What makes flowers sacred to different faiths-Part 2

(To read the first part of this post click on sacred-flowers-part-1)

Comparative mythology also considers various symbols Gods are associated with. The objects their idols hold, weapons or even flowers. Each has an important significance. The practice of assigning special meanings to flowers is known as Florigraphy. It is a branch of symbology. The Rose and the Lily hold a special significance  in Roman, Greek, Mesopotamian and Christian cultures. The Egyptians use blue lotus and Asians offer scared Lotus to their Gods. They hold a special significance in their iconography.

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Egyptian Blue Lotus

Water Lilly or Egyptian Blue Lotus (Nymphaea caerulea)

The Water Lily or blue Lotus is strongly connected with Egyptian culture, and it features in many ancient paintings and carvings. They can be seen on the walls of the famous temple of Karnak. It is frequently depicted in connection with celebrations, dancing or in significant spiritual magical rites such as the rite of passage into the afterlife.

egyptitian-god-of-the-underworld-osiris-with-the-offerings-made-to-him-blue-lotus-as-a-symbol-of-rebirth
Egyptian God of the underworld, Osiris with the offerings made to him- blue Lotus as a symbol of rebirth.

the blue Lotus in Egyptology is, associated with the Sun, the creation, and the rebirth. Egyptians scholars observed that just like the Sun, the blue lotus closed its flowers and sank into the water at night. In reality the Lotus slowly emerges from a pond over a three-day period and then blooms in the mornings until mid-afternoon. The Egyptians therefore associated the lotus flower with the sun, which also disappeared in the night, only to re-emerge in the morning.

tomb-chapel-of-nebamun-wall-painting-the-british-museum-acquired-11-wall-paintings-from-the-tomb-chapel-of-a-wealthy-egyptian-official-called-nebamun-in-the-dating-from-about-1350-bc-they-are-some
Tomb Chapel of Nebamun, wall painting showing a pharaoh and queen with blue lotus, papyrus and abundant fauna.The British Museum acquired 11 wall paintings from the tomb-chapel of a wealthy Egyptian official called Nebamun dated about 1350 BC. They are some of the most famous works of art from Ancient Egypt.

In many hieroglyphics works the lotus is depicted as emerging from Nun (the primordial water) bearing the Sun God. This plant is known to be associated with rebirth. This is a consequence of it supposedly retracting into the water at the night, and emerging a fresh in the Sun the next day. As something that is associated with rebirth, it is no surprise that the blue lotus flower is also associated with death. The famous Egyptian book of the dead is known to include spells that are able to transform a person into a lotus, thus enabling resurrection.

Priestess with blue lotuses and green Papyruses in background
Priestess with blue lotuses and green Papyruses. Modern painting inspired by Tomb chapel of Nebanum paintings.

Another interesting fact about the lotus flower was that it was used as a symbol for the unification of the two Egyptian kingdoms, the merger of Upper and Lower Egypt. For a long time the lotus had been used in the hieroglyphics and art of Upper Egypt, whereas in Lower Egypt the Papyrus plant was notably in abundance. Pictures of lotus and Papyrus that had grown up together and become inter-wound with each other, came to be a symbol of the bringing together of the two kingdoms.

Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)

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The sacred Lotus emerging out of water.

Every religion tries to associate its concepts with some common examples in nature.  Anyone who has ever observed a lotus flower emerging from a murky pond, cannot fail to marvel at the beauty of its exquisite bloom. The flower always looks clean and pure against the backdrop of the dirty water. Staying in deep slush if needed, and using the same slush to evolve further, remaining untouched by everything and anything around us. This tolerance and resilience is precisely what the Asian religions perpetuate. The lotus is perfect for this purpose, grown from filth, it has longevity with beauty and subtle fragrance.

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Seeds of immortality- a-lotus pod with ripe seeds.

Lotus has the highest seed longevity known to man. The seeds can grow in to a thriving lotus plant, even after a hibernation of 3000 years, which is the longest ever recorded. Seed of Sacred Lotus from an ancient lakebed at Pulantien, Liaoning Province, China, has been successfully germinated and subsequently radiocarbon dated. This is the oldest  viable and directly dated seed ever reported.

The preserved Lotus seeds are relics of the earliest crops of lotus, cultivated by Buddhists at Pulantien, when Buddhism was introduced form India. Among its many meanings and significance, the lotus is a symbol of “spontaneous” generation, and so it also represents divine birth, spiritual development and creation itself.

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Wooden statue of buddha on a lotus

Buddhism associates lotus with purity, spiritual awakening and faithfulness. The flower is considered pure as it is able to emerge from murky waters in the morning and be perfectly clean. The eight-petaled lotus, in Buddhist mandalas, means cosmic harmony. (Mandalas are geometric patterns used as symbolic or metaphysical representations of the universe and the spiritual path.) Mandalas are often used as an object of focus to aid in meditation. The thousand-petal lotus signifies spiritual illumination. In this case, each opening of the petal is the gradual unfolding of the consciousness on the path of enlightenment.

