Why is the lotus so dear across the East? If you are born here or had lived here for some time, you would not need to ask. Or perhaps you might, because those who read English and live in cities since that is where the work is, rarely get to see a real lotus pond. It remains no more than a pretty idea.
To understand why the lotus is so important to Eastern belief, we could try to first imagine ourselves as seeds, as the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn teaches. Simple pravachans (discourses) by popular gurus almost always speak of how we should be lotus-like individuals: the lotus may grow out of sticky mud but itself stands pure above its place of origin.
However, when you encounter Sri Vidya or ‘Goddess Knowledge’, which is most strong, deep and powerful in Kerala, you feel a frisson of almost fearful wonder when you first set eyes on a Sri Yantra. This is the mandala or mystic diagram of the 1,000-petalled lotus that contains all life and is a metaphor for the topmost chakra, the Sahasrara (‘1000-petalled’). That is Kailash, that is Vaikunth as understood by our siddhas or spiritual masters. It is not a physical place beyond the moon where our souls will ride after death on pink clouds edged with gold, but where we go in our own heads through awareness and realisation.
As is obvious to us all, it is the ‘lotus-nature’ of the lotus that must have made our thinkers choose this flower above all others as a perfect physical illustration of what life and ‘God’ are all about. Inside that tiny seed is the ‘aprameya’ (immeasurable) potential of the Mystery. How perfect, how worthy, then, is the lotus to be the throne of the Most High. And so we think of the human heart itself as a lotus, the hriday kamal, enthroning our best and noblest impulses, which were given to us as gifts to develop and make our lives bloom…”sada vasantam hridayaaravinde”, ‘may my heart-lotus bloom in eternal Spring’.
Brahma the Creator may sit on a lotus, but the other deities seem to prefer eagles, bulls, lions, mice, peacocks and owls. However when Bhagavati, the Goddess, is at rest, her throne is always a lotus. The logic extends to her ugra (fierce) avatars as Mahishasuramardini, Chhinamastaka and Sheraanwali Ma (Durga). That serene figure seated on a lotus is herself ‘lotus-petal-eyed’ (saroja dala netri) with ‘lotus feet’ (metaphors for beauty for both Devi and Vishnu). But she has the potential to turn into a roaring demon-killer when she must and inspires prayers like “Hail Goddess, who is the strength in each being.”
It is no wonder that so heroic, gifted and complex a personality as Guru Gobind Singh, accused by the now politically ‘correct’, of militarizing the Sikhs – but did the Guru have a choice under an absolute monarch? – was himself deeply attached to Devi.
He composed the Chandi Charitr and the Antim Ardas (ceremonial prayer) he wrote begins: “Pratham Bhagoti simrit hai…” First, we reverently remember the Goddess…) if I have that correct, for I have only recently learnt it.
Eastern thinkers made these concepts as guides for anyone who appreciated their energy, whatever their official religion. Their gifts do seem worth using.