Earth touching mudra

The Buddha sitting and touching the earth with one hand is a well known image, and the accompanying story tells us that at the eve of his awakening, he called the earth for witness of his former lives and deeds.

There is no mention of this story anywhere in the Suttas, as far as I can find. Does anyone know when and where it first appears? Ayya @Suvira maybe? Thanks in advance!


One place is the Nidanakatha:

Honestly, I think everyone should spend time reading the whole thing.

This seems to be a popular hand position across many cultures:


I’m not an expert on Mara! It’s not in the canon, and it’s not in the Lalitavistara or Buddhacarita, either. I don’t know if it’s in the Abhiniskrama Sutra, the 佛本行集經 in Chinese, but that’s @cdpatton’s area.

The earth-touching mudra seems to show up in art by the 9th century in the Pala period. The Nidanakatha could easily be the first textual reference.

This article by Ananda Guruge is informative, but not 100% certain about his interpretation of some art from the Gandharan period.


Why not? Perhaps you should! (Try out the “Mara” theme in Bilara—I use it and am happy with it! :darth_vader: :wink:)

Thanks everybody for your help!

While the Jatakas are on SuttaCentral, the Nidanakatha is not. Why? Bhante @sujato?

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There’s a Han-era avadāna, the *Cārya-nidāna (修行本起經; T 184) translated in 197 AD, that has the earth touching episode in the story. That’s the earliest dating I know of. I remember mainly because someone asked me to translate the passage for them a year or two ago.


Yes that was me, and the paper of which it’s a part is still in process with the journal. It’s hard to say for sure which is the earliest textual example of the gesture, but probably that’s one of the earliest.


This Cambodian mural depicts the present Buddha employing the bhumisparsa mudra, accompanied by a bull, which symbolizes the earth element in Indian and western astrology. In MN 28 a distinctive property is attributed to the earth element in that it is stable and incapable of provocation in the way the other three elements are and must be acted on by one of the others. This indicates when personified it could provide an impartial decision in the way the earth goddess does in the awakening story.


Thank you for this. Would you be able to explain the symbolism of the other hand gestures and animals too?


No, but I’m prepared to take further photos of closeups of the mudras and publish them here for anyone who’s interested in researching them. The extent of my observation reveals that the second animal is a dragon, and the five animals excepting the tortoise are from the Chinese zodiac. They run yin, yang, tortoise, yin, yang. So the tortoise has a balancing function. The five Buddhas are from the present Bhadrakalpa group.


Interesting. :smiley: @paul1 are you able to explaine the other animals represented in this mural?


No but the five Buddhas are Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa, Gautama, Maitrea. Anyone interested in the Jatakas may be able to make a connection with the animals. The present Buddha’s birthday is given as May 8th which is in the middle of Taurus the bull (earth sign).


The practical application of the elements is in the awareness of the whole body in the first tetrad, and the induction of a sense of pleasure in the second tetrad of the Anapanasati sutta. There the identification of the experience of the elements not only as body parts and processes (MN 140) but also as feelings is an advantage in creating balance if one or other element is found to be in excess.

It could be that the Mahavastu is earlier than the Nidanakatha. The story, again with Mara, appears on page 313:

Then the Bodhisattva with his bright and webbed right hand struck the ground. The whole world quaked six times and there was a fearful roar.

The probably slightly later Lalitavistara features its own version in chapter 21:

He now let his right hand slide over his entire body and then gracefully tapped on the
earth […] He then spoke this verse:

“This earth supports all beings; / She is impartial and unbiased toward all, whether moving or still. / She is my witness that I speak no lies; / So may she bear my witness.”

As soon as the Bodhisattva touched this great earth, it shook in six different ways. It quivered, trembled, and quaked, and it boomed, thundered, and roared.


I have found out the specific role of the tortoise, it represents the balance point, and the yin/yang forces on either side of it represent the more or less evenly opposed opposition between asuras and devas in daily life.

“The gods, who had become weakened as a result of a curse by the irascible sage Durvasas, invited the asura s to help them recover the elixir of immortality, the amrita , from the depths of the cosmic ocean. Mount Mandara—a spur of Mount Meru, the world axis—was torn out to use as a churning stick and was steadied at the bottom of the ocean by Vishnu in his avatar (incarnation) as the tortoise Kurma. The asura s held the head of the naga (half-human, half-cobra) Vasuki, who was procured for a churning rope, and the gods held his tail. When Vasuki’s head vomited forth poison that threatened to fall into the ocean and contaminate the amrita , the god Shiva took it and held it in his throat, a feat that turned his throat blue.”—Encyclopedia Brittanica

This event “Churning the Ocean of Milk” is important in Cambodian culture as it is a repeated subject in sculpture. This ‘tug- of- war’ explains the ups and downs of daily life. It represents the churning of the dualistic mind and the search for a balance point.

Churning sea of milk

Churning milk. The tortoise represents the balance point at the base of the stick:

This discussion has helped me understand this subject, sculptures of which are often seen and are somewhat monotonous in design.

get this paper, quite helpful

In MN 28 a distinctive property is attributed to the earth element in that it is stable and incapable of provocation in the way the other three elements are and must be acted on by one of the others

This is interesting.
In pancajina system of Tantra, Buddha Aksobhya in eastern direction employ Bhumisparsa mudra. Aksobhya means immovable. His pure land is Abhirati, and it was said that the prerequisite to be born there is to eliminate anger.
Also, the animal vehicle of Aksobhya is elephant.

I think this may draw from same legend / symbology

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I don’t see any connection with the Indian system, but according to Chinese 5 elements/phases the directional orientation is from west (Rooster/ Metal) to east (Tiger/ Wood), indicating the progression from past to future.

In MN 28 a distinctive property is attributed to the earth element in that it is stable and incapable of provocation in the way the other three elements are and must be acted on by one of the others

This has links with the Chinese concept where “Earth can be seen as a transitional period between the other phases or seasons.” In the mural the Dragon and Ox are Earth elements, and the Tortoise is not a zodiac animal, but represents the still point or balance, as the cosmos was said to ride on the back of a tortoise. When the lateral movement past > future is combined with this centralizing feature, a rotational effect results. However MN 28 describes Water acting on Earth, whereas the Chinese describes Earth as “destroying” Water, so these systems are country specific :

Five elements