The Sacred Lotus - Nelumbo nucifera

By M. Arjoca,

This plant with beautiful leaves and flowers is an aquatic plant which together with American Lotus belongs to genus Nelumbo and must be distinguished from water lilies.
Sacred lotus is native to India and can be found in entire Asia. It grows in lakes, ponds and in floodable regions.
Its roots grow in mud on the bottom of the lakes but the leaves and flowers float above the water. The long stalks contain air and rise up from water to unfold the papyrus scrolls-like leaves. The circular leaves are green and have a diameter up to 60 cm (about 23.62 in).
The fragrant flowers, with a diameter between 20-25 cm (about 7.8 - 9.8 in), rise few cm (in) above the water and have pink or white color. They open in the morning and close up in the evening and after about 5 days, the petals fall and a fruit which looks like the head of a watering can remains. In this fruit stay the seeds.
The roots, the leaves, the flowers and the seeds are edible and they are used in traditional Asian medicine and cuisine.
The lotus is a special plant not only for its beauty and elegance, but also for its impressive adaptation to environment, fact which determined India to choose it as national emblem. It is also the national flower of Vietnam and Macao and a symbol for Asia in general.
In Hindu religion and culture the lotus is a sacred plant (like the basil too), many mythological stories, the literature and art describing it for its very old symbols.
According to Hindu beliefs, at the beginning of time, when nothing existed and the entire universe was just a vast ocean, Prajapati, the protector of life, saw a lotus leaf coming up from the water and from a golden lotus flower with thousand petals the new world was born. So the water symbolizes the primordial element from which the life (represented here by lotus flower), came.
In another version, at the beginning, when there was nothing, and god Vishnu, the preserver of life, the one who is in all and everything, was meditating in heavens, from his navel rose a lotus stalk with a flower. When the flower opened, inside of it was Brahma, the god of creation. His role was to recreate the world after the Flood destroyed it. Once again the birth of the new world is symbolic presented, the lotus stalk which rises up from the navel of Vishnu is the umbilical cord and the flower is the opening from which life was born. The flower has Brahma inside, his role being to create things.
Symbolizing life and creation, the lotus is associated with almost every Hindu deity who appears in paintings or sculptures seated or holding a lotus flower.
Beside the symbol of creation, the lotus has a strong spiritual meaning, being an example of how to live your life. Sprouting from a seed on the bottom of the lakes and having the roots in mud, the lotus succeeds to rise up through muddy waters and get out to the surface where it opens his leaves and a beautiful fragrant flower.  
The man should watch this special plant and guide his life in a way that even if his "roots" are anchored in the mud and in the filthiness of material world, he must try to pass through the unclear waters of daily experiences without staining himself. After this he must rise up into the light.
The spiritual life of man must be similar to the life of lotus. Begin humble on the bottom of the waters, but grow aiming the surface where, when you get you will be enlightened.
Because lotus flower symbolizes enlightment and purity, those who stay on it must be great, unstained, untouched by material and emotional issues, must be divine. That’s why the majority of Hindu gods are portrayed sitting on or holding a flower.
Lakshmi, the goddess of light, fertility, wealth, wisdom and good luck, the one who is the embodiment of beauty and grace, is portrayed sitting on a pink lotus flower and holding in her hands lotus flowers. She is the consort of god Vishnu, the preserver of life and sometimes her name is Lotus or The one who loves lotuses. Even her birth is associated with this plant because some stories say that Lakshmi came from the foam of the ocean sitting on a lotus flower. Other stories say that she came from the ocean holding in hand a lotus flower.
Another deity associated with this plant is Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music, art and education. She is often portrayed sitting on a white lotus flower, the symbol of purity and true knowledge.
But not only the Hindu gods are associated with this flower. A special meaning it also has in Buddhism. Many times Buddha is portrayed sitting on an opened flower, symbol of spiritual enlightment and true knowledge. It is said that where Buddha stepped lotus flowers appeared.
So, the lotus is the symbol of purity, enlightenment, supreme wisdom and a model for life.
