LOTUS . A poem from a twelfth-century anthology of Sanskrit court poetry, in which the poet visualizes the whole world in the form of a spreading lotus, suggests how comprehensive and intricate a symbol the lotus can be. In it, the lotus encompasses the worlds of gods and humans:
Its seed is the god Brahmā, its nectar are the oceans and its pericarp Mount Meru, its bulb the king of serpents and the space within its leaf-bud is the spreading sky; its petals are the continents, its bees the clouds, its pollen are the stars of heaven: I pray that he, the lotus of whose navel forms thus our universe, may grant you his defense. (Ingalls, 1965, p. 107)
It is especially in Indian art, literature, and religion that the lotus has been a frequent and central symbol. Indeed, lotus symbolism has accompanied Indian cultural influence wherever it has spread, especially in Southeast Asia and East Asia, where it is part of the symbolic language of Buddhism. But the lotus also appears as a symbol in East Asia without any obvious Indian connection, and in ancient Egypt.
The lotuses considered in this article are aquatic plants belonging to the Nymphaeaceae (water lily) and Nelumbonaceae families. They grow from rhizomes in the mud, and their leaves and blossoms float on the water or rise above its surface. Because the lotus grows out of water, early Indian tradition identified it with the waters (cf. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 220.127.116.11), with the creative and life-giving potential of the waters, and even with creation itself. So, for example, the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa (18.104.22.168–6), relates that at the beginning of time the creator, Prajāpati, existed alone amid the primordial waters. As he was wondering how to create, he saw a lotus leaf, the sole other existing object. Diving down, he found the mud from which it was growing and brought some to the surface. He then spread the mud on the lotus leaf, and this, supported by the lotus leaf, became the surface of the earth. The later Indian tradition envisioned the world as having the shape of a lotus blossom (cf. Matsya Purāṇa 41.86). In either case, the lotus, rising out of the mud and the waters, is a mediating symbol, bridging the amorphous waters and the created earth.
In classical Indian mythology, the lotus as the bridge of creation is preserved in another expression, which forms the basis for the poem quoted above. At the beginning of a new world cycle, the god Viṣṇu lies on a serpent amid the primordial waters. From his navel grows a lotus, which blossoms to reveal Brahmā, the agent of creation. Here, the growth and unfolding of the lotus is both the vehicle for the generation of Brahmā and the image of the emergence of creation from the mind and body of Viṣṇu.
The association of the lotus with the concept of creation appears also in ancient Egypt. According to one tradition from Hermopolis, the highest deity appeared, self-begotten, on a lotus. In the temple at Edgu, built during the Greco-Roman period, an inscription equates the First Primeval One, who "caused the Earth to be when he came into existence," with the Great Lotus. Egyptian mythology connects the lotus especially with the creation of the sun.
The lotus opens not only as the world but also within each person. In both Hindu and Buddhist symbolism, a lotus encloses the center of one's being, which is located in the heart. The lotus is thus not only a bridge between precreation and creation but also a symbol linking the macrocosm and the human microcosm. "For this heart lotus," says the Maitri Upaniṣad, "is the same as space. The four regions and the four intermediate regions constitute its leaves. The vital breath and the sun move downward toward its base" (6.2). This symbolism of an inner lotus corresponding to the outer world is elaborated in Tantric yoga. Forms of this yoga identify five or seven lotiform centers in the body; these centers correspond to bodily locations and functions, to particular deities, and to aspects of the macrocosm. Likewise, in the Indo-Tibetan maṇḍalas, the opening of the lotus symbolizes the manifestation of divine powers, the world, the mind, and insight. In a typical maṇḍala, a principal deity occupies the center. Arranged around this center are four or eight other deities, who are visualized as emerging from it, like petals spreading out from the center of a lotus. Indeed, the fields on which their images or symbols appear are occasionally depicted as lotus petals. The lotus symbolism is also carried to the outer part of the maṇḍala which includes at least one circle of lotus petals. These confirm the lotus form of the whole maṇḍala and represent, among other possible meanings, the extension of divine power from the center.
