We know that there are different types of mudrās in yoga, as well as in the practices of pūjā. What is common between them and what is the difference?
Let’s start with the grammatical meaning of the term. मुद्रा / mudrā originates from the root मुद् / mud, which could be of two classes. The first class चुरादिः / curādiḥ treats मुद् / mud as संसर्ग / saṃsarga – ‘mixing, unification’, which may in the sense coincide with the meaning of the terms ‘yoga’ or ‘bandha’ (binding, unification). Another class is भ्वादिः / bhvādiḥ, in which the root मुद् is interpreted as हर्ष / harṣa – ‘joy’. That could shed light on the understanding of mudrās in general, in spite of all their differences.
Then, what could be considered as mudrās? Firstly, there are yogic mudrās, such as mahāmudrā, mahābandha, etc. Secondly, there are hand mudrās, which are mostly used in pūjās in India. Thirdly, the mudrās as certain states of consciousness, for example, khecarī–mudrā as continuous awareness, not as curling of the tongue back into the mouth above the palate. Although some of these mudrās may have names similar to ones in haṭha-yoga, but mudrā could be a state of consciousness, let’s say, as mahāmudrā in Buddhism. Fourthly, various forms of the Goddesses are called mudrās. Fifthly, money with certain images, signatures on documents, certain signs that convey some important meaning are called mudrās. Sixthly, certain attributes are sometimes called mudrās. For instance, in the Vaiṣṇava Śrī Sampradāya such attributes, as a sacred thread (yajñopavīta), ashes (bhasma), skull (kapāla) and others, are also called mudrās. Or, in the Nātha Sampradāya – earrings, symbolising the archetype of Śiva, are also sometimes called mudrās. The attributes, which are hold by Deities are also sometimes called mudrās. Seventhly, in Kaśmīr Śaivism, Abhinavagupta divides mudrās into three categories: 1) performed by the body (dehodbhava) mentioned above, 2) states of consciousness (manobhava), which were also mentioned above, 3) he also names mantras, as vaghava–mudrā.
For further clarification, I would like to give one more example, this time from a Western tradition. Some Greek philosophers, Aristotle, Plato for instance, had such a view regarding the genesis that there is the supreme consciousness or spirit, and there is an inert and lifeless matter. So, when the supreme consciousness comes into contact with that matter, then forms reflecting the paramount plan of the Creator arise. I think, it considers the meaning of the term ‘mudrā’ in a right way. Each created form is a transmitter and a reflection of the supreme consciousness, therefore everything in the world is arranged, everything interacts with everything and everything is in its place. That very well reflects a concept such as ṛta from the Vedas or the later one – dharma. When you peer into the essence of phenomena, through that you can come to the awareness from an ultimate source.
So, what do all these mudrās have in common, despite all the differences? All of them contain a certain, highly significant archetype. Even if we practise, for instance, such mudrās as mahāmudrā from haṭha-yoga or viparītakaraṇī, these are not just body poses. Of course, nowadays, most haṭha-yoga practitioners utilise these practices without any attempt to go deeper into their essence. But, if you take a look at the descriptions of all yoga techniques, then the mudrās are described in a poetic, colorful language there, and very few people understand that we can meditate on the very description of these methods. Thus, jānu-śīrṣāsana ceases to be just a body pose, when you realise that one leg represents the solar channel and the other – the lunar one, etc.
Probably, you know that sometimes we can understand each other without words, on the level of gestures or glance. Why is that so? Because, all these levels transmit the meaning and precisely that element of ‘meaning’, especially when it comes to the ultimate meaning, makes them all mudrās. So, the speech that has become logos, which tries to convey a very high meaning, becomes both a mantra and a mudrā. A nāth, who wears kuṇḍalas (attributes of Śiva), wears them realising himself as Śiva and he never takes them off, since they are forever, eternal, just like Śiva himself. Kuṇḍalas are a symbol of your meditation, or of something that is beyond sleep, wakefulness, and generally any worldly change. Although of course, not everyone knows that meaning, even among those who receive and wear them. Unfortunately, that is not explained to everyone who receives them. And if there is something high and meaningful, you never remain indifferent, and if that is really so, then you cannot be insincere. A mudrā is something that affects you very deeply, you can attain samādhī and samādhī itself could also be a mudrā. If it is a level of essentiality, the differences are conditional there. A mudrā instantly makes you both attentive and responsible. For example, you signed an agreement that you will be going to work at a certain time, put a signature there. It connects you with something, because there is also bandhana. But, this bandha does not have a negative meaning, because the other meaning of the root and the term as a whole is something that gives joy. If there is a high meaning and the joy associated with it, then it becomes a practice of mudrā. Hand mudrās, with which you resonate with deities, thereby creating a subtle and deep channel of communication, work on the same principle. That is the use of the essential meaning displayed in a sign, in this case, performed by various positions of hands. If there is a mantra, and you engage with it and get into its higher meaning, then it becomes mudrā too. If mudrās activate a connection with the Divine in you, that connection gives you perfections, therefore it is believed that mudrās grant siddhis.