The pillar of the household of mankind stands adorned with a lotus capital – a crown upon the stalk of manifesting life. In the whole of evolution the lotus flowers forth as one of the richest symbols of life, growth and conscious godhood.
Just as the roots of the sacred lotus Padma have proliferated in the soil of terrestrial life, so its symbolic meanings have multiplied. Its bud is the symbol of nascent life as well as fertility and evolution. As a mandala, its significance varies depending upon the number of petals described, the opening bloom becoming the full-blown lotus of Buddhahood. As a posture, it is Padma Asana and is practised for the development of concentration. At the creation of the world Brahma was born from a lotus rising from the navel of Vishnu, and 'Lotus-born' is a title of profoundly sacred significance throughout the East. Asi, the sword won by Brahma through great austerities, was the color of the blue lotus and was handed down to Manu in the shape of the law. Lotus crowns were worn by kings, and numerous gods and goddesses of India, Egypt and the Far East are shown bearing emblems of open lotus flowers or sitting upon lotus thrones. The lotus was also the basic design for the stele capitals of the ancient Phoenicians and was adapted in later Ionic forms. In fact, the lotus motif and its derivatives can be traced in all forms of art and architecture. Such a proliferation of symbolic offspring prompts us to question the nature of that which combines such a variety of ideas in its representations.
Botanically, the lotus is a member of the leguminosae family and its fruit is in the form of a fleshy pod enclosing its seeds. The pod is actually the ovary of the flower and it enlarges as the ovules develop into seeds containing the embryos of the plant. The stamen of the lotus produces pollen which fertilizes the ovules, thus distinguishing the lotus as a bisexual or androgynous plant. The pod of the lotus protects the seeds and aids in their distribution when mature. They are dispersed upon the water where they float for a considerable time before sinking to the bottom. Seeds of the sacred lotus recovered in an ancient peat-bog in Manchuria, and dated at one-thousand years, have germinated and produced flowering plants. This remarkable longevity is partially due to the low moisture content within the seed, for it is the moisture of life which causes physical manifestation, and the continence of the lotus seed suggests fertility held in potentia. The seed contains the perfectly formed petals of the lotus flower even before it germinates. Thus the embryo plantlet is the hidden archetype of the manifest flower and is symbolic of the spiritual plane on which the prototype of material forms exist.
The open lotus flower, symbolizing fertility, is often depicted as a seat for divine beings, indicating their generative force. In fact, the celestial lotus throne of the divine kings of Egypt was called the 'flower of power,' and their royal heads were often adorned with lotus crowns. The Egyptian Book of the Dead identifies the lotus crown as the symbol of rebirth, connecting it closely to the belief that the divine dead were reborn from the lotus flower and thereafter belonged to the world of the gods.
If the lotus is a symbol of generation and rebirth, it also marks the commencement and dissolution of cycles. It is said that Padmapani Avalokiteswara, who manifests from age to age, is 'the Lotus-Bearer' and supporter of the Kalpas. The 'Age of Brahma' marks the manifestation of creative deity out of the universal lotus. At the destruction marking the end of Kali Yuga, Brahma will be contained within a lotus and, floating upon the waters, will absorb the winds and go to sleep. This is the 'Night of Brahma' or Pralaya. Vishnu, the synthesis of the Hindu Trimurti during Pralaya, conceals in the folds of darkness the embryo lotus of the world. Vishnu's heaven is Vaikuntha or Mount Meru, symbolized by the lotus and representing the navel of the world – Vishnu's navel.
In Egypt the lotus also symbolized the sun. Hiding its flower at night and opening with the first morning rays, the lotus naturally suggests itself as a symbol for Nefertem, the god who personified the rising sun. Emerging from a lotus every morning and retiring into it every night, Nefertem, whose name means lotus, was also called Atum or Ra-the-Younger. He is depicted as the man-child who rose from the lotus flower in the Sacred Sea. From his tears sprang mankind and in his lotus aspect he was called the 'Watcher at the Nostrils of Ra.' Thot, the Self-Begotten, like Brahma, appeared at the dawn of time on a lotus flower. He was created by the power of utterance and called the inventor of speech, the personification of the divine intelligence of the creative power of Ra. Horus, the ruler of the sky, and other Sun Gods were born through the 'immaculate mother' lotus. This symbolism firmly relates the lotus to that first plane of manifestation where there is no sex but both sexes exist potentially in primordial matter. This matter or mother is not differentiated, fertility and productiveness both being inherent within it. Therefore, its emanations are not born from it but through it. Thus "the Great Breath thrills through space" and perceiving this, ancient seers of wisdom recognized in the androgynous and self-fructifying nature of the lotus a perfect symbol for the most sacred of mysteries.
All parts of the lotus are deeply symbolic, as is the process of its growth. There is no detail of its life cycle which does not offer us a rich clue in our efforts to understand the nature of being. Egyptian goddesses were often depicted carrying lotus stalk staves as their insignia. This is extremely significant when related to the fact that the stalk, which grows from the roots through the water to its surface, was considered a symbol for the umbilicus. The ancient Egyptians considered the earth, in which the lotus roots took hold, to be the womb of Isis, the stalk to be the umbilicus growing through the water of the womb to produce a flower from which a divine child emerged. Thus they believed Osiris, hovering above, and Isis, the waters of life below, became the parents of Horus, the divine man. The Secret Doctrine tells us that the mud in which the lotus roots grow represents material life, while the water through which the stalk passes represents the astral world. When the plant reaches the surface of the water and opens its bud to the sun, it represents spiritual being. In this poetical metaphor the water symbolizes the celestial and the terrestrial ocean or astral plane, reminding us that what is true above is also true below.
