Friday, November 17, 2017

Yoga Mudras in Orthodox Christian Art: Does it indicate a Hindu-Buddhist Influence?

Note: This article has been included as a chapter in Prof.Michael Lockwood's anthological book The Unknown Buddha of Christianity.

Yogic knowledge had spread far and wide in the ancient world. My research into the Olmec culture of Mesoamerica had revealed that the Olmecs were ardent practitioners of hatha yoga – a set of asanas or postures that balances and aligns the body, mind, and spirit. 

Quite unexpectedly, I also came to a startling realization: a large number of religious icons of the Orthodox Christian Church depict Jesus, Mary, and the saints performing hand-gestures which correspond exactly to specific yoga mudras. This suggests that, meditation using yoga mudras may have formed an essential part of the spiritual practices of the early Church.

Before proceeding further, let me briefly explain the concept of yoga mudras. Yoga mudras are generally regarded as a component of hatha yoga. They comprise of a set of hand-gestures performed during meditation. The hand-gestures direct the flow of the vital energy (prana) to the different parts of the body through the energy channels (nadis). This helps to balance the five elements (Pancha Mahabhutas) which constitute the human body, namely - fire, air, ether, earth, and water. In Ayurveda, it is believed that imbalances in these five elements results in various diseases. Yoga mudras not only regulate and strengthen the physiological functions of our body and assist in healing, but also provide a number of mental and spiritual benefits for the practitioner.

The following set of images illustrate the 11 yoga mudras that I was able to identify in Byzantine art. There must be many more mudras waiting to be found out.

1.    Prithvi Mudra

The Prithvi (Earth) Mudra is performed by touching the tip of the ring finger with the tip of the thumb. The mudra is very efficient at strengthening and healing the body. The mudra also activates the root chakra, which promotes a sense of stability and self-assurance. 
Fig 1: The Prithvi Mudra

2.    Prana Mudra

Prana Mudra is called the Mudra of Life. It is given immense importance in the yogic practice for it can heal more than a hundred different kinds of diseases and health conditions. 

The Prana (Vital energy) Mudra is formed by touching the tips of the ring finger and little finger with the tip of the thumb. The mudra increases the flow of prana in the body, which strengthens the immune system and gives the body the resilience to heal itself. The mudra activates the root chakra which promotes stability, calmness, and self-confidence. 

Fig 2: The Prana Mudra

3.    Apana Mudra

The Apana (Descending Vital energy) Mudra is formed by touching the tips of the ring finger and middle finger with the tip of the thumb. The mudra regulates the excretory systems of the body. It detoxifies and purifies the body, and also helps in digestion.
Fig 3: The Apana Mudra

4.    Karana Mudra

A variation of the Apana Mudra is called the Karana Mudra, in which the ring finger and middle finger are folded but their tips do not touch the tip of the thumb. Sometimes, the thumb might hold down the middle and ring finger. The Karana Mudra is believed to dispel negativity and obstacles, and ward off the evil eye. 

Although I could not find any representation of the Karana Mudra in Orthodox art, the mudra is still popular in Italy and some Mediterranean countries where it is called the Corna (phonetically very similar to Karana). The Corna has the same function as the Karana Mudra i.e. it wards off bad luck and offers protection in unlucky situations. In popular media, the Corna is sometimes interpreted as a "satanic symbol", which is quite certainly an idea propagated by people with hyperactive imaginations.
Fig 4: The Karana Mudra

5.    Shuni Mudra or Akasha Mudra

The Shuni (Saturn) Mudra or Akasha Mudra is performed by touching the tip of the middle finger with the tip of the thumb. The mudra generates awareness of our inner divine self, and promotes living in the present moment. It also encourages compassion, understanding and patience towards others.
Fig 5:  The Shuni Mudra or Akasha Mudra

6.    Dhyana Mudra

The Dhyana (Meditation) Mudra is performed by sitting in a cross-legged position (preferably padmasana or sukhasana) and placing the hands on the lap, one on top of the other, such that the thumbs touch at the tip. This mudra stills the mind and helps one to build the one-pointed focus which is essential for meditation.