Because the opening and closing of the lotus follows the rising and setting of the sun, the lotus is also a solar symbol. According to Indian iconographic texts, Sūrya, the Sun, should stand on red lotuses placed in his chariot or on a single lotus, and he may carry a lotus in his hand. Such solar symbolism was developed especially in ancient Egypt. According to one tradition, the newborn sun, identified with the child Horus, arose from the lotus. Corresponding to this conception, Horus was often depicted in the Greco-Roman period as a sun-child on a lotus blossom. In another tradition, the lotus, deified as the god Nefertem, gave life to the sungod Re and, by means of his fragrance, continues to give vitality to Re every day. Therefore, Re is, according to the Book of Going Forth by Day 15, the "golden youth, who came forth from the lotus." Elsewhere Nefertem also identified with Re and hence with the sun.
In addition to the Sun, various other Hindu deities have special connections to the lotus. The Moon is symbolized by the night-blooming white lotus. The lotus is also one of the characteristic signs of Viṣṇu. Of all the Indian deities, however, the one most closely associated with the lotus is Śrī, or Lakṣmī, the goddess of prosperity, good fortune, and wealth. The Śrīsūkta, which became her principal hymn of praise, surrounds her with lotuses and merges the image of the goddess and the lotus. There, she is called "moist"; she is garlanded and surrounded by lotuses; she is lotus-colored, is perceptible by her scent, and stands within the lotus. Her son is Slime (Kardama), who is asked to dwell with the poet and to make Śrī dwell with him. The widespread image of Gaja-Lakṣmī, the elephant Lakṣmī, also portrays the goddess's close connection with the lotus. Standing on a lotus, she holds two lotuses (or a woodapple and a lotus) and is sprayed with water by two elephants. This image of Lakṣmī is interpreted in the Puranic accounts of her origins. According to the Viṣṇu Purāṇa (1.9.100ff.), for example, Śrī emerged from the Ocean of Milk seated on a blossoming lotus and bearing a lotus in her hand. The Ocean himself appeared in human form and presented her with a garland of never-wilting lotuses, and Indra, king of the gods, praised her, saying, "I bow down before Śrī, the mother of all, who resides on the lotus, who has eyes of blossoming lotuses, and who reclines on the heart of Viṣṇu." In all these representations, the lotus blends with the waters and the goddess herself to symbolize fertility, prosperity, and bounty.
The lotus also underscores the beauty of the goddess, for it is a strikingly lovely flower that has become a conventional sign of beauty. According to Indian texts on erotica, the ideal woman is the Padminī, the woman of lotus scent. The hands, feet, and face of a beautiful woman are like lotus blossoms. Her eyes, especially the pupils of her eyes, are like lotuses. The lotus also possessed even more specifically erotic connotations. Iconographically, Kāma, the personification of sexual desire, is ornamented by the conch shell and the lotus, both symbols of the vulva. Lotuses were used in aphrodisiacs, in concoctions to ensure potency and fertility, and in scents to attract a lover. The "lotus position" is not only a yogic posture but a sexual one as well. Such simultaneous religious and erotic connotations were exploited particularly by the Tantric traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism to show the interpenetration of the two realms.
In China, too, the lotus was an erotic symbol. In the following song by Song Huangfu, the lotus helps create an erotic atmosphere:
Water lilies and fragrant lotus across the vast stretch of water, A young girl exuberant and playful, picks lotus until late; Evening comes, the splashing water dampens her in the boat, Making her remove her red skirt and wrap up the ducks. The boat glides, the lake shines, overflowing with autumn. With desire she watches a young boy letting his boat drift, Impetuously across the water she throws lotus seeds, As the news spreads and people hear of it, she is bashful for half a day. (Wagner, 1984, p. 146)
The lotus exemplifies the beauty and passion of the young girl. The lotus seeds she throws are love tokens.
The lotus also represents birth as well as beauty and sensuality. In the folk traditions of India and China, the lotus has the power to make a person potent or fertile: both folk traditions have legends of virgin births that occurred after young women bathed in lotus ponds or ate lotus blossoms. A dramatic Indian image of a lotus-headed goddess in a birthing position has been identified by Stella Kramrisch (1983) as the divine Mother, who has given birth to all creatures. In ancient Egypt, too, the lotus was a symbol of birth or, more especially, of rebirth. The god Osiris was reborn from a lotus after he was killed. Such rebirth is the hope of humans as well, and for this reason the lotus appears as a decoration on Egyptian tombs and mummy cases. Because it was a symbol of regeneration, the lotus was a funerary flower also among the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians. One reason for this symbolism may be that the seedpods, open flowers, and buds of a lotus are all visible at the same time. The flower thus contains past, present, and future life.
