Article of the Month - Mar 2006

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.

(Viewed 82626 times since Mar 2006)

'In the beginning were the waters. Matter readied itself. The sun glowed. And, a lotus slowly opened, holding the universe on its golden pericarp.' This is precisely the Indian myth of creation as also of the birth of her most majestic flower abounding in supreme beauty, sublime grace and the aura of transcendence. Waters rise but the lotus rises above them. The sun burns and freezing winters mount but the lotus neither sweats nor shivers. And, cyclones move the earth but the rising dust, enshrouding everything from the earth to the sky, does not reach it. Nothing pollutes its purity, nor affects anything its celestial quiescence. Neither the winds shake it nor does frost freeze. Depths below and heights above do not frighten it. Detached it couches over its resplendent bed stretching far and wide cradling on its bosom the forms from the world around and the formlessness from above. When a Buddha's devotee chants: 'Aum mani padme hum', he knows that 'padma' - lotus, is the 'mani' - gem, as having material status the lotus belongs to form, but in it is revealed more characteristically the formless spiritual element, the supreme jewel - the 'mani', that unfolds within, as do lotus petals.

Tibetan Buddhist Om Mani Padme Hum Supported By Snow Lions (From Nepal)

It is this unique significance of lotus that it has more symbolic applications - material and spiritual, than has any other symbol in India's arts, religions and systems of thought. This lotus, in which gods discovered their grace and majesty, poets, painters and sculptors, the subtlest expression of beauty, and mystics, dimensions of mysticism and intricate cosmic existence, is primarily the flower of India - more than the thing of her lakes and ponds, the theme of her myths, legends and texts. Flowers of the botanical family named nymphaeaceae, to which lotus belongs, are found in many Asian, European, Australian and African countries, but these flowers figure neither in theirs arts, literature, myths, legends, or culture, nor in their actual life and system of thought - whatever the reason - lacking in beauty, profundity, or capability to inspire. A yellow lotus is found in abundance in the Central American provinces but like other flowers it is a mere botanical thing. India does not have yellow lotus but her texts and myths abound in some kind of golden lotuses. Maybe, at some point of time, India, too, had a yellow lotus, perhaps a little more brilliant than the American yellow. The surviving Indian lotus is found in red, blue and white colors, its petals varying in number from a few to the mythical thousand. The red lotus is named 'kokanada rakta-kamala'; blue, 'indivara'; and white, 'pundarika'.

Myths of Its Origins

Though just a flower, lotus has many legends in regard to its mythical origin, which its great spiritual significance and the status with which a flower is not usually endowed, has inspired. More prominent is the legend of 'Samudra-manthana' - ocean churning.

Samudra Manthan (Churning of the Ocean)

It is said that once gods and demons reached an agreement that they would jointly churn the ocean to obtain from it nectar that it hid in its bottom. When the churning was in process, ocean revealed fourteen precious jewels and lotus with Lakshmi mounting it was one of them.

Richly Detailed, Haloed Devi Lakshmi

Thus, lotus was born from the womb of the ocean. The Bhagavata, Matsya and several other Puranas have a different version of the origin of lotus. After the Great Deluge, Vishnu appeared on the surface of the milk-white waters of the Kshirasagara - ocean of milk. He wished the Creation were rendered. Instantly, from his naval rose a lotus carried upon a mighty stem with Brahma, the Creator, mounting it. The first lotus thus grew from the body of Lord Vishnu.

Shesha-shayi Vishnu, Madhu-Kaitabha and Adishakti

A Shiva-related legend claims its origin from Shiva's seed. Once Shiva was engaged in love with Parvati for many thousand years and did not come out of his chamber. In his absence, demons grew stronger and defeated and humiliated gods on every occasion. Finally, gods went to Shiva and prayed him to stop his love-game and to come to their rescue. Shiva agreed but the problem was where the semen was shed. Agni - fire proposed to bear it but before long it became unbearable and hence Agni let it fall on the earth. Instantly, the spot where it fell turned into a huge lake with abundant lotuses, and thus was born the divine flower. Lotus is also related to Kuber, the lord of riches. As the tradition has it, 'Padam' - lotus, was one of Kuber's 'Nidhis' - treasures. To assist Vishnu, the sustainer of the world, Kuber sent 'Padam' to the earth where it emerged as lotus flower. This symbolism closely corresponds to the emergence of Lakshmi, the Lotus goddess, Vishnu's female aspect and primary instrument of sustaining universe.

