The Infinite Lotus

The Lotus is ubiquitous in the iconography and literature of India. Exploring the diverse contexts in which it is used throws light on its very deep significance and convergence of meaning.

The Infinite Lotus

The lotus is the quintessential Indian symbol, as well as the mark of Lakshmi – the goddess of Saundarya (beauty) and Saubhāgya(fortune). The images of Lakshmi with her lotus, sometimes flanked by elephants, have appeared in places far away from India. One peculiar object is the Gundestrup Cauldron of Denmark which shows a goddess with lotus and elephants. This is surprising when we note that the lotus, or the elephant, are not native to Europe. Ancient trade connections carried the cultural motifs from India far and wide along with material artefacts produced by its artisans. The motif of lotus embodies not only the Indian ideal of beauty but also its conception of infinity.

[The Gundestrup cauldron of Denmark shows a goddess with lotuses and elephants, and holding her hands in the Padmakōśa (lotus bud) Mudra.]

“Vandē padmakarām, prasanna vadanām” The sweet voice of M.S.Subbulakshmi singing the hymn of Lakshmi Ashtothram can be heard in many Indian households. In this composition, the kavi (poet and mystic) extolls Lakshmi by repeatedly referring to the lotus.

“Padmapriyām, Padmahastām, Padmākshīm, Padmasundarīm

Padmōdbhavām, Padmamukhīm, Padmanābhapriyām Ramām,

Padmamālādharām dēvīm, Padminīm, Padmagandhinīm”

These terms translate to “one who adores the lotus, one who holds the lotus in her hands, one with lotus eyes, one who has the beauty of the lotus, one who is born from the lotus, one with the lotus face, one who is beloved of the lotus-navelled one (Padmanābha or Vishṇu), one who wears a garland of lotuses, one who is symbolic of the lotus, one who has the fragrance of the lotus”. This conveys not only the immense delight of the poet in visualizing the goddess but also a remarkable conception of infinity.

To understand this, we need to isolate the term “Padmōdbhavām” (the one who is born from the lotus). If Lakshmi is born from the lotus, how is the same Lakshmi holding the lotus in her hands? This cannot be reconciled until we realize that this image is a fractal, endlessly expanding with each reference to the lotus. Central to this conception is the term Padmanābhapriyām, which invokes the dual image of Lakshmi with Vishnu, both symbolized with the lotus. Vishṇu is termed Śrinivāsa or Lakshmī-nivāsa, i.e, as the one who resides in Lakshmi. In turn, Lakshmi is referred to as Vishṇu-vaksha-sthala-sthitā, i.e as the one who sits on the chest region of Vishṇu. The word Padmanābha itself has two meanings, as explained by Ādi Shankarāchārya in his Bhāshya (commentary) on the Vishnu Sahasranāma :

sarva jagatkāraṇam padmam nābhau yasya saḥ

the one in whose navel is the lotus which is the origin of the universe

padmasya nābhau madhyē karṇikāyām sthitaḥ

the one who resides at the center of the navel, or the seed pod, of the lotus.

As invoked in the image of Ananta Padmanābha in the temple at Tiruvanathapuram, these two meanings of Padmanābha encode the germination of Vishṇu and the lotus from each other, which is Ananta(unending).

[The lotus ceiling of the Jain temple in Ranakpur. The lotus at the centre of the wheel depicts the infinite potential of consciousness.]

Most people have a rather simple understanding of infinity, imagining it as a very big number, bigger than anything one can think of. Jains termed this notion as asamkhyāta and called it still finite, and contrasted it with the infinite termed as ananta. For a large part of human history, a thousand was such a number and used as a practical placeholder to denote infinity. The Romans did not even have a symbol or word to denote numbers higher than a thousand. The modern mathematical symbol for infinity, known as the leminscate (∞ = CIƆ or CƆ) is a stylistic rendering of thousand in Roman numerals.  Indeed, in a similar manner, the word Sahasra(thousand) was also used in India. The Purusha Sūkta conveys the infinite scope of the cosmic Purusha with the terms Sahasrāksha and Sahasrapāt (possessing a thousand eyes and a thousand limbs). This understanding is elaborated by terms such as Padmāksha(possessing lotus eyes), Padmahasta (possessing lotus hands) and Charaṇapadma (lotus feet). Why did the lotus become the symbol of choice in India for infinity?

