The Jewel in the Lotus
It is possible to see in the architecture of India, to an extent probably unknown elsewhere, the roots of religion in a most clear and distinct manner. The meaningful and powerful symbols which can be seen in the buildings and in their ornamentation, and even in the settings in which they have been placed, draw their inspiration from the religious convictions of the people, convictions which form an integral part of the Indian way of life. The very bushes growing in the corner of a temple courtyard or the color of the courtyard wall can tell us to which religion the temple belongs. In this way we can discover the allegorical meanings which the forms, the colours, and the statues in a temple are meant to convey, to such an extent that we can call Indian architecture an architecture of allegory and symbol, in that hidden meanings dwell in every shape and form. These hidden meanings have a close and inspiring connection with the life of the people of this country.
Against such a background, we find ourselves faced with two major questions regarding the design of a Bahá’í House of Worship for India. We understand from some of the statements of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, that the Bahá’í Temple should be a symbol manifesting the Bahá’í Faith, revealing the simplicity, clarity, and freshness of this new Revelation. On the other hand, in showing respect for the basic beliefs of the religions of the past, the Temple must act as a constant reminder to the followers of each faith that all the religions of God are one, and that the Bahá’í Faith, for all that it may have many new features, is in no way cut off or detached from the life of the Indian people, but rather looks upon them all with respect and love.
Basing our research on the above sentiments, and seeking at all times to discover a common strand running through the symbolism of the many religions and sects to be found today in India, we undertook a study in the hope that we could prepare a design which, while it would in no way imitate any of the existing architectural schools of India, would be familiar to the Indian people, in the same way that when one speaks to them of the teachings and principles of the Bahá’í Faith they sense that here is a vision become reality, a dream fulfilled, albeit expressed in words that are new and even unheard of.
When one looks closely at Indian architecture, one realizes that despite the outward dissimilarities to be seen between various temples, we can sometimes discover significant and sacred symbols regarded as holy and divine by all the Indian religions, symbols which have even penetrated to other countries and other religions. One of these symbols is the sacred flower of the Indians, the lotus.
Although it would be preferable to begin a discussion of the lotus with a survey of the Mandala, one of the oldest religious symbols in the world, we shall move directly into our discussion without such preamble.
To the Indian taste, the lotus has always been the fairest flower; it has enjoyed unparalleled popularity throughout the length and breadth of India from the earliest times down to the present day, as shown by its predominance in literature and art. Mentioned in the oldest Veda, it plays a prominent part in the mythology of Brahmanism. To the later Sanskrit poets it is the emblem of beauty to which they constantly compare the faces of their heroines. The lotus, moreover, enters into Indian art of all ages and all religions as a prominent decorative element. It appears on the oldest architectural monuments of Hinduism all over India. With the spread of Buddhism to the countries of the Far East, its use as an ornament in religious art has extended as far as Japan.
In literature. The lotus is named in the Rigveda and is mentioned with increasing frequency in the later Samhitas. In the Atharvaveda the human heart is compared with the lotus, and the Panchavimsa Brahmana speaks of its flower being born of the light of the Constellations. In the Brahmanas the lotus first appears as associated with the Creator Prajapati in cosmogonic myths. The Taittiriya Brahmana recounts that Prajapati, desiring to create the universe, which in the beginning was fluid, saw a lotus leaf (puskara-pamd) protruding from the water. Thinking that it must rest on something, he dived into the water in the form of a boar, and, finding the earth below, broke off a fragment, rose with it to the surface, and spread it out on the leaf. Elsewhere, the Taittiriya Aranyaka relates that when the universe was still fluid, Prajapati alone was created on a lotus leaf.
Later, in the epic poetry of the Mahabharata, the Creator, under the name of Brahma, is described as having sprung from the lotus that grew out of Vishnu’s navel when that deity lay absorbed in meditation. Hence, one of the appellations for Brahma is lotus-born (abja-ja, abja-yoni, etc.). The lotus is thus connected with Vishnu, one of whose names is, accordingly, padma-nabha, lotus-naveled. It is further associated with Vishnu’s wife, Lakshmi, goddess of fortune and beauty. The Mahabharata relates the myth that a lotus sprung from Vishnu’s forehead, out of which came Sri (another name for the goddess). Lakshmi is also called Padma (lotus-hued). The Mahabharata, in its account of Mount Kailasa, the abode of Kubera, the god of wealth, described his lake, Nalini, and his river, Mandakini, as covered with golden lotuses.