Lotus: A Continuous Presence Over 5000 Years

Whatever myths of its origin, lotus as a flower had an early presence, at least during the Indus days if not before. Scholars have discovered in the rock-shelter drawings a few motifs, which they feel were representations of lotus. The often illustrated is the drawing looking like a trident from Abchand, Sagar, in Madhya Pradesh. More convincing than the drawing is their argument. They contend that caves' dwellers could not have been unacquainted with lotus, when they had seen and were attracted to a fish and crocodile - the other inhabitants of water, and drew them on their walls.

Large Trishul With Tamil OM (AUM)

By Indus days, however, lotus, both as a decorative motif and as symbol, seems to have become quite popular. The pottery excavated from Mohanjo daro in Indus Valley is found painted with designs composed of lotus-petal-type leaf-patterns. The characteristic Indus terracotta seals bear motifs, which correspond to lotus. A late mother-goddess figurine from Mathura, an obvious continuity of the Indus cult and model, has well-defined lotus motifs in its coiffeur.

Large Size The Lotus-Seated Goddess Lakshmi

Lotus in Early Texts

Allusions to lotus in texts of subsequent days are abundant. The Rig-Veda alludes to white and blue lotuses as 'pundarika' and 'pushkara'. Here the twin gods Ashvina are referred to as 'Puskarasrajau' - the lotus-garlanded ones. The Rig-Veda has referred to 'pushkara' and 'pundarika' also in relation to gods Varuna, Surya and others, and sage Vasishtha. The Rig-Vedic allusion to Agni in relation to lotus is, however, more significant - "O, Agni, in the beginning 'atharvan' churned thee out of the lotus, the bearer of all" (RV 6.16.13). Here lotus, attaining wider dimensions, becomes suggestive of water. The Atharva-Veda mentions red lotus, and the Yajur-Veda, garlands made of white lotuses. Epics - the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and other early texts have numerous lotus-related contexts. Lotus significantly figures in the entire body of Sanskrit literature - poetry and drama, though primarily for its aesthetic beauty in which poets found an apt parallel to the beauty of the woman and sometimes of the divine or celestial beings.

Bani Thani

Lotus in Buddhist Art

Lotus, however, emerges as a mighty factor influencing various arts from third century B. C. after the Mauryan emperor Ashoka had the capitals of his pillars designed with the motif of lotus to serve as the base for the animal figures surmounting pillar's apex.

The Ashoka Pillar

Before Buddha was conceived, Maya, his mother, dreamt that a white young elephant, with a lotus in its trunk, entered her womb. And, after his birth, Buddha is said to have got up and walked seven steps, and wherever the foot was laid, a lotus rose.

Maya Devi and Buddha's Birth
Maya Devi and Buddha's Birth 

Thus, lotus attained great significance in Buddhism even before Buddha was born, and emperor Ashoka must have been acquainted with it when he chose a lotus motif for his pillars. The influence was immense. In the entire Sunga art, after Ashoka, across third to first century B. C., at Bharhut, Sanchi, Amaravati and other Buddhist centers, lotus surpassed almost all other art motifs. The variedly conceived and carved lotus motifs served sometimes as components to a theme and at other times as an independent art-subject. Medallions, squares and other geometric patterns, designed with lotuses or lotus creepers, entwining in them figures of 'yakshas', elephants, goddesses and various celestial beings, carved on railings, gateways, pillars, pilasters etc. were the common features of the art of this period. Lotus buds and flowers, along with leaves, featured as decorative elements also in sculptures portraying different 'jatakas' and other themes - a hermitage, for example.

