The use of mudras has been widely mentioned throughout the tantra shastras, in yogic literature, and they have been an integral part of traditional arts and dance for centuries. There are innumerable types and forms of mudras. Different traditions, schools of philosophy and systems of sadhana utilize various groups of mudras to attain specific goals such as physical and mental well being, emotional expression, invocation of deities for worship and altering the deeper layers of consciousness. The use of mudras is a powerful key for linking the material and psychic realms.
Even though every tantric text has its own set of mudras which seek to achieve a particular aim, fundamentally, mudras create a link between the gross body and the psyche, a tool which connects one with one’s subtle nature. Mudra sensitises the mind to the experiences of pranamaya kosha, the pranic body. In meditation, certain mudras like jnana mudra and chin mudra are used which are simple and can be performed by everybody. There are many other mudras which are also used in meditation, in mantra, in anushthanas and worship. Every deity has a mudra for invocation, and even to invoke guru there is a particular mudra. The purpose of mudra is to express the inner experience. By practising mudras, the individual dwells on and tries to experience the indescribable meaning contained within a mudra. In this way it is possible to call up inner forces which otherwise lie hidden and dormant, and this is what makes mudra a powerful tool of tantra.
According to Kularnava Tantra, the literal meaning of the word mudra is ‘that which brings happiness’. The word ‘mudra’ comes from the root mudh, which means pleasant, to be happy, content, and at ease. In this context, mudra becomes that practice which brings a sense of ease and contentment in the body-mind unit. This is achieved by removing all the spikes and dissipations of prana and the corresponding negative states of mind. According to the linguists, the word ‘mudra’ also includes the word dravaya, which means to be compassionate or sympathetic. Thus, mudra implies becoming compassionate through delight or happiness. According to tantra, the devas, or gods, become compassionate towards a practitioner of mudra and they fulfil all the wishes and desires of such a sadhaka.
Mudras are the subtle physiological postures adopted by the body to alter the flow of prana within the physical body. In doing so, a link is created with the psyche and a psychological response is created or evoked within the psychic body. In this way, prana is the link between the external, physical body and the internal, psychic body. Mudras are a vital tool for accessing the spiritual realms within. They create a bridge between the external behaviour, function and performance of the body and the internal expression of the higher mind. Mudras can also be described as psychic, emotional, devotional and aesthetic gestures or attitudes. Just as the physical act of crying is the symbol of unhappiness, and dancing, singing and laughing are the physical expressions of happiness, the inner consciousness also has symbols, and these are mudras.
Mudras are not isolated to one type of technique or practice like asana, pranayama, bandha or kriya. They are a combination of subtle, physical movements that alter the mood, attitude and perception, and deepen one’s awareness and concentration. They can be defined in many ways according to their use and purpose. Yoga also considers mudras to be psychosomatic gestures which are used for various purposes within its branches. Hatha yoga uses a set of mudras to rectify the imbalances of prana. Meditation uses a set to induce greater concentration, focus and awareness. Raja yoga uses mudras to induce deeper, subtler and altered states of consciousness, where the thoughts and sentiments can be bypassed, and one can reach the state of shoonyata, the state of void beyond the mind.