[Adisēsha as Ouroboros: The snake is shown to support the turtle (Kūrma) who is nothing but Vishṇu, who in turn supports the four elephants of the four directions, who in turn support the earth, at the centre of which is the Mēru mountain, which represents a person’s consciousness.]

Indeed, Indians used many symbols to denote infinity: an endless knot (that appears in many variants from Indus-Sarasvati civilization to the Rangavallikas that grace Indian homes today), an endless tree that produces itself (Kalpavṛksha, Yddgrasil), an endless snake that supports the universe, sometimes depicted as biting its own tail (Ādiśēsha, Jörmurgrandr, Ouroboros). Some of these symbols travelled across into other cultures. The loop here pictorially represents a recurrence relation e.g, f(n) = f(n)+1, a definition that endlessly betters itself, and thus apt for describing infinity. But not all loops are identical. Differentiating between these loops is a computational problem, which is first recognized by the genius of Pāṇini’s rules for Sanskrit grammar. In a most compact manner, these rules encode the infinite variations of language. Similar to how any object placed in between two mirrors creates endless copies of itself, the rules of Pāṇini reflect a given word into potentially endless variations.

The loop is also used as a narrative device in the Itihāsa literature of India. The epic Mahābhārata is purportedly written by Vyāsa, who also plays a seminal role in the story, which endlessly repeats itself in recursive story-telling that is embedded within. The Vishṇu Sahasranāma nods to this narrative device by not only embedding itself inside the Mahābhārata (narrated by Bhīshma to Yudishṭara in the Mahābhārata war), but also explicitly calling Vyāsa as Vishṇu-rūpāya (possessing the form of Vishṇu) and Vishṇu as Vyāsa-rūpāya(vice-versa).

But despite these various mythical images, it is the lotus that is the symbol of choice for representing the infinite. One of the earliest and most beautiful images is from the chant of Mantra Pushpam in Yajurvēda.

“Yōpām pushpam vēdā, pushpavān prajāvān pashuvān bhavati

Chandramāvā apām pushpam, pushpavān prajāvān pashuvān bhavati

Ya ēvam vēdā, Yōpām āyatanam vēdā, āyatanavān bhavati”

The one who knows the lotus of water, will be the possessor of lotuses, progeny and cattle wealth. Moon is the lotus of water. The one who knows this will be the possessor of lotuses, progeny and cattle. The one who knows this, the one who knows the source of water, will get established in his inner self.

The word ‘Pushpa’ refers to a flower in Sanskrit, but if it is not additionally qualified, it generally refers to the lotus. In the above verse, even this ambiguity is removed by terming it ‘Āpām pushpam’, the flower of water. So what exactly is this lotus? And what exactly is the source of water?

This verse continues with a series of fractal-like images: Fire (Agni) is the source of the water, and water is the source of fire. Wind (Vāyu) is the source of water, and water is the source of wind. Scorching sun (Asauvai Tapaḥ) is the source of water, and water is the source of the scorching sun. Successively, it lists the moon (Chandrama), the stars (Nakshatrāni), the cloud (Parjanya) and the year (Samvatsara) as the source of water and water as their source. If one imagines these different elements at different corners of a circle and water (Āpa) at the center, this verse creates several loops to different corners, ultimately sketching a lotus. It is an infinity that covers all directions.

The Generative Lotus:

This conception of infinity is most elegantly expressed in the Īśāvāsya Upanishad, which uses the term Pūrṇa (completeness).

Ōm pūrṇamadaḥ, pūrṇamidam, pūrṇāt pūrṇamudachyatē

Pūrṇasya pūrṇamādāya pūrṇamēva vasishyatē

Pūrṇa is over there. Pūrṇa is over here. From Pūrṇa is Pūrṇa is born. When Pūrṇa is subtracted from Pūrṇa, only Pūrṇa remains. The first Pūrṇa refers to Prakṛti and the second Pūrṇa refers to Puruṣa of the Sāmkhya philosophical system. Thereby, this verse encodes a deep Advaitic statement that equates both Prakṛti and Purusha to the infinite Pūrṇa, without denying their difference.

