Mudras, Writing as Gesture and Appearance
An etymological similarity is capable of illuminating both the domain of the written word and the body as a means of communication.
I have been thinking for some time about how to write about mudras: those gestures that appear like exquisite rings on the hands of deities, dakinis and Buddhas across Asia. The thumb pushed against the palm of the hand to fight anger, or tucked in with the fingers extended in a sign of belligerence, clenched as a sign of hostility, or presenting them as fists crowned with swords or, in the amorous pose, with the remaining gesture of an exhausted caress, the harmonies and dances that accompany the recital of the sutras, graceful and gentle monuments that in their vacuity express the perfection of the bodhisattvas. To talk of mudras is to refer to a whole yoga practice based on the movement of the hands. My interest is in the importance of gestures; the resonances of words are just what give each of them their own semantic touch, just as the gestures and manners of a person can give them their “own” unmistakable presence.
There are words and people that, through their gestures, can attract us or make us uncomfortable. Very tall people make me nervous, for example. I am 5.5ft tall and I would rather look at a tall woman sitting down than standing up. The gestures that we make to others during a conversation are as important as the words we speak. An entire conversation could be carried out based exclusively on the chemistry of gestures and their codification in the here and now of the body. But, in daily life, hand gestures function more as signs of a discourse that mark the rhythm of an idea, and emphasize a metaphor or a joke, and which form a mask under which all of our intentions are marked.
The etymology of mudrā comes from the Sanskrit adjective for “happy” or “joyous” (similar to the Latin beatus, an adjective that is always close to sanctity and which means “joyful”), from the root mud, which is enjoyment. Depending on the moment and the place in which it is applied, the word mudrā can express different composite meanings, such as “seal” or “order of the king.” It is said that a mudra is the gesture that reinforces and executes the power of a leader; in this sense, a mudra is the act of signing a treaty, the moment and the gesture through which power is affirmed and achieves a transmutation of the matter, impregnating it with its plans.
In another context, a mudra is also the physical disposition that we present to another: a walking Buddha is often represented making a mudra of fear, that paradoxically presents its open hands to the observer, at shoulder height, with the palms parallel to the body, in a conciliatory attitude: despite the fact that the mind wanders and fear fires its poison darts, tools such as mudra, mantra and asana (gesture, chant and movement, respectively) guide us to momentarily create the emotional disposition that we need to face different situations in life.
Adding another meaning, the semantic generosity of the root mudrā extends to the fields of lithography, printing and the written page, the page sealed with characters that form the appearance of the page. If one looks for a printer in the Bengal or Delhi Yellow Pages, one should perhaps look for a “mudrā iantra alaia,” or printing workshop. William Burroughs used to say that the letters that make up words were, before being arbitrary signs to which we attribute consensual meanings, drawings; images linked together, and for that reason he exercised writing from the conception of text as a series of images whose precise organization defines the meaning as both a practical and technical aspect, in the case of writing, and sacred in the case of religions and spiritual practices of the Orient.
I would like to think that there is an evident and clear link between what a hand that writes does and what the same hand does when the mouth speaks: the hand, in the first case, is manipulating the pen; in the second instance, it is manually illustrating that which is emanating from the mouth. The hand movements are the materialization of a conscious and unconscious disposition of our mind and imagination, from the way we smoke a cigarette to the way we sit on a chair to give a conference. Latin speakers would even codify a system of hand gestures to accompany the edicts and orders of the consuls; in the TV series Rome it is possible to see how the town criers used gestures of solemn theatricality to inform and entertain their auditorium.
egarding the link to faith, we could consider what Saint Augustine said concerning the imitation of Christ or the Virgin Mary: from a lay (or ethical) point of view, the imitation of moral values is a subjective adaptation of an “ideal” model and which has a meaning in the life of the believer even beyond that of reference or evidence; which is why deities do not even need to get involved in the muddle of living to be adored and emulated. Litanies, prayers and other additions to moral Christian theology serve to not “invoke” the divinity, as with paganisms, but to acknowledge His presence. The idea is that the gestures of a believer and a person without faith, when praying, are indistinguishable: good actions speak for themselves, irrespective of attitudes. I know that the question is more complicated than that, but I am thinking about a koan that I once read about two Zen monks that prayed every day at a certain monastery. One of them maintained a joyful and relaxed appearance, while the other prayed with dedication and concentration to the point that his tiredness was visible. The “tired” monk asked the happy monk what was his secret of devotion, and he responded that the answer was very simple: “While you put your hands together to ask, brother, I put mine together to give thanks.”
We could come to imagine mudras as a kind of talisman in movement as, as with what happens with the order of objects, there are genuine talismans and there are trinkets for tourists. Neither do we offer the same gestures to all of the people around us. We have different postures, phrases and even voices to face our superiors, our parents or siblings, our partner and friends, as well as for ourselves. In their non-verbal aspect, gestures (or mudras) carried out using body language are not free of semantic complexity and studies into the subject have demonstrated their fundamental importance to human communication, and even beyond that of words.
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