This Byzantine icon of Jesus shows him meditating in the Dhyana Mudra posture, seated on a double-lotus under a mustard tree, with a conspicuous protuberance on top of his head. The Buddhist influence in this imagery is palpable. The Buddha is frequently shown seated in Dhyana Mudra on a double-lotus throne. While Jesus is seated under a mustard tree, the Buddha is often shown seated under a Bodhi Tree – the place of his enlightenment. The red protuberance on Jesus’s head corresponds to the topknot on Buddha’s head called ushnisha, which was represented as a crown-jewel radiating rays of light or as a flame signifying the Buddha’s spiritual power and illumination.
Fig 6:  The Dhyana Mudra

7.    Surya Mudra (Agni Mudra)

The Surya Mudra / Agni Mudra is performed by folding the ring finger and pressing the second phalanx with the base of the thumb. This mudra has a therapeutic effect on digestive disorders, and helps to lower body fat and bad cholesterol.
Fig 7:  The Surya Mudra / Agni Mudra

8.    Anjali Mudra

The Anjali Mudra is the “Namaste” gesture. It is formed by bringing the palms together in front of the chest, such that the thumbs rest lightly against the sternum. The mudra brings together the left and right hemispheres of the brain and makes us aware of our divine essence. This releases stress and anxiety, and promotes respect for others.
Fig 8:  The Anjali Mudra

9.    Abhaya Mudra

The Abhaya Mudra is performed by raising the hand with the palm facing outwards. This mudra is performed by deities and spiritual masters to dispel fear and afford divine protection to the devotees. The open palms radiate the silent will and vital energy of the spiritual master.
Fig 9:  The Abhaya Mudra

10.    Varada Mudra

The Varada Mudra is performed by holding out the hand, palm facing outwards, with the fingers pointing downwards. This is a boon-bestowing gesture, and symbolizes the act of bestowing blessings and charity. Like the Abhaya mudra, this mudra is performed by deities and spiritual masters, whose divine energies are directed outwards through the open palms. The Abhaya Mudra and Varada Mudra are often performed together, one with each hand.
Fig 10:  The Abhaya and Varada Mudra

11.   Ardhapataka Mudra

The final mudra in this list is the Ardha-pataka Mudra, which appears in both Orthodox and Buddhist art. In this mudra, the ring finger and little finger are folded while the others are kept upright. It is believed that performing the mudra enables people to free themselves from the nuisances in their lives. 

This mudra generally does not appear in the traditional list of yoga mudras, and its knowledge and practice seems to have been limited. The term Ardha-pataka is used for this mudra in the Indian classical dance, Bharatanatyam. It is possible that this mudra had a different name in the context of yogic practice in the ancient times.

Fig 11:  The Ardhapataka Mudra
Evidently, a large number of yoga mudras are depicted in the religious icons of the Orthodox Christian Church.  It is interesting that the term “Orthodox” means “right belief” and Orthodox Christians consider themselves to be the inheritors of the “true faith and Church” passed on in its purest form. They claim to have maintained the original teachings of the Apostles, and preserved the correct form of worshiping God. 

This implies that meditation using yoga mudras must have formed a core part of the spiritual practices propounded by Jesus and the Apostles. Most of the Orthodox icons were created from the 6th century AD till the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD. Therefore, the knowledge of these yoga mudras may have persisted within the Orthodox Church till the 15th century AD. In the present day, however, most scholars do not seem to be aware that these hand-gestures are yoga mudras, and instead refer to them generically as signs of blessing.

The relative abundance of the different yoga mudras in Orthodox art reveals that particular emphasis was placed on two specific yoga mudras – the Prithvi Mudra and the Prana Mudra – for they appear in the largest number of icons. While the Prithvi Mudra strengthens and heals the body, the Prana Mudra strengthens the immune system, which gives the body the resilience to heal itself. Both the mudras also activate the root chakra which promotes a sense of tranquility, stability, and self-assurance.

