The lotus flower has long been a spiritual symbol found in cultures around the world. It has been used in ceremonies and artistic renditions by the people who honored it. Its unique behavior has many believing it is a mysterious flower with God-like attributes. As we uncover some of the magic behind the lotus, you too will see why this seemingly common pond flower happens to be so significant.
The lotus flower as we know it today is scientifically named Nelumbo nucifera, but commonly referred to as the "Indian Lotus" or "Sacred Lotus". The less commonly known but historically vital "Blue Lotus" has been reclassified in recent years as a Water Lily and is scientifically named Nymphaea caerulea. This species originated along the Nile Valley in Africa and spread to places such as India and Thailand. Other lesser known varieties of the lotus/lily exist as well such as Nymphaea nouchali, Nymphaea odorata and Nymphaea lotus.
The Lily and Lotus families are frequently mistaken for one another and understandably so as they were for many years classified as the same plant. They share growth patterns, similar features and edible traits, however, scientists have more recently separated them into their own Family and Order. Regardless of their proposed differences, their historic significance remains unified.
The oldest records of this botanical variety actually reference the Blue Water Lily which bloomed in the standing waters off the Nile River. The more commonly known "Lotus" was made famous in India some generations later for its grace and beauty. Both flowers have been used for spiritual ceremonies and in ancient paintings depicting the lotus/lily among people of honor and nobility. For ease of reading, I will hereinafter refer to both as simply “lotus”.
A remarkable God-like trait of the lotus flower, that draws much mystery and allure, is that the plant can control the temperature of its flower within a small range just as our human bodies can. Researchers suspect this is to maintain an ideal temperature for coldblooded insects which help to pollinate the flower. Amazingly, the lotus plant can also live for over a thousand years and has been known to revive itself after long periods of dormancy. In fact, an ancient seed (roughly dated at 1,300 years old) was able to be germinated after being discovered in a dry lake bed in Northeast China. Another fascinating trait of the lotus is its ability to rise from muddy waters seemingly unsoiled.
In the Egyptian creation story, before anything else was created on Earth, the surface was covered in water which they referred to as the "primordial water" or “Nun”. On one magical day, a flower bud began to emerge from the water in harmony with the rising sun. As it opened, the blue petals from the lotus revealed a tiny man sitting inside; that man was Nefertem. As he stood he stretched out his hands, offering the vast and diverse display of plant life to the world. This is why Nefertem is referred to as the God of beautification, cosmetics and the healing arts.
From this rich beginning and throughout time, the lotus has been cherished at weddings, funerals and even dinner time – its use ranging widely based on the beliefs of the culture using it. To some, this flower symbolizes renewal. As the sun sets (the lotus closes) we retreat to rejuvenate ourselves via sleep; as the sun rises (the lotus opens) we are once again reborn as we rise to consciousness. To others, it reminds them that pure thoughts and speech should be held in the highest regard. One can see the association to purity and cleanliness in the way the flower bud emerges from notoriously muddy water unsoiled.
Others have enjoyed the lotus plant through traditional dishes, medicine and drugs. All parts of the lotus plant are edible; however some parts do require cooking before eating to kill parasites and harmful bacteria. In many Asian countries, the roots, leaves, flowers and stems are sautéed, steamed, used as garnish and made into teas. In some countries, the lotus plant is considered an illegal drug. In fact, Poland, Latvia and Russia have banned the plant and warned that anyone in possession can face serious criminal charges. It is also believed that due to its sedating effects, it was the drug of choice by one mythical entity in Homer’s Odyssey.
Learning Indian, African, Asian and European history will reveal many instances where the lotus plays a significant role as a symbol of honor and insight. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, many Gods and Goddesses are portrayed holding a lotus flower, smelling a lotus flower or crowned with a lotus flower – Nefertem is one such God. In India, statues and paintings honoring Buddha depict him sitting on a lotus flower to symbolize enlightenment and detachment from material possessions. The Hindu Goddess Lakshmi is adorned with a lotus in her hand and a lotus beneath her feet. Lotuses are also seen carved into Hindu temples to signify purity of the mind, body and speech.
It is said that an essential factor in becoming enlightened is to learn the ways of nature. The lotus offers a great lesson likened to that of the Yin Yang Symbol – one cannot exist without the other. In order to know the beauty of the lotus, we must also know the ugliness of the muddy waters to which it emerges. Together, they create a balance.
For such a seemingly simple flower/plant, the lotus is a mesmerizing symbol. Whether used as food in Japan or as a spirit enhancing mechanism in Egypt, the lotus is cherished worldwide. And for good reason, it truly is fascinating to watch the flower’s multitude of petals unfold in the daylight to reveal its unique seed pod/fruit. Then, watch it fold up with the setting sun reminds me personally, of the natural balance of the cycle of life.
The life of the lotus is mesmerizing and simple at the same time. Whether it is used as food in Japan or as head adornment in Egypt, its symbolic beauty is rich and evident. Who could blame our ancestors for cherishing it so? If you ever get the chance, visit a murky pond early in the morning and practice stillness as you await the big reveal of each and every petal. Only then will you understand why so many cultures spanning so many lands hold the lotus flower in such high regard.