This ideal of Pūrṇa (completeness) is the motivation behind building a comprehensive model of reality, that is attempted by the Vyākaraṇa(grammatical) tradition of India. Pāṇini’s Ashṭādhyāyi arose in this tradition and referred to many earlier grammars. But it is the most elegant treatise of generative grammar for Sanskrit, and remains so for any language even today. Until recently, such generative grammars were altogether absent in any other world culture, but they now form the basis for understanding not only natural languages, but also computer languages. In Artificial intelligence, learning generative models (such as generative adversarial networks) is at the cutting edge of research, although current algorithms are not yet able to learn generative models so compact as Pāṇini’s grammar from data alone.

The Indian tradition values Sattva (wholesomeness and harmony) and is thus naturally driven to build a comprehensive model of reality, and to identify epitomes across all variations and possibilities. Muscles in the human body suffer atrophy if they don’t exercise the full range of movements. To compensate for this, YōgicĀsana postures span the diverse poses of human limbs. Similarly, the Sanskrit alphabet consciously spans all the possibilities of vocal utterances. The hand Mudras in Indian dance span the diverse poses of fingers. Indian cuisine spans all the Shaṭ Ruchis (six tastes). Āyurvēda attempts to restore a balance between the 3 Dōshas, in all the possible physical and emotional states. Each of these systems is understood as a lotus that blooms with petals in all directions.

When we talk of infinity as ‘completeness’, we mean something that encloses all other infinities, with nothing beyond it. This raises a peculiar problem that is unique to Indian religions, which is about unseemly things, how can they be part of the infinite?

The Lakshmi Ashṭothram is addressed to “Aditim ca Ditim” (to the limitless one, as well as the limited one), to “Prakṛtim Vikṛtim” (to the natural one, to the abnormal and unnatural one), to “Prasannavadanām Karuṇām” (to the pleasant faced one and the compassionate one) as well as “Kāmākshīm Krōdhasambhavām” (to the ones whose eyes are desire, and to the one who produces anger caused by desire). It is in encapsulating these contradictory and unflattering terms that the lotus shines the most as a symbol for infinity.

Perhaps, the most beautiful enunciation is given by Kālidāsa in the epic poem Kumārasambhava, where he describes Pārvati performing austerities to meditate on Shiva.

Yathā prasddhair maduram śirōrūhair jaṭābhir apyēvam abhūt tadānanam

Na śaṭpadaśrēṇibhir ēva pañkajam saśaivalāsañgam api prakāśatē

Despite her hair hanging in dreadlocks, the face of Pārvati dazzled in beauty, just as the beauty of a lotus derives as much from its beautiful petals as it does from the mud on which it stands.

This idealism is not merely romantic, but derives from a wholesome understanding of infinity, not shy of the unseemly aspects of existence, but which still places beauty at the core of it. To understand this, we need to prod the Kavi Hṛdaya (poet’s heart) of Kālidāsa, who uses the lotus as a metaphor for the beauty of SatChitand Ānanda across the three levels of reality: BhūḥBhuvaḥ and Suvaḥ.

The Lotus Heart:

In Ṛtusamhāra (interplay of seasons), Kālidāsa describes the Śarad Ṛtu (early autumnal season) with many references to the lotus. After the monsoon rains subside, the skies are cleared off the clouds, but the rivers overflow with excess water forming shallow puddles on the banks. The poet describes the sight as follows. 

Kādambasārasacayākulatīradeśāḥ |
Kurvanti haṁsavirutaiḥ parito janasya
Prītim saroruharajo’ruṇitās taṭinyaḥ ||

The river banks pecked by the beaks of partridges, the shore lands which are dense with flocks of geese and saurus cranes, the shallow waters deep red in color by the pollen of red lotuses – all of these delight the hearts of people in autumn.

This is a sight that is unfortunately lost in time. The shorelines are no longer red with the pollen of lotuses. Indeed, it is exceedingly hard in today’s India to find lotuses growing wild in natural water bodies. Neither are the large flocks of migratory birds to be seen everywhere. But those were the sights of Indian civilization. Even before the time of Kālidāsa, we may imagine the broad Saraswati river decked with lotuses and water birds. These natural images gave birth to the mythical images of Saraswati, as well as to the lofty ideals of Brahmāvarta. When people share a sight of beauty, they naturally share a part of their consciousness in each other. Just as the rhythm of the heart draws blood from all organs of the body, beauty is imagined by drawing experience from everyone.