The fully-opened lotus symbolizes the universe. In India the eight-petalled lotus is that wherein Brahma dwells, and when open it is considered to be the visible manifestation of his activities. The thousand-petalled lotus is a symbol of final revelation and at its center rests a triangle which inscribes the 'great formless emptiness.' In Buddhist tradition the fully-opened lotus is believed to have a strong solar character and its petals are likened to the rays of the sun. So closely has the Buddha been related to the lotus that certain of his teachings have been named after it. The Buddha is believed to have preached the 'Lotus of Truth' from Grdha-buta, a place in the third world to be realized by every true Buddhist in some life through his enlightenment derived from the truths taught in the 'Lotus.' It is believed that the transformation of the present world into a paradise can occur through the 'Lotus' which expounds fully the oneness of all life. So fundamental a truth is embodied in this seed teaching that it has had a widespread and profound effect on poetry and literature throughout the Orient. In Japan even the Genji Monogatari reflects delightful and affectionate associations of people with flowers, seasons and physical surroundings, revealing keys to the varied characters in the epic. This fusion of man with nature in poetry and song captures something of the truth taught in the 'Lotus.'
The growth process of the lotus to its full flowering and the dispersion of its seeds provides a beautiful metaphor for the incarnation of the Buddha. Like the lotus which germinates under the water and rises to the surface to unfold, so the Buddha born in the impure world rises to enlightenment. Taking on a body, that divine being immersed himself in the soil of the earth – the mud beneath the waters. Growing toward the sun of spiritual awareness, he passed through the astral realms of delusion. Upon his enlightenment, the Buddha was born again into a realm of divine knowledge out of the flower of manifest life. The Buddha gave forth his teachings like the lotus its seeds, carefully nurturing them until they were mature and then aiding their dispersal upon the waters of life. The teachings, like the buoyant seeds, dispersed upon the akasic waters, floated widely and gradually descended through the astral realms to the soil of material life below. There they took root to struggle anew towards their divine realization.
It is extremely difficult to plant a lotus but once it buries its roots deeply in the soil, it is strong and will multiply beyond belief. Its roots must have breadth and depth in which to grow, while its growing-tip must remain uncovered in order to turn and enter back into the soil through its own power. The lotus growing-tip must bury itself or it will die. Only after this process is complete will the plant put forth the stalk that will eventually reach the surface. Like the power of the manifesting universe, the roots of the lotus grow in circles and must be planted in a circular body of water. Sharp corners or angles may kill the tendrils as they arc out in their multiplication. As in the planting of the lotus so it is with the sowing of spiritual ideas. There is great toil involved in giving them root but once rooted they will proliferate. In the minds of men they need breadth and depth in which to flourish, and in each individual there must be a unique effort to turn back within the soil of one's being and discover the self-born nourishment of the spiritual plant.
Thus the individual gradually realizes the potentialities of being, symbolized by the flower on the surface of the water. Since the unfolding is exercised from the center of each petal, it is impossible for external action to be brought to bear upon the total flower. Such action is only possible on a particular petal. All planes must be affected simultaneously from a central point in precisely the same way that man must realize the potentialities of being by means of an activity which is always internal. The opening out of the lotus petals is in response to the synthesis of the sun's rays by the central lotus heart. In cosmic terms, the ray flashes into the germ. The Matripadma swells "expanding from within without like the bud of the lotus." This process describes the workings of the dual creative powers in nature, the lotus being the product of air and water or spirit and matter. As such, it is a symbol of the productive powers of spiritual and physical nature and the agency through which they manifest.
The lotus combines the unknowable mystery wherein the One Infinite All becomes focalized in the manifest Ray-Point-Germ – the mystery of the First and Second Logos. "It is from Padma Yoni, 'The Bosom of the Lotus,' from Absolute Space, that emanates the Cosmos, conditioned and limited by time and space." For "as soon as DARKNESS – or rather that which is 'darkness' for ignorance – has disappeared in its own realm of eternal Light, leaving behind itself only its divine manifested Ideation, the creative Logoi have their understanding opened, and they see in the ideal work (hitherto concealed in divine thought) the archetypal forms of all, and proceed to copy and build or fashion upon these models form evanescent and transcendent." The Demiurge must perceive the plan buried in the bosom of Eternal Ideation. The plan of the entire universe lies hidden within the seed to be realized by that which in reality is itself.
The seed-germ and the fully-opened lotus are together represented by the sacred Avalokiteswara Padmapani, 'the on-looking Lord.' Avaloki means 'on-looker' and represents the Higher Self or Atman, while Padmapani represents the Higher Ego or Manas, the sentient reincarnating Principle in man. In esoteric interpretation Avalokiteswara is the Logos both celestial and human, and the Yogacharya School teaches that Avalokiteswara as Padmapani is the Dhyani Bodhisattva, the spiritual reflection of Amitabha Buddha in the world of forms. Thus the lotus Padmapani is the divine bridge between heaven and earth, and it is only by following the Padmapani bridge within that man can realize the 'Lotus of Truth.' Just as the lotus stalk is the pivotal point in universal evolution, so man is the pivotal being struggling to manifest the flower that will reflect the Spiritual Sun of the Onlooking Lord. By assuming the Padma Asana posture within the mind and heart, the disciple can approach the Lord Buddha, conqueror and master of the world of thought and philosophy. In infinite calm the Lord sits upon a lotus in full bloom, symbol of the cosmos encompassed by his comprehension.