This study identifies and classifies the Buddha images of the Pāla period (ca. eighth-twelfth centuries) of eastern India and Bangladesh. Specifically, the study examines the number of hands—whether a single pair or multiple pairs—hand gestures, and hand-held attributes of the Buddha images, and analyzes these elements in relation to the essential teachings of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism.
It is well known that in Buddhist art deities and personages are represented with a variety of distinguishing characteristics. These include facial and anatomical features, attire and ornamentation, skin color, and various types of attendants. These features individualize the beings, contribute to their meaning and symbolism, and make them recognizable to the Buddhist practitioner. Among these distinguishing features, hand gestures and hand-held attributes comprise the most important “keys” to decoding the communicative content of Buddhist imagery. The study’s findings suggest that hands, gestures, and hand-held attributes, are not only iconographic features that identify figures, but, indeed, are vital means through which notions of Buddhahood, the ultimate goal of Mahāyāna Buddhism, are visually communicated.
The Pāla-period artistic remains provide the richest and most historically well-documented corpus of Mahāyāna Buddhist art from India, and is, therefore, ideal for this study. About 963 Buddha images among the known Pāla artistic corpus serve as the primary documents for the study. A detailed analysis of these images reveals patterns among Buddha figures that are two-armed versus those that have four or more hands, and among Buddhas that make hand gestures versus those that both make hand gestures and hold attributes.
The patterns that emerged from the analysis of the Buddha images suggest that the number of hands, hand gestures, and hand-held attributes of a Buddha articulate aspects of Buddha nature. Specifically, they identify the multiple bodies in which Buddhahood manifests and communicate the Buddha bodies’ realms of influence. The study’s findings also show that, as markers of the embodiments of Buddha nature and as indicators of the place and period of a Buddha’s activity, hand gestures, hand-held attributes, and the number of hands of Buddha figures, ultimately, correlate with the stages of an individual’s self-transformation from the mundane samsaric condition, to the awakened state of a fully realized Buddha.