Since, both the Prithvi Mudra and the Prana Mudra are extremely effective “healing mudras”, it helps us to understand why they have been accorded so much importance in Orthodox art. The Gospel records tell us of the presence of a multitude of sick people in Palestine during the time of Jesus, and how they were brought in great numbers to Jesus to be healed. In fact, healing all manner of sickness and disease was characteristic of Jesus's ministry. It is possible, therefore, not only did Jesus heal the sick people, but he also taught about yoga mudras, so that they would remain healthy and energetic even when he was  gone

This indicates that, in its infancy, the Church did not draw a line between the east and the west, and instead adopted all those religious practices and customs which they felt would help their followers to lead healthy lives, and establish a closer communion with God. This also explains why a number of Christian rituals and customs overlap with those of Buddhism and Hinduism. For instance:
  • The rosary beads of the Church are the same as the japamala used by Hindus and Buddhists.
  • The holy water used by the Church Priest for baptism and blessings correspond to the sanctified water called amrita used for purification in the Hindu-Buddhist faiths.
  • The asceticism, prayer, meditation, fasting, and monastic life of the Eastern Orthodox priests is similar to that of Buddhist monks.
  • Some of the Eastern Orthodox monasteries, perched on the top of hills, are reminiscent of the Buddhist monasteries of the Himalayas.
  • The use of religious icons, and their worship by lighting candles and incense sticks, by the Orthodox Christians is very similar to the Hindu mode of worship.
Fig 12:  The Holy Trinity Monastery in Meteora, Greece.  Source:
Fig 13:  The Buddhist Monastery of Taung Kalat perched on top of Mount Popa in Myanmar (Burma). Source: Wikimedia Commons
The question is, when and how did the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and customs get incorporated into the Christian religious practices?

While there appears to have been long-standing contacts between the Indians and the Greeks since the time of Pythagoras and Plato, trade and cultural contacts along the Silk Route blossomed on an unprecedented scale after the conquests of Alexander. The Romans traded heavily with South India and Sri Lanka for luxuries, and there are a number of historical accounts of Buddhist monks and Indian philosophers being present in Alexandria and the countries around the Mediterranean, before and after the period of Christ. For instance:
1. In the third century BC, the Indian Emperor Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries as far as the Greek kings of the Mediterranean. In Rock Edict 13, Ashoka says: “Now it is conquest by Dhamma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best conquest. And it has been won here, on the borders, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule...”

Interestingly, one of the Buddhist missionaries named Dharmaraksita, who was sent by Ashoka to propagate the faith to the northwestern parts of India, has been described in the Buddhist historical texts, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, as being a Greek (Pali: “Yona” which means “Ionian”). This shows that the Greeks even took active roles in spreading Buddhism as leading missionaries.[1] 

2. Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period (305 BC – 30 BC) have been found in Alexandria in Egypt, decorated with depictions of the Dharma wheel, showing that Buddhists were living in Hellenistic Egypt at the time when Christianity began.[2] It was in Alexandria, located at the cross-roads commerce and cultural interactions, that some of the most active centers of Christianity were established. Historian Jerry H. Bentley notes “the possibility that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity”.

3. Roman historical accounts describe an embassy sent by the Indian king Porus to Caesar Augustus sometime between 22 BC – 13 AD. One of the members of this delegation was a Sramana (wandering monk of Buddhism / Jainism) who burned himself alive in Athens to demonstrate his faith. The event made a sensation, and was described by the Greek historian Nicolaus of Damascus who met the embassy at Antioch (Turkey) in 13 AD. 

Strabo states that, as per Nicolaus of Damascus, the following was inscribed on the tomb of the Sramana: “Zarmanochegas, an Indian, a native of Bargosa, having immortalized himself according to the custom of his country, here lies.”[3] These accounts indicate that Buddhist / Jain monks were circulating in the Levant during the time of Jesus.

