I will never see my hands and fingers in the same light again. Many cultures and religions consider that everything in the universe, including humans, are made up of the elements of fire, air, earth, water and (often) space/ether/spirit. Even so, I had not made the connection between the elements and our fingers, and in particular with mudras – those elegant and powerful gestures commonly associated with Buddhism, Yoga (e.g. Raja and Hatha) and Indian dance and drama.
That was until I saw the following image during an on-line search – it really made an impression. The image shows the relationship between the fingers and the Five Elements, from an Indian perspective. The order of the elements was different on at least one website I found where the thumb represented Space, the index finger Air, the middle finger Fire, and so on. For the purpose of this post, the order of the elements is not as important as their connection to our fingers and hands.
According to the Brahmadivya Sadhana Kendra website:
“The purpose of a mudra is to activate and create a circuit of prana in the body. This circuit channels the prana in a specific way to create subtle effects and beneficial changes in different parts of the body system. People fold their fingers in various mudras. It is little known however that Mudra science is tattva yoga. Tattva Yoga is based on science of elements.”
Prana is a sanskrit word meaning ‘constant motion’. It is referred to as the universal or original life force and has been described as the energy responsible for the body’s life, heat and maintenance. Energy and its flow is a constant theme in my exploration of the elements. The observation that the way we hold and use our hands influences the flow of energy through the body, and that it is related to the elements, is intriguing.
Carroll and Carroll (2012) explain that the influence of Vedic Wisdom, that describes the relationship between the five fingers and the Five Elements, is seen in many of the classic disciplines of India: dance, theatre, architecture, painting, medicine (Ayurveda), martial arts and yoga. As I am starting to find in many cultures and belief systems, the presence and influence of the elements are almost everywhere. It seems that in the classical arts of India the mudras are as well.
In China, the shaman kings (Wu) are reported to have viewed the human hand as the most poignant examples of the five fundamental principles: Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Air (Carroll and Carroll 2012). These principles are commonly referred to as the Five Elements/Phases, with the thumb representing Earth, the index finger Metal, the middle finger Fire, the ring finger Wood and the little finger Water. Like they described in India, Carroll and Carroll (2012) go on to write that these relationships, and the character of each finger based on the theory of the Five Elements, are woven into the philosophy and practice in China of all the traditional arts: calligraphy, Traditional Chinese medicine, astrology, martial arts, tea culture, classical music, dance and theatre.
Chinese culture has historically had a major influence on Japan. Currently I am trying to tease out the way that this influence, and that of Buddhism, has uniquely expressed itself in the way the elements are represented and understood in this country. A relevant lead that I am following is the Mudra of the Six Elements (Japanese = Rokukai ろくかい) practiced by the Esoteric Buddhist Sects.
In Esoteric Buddhism in Japan, the Five Elements (Japanese = Godai) are combined with one additional element, the mind or consciousness, to make a total of six. Statues or paintings of Dainichi Buddha, the central deity of Esoteric Buddhism, often portray Dainichi with a characteristic hand gesture called the Mudra of Six Elements (Chiken-in 智拳印), in which the index finger of the left hand is clasped by the five fingers of the right. This mudra symbolizes the unity of the five worldly elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space) with a six element, spiritual consciousness. (This information comes from a comprehensive website on Japanese Buddhist statuary. If that’s a topic of interest to you, it is definitely worth a look).
Other recently discovered examples from Japan of the relationship between fingers and the elements include the hand gestures of ninja and the ritual practices of Shugendo, an ancient religion founded on mountain aestheticism.
India, China, Japan – all with the elements at their fingertips; each with a different relationship depending on the cultural context. Where else might this connection be found, one might ask? I would love to hear from readers with additional information.
(For those interested in the related topic of feet and the elements, please see my post ‘Feet, energy and the elements‘).