Indian philosophers understood the heart to be the solution to the puzzle of aesthetic experience. How can an artist convey an aesthetic experience to another person? How is it even possible that two people, in two different bodies and with two different life experiences, share a common emotion? It is not possible unless they are Sahṛdaya, or literally joint-hearted. Only a Sahṛdaya would understand the nuances of art, music, or any cultural expression. Culture is essentially a tool for making people walk in step and perceiving reality together. When this becomes entwined with Ṛta – the natural flow of seasons, there will be no enmity between man and nature, or between man and man. The festivals of India are a means to celebrate the cosmic wheel of Ṛta, and realize the beauty which is the Hṛt-padma (lotus-heart) at the centre of it.

When man is enamored of beauty, he calls it by many names. This is reflected in the many names for lotus in Sanskrit literature. Born of water (āpa, vāri, nīra, uda, tōya, jala, saras), it is called abja, vārija, nīraja, udaja, tōyaja, jalaja, sarōja, sarasija, sārasa, sarūdbhava and so on. As it is born in mud (pañka), lotus is called pañkaja. As it grows (rōhanti) in water, it is called sarōrūha, nīrarūha or ambōrūha. There are many other names for lotus including pushkara, aravinda, rājīva, kamala and pundarīka.  The lotus which only blooms at sunrise is called padma. Black lotus is called utpala and the blue variant is called nīlōtpala. In describing the autumn season (most beloved of Saraswati), Kālidāsa uses the vast palette of Sanskrit language: the beauty of a woman’s face is outdone by the white lotus, the sidelong glances of her eyes by the swaying blue lotuses, and the heart-appeasing glow of her smile by the red lotus. These are kavi-samaya i.e, a reality woven by the poet. If we are sahṛdaya and invoke this kavi-samaya, we may perceive a beauty that is greater than either physical reality or the language it is described in.

The Petals of Eight Directions:

Indian conception of Bhuvaḥ (heavens) is exactly identical to the reality of the mind, with the same dēvas (deities) residing in the stars and in the mind. The Atharva Vēda says that both men and the dēvasare placed as spokes to the wheel (of Ṛta), at the center of which the lotus (Pushpa) is placed. The Maitri Upanishad says that this Hṛt-pushkara (lotus of the heart) is the same as Ākāśa (space):  the four quarters and four inter-quarters are its surrounding petals. These eight cardinal directions are protected by the eight deities known as Ashṭa-Dikpālas, who comprehensively describe the reality of the mind.

[The 8 cardinal directions have distinct meanings with respect to how a person faces them, which are represented by deities. The deities of opposite polarities, like Agni and Vāyu, are invoked together to realize the infinity of Pūrṇa.]

The east-west axis is about conscious perception vs. rigid categories. In the east, the sun rises and destroys the darkness (timira) with his rays of the dawn (ushas). In the west, the sunset opens up the night sky, which enables one to observe the cosmic order in terms of the motion of stars and planets. This contrast is brought out by the deities Indra and Varuṇa, who are invoked in the Vēdas to preside over deeds in peace-time and pacts in war-time respectively. Daylight signifies consciousness when people are aware of each other. Night-time signifies periods when this mutual awareness is non-existent, during which people’s behavior needs to be governed according to a regimen of laws and moral code. Varuṇa symbolizes an adherence to written law – the power of language. His weapon is the noose, representing the power of words to capture a living concept, just as a noose captures a Paśu (animal). But language is chaotic. Like how water flows (sarati), the meanings of words change with respect to their context in space and time. Indra symbolizes conscious perception of reality using the 5 senses, that is independent of this, and rooted in the current moment alone. His weapon is the Vajra(lightning) that strikes like a flash of insight. Varuṇa and Indra are considered epitomes for Asuras and Dēvas respectively. Many hymns in the Vēdas jointly invoke Indra-Varuṇa (or MitraVaruṇa) to combine these two aspects of opposite polarities, in an attempt to capture the Pūrṇa aspect of consciousness.

