Lotuses of many colors grow in Asia, Egypt, the Americas, and Australia, and in all these places it has been used as a symbol. Theosophy interprets this symbolism as alluding to the unfoldment of the inner divine potential, and two parallels between spiritual and physical planes and between cosmic creation and spiritual rebirth. Because its seed already has within it perfectly formed embryo leaves and whole plantlets — even to the flowers — this water lily symbolizes the recalling of the universe from the Eternal at the beginning of a great solar cycle. It also hints at the concealment of the ideal world within the mundane, and the ability to access the former through the latter. The lotus is called "the child of the Universe bearing the likeness of its mother in its bosom," H. P. Blavatsky emphasizing that "spiritual prototypes of all things exist in the immaterial world before those things become materialised on Earth . . ." (Theosophical Glossary, p. 191; The Secret Doctrine 1:58). Moreover, because it has buds, blossoms, and seed pods simultaneously on the same plant, it has symbolized the past, present, and future.
The ancient Egyptians and Indians noticed that the lotus responds to the presence or absence of light and warmth, submerging itself by night and rising from the water at dawn, symbolically "worshiping the sun." This sun-loving habit made it a symbol for Horus, the Egyptian Christ/Krishna figure, born of the waters of creation. The sun god Ra rises from the blue lotus, as in the primordial cosmogony when he rose from Nun, the abyss of the chaos. The sun disk of Ra/Horus was hidden by the lotus's enclosing petals; when they opened, the sun rose and flew out in the form of a child wearing the solar disk on his head. The Papyrus of Ani describes the deceased actually turning into a lotus in order to be like Ra and Horus, with a renewed body to enter ``heaven'' day after day. (The Book of the Dead, tr. E. A. Wallis Budge, p. 310) Egyptians, Hindus, and Buddhists had private lotus gardens where priests daily reenacted creation's first sunrise.
The lotus also appears in India in Hindu accounts of creation. In one version, after the utterance of the first Om, the vast primordial ocean brought forth "a wondrous golden lotus, resplendent as the sun, which floated upon the lonely waters." From Om issued the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, who are represented seated on golden lotuses. This picture recalls the creation process where the dry land emerged from an ocean of milk in a churn placed on the tortoise of the world.
Another Hindu version of creation portrays the emergence of the heavenly man, Purusha, from the mundane egg which grew about him after "desire first arose in It," thrilling life through the sleeping spaces to create the first differentiation. The creation of Vishnu followed: he slept on a lotus, and a lotus stem issued from his navel. In The Secret Doctrine Blavatsky says that the growth of the lotus from Vishnu's navel, as he rests in the waters of space on the serpent of infinity, illustrates the universe's evolution from the central sun, "the ever-concealed germ" (1:379). The waters are the womb of space and the stalk is the umbilical cord.
From this lotus grew Brahma, the creator, who seated himself in the natal position on the lotus, contemplating the eternal, thus dispersing darkness and opening his understanding. Then he began his creative work as demiurgos, an act which comprises the efforts of heat and water (spirit and matter) in relation to the mundane and divine creators. This may be why Hindus use the lotus to represent nature's productive power working through the agency of fire/water or spirit/matter.
Vishnu's consort and feminine aspect, Lakshmi, at her birth surged forth from the ocean standing upon the white lotus, which is her emblem. Goddess of wisdom, love, and beauty, she corresponds to the European Venus, who also was born by rising from the water amid flowers. Lakshmi is the symbol of eternal being. As the mother of the world, she is eternal and imperishable; just as Vishnu is all pervading, so also is she omnipresent. (E. Moor, The Hindu Pantheon, p. 17)
Another Hindu figure associated with the lotus is Padmapani ("lotus bearer"), the dhyan-chohan who holds a lotus in one of his four hands. In this capacity the lotus symbolizes generation. Called Avalokitesvara in Tibet and Kwan-Yin in China, Padmapani symbolizes the present great age, the Padma Kalpa, in which Brahma sprang from the lotus.
Turning to Buddhism, Gautama Buddha has been described as "the flower of the human tree, only opening once in myriads of years but (when) once opened (it) fills the world with the perfume of his wisdom and the honey of his love, from the royal root shall grow a celestial lotus." (E. Schure, "Le Buddha et sa legende," Revue des deux mondes, July 1, 1885, pp. 595-6) As he meditated on life's sufferings beneath the Jambu tree, a woman thought he was a forest god and offered him food; he likened this kindness to drops of dew which gather and eventually fill the calyx of the lotus flower — a reference to the mantram Om mani padme hum, the life of all is a dewdrop or "jewel at the heart of the lotus."
On the night Gautama was conceived, a huge lotus is said to have grown out of the earth. This lotus was synonymous with the golden lotus, shining like the sun, from which Brahma emerged, thus in effect containing the whole universe. As one enlightened during his life on earth, Buddha is given the attribute of a lotus throne, since the lotus is the symbol of the dvija or "twice-born." The lotus models many-faceted man reaching up to the divine, with its roots in the mud of material life, a stalk passing through the waters of existence in the astral world, and with its florescence occurring on the water looking up to the spiritual realms of the sky. Earth, water, and air may also stand for the material, intellectual, and spiritual worlds. Being seated upon an opened lotus flower, as if issuing from it, represents Buddha's mastery over the intellectual and philosophic world.
The lotus ornament is widespread, found also in Assyrian, Syrian, and Carthaginian temple friezes and capitals. In fact, so prominent is it that one 19th century scholar, Goodyear, believed all ornament in Asia Minor and southern Europe originated from the lotus form, and that this was a reference to the universality of sun worship. The Christian alternative to the lotus is the white lily (Lilium candidum) which, relating to Mary as Queen of Heaven, signifies both fertility and purity. Traditionally the Archangel Gabriel carries the lily of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. In artistic representations the lily was originally a baton which under the influence of Assyriac symbolism was depicted with sprouting lily buds, in later art becoming a spray of lily flowers. Blavatsky interprets this spray of lilies as typifying fire and water, or creation and generation, and as an exact parallel to the lotus associated with Maya, the mother of Gautama Buddha, a powerful symbol of spiritual unfoldment.
The lotus and water lily are prominent symbols in Egyptian, Biblical, Classical, European, Indian, and theosophical literature. They relate to creation, regeneration, and the state of the initiate and higher beings, all of whom travel through life's vicissitudes and trials to become at one with the creative source of life in order to return and spread its light to other receptive souls.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)