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Lotus Symbolism in Indic Tradition - Part 1

Updated: Nov 30, 2020


India is a land of symbols representing transcendental philosophy and values for life, depicted in arts and literature by enlightened minds. Symbols inspire to a path to internalize the depth of meaning for peaceful coexistence. Further this refines the thought process. The Atharvaveda says that this body is the lotus flower of nine doors, covered with three strands. They are sattva, rajas and tamas- the good, the evil and the in-between. From time immemorial lotus symbolism became integral to Indic thought and art.


India’s national flower is the lotus which upholds the cultural distinctness. It stands for ethical values which strengthens the physical, spiritual and transcendental qualities. Even the stem and the seeds of the flower is of great significance. It is a significant motif in Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina art and literature. In this connection the importance of Nalanda is to be remembered. The word Nalanda comes from nalam dadati iti nalanda, which means the place or the city that provided lotus stalks abundantly. References to this great seat of wisdom Nalanda can be found in many countries. Nalanda was a prosperous and influential town in the times of the Buddha. He preached three suttas at the mango grove in Nalaka. In Ramayana Lava and Kusha collected lotus flowers in large numbers when Devi Sita was to perform puja in the Ashrama of Valmiki. A lotus grows and rises over the surface of water with purity and perfection. Similarly, a practitioner becomes mature with practice like a fully grown lotus. Ethically, a lotus symbolizes detachment from the worldly cravings protecting him or her from extreme materialism fueled by insatiable hunger.


There are Four kinds of Lotus- pundarika- white lotus represents purity of thought and persona, Utpala or Nilotapala- blue lotus- an emblem of the moon and Shiva and wisdom, Kumud- red lotus is one of the signs on the feet of Lord Buddha. Padma is pink lotus- a solar emblem, and a symbol of wealth.


Symbolic importance of lotus manifests in multiple ways. It represents spontaneous generation called svayambhu. It is born from its own matrix, not from the earth but from the surface of the stagnant water. Purity of thought and action is core to lotus symbolism. It grows in mud and is nourished by water. But it remains untouched by both of them. This conveys a message of being unsullied by defilements of the world in which we live and remain pure. The blue lotus suggested the perfume of divine life. Hindus and Buddhists gave a spiritual and moral meaning to lotus. In Anguttara Nikaya (2.39) it is said, 'I am unsullied by the world, even as the pure and lovely lotus is unsullied by the waters'.


The author is the Dean, Centre of Indology, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, New Delhi


This is part 1 in a series of four articles depicting the influence and significance of the Lotus Flower in Indic cultures. Stay tuned for more!

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