Lotus Symbolism in Indic Tradition - Part 4
This is part 4 in a series of four articles depicting the influence and significance of the Lotus Flower in Indic cultures. To read the previous articles, click here: https://www.destinationheritage.com/blog. Stay tuned for more!
Lotus serving as a pedestal goes back to the symbolism of creation. Brahma is the creator. He marks the first step in evolution. He is born from lotus that emerges from the naval of Lord Vishnu- Padmanabha. In literary sources Brahmaa is called Padmajaata or Padmaja, meaning born from lotus. It signifies his pure, spiritual transcendental nature. He is also called Svayambhu- the Self-born.
In Buddhist art Buddhas are seen standing on expanded lotus calyxes on pillars at Amaravati spreading enlightenment and granting release from illusions. Innumerable number of sculptures and paintings depicting Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other deities are beautifully created all over the Buddhist world from Japan to Europe and the grasslands of Mongolia to the isles of Indonesia over the past two millennia. A devotee has to look into their eyes to feel how they look at him.
Purity of Law
Buddha sitting on lotus seat represents his divine birth. This is the nature of the Buddha, untouched by the polluted atmosphere of samsara. Adi Buddha, meaning the first Buddha is manifested as a flame springing from a lotus flower. Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara who holds a lotus is called Padmapani. He is the most compassionate Bodhisattva in Buddhist pantheon. Mani padama - the jewel in the lotus is the universe as the receptacle of dharma and illusion. Buddha sitting in the middle of eight petaled lotus, a hub of the eight spiked wheel, emphasizing his being a chakravarti.
Offering a lotus
Offering a lotus flower during prayers and rituals means that a worshipper is surrendering of his own existence to its origin. In Buddhism it means abandonment of his own nature to the Buddha. He renounces his independent existence. Buddhism preaches Interdependent origination. It inspires people for cordial relations and respecting others. The philosophy opened avenues of cooperation and collaboration resulting in better cultural and trade relations.
A lotus garland worn by a priest in the Rajasuya ceremony represents sensorial operation (indriya), virility (virya), and temporal power (kshaatra)- essential qualities of a king. The pre-eminence of a king had to be sustained by constant vigil and efforts to minimize the power of the enemy. Rajasuya is described in Aitareya Brahmana for coronation of kings called Aindra Mahabhisheka. This was closely associated with the coronation of kings in Cambodia and Thailand. The rites are still alive.
Voyages of Lotus symbolism
Lotus symbolism traveled far and wide, wherever Buddhism and Hinduism reached. Padmapani in Ajanta caves and Horyuji monastery in Japan are known for their similar iconographic details, especially holding a lotus. The most impressive example from Japan is the lotus seat of Daibutsu- Great Buddha at Todaiji, Nara. Representations of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva in Nepalese, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan or Mongolian monasteries are numerous. The National Palace Museum in Beijing holds some of the most beautiful statues with lotus seats. The practice continues till date. The modern artists are often seen painting it on thangkas. Prajnaparamita hold a Blue Lotus.
Lotus divided into eight petals indicates eight cardinal points and the multiples are 16, 32, and so on. An example can be traced back to the Kailashanatha temple at Ellora caves. In Buddhism eight petal lotus also indicates the Eightfold Path. A mudra of Eight petalled lotus is common in Shingon practices in Japan. Mudras meaning hand gestures are non-phonological expressions. They formed a comprehensive gesture language of dance as early as Bharata’s Natyashastra. They evolved into a unique experiment in symbolic communication between the devotees and divine. They became an essential metaphysical aspect of esoteric ceremonies and rituals. There are textual descriptions in Sanskrit literature but the earliest scroll of mudras is discovered from Dunhuang caves in China.
In Japan, lotus is frequently represented as flowering unsullied on the muddy waters. This is a representation of a noble way of living with the intention of retreating into solitude. Lotus Sutra, (Saddharmapundarika-sutra) is unique in celebrating symbolism of wisdom. The sutra was pronounced by the Buddha on Gridhrakuta Mountain near Nalanda.
Lotus is not just a flower but a symbol of ethical living- what ought to be. This symbol has survived for many countries and will continue to do so.
The author is the Dean, Centre of Indology, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, New Delhi