The north-south axis is about growth in time. The geography of India is situated in earth’s northern hemisphere, where south-facing vegetation receives greater sunlight and thus greater growth. In Indian philosophy, this growth is Karma or the entropy of one’s actions. In contrast, when one is faced northwards, it signifies renunciation and a desire for Sattva (negative entropy). This positive meaning is reflected in the journey of the sun in the northern direction (Uttarāyana) when the days get longer, starting from the winter solstice. Sattva leads to sukha (holistic pleasure) which is the true wealth of this world. This heaven of wealth is presided by Kubēra(also called Vaiśrāvaṇa) and his attendant deities of Yakshas. In contrast, Karma is judged by Yama whether it is in accordance with Dharma (ethics), who rules over the world of Pitṛs (fathers). When one’s karma becomes too large, it leads to the chaos of entropy. The trash-bin (a storehouse of entropy) is considered a symbol of Yama.  The Indian tradition tries to strike a balance between the world of Dēvas and Pitṛs, between the polarities of Nivṛtti and Pravṛtti – i.e, renouncing the world and engaging with the world. 

The intermediate quarters are understood by interpolation of the qualities. The north-west is presided by Vāyu (wind), who is as fickle as the flow of language but who does not stick to material objects. The south-east is presided by Agni (fire), who burns things with his entropy, but who is rooted in the conscious experience of light. The speech of Vēdas is supposed to be Agni, and it is nourished by the breath of Vāyu. Rig Vēda states that Agni was born in the Pushkara(lotus), invoking the deeper symbolism of lotus for Pūrṇa.

tvāmagne púṣkarād ádhy átharvā níramanthata (Rig Veda 6.16.13)

“Agni, Atharvan brought thee forth, by rubbing the lotus flower (Pushkara)”

The south-west quarter represents the most disagreeable aspect of existence. It combines the chaos of entropy with the strict adherence to rigid conceptual categories in language. It is presided by Nirṛti(rākshasi or demoness) who utterly destroys happiness. Nirṛti is represented as Dhūmavati (a form of Kāli) in Tantric symbolism. In contrast, the north-east is presided by Īśāna (pure consciousness devoid of bias from either language or karma – a form of Śiva). The union of these most severe polarities is represented by the symbolism of Śakti and Śiva.

The deities of the eight directions comprehensively depict the diverse facets of mind. The eight petals constitute the lotus, which spawns from the navel of Vishṇu, who represents the downward direction. Seated on top of the lotus is Brahma, who represents the upward direction. The equanimity of the middle is described by the Mahādēva Śiva, in whom all the diverse polarities unite.

A finer division of mental states is possible by further interpolating between the eight petals. But all the petals belong to the same lotus, which is Chitta. In Indian languages, chittam means paying attention – paying attention to all aspects of one’s mind when attending to something. This consummate awareness requires one to integrate the polarities of mind. This can happen in two manners that are beautifully illustrated by the analogy of the lotus. When the sun shines, the lotus opens the petals in full bloom. At night time when the moon rises, the lotus closes its petals together. While the lotus represents Prakṛti, the sun and the moon describe the action of Purusha as Vishnu and Śiva respectively. In KumarasambhavaKālidāsa describes the beauty of Pārvati as follows:

Chandram gatā padmāguṇān na bhuñktē padmāśritā chāndramasīm abhikhyām

Umāmukham tu pratipadya lōlā dvisamśrayām prītim avāpa lakshmīh

Lakshmi, who is the queen of beauty, is never stable (lōlā/chapalā). When the moon rises, she does not possess the beauty of the lotus. When she is located in the lotus, she does not possess the beauty of moonlight. But when she is located on the face of Umā (Pārvati), she possesses them both.

These are mystical truths stated as charming poetry. Kālidāsa excels himself in another verse where he describes how Lakshmi holds an umbrella over the newly wed couple of Śiva and Pārvati.

