana mudra, or “gesture of meditation”.

With the evolution of Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) and Vajrayana (Thunderbolt Vehicle) Buddhism, and the proliferation of Buddhist artwork outside India, hundreds of mudras entered Buddhist iconography. In tantric Buddhist traditions, the mudras came to be associated with dynamic ritual hand movements, where they “symbolized material offerings, enacted forms of worship, or signified relationships with visualized deities” (Buswell and Lopez).

Gesture of fearlessness

The abhaya mudra is described by Buswell and Lopez as one “typically formed with the palm of the right hand facing outward at shoulder height and the fingers pointing up… Occasionally, the index, second, or third finger touches the thumb, with the remaining fingers extended upward”. In some cases, both hands may simultaneously be raised in this posture in a “double abhayamudra”.

In Buddhist tradition, the abhaya mudra is associated with the Buddha immediately after he obtained Enlightenment, “portraying a sense of the security, serenity, and compassion that derives from enlightenment” (Buswell and Lopez).

The “gesture of fearlessness [also] identifies the moment when Shakyamuni (the Buddha) tamed the mad elephant…illustrating the Buddha’s ability to grant fearlessness to his followers” ​​(Buswell, Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, 2004).

According to Buddhist legend, Devadatta, a cousin and a disciple of the Buddha, upon not being granted the special treatment he expected, plotted to harm the Enlightened One. He fed a wild elephant intoxicants and drove her on the Buddha’s path. As the disciples scattered before the charging animal, the Buddha raised his hand in the abhaya mudra of love and kindness. The elephant is said to have calmed down immediately, gone down on her knees, and bowed her head to the Buddha.

This is why the abhaya mudra is also seen as a “gesture of protection” or “gesture of granting refuge”.

Abhaya mudra in Hindu religion

Over time, the abhaya mudra appeared in depictions of Hindu deities, and the Buddha himself was absorbed into the Hindu pantheon as the ninth avatar of the Puranic god Vishnu.

“Hindus came to regard the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu between AD 450 and the sixth century,” the Indologist Wendy Doniger wrote in her classic The Hindus: An Alternative History. The first mention of the Buddha avatar came in the Vishnu Purana (400-500 CE).

As multiple traditions, practices, and cultural influences mingled in the great melting pot of the Hindu religion, manifestations were seen in art and visual depiction of gods. The abhaya mudra was seen in the depictions, most commonly of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, and Lord Ganesha.