4. Clement of Alexandria, a Christian theologian and Church Father of the second century AD (c.150 AD), was the first Greek to refer to the Buddha by name: “Among the Indians are those philosophers also who follow the precepts of Boutta (Buddha), whom they honor as a god on account of his extraordinary sanctity.”[4] 

Clement was also aware of the Indian philosophers called gymnosophists (whom Alexander had met in India), and writes that, “the Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sarmanæ (i.e. Sramana) and others Brahmins.”

5.The founder of the Neoplatonic school, Plotinus, was so serious about learning Indian philosophy that he took part in the military expedition against the King of Persia in the hope that it would bring him into the region. According to one tradition, Plotinus went to India in AD 242 expressly to study its philosophy. 

There is, in fact, a strong similarity between Neoplatonism and Vedanta and yoga systems. Neoplatonism also had many points in common with Buddhism, especially abstention from sacrifice and from eating meat. A doctrine similar to Neoplatonism later became part of Christian theology as reflected in the writings of the Egyptian St. Anthony, St. John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhardt, among others.[5] 
6. Scythianus was an Alexandrian religious teacher who visited India around 50 AD from where he brought the “doctrine of the Two Principles”.[6] Epiphanius mentions that Scythianus wrote four books: Mysteries, Treasure, Summaries, and a Gospel. He went to Jerusalem, where he disputed his doctrines with the Apostles. 

The account of Cyril of Jerusalem states that after Scythianus' death, his pupil Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judea, where he presented himself as a “Buddha”. This suggests a link between his philosophy and Buddhism. His books and knowledge were taken over by Mani, and became the foundation of the Manichean doctrine.[7] 
7. There were some contacts between the Gnostics and the Indians. The Syrian gnostic theologian Bar Daisan describes in the 3rd century AD his exchanges with the Indian Sramanas (wandering monks of Buddhism and Jainism), passing through Syria.[8] This has given rise to suggestions by Zacharias P. Thundy that Buddhist tradition may have influenced Gnosticism and hence Christianity.

Thus, there is no dearth of historical evidence that Sramanas i.e. Buddhist and Jain wandering monks were present in Alexandria and in the countries around the Mediterranean during the time when Christianity was in a nascent stage of evolution. This would explain the presence of so many yoga mudras in Orthodox art, as well as the overlaps between Christian theology and religious practices with that of Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism.

Unfortunately, the outlook of modern-day Church Priests towards yoga, and eastern spiritual practices in general, seems to be diametrically opposite to that of the founders of their faith. Every now and then, one hears of Catholic Priests who deem yoga to be “satanic”, a “sham”, “dangerous for the soul”, the “work of the devil”, and much more. It is alarming that such mindsets exist even in the 21st century, especially when yoga has been scientifically proven to confer many health benefits, and is at the forefront of many holistic healing techniques.

Such misgivings appear even more absurd when we realize that yoga mudras must have formed an essential part of the religious practice of the Church since the beginnings of Christianity. Going by the large numbers of Orthodox icons that depict Jesus and the Apostles performing yoga mudras, it would appear that the early Church actively enjoined its followers to practice yoga mudras to heal themselves. The legacy of yoga in Christianity needs to be explored and understood in order to dispel many irrational fears and doubts harbored by the leaders of the Church.

PS: Readers may be interested in an engaging article in The Wire written by my friend Devdan Chaudhuri, where he has discussed the implications of the Ardha-pataka Mudra depicted in Leonardo Da Vinci's Salvator Mundi.

End Notes
[1]"Encyclopaedia of Oriental Philosophy and Religion", ed. N.K.Singh, A.P.Mishra, Vol.8, Buddhism, Global Vision Puslishing House.
[2] W.W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India, South Asia Books.
[3] Strabo, Geography, Book XV, Chapter 1-73
[4] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata (Miscellanies), Book I, Chapter XV
[5] Susantha Goonatilake, Toward a Global Science: Mining Civilizational Knowledge (Indiana University Press, 1998) 29-31.
[5] Hippolytus (Romanus), 1716, pp. 190-192
[7] Cyril of Jerusalem, Sixth Catechetical Lecture Chapter 22-24
[8] Porphyry, De abstin., iv, 17 [3]