Patrāntalagnair jalabindujālair ākṛṣṭamuktāphalajālaśōbham

Tyōr uparya āyatanāladarāḍam ādhatta lakshmīḥ kamalātapatram

Holding the green lotus reed as the staff, Lakshmi spreads the petals of the lotus as an umbrella over the newly weds. A network of dew droplets on these petals glistens to the wonderful view below. This network of dew droplets is the Indrajāla (Indra’s net) – an allegory to how reality is maintained by multiple reflections into each other.    

The Lotus of Deeper Reality

Chakra kē bichmē kambala ali phūliyā

Tāsukā koi santa jānai?

Tā madha adhara simhāsana gājai,

Puruṣa  mahā tāha adhika virājai.

This verse of Kabīr says,

“At the centre of the wheel blooms a wonderful lotus. Is there any person pure enough in mind to know its delights? In its middle, thunders the mighty lion’s throne, on which dazzles the great ineffable self (Purusha).”

Hindu deities and myths are not simply ideas to be thought in the mind, but are rather rare experiences that can be achieved by Sādhana (Yōgic practice). Like the proverbial whale, which is mistaken to be an island by a sailor until it moves, the physical reality is misunderstood and misconceived by the mind until a deeper revelation dawns by direct experience. It may not be possible to express this deeper reality using the words and images of language, but an incomplete (nevertheless honest) projection may be made. The mystics of India expressed this as the great lotus that is cosmic (viśwa) as well as minute and personal (sūkshma). Just as one needs to be Sahṛdaya to appreciate the analogy of the lotus in Bhūḥ and Bhuvaḥ (physical and mental universes), one needs to be Sahṛadayain Suvaḥ (experienced in one’s own self) to appreciate this image.

In the Yōgic treatise of Ṣaṭ-chakra-nirūpaṇaKunḍalinī is mentioned to be like the fine strands of lotus fibre that are coiled in the Mūlādhāra chakra below one’s spine. Like how the fibres of the lotus stem draw waters from the mud below and transmit them to the flower above, Kundalinī is supposed to flow in the Sushumnanerves in the spine and transmit the experience of Parā (ineffable self) to the brain. This experience is described as the powerful uncoiling of a snake that may raise only partially, without reaching the full potential. Various spots on the spinal cord and the brain, corresponding to different endocrine glands, are described as Chakrās that bloom as lotuses as Kunḍalini flows upwards. But if the attention is not centered on the self, the centrifugal force of the Chakra (wheel) would throw it off at that stage. At certain higher states, a certain sensation in the ears should also be experienced (according to the term kunḍala or ear-rings of Kunḍalinī Aditi, which are also present for her children –  the solar deities Ādityās).  The highest chakra is described as Sahsrāra Padma, lotus of thousand (or infinite) petals. Reaching this state is considered the only possible means by which Infinity can be understood (and realized) in human experience.

These Yōgic practices and experiences are depicted in ancient art, such as the Paśupati seal of Mohenjo-Dāro (and on the Gundestrup Cauldron) as well as painted in allegories in the stories of Vēdās, Purāṇas and Itihāsas of India. Kālidāsa describes the Veerāsanaposture in Kumārasambhava as follows:

Paryañkabandhasthirapūrvakāyam rṛjvāyatam saṃnamitōbhayāmsaṃ

Uttānapāriṇdvayasaṃnivēśāt praphullarājīvam ivāñkamadhyē

With his two legs bound in the Paryañka posture, his spine upright with a slight bend on the top, his hands at the centre of the lap with the fingers in MudraṠiva in meditation resembled as if a lotus (rājīva) is placed on his lap.

The different religious systems (Dharma) of India understand that the Yōgic experience described by them is similar, expounding similar meditative practices and using a similar iconography of the lotus. Buddhists chant “Ōm maṇi padmē hum” (the jewel at the center of the lotus). Like BrahmaBuddha is seated on the lotus. Sikhs describe the Gurumukhi lotus that faces upwards to reach bliss and contrast it with Manmukhi lotus that faces downwards to reach sensual pleasures. Jains use lotus iconography in their temples as much as other sects of India. The use of a water tank as Pushkariṇi (literally, the one with lotuses) for ceremonial purposes is a tradition that goes back to the Indus-Saraswati civilization. The grand meeting of Yōgisof diverse sects happens at the Pushkar (lotus) festival by a river. It is to this union of Yōgis that Kabīr made his inquiry, “Is there any saint who knows the delights of the lotus?”. As stated by scholars such as Ānanda Coomaraswamy, this iconography derives from its earliest references in the Vēdas. This lotus blooms on a perennial river. 
References / Footnotes

1. A previous article has argued about the importance of Saundarya in Indian life and the need to reclaim it. The lotus is an apt symbol for this yearning for beauty.