Hermitage with Lotus suspending on sides, Sunga, 2nd century B.C., Mathura
Hermitage with Lotus suspending on sides, Sunga, 2nd century B.C., Mathura

Sanchi and Bharhut have small but elaborately carved relief's of the Lotus goddess - obviously Lakshmi or Gaja-Lakshmi. These icons of the deity, datable to circa second century B. C., are perhaps the earliest, preceding by several centuries her Puranic concept as the consort of Lord Vishnu.


It suggests that not only lotus but also the Lotus goddess emerged first in the Buddhist art and in Brahmanical art after centuries. In the subsequent Gandhara art, from first century B. C. to second-third century A. D., and Kushana art during first-second centuries, lotus was the most favored seat for the images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Lotus continued, and perhaps with greater thrust, also as the decorative motif in the concurrent art and in the art of the subsequent phase. Besides sculptures, murals, more particularly at Ajanta and Bagh, presented a very wide range of decorative designs rendered using lotus motifs.

Lady from the Ajanta Caves

By now, iconographic norms had concretized and Bodhisattvas - Avalokiteshvara or Avalokiteshvara Padmapani, the one carrying a lotus in his hand, and Lokanatha, were conceived as carrying lotuses in their hand, though in Padmapani iconography it was its essence, whereas in the Lokanatha, just a feature.

Very Large Size Kuan Yin, The Japanese Form Of Padmapani Avalokiteshvara

After the Mahayana Buddhism gained prominence, the lotus-seat emerged almost as an essentiality of the images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Tibetan Buddhism broke all iconographic norms. Now, even the images of minor Buddhist deities were cast with a lotus seat, and those of Bodhisattvas, other than Avalokiteshvara, with a lotus in hand. The unique mysticism with which lotus was endowed, was the reason of its massive presence in the Mahayana sect. Lama Anagarika Govinda of the Foundation of Tibetan Mysticism perceived in lotus the living synthesis of the deepest and the highest, darkness and light, material and immaterial, limitation of the individuality and boundlessness of universality, the forms and the formless, and samsara and nirvana. Such mystic character of lotus inspired the Buddhist mind - of the devotee and the artist, to bow to it in reverence.

Superfine Tibetan Buddhist Deity Four Armed Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) Made in Nepal

Lotus in other Asian Countries

Asian countries other than India had lotuses in their lakes, but their arts incorporated this majestic flower in their vocabulary only after it reached them through Indian art-sources, mainly the Buddhist. At Ankor Wat in Cambodia and at Java, lotus has been used as part of the iconography of Lakshmi, Ganesh and various other Brahmanical deities.

Large Ganesha Seated On Lotus Throne with Large Kirtimukha Floral Aureole

Add a review

Your email address will not be published *

  • an amazing article i found it very informative
    sania July 24, 2017
  • I am in escrow on a house on Lotus street and have had been thinking "Did I do the right thing?" So I searched and found that LOTUS will suit me fine! THANK YOU!
    Kelly Lenihan July 17, 2009
  • Highly informative and have used info in a school report. Would like more info such as date of publication give proper credit in reference works. Thanks, very educational and very worthwhile intellectually speaking. Michele
    Michele Pearson January 15, 2007
  • Whilst it is stylistically derived from architecture using an upturned lotus finial, the shrine picture titled Sacred Space would appear to be use a Columbine or perhaps Love-in-the-Mist seedhead for the dome and finial.
    Ian Ison June 03, 2006
  • Thank you for this lovely article. Again, it fits my introduction of the padma in the INDIA SAIJIKI. Greetings from Japan Gabi Greve Daruma Museum :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
    Gabi Greve April 06, 2006
  • This is fantastic! Thank you for creating this newsletter...So much valuable and interesting information...I appreciate your effort.... Namaste,
    Lisa Hayden March 17, 2006