But if the lotus is a symbol of sensual beauty, it can also be a symbol of transcendence or purity. It grows from the mud, but shows nothing of its origins. Nor are its leaves or petals affected by water, which beads and falls away. Untouched and breaking the surface of the water, the lotus is a natural symbol for rising above the world. It is, in this sense, applied especially to the Buddha in a well-known passage from the Pali texts Saṃyutta Nikāya (vol. 3, p. 140) and Anguttara Nikāya (vol. 2, pp. 38f.): "Likewise, monks, the blue lotus, the pink lotus, or the white lotus, born in the water and grown in the water, rises beyond the water and remains unsoiled by the water. Thus, monks, the tathāgata, born in the world, grown up in the world, after having conquered the world, remains unsoiled by the world." This metaphor is usually taken to mean that the Buddha, after his enlightenment, lives within the world but is not affected by it or by the passions that normally govern human life. Within the Buddhist tradition, however, different sects have interpreted the passage in various ways. The "supernaturalist" sects, as Étienne Lamotte calls them (e.g., the Mahāsāṃghikas and the Vibhajyavādins), interpret it to mean that the Buddha's birth is purely apparent. Because his existence is a fiction, his body spiritual, and his human acts and qualities actually foreign to his true nature, the purity of the Buddha is absolute. The lotus as a symbol of purity also occurs in Hinduism. Two passages from the Upaniṣads (Chāndogya 4.14.3 and Maitri 3.2) reverse the Buddhist metaphor. In them the self is compared to a drop of water on a lotus leaf; it does not cling to the leaf, even while it remains upon it. In China, too, the white lotus is a symbol of purity.
The lotus is associated not only with Gautama Buddha but with other figures in the Buddhist pantheon, espe-cially Prajñāpāramitā, Avalokiteśvara (Chin., Kuan-yin), and Amitābha. In connection with Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom), the lotus signifies purity, transcendence, and beauty. Avalokiteśvara and Amitābha belong to a Buddha "family" whose characteristic mark is the lotus. Here, the lotus functions both as an auspicious sign and as a reminder that these beings act compassionately while remaining unattached.
Like other central symbols of religious traditions, therefore, the lotus has many possible meanings within a cultural sphere; for that reason, it may not have a determinate meaning in a specific context. For example, the lotus is encountered frequently in art as a pedestal or throne for Buddhist and Hindu deities. Those viewing such an image might understand many of the associations outlined above: it could suggest purity, transcendence, the unfolding of a vision of divinity, beauty, the power to create, the centrality of the deity in the world, or the auspiciousness of the image. Moreover, the lotus is a surprisingly complex symbol, which is able to express the contradictory realities of divine and human life. It is both an erotic symbol and a symbol of purity. It signifies the creation of the world as well as the transcendence of it. The same lotus is the world and is within each person. It is the unformed waters and the visible world. And it is much else besides, for having established itself as a central symbol, the lotus gives rise to further interpretation. Blofeld (1978, p. 151), for example, gives a list of the principal emblems of Kuan-yin and their meanings taken from the Chinese edition of the Heart of the Dhāranī of Great Compassion Sutra. In this sūtra, four lotuses of four different colors serve as the emblems of Kuan-yin: the white lotus signifies the attainment of merit, the blue lotus signifies rebirth in a Pure Land, the purple lotus signifies that one will behold bodhisattvas, and the red lotus signifies that one will attain rebirth in a heaven of the gods. Here, the meanings of the lotus pass beyond ideas directly suggested by its colors and parts.
References in this article to the Nidāyas are to the text edited by the Pali Text Society.
Anthes, Rudolf. "Mythology in Ancient Egypt." In Mythologies of the Ancient World, edited by Samuel Noah Kramer, pp. 15–92. Garden City, N. Y., 1961. A useful introduction and overview of Egyptian mythology and symbolism.