2. The wheel refers to Ṛta: the dynamic cosmic order that is reflected in the interplay of seasons, as well as in one’s own self. This is described in greater detail in a previous article, which elaborates the notions of Sattva and Dharma

3. Lotus in the cosmogony of the Vedas – Santona Basu (Article)

4. Elements of Buddhist iconography – Ananda Coomaraswamy (Book in PDF): This seminal work discusses the key Buddhist icons of Tree of life, earth lotus and word-wheel/world-wheel, and how they derive from more ancient Hindu iconography in the Vēdas. Despite the breadth and profundity of this work, it does not connect the symbolism of Padma to infinity, which is the subject of my essay. This work also illustrates how language changes with usage, especially in translation. Words such as “angels” for dēvas are no longer used (“demi-gods” is still used). I used the word “deities”.

5. The flower of consciousness and the lore of the lotus – Frederic Dannaway (Article) : Discusses the symbolism of the lotus from the perspective of Tantra and Yōga.

6. Nice blog on the various references to the lotus in Sanskrit and Tamil literature.

7. Here is a nice article on the art of Kōlam or RangavallikaDr. Gift Sirimoney analyzed the mathematical complexities of Kōlam designs. Dr. Yukitaka Ishimoto describes how infinite kōlam seems to be an  NP-complete problem in knot theory but that it is not. The paper starts with the charming sentence: “In southern India, there are many great female mathematicians who solve a complicated line pattern every morning, with white rice powder on the ground.”

8. This BBC article refers to the image of the self-eating snake or the self-eating dragon that is found in many cultures as an ancient symbol for infinity, as an earlier image of the Möbius strip or the leminscate. This article refers to an art exhibition in a museum in Germany on “Never ending stories”. Both the article and the exhibition miss the importance of the lotus, and other references to Indian culture cited in this essay. The book of Doniger and O’Flaherty analyzes Yoga Vasishta – a treatise of sublime philosophy with self-creating stories, in terms of crude Freudian interpretation. They project the Indian ideas of infinity onto the Möbius strip, oblivious to the Lotus under their nose, which is the symbol of choice in India.

9. Of all the images on the Gundestrup Cauldron, the image that is most definitely out of place from the geography of Denmark is that of Lakshmi, or the female figure with elephants. The lotuses on either sides are commonly identified as wheels. But this is a misidentification. There is a separate image from the same artefact which shows a (broken) wheel with straight spokes. On this image however, these “spokes” do not resemble spokes of a wheel but the petals of a flower, clearly thinning down at the edges. The enclosing rim of the lotus flower is also an attested motif in Indian art. The lotus growing at the centre of the wheel is a Vedic metaphor.

10. Mantra Pushpam is usually chanted at the end of Hindu ceremonies (video), when a flower is ritually offered to the deity.  The ritual ends with an Ātma Pradikshana – a circumambulation around themselves, signifying that the deities are present within their own bodies. Here is a nice depiction of Mantra Pushpam through Bharatanatyam.

11. The conception of infinity as Pūrṇa is markedly different from the infinity of “God” in Abrahamic religions, which is posited as different from and not including the objects in the universe. This infinity is not Pūrṇa. However, despite separating the infinity of God from lower (sinful) objects, these religions still suffer from the “problem of evil” i.e, how can an infinitely good God create evil in the universe? This is discussed very elegantly in the Book of Job in the Bible. This problem of evil is also one of the sharpest weapons for atheists to critique religion in the Abrahamic context. Indian religions don’t have this problem because they have a very different understanding of causality and infinity. The causality is not invested in God (Primal Cause) but vested in nature (Prakṛti). Suffering (better term than evil in the Indian context) is caused by a decentering of the Prakṛti away from the self (Purusha). Indian Idealism is different from Abrahamic religions – a distinction to which many so called “atheists” are ignorant. However, despite the absence of “evil”, Indian religions face a different problem that arises from the paradox of “completeness” in infinity: that of unseemly things. This is indeed the source of ridicule amongst “monotheistic faiths” that laugh at how Hindus worship every rock and animal. Hope this essay will help the Sahṛdayas amongst the other religions to better understand the Hindu iconography.

