The 32 Signs of a Great Man (mahā purisa lakkhaṇa) are auspicious marks that are supposed to be present on the bodies of all Buddhas. Although only incidental to Buddhism, this idea is the theme of three discourses (D.II,142; M.II,133; Sn.103) and is mentioned briefly in several others. The idea of the Signs has its origins in Brahmanism and was incorporated into Buddhism at a later period for reasons that are not clear. Some of the Signs, like the long tongue, the blue eyes, the golden complexion and the ensheathed penis, were probably connected with the ancient Indian concept of idealized physical beauty. Others are so strange, grotesque even, that it is difficult to know what to make of them.
When the seer Asita came to visit the new born Buddha-to-be, Siddhattha Gotama, he mentions that he sees the signs or marks of a great man and lists some of them. This confirms that this concept is a pre-Buddhist idea.
It is very clear from the Tipitaka that the Buddha's physical appearance was normal in every way. When King Ajātasattu went to meet him he was unable to distinguish him from the disciples surrounding him (D.I,50). If the Buddha had any of the 32 Signs the king would have recognized him immediately. Pukkasāti sat talking to the Buddha for hours before realizing who he was (M.III,238). If the Buddha had any of the Signs the young man would have soon noticed it and known that he was someone unusual. When Upaka encountered the Buddha walking along the road to Gaya the thing he noticed most about him was 'clear faculities and radiant complexion' (M.I,170). He did not mention seeing any of the 32 Signs.
In the Buddha's teachings, the external and the physical are always subordinate to the internal and the psychological (S.I,169). The Buddha was aware of the Brahmanical concept that a ‘great man' could be known by his physical characteristics and he rejected this notion. Someone once asked him: ‘They talk about a ‘great man,' a ‘great man.' But what is it that makes a great man?' The Buddha replied: ‘It is by freeing the mind that someone becomes a great man. Without freeing the mind one cannot be a great man' (S.V,157).
Complete list of the 32 Marks or signs of a Great Man
- He has feet with a level sole (Pali: supati thapado). Note: "feet with level tread,/ so that he places his foot evenly on the ground,/ lifts it evenly,/ and touches the ground evenly with the entire sole." (Lakkhana Sutta)
- He has the mark of a thousand-spoked wheel on the soles of his feet (Pali: he thapadatalesu cakkani jatani).
- He has projecting heels (Pali: ayatapa ni).
- He has long fingers and toes (Pali: digha nguli).
- His hands and feet are soft-skinned (Pali: mudutalahathapado).
- He has netlike lines on palms and soles (Pali: jalahathapado).
- He has high raised ankles (Pali: ussa nkhapado).
- He has taut calf muscles like an antelope (Pali: e nimigasadisaja ngho).
- He can touch his knees with the palms of his hands without bending. (Pali: thitako va anonamanto).
- His sexual organs are concealed in a sheath (Pali: kosohitavatguyho).
- His skin is the color of gold (Pali: suva n nava no). "His body is more beautiful than all the gods." (Lakkhana sutta)
- His skin is so fine that no dust can attach to it (Pali: sukhumacchavi).
- His body hair are separate with one hair per pore (Pali: ekekalomo).
- His body hair are blue-black, the color of collyrium, and curls clockwise in rings. (Pali: uddhagalomo).
- He has an upright stance like that of brahma (Pali: brahmujugatto).
- He has the seven convexities of the flesh (Pali: satusado). Note: "the seven convex surfaces,/ on both hands, both feet, both shoulders, and his trunk." (Lakkhana Sutta)
- He has an immense torso, like that of a lion (Pali: sihapuba dhakayo).
- The furrow between his shoulders is filled in (Pali: pitantara mso).
- The distance from hand-to-hand and head-to-toe is equal (Pali: nigrodhaparima n dalo). Note: incidentally, these are also the ideal proportions according to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
- He has a round and smooth neck (Pali: samva d dakhando).
- He has sensitive taste-buds (Pali: rasagasagi).
- His jaw is like that of lion's (Pali: sihahanu).
- He has a nice smile
- His teeth are evenly spaced (Pali: samadanto).
- His teeth are without gaps in-between (Pali: avira ladanto).
- His teeth are quite white (Pali: sukadanto).
- He has a large, long tongue (Pali: pahutajivho).
- He has a voice like that of Brahma (Pali: brahmasaro hiravikabha ni).
- He has very blue eyes (Pali: abhi nila netto). Note 1: "very (abhi) blue (nila) eyes (netto)" is the literal translation. Nila is the word used to describe a sapphire and the color of the sea, but also the color of a rain cloud. It also defines the color of the Hindu God Krishna. Note 2: "His lashes are like a cow's; his eyes are blue./ Those who know such things declare/ 'A child which such fine eyes/ will be one who's looked upon with joy./ If a layman, thus he'll be/ Pleasing to the sight of all./ If ascetic he becomes,/ Then loved as healer of folk's woes.'" (Lakkhana Sutta)
- He has eyelashes like an ox (Pali: gopa mukho).
- He has a white soft wisp of hair in the center of the brow (Pali: una loma bhamukantare jata). Note: this became the symbolic urna.
- His head is like a royal turban (Pali: u nahisiso). Note that this denotes his cranial protrusion, visible on Buddhist iconography.