Blofeld, John. Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin. Boulder, 1978. A study of the Chinese transformation of the bodhisattva most closely associated with the lotus.
Bosch, F. D. K. The Golden Germ: An Introduction to Indian Symbolism. The Hague, 1960. This work studies the cosmic lotus and the world tree; according to Bosch, Indian and Southeast Asian artists envisioned the genesis and structure of the macrocosm and the human microcosm through these symbols.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Elements of Buddhist Iconography (1935). New Delhi, 1972. Part 1 presents the symbolism of the tree of life, the earth-lotus, and the word-wheel; part 2 treats the development of the lotus-throne in Buddhist art.
Ingalls, Daniel H. H., trans. An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry: Vidyākara's "Subhāṣitaratnakośa." Cambridge, Mass., 1965. These poems show the mature development of Indian poetry and literary symbolism.
Ions, Veronica. Egyptian Mythology. Rev. ed. New York, 1983. This is a splendidly illustrated, easily accessible introduction to Egyptian symbolism.
Kramrisch, Stella. "An Image of Aditi-Uttānapad." In Exploring India's Sacred Art, edited by Barbara Stoler Miller, pp. 148–158. Philadelphia, 1983. This article is a study of an image of a goddess who has a lotus blossom in place of her head and who appears to be giving birth.
Lauf, Detlef Ingo. Tibetan Sacred Art: The Heritage of Tantra. Berkeley, 1976. This introduction to Tibetan art mentions the lotus frequently, although in passing.
Siegel, Lee. Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions as Exemplified in the Gītagovinda of Jayadeva. Oxford, 1978. On pages 195 and following, Siegel offers a short but helpful discussion of the lotus as an erotic and religious symbol.
Wagner, Marsha L. The Lotus Boat: The Origins of Chinese Tzʾu Poetry in T'ang Popular Culture. New York, 1984. According to Wagner, tzʿu poetry originated in the popular songs sung by courtesans and other musical entertainers. The lotus appears as a symbol of love and erotic desire.
Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Edited by Joseph Campbell. New York, 1946. See pages 90–102 for Zimmer's study of the development of lotus symbolism in connection with goddess figures of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Joel P. Brereton (1987)
lo·tus / ˈlōtəs/ • n. 1. any of a number of large water lilies, in particular: ∎ (also sacred lotus) a water lily (Nelumbo nucifera, family Nelumbonaceae) of Asia and northern Australia, typically with dark pink or white-and-pink flowers. ∎ (also American lotus) a yellow-flowered North American water lily (Nelumbo lutea, family Nelumbonaceae) with bowl-shaped leaves. ∎ (also Egyptian lotus) a water lily (the white-flowered Nymphaea lotus and the blue-flowered N. caerulea, family Nymphaeaceae) regarded as sacred in ancient Egypt. 2. (in Greek mythology) a legendary plant whose fruit induces a dreamy forgetfulness and an unwillingness to depart. ∎ the flower of the sacred lotus as a symbol in Asian art and religion. ∎ short for lotus position.
Lotus is also the name of either of two large water lilies, a red-flowered Asian lily, the flower of which is a symbol in Asian art and religion, and a white- or blue-flowered lily regarded as sacred in ancient Egypt.
The word is recorded from the late 15th century, denoting a type of clover or trefoil described by Homer as food for horses; it comes via Latin from Greek lōtos, and is of Semitic origin. The term was used by classical writers to denote various trees and plants. This legendary plant, mentioned by Homer, was thought by later Greek writers to be Ziziphus lotus, a relative of the jujube.
lotus-eater a person who spends their time indulging in pleasure and luxury rather than dealing with practical concerns. The lotus-eaters or Lotophagi in Greek mythology were a people who lived on the fruit of the lotus. Lotophagi is recorded in English from the early 17th century, but the first use of lotus-eater is in the title of a poem by Tennyson, The Lotos-eaters (1832).
lotus position a cross-legged position for meditation, with the feet resting on the thighs.
Lotus Sutra one of the most important texts in Mahayana Buddhism, significant particularly in China and Japan and given special veneration by the Nichiren sect.
See also PUṆḌARIKA.
O. Jones (1868)
lotus: see water lily.