12. The term Krōdhasambhavām has indeed caused certain ruffles amongst the devotees. “How can the goddess produce anger!?”, they argue and even try to erase the term and replace it with “Kshīrōdasambhavam” (one who is born in the milky ocean). Earnest such emotions may be, but in my humble opinion, they are rather missing the point. Poets have particularly delighted in speaking of the “chapala” (wavering) nature of wealth, which of course causes desire and anger. Such seemingly insulting references were also given to Vishṇu, calling him “Karta” (correct doer) as well as “Vikarta” (incorrect doer). Vishṇu is termed “Karaṇam” and “Kāraṇam” (the process of doing, and the cause for doing). Giving a nod to the Indian love of food, and also subtly alluding to Sāmkhya philosophy, Vishṇu is termed “Bhōjanam” and “Bhōkta”. (the food that is being eaten, or the process of eating, and the eater himself). The former refers to Prakṛti and the latter to Purusha.

13. When one lacks the Sahṛdaya nature, any work of art can be debased into the worst projections of one’s mind. Reading the social scientists’ interpretations of Indian classics is an education into the sad nature of post-modernism that lacks appreciation for beauty, and reduces everything to power politics or class warfare. A lotus pond may be full of beautiful lotuses but a group of pigs will dig up the lotuses to wallow in the mud. Behold, a pig may hold up a tattered lotus on its snout, but it is not Vishnu rescuing the earth as Varāha. It is simply a pig. Even the works of Kālidāsa are not spared in this zeal to dig up some mud. A recent essay analyzed how the Śakuntala of Kālidāsa has been morphed from the feisty character in Mahābharata into a docile character. In MahābharataŚakuntala extracts a pledge from Dushyanta that her son will be made the king, before agreeing to have sex with him. The critic points out that this is missing in Ābhijñānaśākuntalam. This misses the point of Śṛngāra rasa altogether. Kālidāsa’s play says the exact same thing, but from the very mouth of Dushyanta before Śakuntala asks him. When two people are in love, they speak with each other’s mouths. Such crude interpretation of Sanskrit classics is now commonplace, with scholars like Sheldon Pollock writing “Rasa Reader” on how the readers should even read everything in the light of bickering power politics. When one reads the Śakuntala of Kālidāsa likes this, one would miss how Dushyanta compares the anklets of lotus twines that Śakuntala wears to the moon, or how the pollen from the lotus Śakuntala wears as an ornament hurts her eyes . Similar references could be find in Kumārasambhava when Rati describes her love-play with Manmadha, as she laments her loss after he was reduced to dust by Śiva. Each of these Kavi-Samayas has a beautiful poetic meaning that chart the emotional trajectory of a story. But lotus before swine. In the eyes of a pig, they are not as interesting as the mud.

14. Ṣaṭ-chakra-Nirūpaṇa discusses the nature of various chakras in the experiential body (sūkṣma śarīra) of the human being, describing them with the analogy of lotus.  

15. M.S.Subbulakshmi immortalized many Sanskrit chants and musical compositions in her voice. Her Lakshmī Ashṭōttaram addressed to “Karuṇām Lōkamātaram” (to the compassionate one, to the mother of the universe) is really a gift from the same. I thank the person with the Twitter handle @madame_micawber for directing me to the meaning of the term Padmanābhathat is mentioned in this verse.

16. Vēdabhūmi association in Jagadevapur, Telangāṇa have done commendable work of recording Kumārasambhava of Kālidāsa, with the commentary of Mallinātha in audio. This and certain other works are published online. They are a great resource for a student of Sanskrit. 

About Author: Kiran Varanasi

Kiran Varanasi is a researcher in computer science working in Germany. He is interested in using the Dharmic lens to reason about ethical problems in artificial intelligence, virtual online spaces, and human-computer interfaces. Some of his technical work can be accessed here

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