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Two views of Bahai temple New Delhi.

Bahaism link lotus with their sacred number nine, that is a numeric addition of their God’s name ‘Baha’ symbolised by the nine-point star or a nine-petal lotus. They have constructed the world famous lotus temple in Delhi, which is an architectural wonder.

Among Jains lotus again is used to aid meditation. Disciples are asked to imagine a lotus in the chest area with divine light around it. The twenty-four Teerthnkar statues are shown seated in padmasan on a fully open lotus, eyes shut. A little eight-petal lotus is carved on the chest to show their meditative state.

In Hinduism Lotus is an integral part of the Iconography. Gods are shown seated on the lotus indicative of their higher spiritual status. It is called the ‘Padma’. The cross-legged seated position as Padmasana. Feet of the God are described as Charan-kamal and eyes as Kamal-nayan. It has several names like Neeraj, Jalaj, Waarij, Pankaj- all pointing to its birth from water or slush.

bronze-statue-of-lakshmi-on-a-lotus-half-open-lotus-in-hand-symbolic-of-her-patronage-for-her-yet-to-evolve-disciples
statue of Lakshmi on a lotus half open lotus in hand symbolic of her patronage for her yet to evolve disciples.

Many of the gods and goddesses of Hinduism are linked to the flower, for example the goddess of prosperity, Laxmi, is usually depicted as being seated atop a fully opened lotus flower.

As a holy symbol in Indian culture and a sacred symbol of Hinduism, the lotus is found throughout the Hindu scriptures. Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe in these scriptures is depicted sitting in a lotus. He is said to have born from the lotus that was growing out of the navel of Lord Vishnu. So the only plant that is capable of lasting the Pralaya (great Deluge) and carry on the creation is the Lotus.

rebirth-of-brahma-at-the-begining-of-new-kalpa-at-dashavatar-temple-gupta-period-deogarh-lalitpur-u-p
Rebirth of Brahma at the begining of new kalpa at Dashavatar Temple (Gupta-period) – Deogarh, Lalitpur. U. P.

The specific yogic teaching that addresses energy centers within the human being, known as the chakra system, uses a lotus with varied numbers of petals to represent each particular chakra. The crown chakra is the thousand-petal lotus, and its blossoming indicates enlightenment.

a-female-figurine-with-lotus-blooms-in-hair-and-jewelry-and-crown-could-be-a-local-goddess-for-y-like-the-lakshmi-in-later-scriptures
Harappa Lotus lady- A female figurine with lotus-blooms in hair and jewellery and crown could be a local goddess.

As a lotus is able to emerge from Muddy Waters clean and pure, it is considered to represent a wise and spiritually enlightened quality in a person; it is representative of somebody who carries out their tasks with little concern for any reward and with a full liberation from attachment. It is very interesting how the open flower and the unopened Lotus bud forms are associated with human traits. The unopened bud is representative of a folded soul that has the ability to unfold and open itself up to the divine truth. So in the temples God statues, they sit or stand on open double ring lotuses and hold lotus buds in their hands, symbolic of their patronage of the ignorant capable of evolving.

Across the South East Asia, the Jain and Hindu temples and Buddhist Monasteries carry the lotus on ceilings, walls, floors, windows, grills and doorknobs as a gentle reminder to the disciple of his status as a pure lotus in the murky world. It is such a universal and sacred symbol of the main religions of India that Emperor Ashoka included it in his seal. The National emblem of India.

the-inverted-bell-shaped-lotus-flower-at-the-base-of-lion-seal-of-ashoka-at-sarnath-has-been-adopted-as-the-national-emblem-of-india
The inverted bell-shaped lotus flower at the base of lion seal of Ashoka at Sarnath, has been adopted as the National Emblem of India.

My learning from the sacred flowers

Flowers have long served religious, political, social and interpersonal communication purposes. A trend that I found was that Greeks and Romans considered Roses and lilies as representatives of love, sexuality and fertility but with the Christians hold values of purity and virginity more sacred. These flowers also changed their meanings and came to symbolise these values with passage of time.

Change in history made them to become symbols of values exactly contrasting from the past. Probably at the beginning Romans and Greeks were warrior clans who lost soldiers to war and women and children to disease, the survival was celebrated. But Christianity emerged as the religion of peasants and simple people, ruled by the powerful Romans who held service and sacrifice more honorable.

There is also a difference in the use of flowers among the Western and Eastern cultures. The western sacred flowers are used in normal life and exchanged among common people. Leading them to become widely cultivated and marketed. The Egyptians, Buddhists and Hindus, however have reserved their sacred flowers for the Gods. They are not offered to people.

Which ever way they are used or whatever they signify, flowers remain an integral part of offerings in worship. As part of wall frescos, paintings, sculptures and idol designs, they convey and reinforce the philosophy of these faiths.

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