In art. With the rise of religious art in India, the lotus appeared on all the Buddhist monuments which came into being in different parts of the country from about 200 B.C. onwards. In its simplest form, the expanded lotus appears frequently as a circular ornament in the sculptures at Sanchi, Bharhut, Amravati, and Bodh Gaya, as well as in the rock-cut Buddhist temples of Western India, introduced as medallions on pillars, panels, and ceilings. Elaborately carved half-lotuses sometimes appear in these settings, or, in Sri Lanka, as so-called-moon-stones on semi-circular stone slabs at the foot of staircases. Lotuses growing on stems also occur in the sculptures of Gandhara and of Mathura, and often figure in elaborate floral designs on the pillars of Sanchi or the panels of Amravati.
Further, from earliest times, the lotus is fashioned either as a seat or as a pedestal on which divine or sacred beings rest in a sitting or standing posture. The oldest and most striking example of this use is exhibited in the figure of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, in the Buddhist sculptures at Udayagiri, at Bharhut, and especially at Sanchi, where it is frequently repeated on the gateways of the Great Stupa. Lakshmi is portrayed sitting or standing on a lotus and holding a lotus flower in each hand watered by two pots raised aloft by the trunks of two elephants. This ancient motif is found all over India to the present day and occurs as well among the old sculptures at Polonaruwa in Sri Lanka.
Once Buddha began to be represented in sculpture, his image was constantly depicted as sitting cross-legged on a lotus seat, or occasionally standing on a lotus pedestal. It occurs in this form, for instance, at Rajgir in Bihar, in the Kanheri caves near Mumbai, and often in the Gandhara monuments of the northwest. From the latter region this representation spread beyond the confines of India to Nepal, Burma, China, and Japan. Even when the seat is not actually the flower itself, two, three, or four lotuses are carved on its front, as in the Gandhara sculptures. Such lotuses are also found delineated on a footstool on which Gautama rests his feet instead of sitting cross-legged. The number of the petals of such lotuses varies from four to six.
The use of the lotus seat has been extended to images of bodhisattvas not only in India but in Buddhist countries beyond its borders. Thus, Manjusri is represented sitting in this way not only at Sarnath, near Benares, but also in Java and Tibet. In a modern Tibetan picture Maitreya is depicted on a lotus seat, and the figure of a Persian bodhisattva sitting on a seat adorned with lotuses and painted on a wooden panel was discovered by M.A. Stein during his first expedition to Central Asia. In China the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara appears sitting on a lotus seat, and in Nepal standing on a lotus pedestal. The lotus is intimately connected with this bodhisattva, for he is represented as bom from a lotus, and he regularly holds a lotus in his hand, whence his appellation Padmapani, or lotus-handed. Moreover, the Buddhist chant Om Mani Padme Hum (Yea 0 jewel in the lotus! Amen), which in the present is the most sacred prayer of the Buddhists in Tibet, refers to Avalokitesvara. The persistence of this application of the lotus is indicated by the fact that it appears not only in modern Indian brass images of Hindu gods but even in seated portraits of maharajas of the 19th century.
The lotus seat and pedestal have an almost universal application in connection with the figures of Hindu mythology. Brahma appears seated on Vishnu’s navel lotus. The three great gods of the Hindu triad, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, with their respective wives, Sarasvati, Parvati, and Lakshmi, as well as Agni, god of fire, Pavanna, god of wind, Ganesa, god of wisdom, Vishnu’s incarnation Rama, and the demon Ravana, are all found represented on a lotus seat. Vishnu, in addition, regularly holds a lotus in one of his four hands. A lotus pedestal also serves as a stand for images of the god Indra, of Vishnu and nearly all his incarnations, and of the sun god Surya. In Sri Lanka the lotus pedestal also supports Shiva, Parvati, and Kubera, god of wealth, and in Tibet it serves as a base for Sarasvati, goddess of learning.
