Monday, 4 July 2011

Symbolism of the Lotus

Symbolism of the Lotus

by Mantra & shlokas on Friday, December 24, 2010 at 12:17pm

he lotus flower has its roots in the mud but blooms above the water without becoming wet or tainted by the mire below. It is thus a natural symbol for the person seeking release (moksa), who should live in the world without attachment. It is an important symbol in mythology, religion, art and architecture in India, Egypt, and across Asia. It's symbolism includes; the sun, rebirth, devine manifestation, creation, compassion, beauty, prosperity, faithulness, fertility, eternity, purity, divinity, the chakras - or centers of consciousness of the body, the womb... the list is endless. Scripture indicates at least a 6,000-year association of the lotus with Hindu culture and religion. It is given profound significance in mythology, epics, scriptures, Sanskrit literature and historical records, and it is the prevailing motif in sculptures, temple carvings, architecture, paintings and cave murals. From early imagery in stone at Sanchi , of the first century BC in India, the lotus is associated with Sri, the goddess of fertility, who is later invoked as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and abundance - being worshipped by Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus alike. The form of the lotus is seen in ancient and contemporary architecture. Today, it is the national flower of India. Its easy to see why the lotus posture (padmasana) is given such an important place in our Yoga practice.

The Lotus in Hinduism
The relationship of the lotus flower with Hinduism extends beyond the recorded history of both the plant and the religion itself. The first fossilized record of the lotus has been recorded from the Pleistocene epoch of Kashmir and subsequently from early Tertiary rock of India.

Brahma on lotus from Vishnu's navel

The flower is said to be the center of the universe. There is a story that it arose from the navel of God Vishnu, and at the center of the flower sat Brahma. Each of the three Brahminical deities, Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Protector) and Siva (the Merger) are associated with this plant. The Story recounts that:
" ...before time began there was no heaven, no earth and no space between. A vast dark ocean washed upon the shores of nothingness and licked the edges of night. A giant cobra floated on the waters. Asleep within its endless coils lay the Lord Vishnu. He was watched over by the mighty serpent. Everything was so peaceful and silent that Vishnu slept undisturbed by dreams or motion. From the depths a humming sound began to tremble, Om. It grew and spread, filling the emptiness and throbbing with energy. The night had ended. Vishnu awoke. As the dawn began to break, from Vishnu's navel grew a magnificent lotus flower. In the middle of the blossom sat Vishnu's servant, Brahma. He awaited the Lord's command. Vishnu spoke to his servant: 'It is time to begin.' Brahma bowed. Vishnu commanded: 'Create the world.' A wind swept up the waters. Vishnu and the serpent vanished. Brahma remained in the lotus flower, floating and tossing on the sea. He lifted up his arms and calmed the wind and the ocean. Then Brahma split the lotus flower into three. He stretched one part into the heavens. He made another part into the earth. With the third part of the flower he created the skies. The earth was bare. Brahma set to work. He created grass, flowers, trees and plants of all kinds. To these he gave feeling. Next he created the animals and the insects to live on the land. He made birds to fly in the air and many fish to swim in the sea. To all these creatures, he gave the senses of touch and smell. He gave them power to see, hear and move. The world was soon bristling with life and the air was filled with the sounds of Brahma's creation." (from: "A Hindu Creation Story")
The lotus is thus connected with Vishnu, one of whose names is, accordingly, padma-nabha, lotus-naveled. One of the appellations for Brahma is lotus-born [abja-ja, abja-yoni, etc.).

Lakshmi in her various forms
Vishnu's consort and feminine aspect, Lakshmi, at her birth surged forth from the ocean standing upon the white lotus, which is her emblem. Lakshmi is the symbol of eternal being and is patron of wealth and good fortune. As the mother of the world, she is eternal and imperishable; just as Vishnu is all pervading, so also is she omnipresent. Maha Lakshmi brings prosperity, purity, chastity and generosity. She is the embodyment beauty, grace and charm. She sits on a fully bloomed pink lotus as Her divine seat, and holds a lotus in Her right hand. A garland of 108 lotus seeds is today used for the worship of Lakshmi.

As we saw with Vishnu and Brahma, most Hindu Deities have names inspired by or associated with the lotus, most especially Lakshmi. She is commonly called:

Padma, "lotus-hued;"
Padmini, "possessing Lotus;"
Padmesthita, "standing on Lotus;"
Padmavarna, "Lotus colored;"
Padmasambhava, "Lotus born;"
Padmakshi, "eyes like Lotus;"
Padmanana, "face like Lotus;"
Sarasijanilaya, "dwells in lotus;"
Padmapriya, "fond of Lotus"
and Padmahasta, "holds a Lotus in her hand."
Gods and Goddesses seated on the lotus
From earliest times, the lotus is fashioned either as a seat or as a pedestal on which divine or sacred beings rest in a sitting or standing posture. Brahma appears seated on Vishnu's navel lotus. The three great gods of the Hindu triad, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, with their respective wives, Sarasvati, Parvati, and Lakshmi, as well as Agni, god of fire, Pavanna, god of wind, Ganesa, god of wisdom, Vishnu's incarnation Rama, and the demon Ravana, are all found represented on a lotus seat. Vishnu, in addition, regularly holds a lotus in one of his four hands. A lotus pedestal also serves as a stand for images of the god Indra, of Vishnu and nearly all his incarnations, and of the sun god Surya. In Sri Lanka the lotus pedestal also supports Shiva, Parvati, and Kubera, god of wealth, and in Tibet it serves as a base for Sarasvati, goddess of learning.

