Explained | What is 'abhaya mudra' that Rahul Gandhi referred to in his Parliament speech?

Known as 'abhaya mudra', the motif of an open palm (as if gesturing a person to stop) is common across many South Asian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
Last Updated : 02 July 2024, 05:04 IST

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In his first speech in the Lok Sabha as the Leader of Opposition (LoP), Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Monday ruffled many feathers by bringing up religion.

Among the many things he spoke of was 'abhaya mudra' or the motif of an open palm that he said was a common thread in all religions, depicted in portrayals of Lord Shiva, Jesus Christ, and Guru Nanak, and found as well in Jainism, and Buddhism.

Rahul in the Lok Sabha also drew a parallel between the 'abhaya mudra' motif and the palm symbol of the Congress.

While Rahul's comments and associated theatrics in the House irked many, it should be noted that this isn't the first time that the Congress leader has made this comparison.

According to a report by Indian Express, Rahul had made a similar comparison in January 2017, when, during a 'Jan Vedna Sammelan', he had spoken about finding the Congress' palm symbol in depictions of deities/prophets across religious, namely, in images of Lord Shiva, Buddha, Guru Nanak, Mahavira, and Hazrat Ali.

Incidentally, Rahul's remarks back then had invited ridicule, especially after the Congress leader said that he had Googled the meaning of his party's symbol.

"I was looking up the meaning of the Congress hand symbol. I saw the Congress party’s symbol in Shiv ji’s portrait. Then, I saw other photos. I saw Guru Nanak ji’s photo, there was the Congress’s sign. I saw Mahaveer ji, Buddha, Bhadrakaal… all had the Congress symbol… The symbol denotes that we should not get scared, be deterred by present circumstances," Rahul had said as per IE, and had gone on to cite multiple Congress government policies that he said were reflective of what the symbol stood for.

Rahul continued to bring up this comparison between the 'abhaya mudra' and the Congress symbol between September 2022 and January 2023, when he tried to posit an alternate Hindu identity as an oppositional idea to the Hindutva politics espoused by the Narendra Modi-led BJP.

What is abhaya mudra?

Known as abhaya mudra, the motif of an open palm (as if gesturing a person to stop) is indeed common across many South Asian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

Also called the 'fearlessness gesture' ('abhaya' in Sanskrit means fearlessness), the gesture symbolizes protection and peace and in yoga circles, is believed to help in promoting courage, and reducing fear and anxiety in people.

While common across many religions in South Asia, abhaya mudra most prominently features in Buddhism, and as per Stanford University, is particularly pronounced in Thailand and Laos, where it is associated with images of the walking Buddha.

Where did the gesture originate from?

In a newsletter titled Exotic India hosted on the Stanford University website, it is said that the gesture of an open palm pointed outwards appears to be a "natural gesture" that was "probably used from pre-historic times as a sign of good intentions—the hand raised and unarmed proposes friendship, or at least peace."

"Since antiquity, it was also a gesture asserting power, as with the magna manus of the Roman Emperors who legislated and gave peace at the same time," notes the article.

The motif, therefore, appears to have originated from a potentially universal gesture associated with human communication that eventually made its way into some of the major religions in South Asia.

In Buddhism, the abhaya mudra also has a legend associated with it: "Devadatta, a cousin of the Buddha, through jealousy caused a schism to be caused among the disciples of Buddha. As Devadatta's pride increased, he attempted to murder the Buddha. One of his schemes involved loosing a rampaging elephant into the Buddha's path. But as the elephant approached him, Buddha displayed the Abhaya mudra, which immediately calmed the animal. Accordingly, it indicates not only the appeasement of the senses, but also the absence of fear," the article explains.

While it is possible that the abhaya mudra or a similar gesture featured in Hinduism prior to Buddhism (given the ancient origins of both Hinduism and the gesture), DH could not credibly verify where the motif first appeared within the fold of Hinduism.

Published 02 July 2024, 05:04 IST

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