Similarly, in the ancient Jain sculptures found at Mathura the lotus appears repeatedly as a medallion or in more elaborate floral decorations. It also appears as the symbol of the sixth jina, or saint. At present it is worshipped generally by the Hindus in India.
The symbolism of the lotus flower (padma, pundarika, utpala) was borrowed by the Buddhists directly from the parent religion Brahmanism. From earliest history, the lotus flower appears to have symbolized for Aryans primarily the idea of superhuman or divine birth, and secondarily the creative force and immortality. The traditional Indian and Buddhist explanation is that the glorious lotus flower appears to spring not from the sordid earth but from the surface of the water and is always pure and unsullied, no matter how impure the water of the lake may be. It thus expresses the idea of supernatural birth and the emergence of the first created living thing from the primordial waters of chaos. Hence, the flower was regarded as the matrix of the Hindu creator himself, Narayana, and of his later form as the god Brahma, who are portrayed, respectively, as reclining and seated upon a lotus flower, as in the pre-Buddhist Vaishnavite Bhagavad-Gita. Conceivably, this was the significance of the lotus when it was first applied to the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni.
As an emblem of divine birth the lotus is a common motif in Buddhist art and literature, as has been noted above. In the Buddhist paradise of Sukhavati, the goal of popular Mahayana Buddhists, everyone is reborn as a god upon a lotus flower (Soddhama pundarika), and there are lotus flowers of many gems. The Western notion of the beauty of lotus-eating is possibly a heritage of this ancient view of divine existence.
A manifestation of the myth of divine lotus birth is thought to be the myth which invests Buddha with the miraculous power of imprinting the image of a lotus flower on the earth with every step that he took. The references to this in the Pali canon are innumerable, although in the earliest book of that canon, the Mahapadana Suttanta, the account of the infant Buddha’s first seven steps makes no mention of the lotus imprints that appear in the later versions.
The lotus was especially identified with the sun. This association doubtless rested upon the observation that the flower opened when the sun rose and closed at sunset, suggesting to the primitive mind that the flower might be the residence of the sun during its nocturnal passage through the underworld, or that it might be the vivifier, resurrector, or regenerator of the renewed sun of the next day. Its large, multi-rayed petals would also contribute to this association. Probably its association with the sun explains why the lotus flower in the Gandhara sculptures, and often, subsequently, took the place of Buddha’s footprints in the wheeled disk of the sun with its thousand spokes, which may have represented the Aryan queen of heaven.
The motif of a lotus flower held in the hand seems to have symbolised not merely divine birth but the possession of life everlasting and the preservation and procreation of life. This was the case for the Aryan queen of heaven, the Brahmanist goddess Sri, and her derivative, the Buddhist Tara, both of whom have the title Garlanded by Lotuses. In the mystical Vedic, pre-Buddhist Satapatha Brahmana, the lotus was a symbol of the womb, and, as we have seen, it appears to have this meaning in the famous Om Mani Padme Hum prayer. Probably, such a meaning may in part be implied in the lotus held in the hand of Avalokitesvara, the consort of Tara, to whom that prayer is now specially addressed. However, in the hand of Maitreya, the future Buddha, and other divine bodhisattvas of Gandhara, the lotus may have had a metaphysical significance and perhaps denoted the preservation and revivifying of the life of the law. It was possibly in this sense as cherishers of the law that we find a lotus flower adorning the hands of many of the images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas who are not particularly identified with the lotus attribute.
The lotus symbol can be easily traced in Zoroastrian architecture. The carving of Ardashir II at Taq-i-Bustan shows Mithra standing on a lotus flower. In the bas-relief at Persepolis the king and most of his nobles each hold a lotus in their hands. The lotus flower is one of the oldest and most beautiful elements in the patterns of Persian carpets, and it can often be seen in Islamic architecture of the Seljuq and later periods. For example, the shape of a lotus occurs in the design of the perforated plaster work in the mihrab (prayer niche) of the Malik mosque in Kirman.
The discussion above serves to show how the lotus has been used as a unifying symbol in all the Indian religions. In the design of the Bahá’í House of Worship, however, the symbol has been employed in an unprecedented fashion. The most basic idea in the design is that light and water are used as its two fundamental elements, and that these two elements alone are responsible for the ornamentation of the House of Worship in place of the thousands of statues and carvings to be found in other temples.