Mudra of the Enlightened Buddha
The Mudra of the Enlightened Buddha (hand gesture) is referred to as Bhumisparsa mudra or the gesture of “touching the earth”. It is seen in many depictions of the Buddha and represents the moment of his enlightenment. In this mudra, the left hand is placed on the lap with the palm facing upwards, while the right hand is placed on the right knee with the palm facing downwards and touching the pedestal, seat, or ground below.
This mudra is a symbolic representation of the story of Buddha calling the earth as his witness to testify to his attainment of perfect knowledge.
Whilst the Buddha sat meditating under the bodhi tree Mara with his fourfold army of demons challenged him to prove his attainment of perfect knowledge or enlightenment, stating that there was no one nearby to witness it.
In the well-known narrative in the Life of the Buddha, whilst meditating under the bodhi tree he summoned the earth-goddess Prithvi or Vasundhara to bear witness to his attainment of perfect knowledge by touching the earth with the fingers of his right hand. This mudra signifies the moment when he transitioned from being a Bodhisattva to becoming Buddha. Therefore, this mudra has become a significant representation of the momentous occasion when Buddha achieved enlightenment and became the enlightened one.
The depiction of the Enlightenment or Sambodhi and the events associated with it are popular themes among Buddhist artists of all schools.
The artistic representation of Enlightenment can be categorized into two or three parts.
- The temptation of the Bodhisattva by Mara’s daughters
- The assault on the Bodhisattva by Mara’s followers
- The invocation of Vasundhara, the earth goddess, to bear witness.
Mara had three beautiful daughters named Desire, Pleasure, and Passion. The temptation exerted by Mara’s daughters is portrayed in three ways, each consisting of two female figures. For instance, one female is seen dancing while the other assumes an elegant posture. This signifies Mara’s daughters displaying their physical allurements to distract the Bodhisattva from attaining enlightenment. Another instance is with two females, with one of them addressing the Bodhisattva after their seductive tactics have failed. Another scene is where both females are depicted kneeling in submission with dishevelled hair.
The assault on the Bodhisattva by Mara’s followers is represented through images of Mara himself shooting arrows towards the Bodhisattva, accompanied by demons symbolizing his followers. In the narrative of Mara’s attack, he and his demon army launch an onslaught on the Bodhisattva, employing whirlwinds, tempests, floods, and earthquakes.
In a small village in Jadispur, there exists a monumental stele where the Buddha is seated under the bodhi tree showing the mudra of the enlightened Buddha with the malevolent forces of Mara depicted in a vertical arrangement on either side of the Blessed One. These forces are seen engaging in an assault against him, utilizing a variety of weapons. Positioned to the left of the Blessed One’s head is a demon holding a wheel, while another demon below him is seen shooting arrows at him. Adjacent to this demon is a dwarf who is throwing stones, and behind him, a man appears to be swiftly moving through the air with a sword in hand. On the opposite side of the Blessed One, there are four figures representing Mara’s army, also rushing towards the attack on the Blessed One. The response of Vasundhara, the earth goddess, to the Master’s call is symbolized by a female figure typically placed on the front side of the pedestal beneath the image of the Buddha.
Vasundhara is depicted kneeling predominantly towards the left but facing forward, and she is shown wringing water from her hair, which is gathered in a tress in front of her chest. This act serves as a testament to the merit of the Blessed One.
This representation of Vasundhara is quite prevalent in Arakanese Buddhist art. To this day, the tradition when meritorious ceremonies are held the donor concludes the event by dropping droplets of water from a cup, while the presiding monk offers prayers for the merit that has been accomplished. This act signifies the acknowledgement of Mother Earth as a witness to these deeds.
The Mudra of the Enlightened Buddha is frequently seen in Buddhist Iconography depicting the eight main events in the life of the Buddha leading up to his enlightenment.