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The Lotus – Much More Than a Flower

The lotus is much more than a flower for Hindus. It is symbolic of all that is good and beautiful. Scriptures tell us that it first bloomed with the creation of the universe. Over the centuries it has lost none of its allure.

The lotus is one of the world’s most celebrated flowers. From time immemorial to the present day, it has always been in folklore, religion and the arts in one form or the other. The terms lotus is applied in general to several species of plants. About 100 lotus species are found in temperate regions of Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. The pink and rose coloured variety found in the country and widely used in religion is called Nelumbo nucifera.

It has large flowers up to 25 cm across and leaves 60 cm across. Both flowers and leaves sometimes grow up to 1.8 m above water . As botanical features indicate different evolutionary origin the plant is not included in the water lily order. But the ancients, for their part, never made any distincation between a water.

Fertility is the most important symbol that has been ascribed to the flower. Other association like rebirth, purity, beauty and sensuality flow from this aspect.

According to Hindu mythology, after the great deluge the almighty fertilized the waters to produce an egg. From one part of this egg came Brahma the Creator, and from another the universe. Hence, the universe is called brahmand or the cosmic egg in Sanskrit. Another legend states that Brahma emerged from a lotus that grew out of Vishnu the Preserver’s navel.

Pushkar in the western state of Rajasthan is the site of a cattle fair that in recent times has become a big draw with tourists form all over. As the story goes, Brahma worried that the growing sin in the world might taint the sanctity of his abode. So he sent his lotus in search of another suitable spot. The lotus’ search took him to Hateshwar near Pushkar, where he built three tanks – Jyestha, Madhya and Kanishta. On a night during the month of Kartik (November) a heavenly lotus is believed to bloom in the Jyestha Tank.

The Goddess of Wealth, Laxmi is also called Padma, Kamla and Kamalasana after the other names of the flower. The four handed Vishnu is depicted bearing a conch, chakra (wheel), mace and lotus in each of his four hands.

The flower’s petals close to enable the plant to control its inner circulation of water to avoid being affected by weather. This phenomenon led the flower to acquire the metaphor for rebirth as it could seemingly transcend time. Bodies of Egyptian pharaohs were interned as mummies in the belief that they would live again, “like a water lily re-opening.”

Similarly in China mourners give the family of the deceased envelopes containing an outline of the flower. Ra or the sun, the chief deity of ancient Egypt is shown sitting as a child on a water lily. Likewise Brahma is always shown in popular iconography to be sitting on a louts.

Some believe that the lotus came to India from Egypt. Later, Buddhism borrowed the flower from Hinduism. In Buddhist painting and sculpture, whenever Buddha is shown delivering an important sermon, he is shown sitting on a lotus pedestal. Buddhist scriptures enumerate fragrance, purity, delicateness and beauty as the attributes of lotus.

Like the lotus that grows in muck but does not partake of it, the human heart should stay independent of evil thoughts in Buddhism’s ideal. Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy alleviates humanity’s sufferings by sprinkling drops of water as she walks over a bed of lotuses.

According to Yoga and Tantra there are seven lotus wheels in the human body. The lotus is the object of meditation in Tantrik Buddhism. The lotus motif has also been extensively used in shrines, art, architecture and sculpture of the Jains. The Ionic order of architecture of the ancient Greeks is an offshoot of the Assyrian and Phoenician forms which have the lotus as their basis.

Indian literature abounds in references to the flower. Poets have compared a pretty face, dainty limbs and attractive eyes to the flower. The plant’s steam is spoken of as the favourite meal of elephants. Its leaves have cooled the fires of many a noble lady

separated from her beloved. And kamshastra (The Art of Lovemaking) has four categories of women, the most beautiful and accomplished among them being the padmini or the lotus lady. To men of letters, the lotus presented an alternative to the banality of human existence.

The flower is put to many uses. The thread, taken from the leaf stalks is used for making wicks for oil lamps in temples. Cloth made from this yarn is thought to cure many ailments. Besides, extract from the flower is used in traditional as well as modern medicine.

Nelumbo nucifera is a wholly edible species. Its seeds are roasted to make puffs called makhanas. The plant’s rhizomes are a source of lotus meal which is rich in starch. In fact is American counterpart, Nelumbo petapetala was source of starchy diet for the American Indians. A number of wild animals feed on the plant. Fish find refuge in its underwater stalks.

The upper cupule or fleshy capsule in the lotus dries out at maturity and separates from the plant. Floating about it releases seeds through holes in the surface. New plants germinate from these.

When the Baha’i’s – followers of Baha’u’llah, a 17th century Iranian mystic – decided to build their temple in New Delhi their choice of design was a lotus, Fariburz Sahaba, the architect who made the design, explains, “The lotus not only has an association with all the religions of India but is probably the most perfect flower in the whole world.

It is symmetrical, it is exquisitely beautiful. And how does it grow ? If grows in a swamp, and it raises its head out of the slime absolutely clean and perfect. Now this is what the manifestation of God is in the world.”

When I visited the shrine long lines of visitors patiently awaited their turn to enter its portals. The queue that I was in slowly moved towards the entrance. And then we were in the inner hall bathed in light. Like the cupule which holds the plant’s seeds, the hall took to the great spirit.

The temple is one of the important landmarks of Delhi. Hundreds drawn by its unique shape visit it daily. Two rows of petals open up like a lotus about to bloom. At night the illuminated building appears to be floating on water.

Now from sublime to overtly ridiculous.

Two years back Taiwan was rocked by fraud case involving a Zen master. Thousands of gullible buyers bought lotus pedestals from him in the belief that it would absolve them of their Karmic obstacles !

Such is the enduring power of the lotus.