And virtually every God and Goddess of Hinduism--Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati, Durga, Agni, Ganesha, Rama and Surya--are typically shown sitting on the lotus, often holding a lotus flower in their hand. The lotus which serves thus as the seat of the Deity, signifying their divinity and purity, is called padmasana or kamalasana.

The Lotus of the Heart
Hindu scriptures say that the Atman dwells in the lotus within the heart. Visualize within yourself a lotus, centered right within the center of your chest, right within your heart. Try to mentally feel and see the heart as a lotus flower right within you. Within the center of the lotus, try to see a small light. Hindu scriptures state that the Atman within the heart looks like a brilliant light about the size of your thumb--just a small light. This light is an emanation of your effulgent being. It is dwelling right within. The Self God is deeper than that. The lotus is within the heart, and the Self God dwells deep within that lotus of light.
The Lotus in Buddhism

Buddha sitting in Padmasana on a lotus throne
Lord Buddha is said to have been born on a lotus leaf, and the lotus followed the spread of Buddhism to China and Japan. For Buddhists, lotus symbolizes the most exalted state of man--his head held high, pure and undefiled in the sun, his feet rooted in the world of experience. A manifestation of the myth of divine lotus birth is thought to be the myth which invests Buddha with the miraculous power of imprinting the image of a lotus flower on the earth with every step that he took. The Lotus is one of the Eight Auspicious Buddhist Symbols and symbolizes faithfulness.
Once Buddha began to be represented in sculpture, his image was constantly depicted as sitting cross-legged on a lotus seat, or occasionally standing on a lotus pedestal. The use of the lotus seat has been extended to images of bodhisattvas not only in India but in Buddhist countries beyond its borders. Thus, Manjusri is represented sitting in this way not only at Sarnath, near Benares, but also in Java and Tibet. In a modern Tibetan picture Maitreya is depicted on a lotus seat, and the figure of a Persian bodhisattva sitting on a seat adorned with lotuses and painted on a wooden panel was discovered by M.A. Stein during his first expedition to Central Asia. In China the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara appears sitting on a lotus seat, and in Nepal standing on a lotus pedestal. The lotus is intimately connected with this bodhisattva, for he is represented as bom from a lotus, and he regularly holds a lotus in his hand, whence his appellation Padmapani, or lotus-handed. Moreover, the Buddhist chant Om Mani Padme Hum (praise the jewel in the lotus! Amen), which in the present is the most sacred prayer of the Buddhists in Tibet, referes to Avalokitesvara. The persistence of this application of the lotus is indicated by the fact that it appears not only in modern Indian brass images of Hindu gods but even in seated portraits of maharajas of the 19th century.

Green Tara holding blue lotus buds
Significantly, the color of the lotus too has an important bearing on the symbology associated with it:

* White Lotus (Skt. pundarika; Tib. pad ma dkar po): This represents the state of spiritual perfection and total mental purity (bodhi). It is associated with the White Tara and proclaims her perfect nature, a quality which is reinforced by the color of her body.
* Red Lotus (Skt. kamala; Tib: pad ma chu skyes): This signifies the original nature and purity of the heart (hrdya). It is the lotus of love, compassion, passion and all other qualities of the heart. It is the flower of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
* Blue Lotus (Skt. utpala; Tib. ut pa la): This is a symbol of the victory of the spirit over the senses, and signifies the wisdom of knowledge. Not surprisingly, it is the preferred flower of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.
* Pink Lotus (Skt. padma; Tib. pad ma dmar po): This the supreme lotus, generally reserved for the highest deity. Thus naturally it is associated with the Great Buddha himself.
The Lotus Sutra
The Lotus Sutra is considered by many to be the ultimate teaching of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, in which he reveals the truth of his own enlightenment and paves the way for all the people of the world to do likewise. It is the second of three sutras, the entire work being The Threefold Lotus Sutra. The three sections are: The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law and The Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. The Lotus Sutra was originally written in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit, the name of the Lotus Sutra is "Saddharma Pundarika Sutra". It was translated several times into Chinese in the 3rd-5th centuries A.D. The Lotus Sutra does not appear to have become a central object of faith/practice in India as it did in China and later in Japan.
More information on the Lotus and its Symbolism:

A Hindu Creation Story
"God's Favorite Flower ," Hinduism today
"The Lotus,," Theosophy Library Online.
"The Legend of the Blue Lotus," Theosophy, Vol. 16, No. 8, June, 1928:
The Goddess Lakshmi
Symbolism of the Lotus
Lotus Dieties
The Lotus Sutra Translated by Burton Watson
The Lotus Sutra, translation by H. Kern
"The Lotus Stalk," - a jataka tale
Padmasana instruction from the Yoga Journal

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