The Sacred Lotus - History and Metaphor

The Sacred Lotus Flower

The beautiful and fragrant lotus has been a famous spiritual symbol and metaphor in many cultures for thousands of years. Fossil records show that the lotus has been around for somewhere between 65 million years and 145.5 million years. It is sometimes called the Indian lotus or sacred lotus, or an Egyptian water lily.

This revered flower is native to central and northern India and East Asia as well as some isolated locations by the Caspian Sea in Russia. Some sources say that the lotus originated in ancient Persia, traveled to India, and then to Egypt and Rome. Today the species also grows in southern India, virtually all of Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Africa, and Australia. It has the honor of being the national flower of India and Vietnam.

Aside from spiritual symbolism, the lotus is an amazing plant from a scientific point of view as well. The roots of lotus take hold in the soil at the bottom of a pond or river, while the leaves float on the water’s surface. At night it sinks under water, and rises again in the morning to bloom. The flower has the remarkable ability to regulate the temperature of its flowers, much like mammals do. Physiologists at the University of Adelaide report that lotus flowers actually maintain their temperature when the air temperature drops.

An individual lotus can live for over a thousand years and can even revive itself after stasis. In 1994, a seed from a lotus, with a rough age of 1,300 years old, was successfully germinated.

Cultures as well as botanists are in awe of this miraculous flower. The lotus has been a powerful image for thousands of years, most notably in Hindu, Buddhist and Egyptian traditions. The fact that such a beautiful flower rises from the mud has provided a heartfelt metaphor for the spiritual path.

Ancient Egypt is the earliest known civilization to have revered the lotus flower and used it to symbolize various things such as fertility, birth, and purity. Ancient Egyptian myths say that it was a giant lotus blossom that first emerged from the primordial waters from which the sun-god, Ra, came forth. The flower was also used to represent the sun and its daily set and rise. The Egyptian Book of the Dead states that a person can transform into a lotus when they die, again inspired by the plant’s rise and set, this time translated into rebirth.

In the Buddhist tradition, the lotus represents someone who rises from the darkness of ignorance into a new way of life or the purity of enlightened mind rising amidst the suffering of the world. According to legend, everywhere baby Buddha stepped, a lotus flower bloomed. The Lotus Sutra is one of the most important texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Rising above the muddy waters is used as a metaphor for ascending above all desires and attachments, leading to spiritual enlightenment. The aspiration of humans to move towards the light is symbolized by the flower rising up to the sun, despite its deep roots in the mud.

The famous Tibetan mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum (om jewel in the lotus) invokes Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion. The jewel represents the jewel of man’s divinity living within the cosmos, as well as the jewel of cosmic divinity living within man.

In some Buddhist schools, the flower’s stage of growth represents different stages on the path to enlightenment. A closed bud symbollizes the time before realistion, while a fully bloomed lotus represents full enlightenment.

The lotus, or padma, is a holy and sacred symbol in Hinduism and referenced in many scriptures. Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu, creator and preserver of the Universe, are depicted seated in a lotus. It is said that Brahma was born from the lotus growing out of Vishnu’s navel. Many other deities are pictured and described sitting in or holding a lotus.

Again, the lotus symbolizes rebirth, purity, and divinity, and the many petaled bloom mirrors the expansion of the soul as it unfolds. The Bhagavad Gita suggests that humans aspire to be like the lotus and work without attachment and remain untouched by sin like the flower floating above the mud.

As yoga is infused with and maybe even born from philosophy, theosophy, and spirituality, the prominence of the lotus in yoga is a natural phenomenon. The heart is often conveyed as a lotus and the full bloom of the heart (lotus) once again equates to enlightenment. Padmasana, or Lotus Pose, is a posture often taken for meditation. Padmasana is one of the first asanas to be named, its references dating back to the eighth century. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika of the 15th century states that this pose destroys all diseases and one may attain liberation by retaining the inhale in the asana. In a normal cross-legged position, the body is more likely to sag and tire when sitting upright. The base of lotus pose provides an innate support for the spine, allowing the meditator to sit for much longer. But, of course, this only works if the lower body is open enough to hold Padmasana comfortably. Rock carvings and sculptures of figures in Padmasana have been discovered in widespread locations around the world, including Colombia, Egypt, and Mexico.

The lotus has maintained its spiritual status throughout the millennia, and with today's global practice of yoga the flower and its symbolism are well known by many and its simple teachings continue to inspire thought, devotion, and awe by all who study it either in nature or history.

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