Some Lotus Tales

Love came to Flora asking for a flower

That would of flowers be undisputed queen,

The lily and the rose, long, long had been

Rivals for that high honour. Bards of power

Had sung their claims. “The rose can never tower

Like the pale lily with her Juno mien”-

“But is the lily lovelier?” Thus between

Flower-factions rang the strife in Psyche’s bower.

“Give me a flower delicious as the rose

And stately as the lily in her pride” -

“But of what colour?”-”Rose-red,” love first chose,

Then prayed,-”No, lily-white,-or, both provide”;

And Flora gave the lotus, “rose-red” dyed,

And “lily-white,”- the queenliest flower that blows.

( a sonnet on The Lotus by Toru Dutt)

Our car came to a halt at the railway crossing and along with a dozen other assorted vehicles we waited for the train to pass and the gates to reopen. As i casually turned to look out from the window, the scene made me gasp…popping out from the small pool of water collected by the road side were these serene white lotus flowers. When i pointed out the sight to my husband he instantly fished out his camera and took some memorable shots through the rolled down car window itself. There was no time to step out and take more studied photographs. You could hear the train rumbling by and within seconds the railway gates opened and vehicles clamoured from both sides to start moving, even as a truck lumbered up and blocked our side view. Fortunately for us, our camera had managed to capture that moment forever.

White lotus in the wild

It remains one of my favourite memories from our 2014 road trip of the state of Odisha~ better known for the Jagannath Temple of Puri and the Konark Sun Temple. As we drove and explored this eastern state from the coastal town of Balasore in the north to the lovely beach of Gopalpur-on-the-sea in the south, some of the most memorable sights for me were the small bodies of residual-monsoon water on either side of the road with lotus plants floating over their muddy waters, their long stalks straining upward carrying both buds and blossoming flowers alike. The flawless beauty of those blooms presented such a contrast to their miry surroundings and was an evocative reminder of why the flower is considered the most apt metaphor for “the most exalted state of man — his head held high, pure and undefiled in the sun, his feet rooted in the world of experience.”

Sightings of the pink lotus

So what is so fascinating about the sight of the lotus, or ‘padma’ as it is known in Sanskrit. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that it is interwoven with the collective-cultural-consciousness of our land from times immemorial. As children we all grow up on stories from elders on how one should aspire to be pure of mind like the lotus. It is our National flower and an ancient auspicious symbol that recurs time and again in the epics, mythology and scriptures of most major religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. We Hindus of course are so infatuated with the flower that almost every deity is portrayed either sitting on the lotus or holding one in their hand! It forms the prevailing motif of our sculptures, temple carvings, architecture, paintings and even cave murals.“Kamal-nayanam” (lotus-eyed) is one of the names used to invoke Lord Vishnu and describe his divine beauty and purity. The Bhagwad Gita exhorts:

“One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by water” (Chap 5, Verse 10)

On the micro level, practitioners of yoga adopt the lotus-position, or the “padmasana”, to meditate and reach the highest level of consciousness, which itself, it is said, is found in the thousand-petalled lotus-chakra within you. Hindu scriptures state that the “atman” (or soul…the spark of divinity within each) dwells in the ‘lotus within your heart’. The opening of each petal corresponds to the gradual expansion of the consciousness on the path of enlightenment. A meditation guru’s instructions (with a change here and there) would ask you to concentrate on your breathing and ~

“Visualise within yourself a lotus, centred right within your heart.Try to mentally feel and see the heart as a lotus flower right within you. Within the centre of the lotus, see a small light…this brilliant light, about the size of your thumb, is an emanation of your radiant being. The Self God is deeper than that ~ it dwells deep within that lotus of light…”

On the macro level, more esoteric readings of Hindu Cosmology will get you acquainted with many versions of the association of the lotus with Creation (specially since the scriptures link it to ‘spontaneous generation’). The problem with Hindu scriptures is that you cannot identify a clear concise collection that has been handed down over generations…but that would be a matter for a long digression best not entered here!! There are many creation-myths depending upon which scripture or even which deity you select as the definitive one. The most prevalent is the one that describes Vishnu lying asleep in “Yog Nidra” on a giant serpent with the entire universe dormant in his dream. From his navel springs forth a lotus and when it blooms, Brahma~ the creator god~ is revealed sitting in the centre. Brahma then goes on to ensure the proper creation of the universe. My personal favourite is a more metaphysical narration of creation during the “Padmakalpa” or the Lotus Age. It is described how before the beginning of time there were just the swirling cosmic waters. When the divine life-substance was about to put forth the universe, the cosmic waters grew a thousand petalled lotus of pure gold, radiant like the sun. This was considered to be a doorway or an opening of the mouth of the womb of the universe. The cosmic lotus is thus revered as the first product of the creative principle deified in Lord Brahma.

A pink lotus in bloom

In Buddhism, lotus-symbolism can be traced to some of the earliest recorded sermons of Buddha. As set down in the oldest surviving Buddhist texts, often referred to as the “Pali Canon”, when Buddha was asked if he was a god, he replied

“Just like a red, blue, or white lotus — born in the water, rising up above the water — stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way i — born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world — live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened’…”

(As translated by Thanissaro Bhikku)

Perhaps from there comes the Buddhist belief that the heart of human beings is like an unopened lotus: when the virtues of the ‘Buddha’ develop therein, the lotus blooms. That is why the Buddha sits on a lotus blossom. In Tantric Buddhist practices there is a well defined symbology relating to even the colour of the lotus — the white, red, pink, blue and the rare purple lotuses each having their own connotations.

A rare ‘neel-kamal’ or blue lotus

And then there are the references to the flower in many Buddhist legends. There is one story (with some variations) of how before his birth, Gautam Buddha’s mother, Maya, was visited in her dream by a white elephant carrying a white lotus in its trunk. The most heartwarming of course is the story that Gautam Buddha was born with the ability to walk and everywhere baby Buddha stepped lotus flowers bloomed!

In conclusion i would like to invoke the powerful Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme hum”. Simply translated it reads as ‘O Jewel in the Lotus Flower’. Devout Buddhists will tell you that the mantra has great mystical power and its words point to a sublime transcendental truth. It at once refers to not just the jewel of man’s divinity living within the cosmic-lotus (the cosmos), but also the jewel of cosmic divinity living within the individual-lotus (man). In that sense the mantra encapsulates the principle of oneness that underlies all creation for it reminds the spiritual seeker — “I am in You and You are in Me”. Perhaps from that springs forth the sentiment of “compassion” which lies at the heart of Buddhism and perhaps it is a spark of this compassion that the sight of the lotus seeks to stoke and ignite.