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What meaning do the features and gestures of the Buddha convey?

Certain characteristics are common to images of Buddha: the Victoria & Albert Museum lists 32 'lakshanas' or special bodily features with symbolic meanings. These go beyond physical attributes which can be visually depicted and include 'excellent sense of taste' and 'a strong and attractive voice like that of the Hindu god Brahma'. One of the most prominent physical attributes are Buddha's elongated earlobes ‒ a reminder and relic of his princely past when he would have worn long, heavy earrings.

Buddha's hands are usually depicted in one of six attitudes, or 'Mudras'. Here is a guide to decoding these gestures, which are illustrated in the images above (clockwise from top left):

  • Right hand on right thigh, fingers pointing downwards, left hand resting in the lap: Touching the Earth ‒ renunciation of worldly desires.
  • Buddha usually seated, both hands flat in the lap, palms facing upwards: Meditation, a step on the road to enlightenment.
  • Buddha usually standing, right arm extended downwards, palm open, fingers extended: Charity ‒ the giving or receiving of alms.
  • The thumb and index finger of one hand only are brought together: Exposition and an appeal to Reasoning, implicitly suggesting a call for peace.
  • Standing or seated, one or both arms bent at the elbows and wrists, palms outwards, fingers pointing upwards: Absence of Fear for both Buddha and others.
  • Standing or seated, hands at rest in front of the chest, fingers of the left hand resting in the palm of the right: Setting the wheel in motion, that is, a reference to Buddha's first sermon, the initiation of the new path in his life's work.