It is the subject of mantra: Om mani padme hum, a group of sounds, which repeated it's supposed to bring the bless and help of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. This group of sounds can be translated as: the jewel in the lotus or the jewel-lotus.
Not only the Hindu and Buddhist gods are portrayed sitting on or holding a lotus flower, also the temples are decorated with leaves and flowers. The plant has significance not only for art, religious beliefs and rituals, but for Asian literature and popular culture too. Often the poets use as a metaphor the way it adapted to the harsh environment to encourage people to have hope. They must continue to live in spite of the troubles and worries the life brings, aiming to achieve spiritual peace and fulfillment.
Symbolizing life, fertility, rebirth, feminine beauty and grace, lotus flower is a female name in Asia, the beauty of the eyes being often compared with these flowers. The paintings, ceramics and cloths are decorated with leaves, buds and lotus flowers patterns.
Because its roots are in the mud, the stalks rise up through water and the flowers open in the sunlight, the entire plant is associated with the elements of life: earth, water, air and light. The fact that on a single plant there are in the same time buds, flowers and fruits, makes it to symbolize the past, the present and the future.
Even if it germinates in mud and grows trough filthy waters, the lotus keeps itself permanently clean and this makes it represent the purity of body, mind, speech and sexual life. To this kind of purity it’s supposed that humans should aspire.
Inspired by this plant, the architect Fariborz Sahba completed in 1986 the construction of Baha’I house of worship in Delhi, house known as the Lotus Temple. One of the most visited buildings in the world. This temple with the shape of a lotus flower received many prizes for its architecture, its contribution to religious art and for its contribution to promoting harmony between people from different nations, religions and social classes. Any person, regardless of her religion or her affiliation to any kind of organization is welcome here to worship God.
But the lotus has drawn attention not only from spiritual point of view, many scientists being impressed by its special qualities which permit such a good adaptation to hostile environment.
Being intrigued by the fact that this plant is permanently clean, researchers studied how it succeeds to keep itself this way and why the mud and water don’t stain it. The results of the researches are known today as the lotus effect. If you throw water on a lotus leaf, the drops gather and form beads which then slip of it and the leaf remain like it was untouched.
The secret is in the special structure of the leaf that has on the surface a sort of spikes brush. These spikes have micron dimensions and stay very closed together, fact which doesn’t let the water come between them and makes the surface very smooth. Plus these spikes are covered by a layer of special wax which doesn’t allow the water and dirt adhere to the leaf.
This quality has the role to protect the lotus not only from impregnation with water and dirt (in this case the sunlight would not have full access to the leaf), but from bacteria and fungi too.
Scientists from different areas try to reproduce physical and chemical this effect. So, there have been created glass, synthetic materials, paints, tiles to which water and dirt don’t adhere.
But not only for industrial area is this effect important, also for medicine and spatial engineering. NASA scientists try to obtain and use it to protect astronaut costumes, space ships, aircrafts, instruments on board, solar panels etc. from bacteria, dirt and other contaminations.
Researchers from biology field discovered that beside the quality of keeping itself clean, the lotus plant regulates the temperature of its flowers. The temperature stays between 30 °C - 35 °C (86 °F-95 °F) when the temperature of environment lowers to 10 °C (50 °F). How lotus plant succeeds to do this and why it does it are still unknown.
It is supposed that the flower which closes in the evening, stays warm to attract insects which love the warmth. These insects remain captive inside until the morning. During the night they became very active and load themselves with pollen and in the morning when the flower opens, they can go to other flowers and pollinate them.
Other opinions are that the role of warmth is to stimulate the production of pollen, how it happens in the case of other plants. Some say that the warmth makes the flower emanates a stronger perfume and this way it attracts pollinators (insects and animals).
Impressive is also the longevity and the germination power of the seeds. It seems that the lotus seeds found on a dried lake bed in China germinated after few hundred years.
So, this plant with special properties, with very old symbols, with its spiritual, scientific and material meanings, justifies its place between sacred plants and invites to be grown in our own garden.