The Great Cosmic Lotus Dream

In our attempts to know ourselves we attempt to know the cosmos, its creation and frontiers. We construct mythologies, turn our minds to science and, in the pursuit of both, send voyagers out beyond the reaches of our own planet to grasp at the unknown. We look up to the night sky and witness a vast universe, one we seek to comprehend here on earth.

The aquatic perennial Nelumbo nucifera, or sacred lotus, plays a leading role in many of our ancient explanations for the origin of the cosmos. In one version of creation the Hindu god Vishnu slumbers in the coils of a giant cobra, adrift in a vast ocean of nothingness. Vishnu is woken by the sacred sound of Om and from his navel a lotus opens to reveal the god Brahma, self-existent. Brahma then prepares to create the universe. Vishnu is often depicted seated on a giant lotus, twirling a lotus in one hand and the universe in another complete with yogic grin. Elsewhere the threefold images of god, Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer), are portrayed together on a lotus of one thousand petals, with Vishnu in full lotus pose.

Creation here is no one-off event, but occurs in an infinite cycle of creation and destruction; birth and death followed by re-birth. ‘At the end of this day a dissolution of the universe occurs, when all the three worlds, earth, and the regions of space, are consumed with fire,’ it is said in the Vishnu Purana (320-255 CE). When the three worlds again form one ocean and the lotus-born god Brahma has slept for a night lasting billions of years, he rises to create anew. ‘These profound and lovely images are, I like to imagine, a kind of premonition of modern astrological ideas,’ said Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos (1980).

For Sagan, the oscillating model of the universe represents ‘the great cosmic lotus dream.’

But why is the lotus, which grows from mud, imbued with such deep mysticism? Look out upon a vast, moving ocean of lotus and the answer to that question becomes self-evident. ‘By means of microscopic observation and astronomical projection the lotus flower can become the foundation for an entire theory of the universe and an agent whereby we may perceive Truth,’ wrote novelist Yukio Mishima in The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love (1966). In poetry, Natsume Sōseki explained it thus: ‘Watch birth and death: / The lotus has already / Opened its flower.’

Botanically-speaking the sacred lotus is cause for similar wonder. The first formal account of the lotus appears in Theophrastus’ An Inquiry Into Plants (c 350–287 BCE), where it is described as growing:

‘Up to four cubits long (1.8 metres) and as thick as a man’s finger, its stalk is similar to a supple reed but without joints. Right through the interior of the stalk run tubes which are distinct from one another, resembling honeycomb. The head sits on top of this stalk like a circular wasps’ nest. It contains as many as thirty beans, one in each of the cells and projecting slightly from it. Twice the size of a poppy’s, the flower is a deep shade of rose and held clear of the water, as is the fruiting head. All around the plant grow leaves that are as large as a Thessalian hat, and on stems that are the same in appearance and dimensions as the flower stalks. Break open one of the beans and you will find bitter material curled within; this is the embryo.’

Molecular studies show that the lotus is closer, on an evolutionary scale, to the plane tree (Platanus spp., Platanaceae) and members of the protea family (Proteaceae) than to its own pond companions, the water lilies (Nymphaea). Science has also revealed the flowers of the lotus to be thermoregulatory, generally staying between 30-36°C despite ambient temperature drops and spikes from 10-45°C (Seymour & Schultze-Motel, 1998).

For cold-blooded insect pollinators, the flower heads offer a warm nirvana of sorts; a heavenly lure.

What’s more, the viability of a lotus seed tends towards the infinite. There are reports of successful germination of a sacred lotus from seed retrieved from an ancient lake bed in north-eastern China, radiocarbon dated to some 1,288 years old (Shen-Miller, 1995). It is as though the lotus slumbered in its own cosmic dream to a time-scale befitting Brahma before reanimating. Even the outstretched, circular leaves of the lotus demonstrate mystery, with their self-cleaning capacity the result of a complex surface nanostructure, which minimises adhesion. In botany it’s known as the ‘lotus effect’. ‘Water surrounds the lotus flower, but does not wet its petals,’ observed Gautama Buddha.

Vishnu birthed the lotus and in turn the lotus birthed Brahma. But these two gods do not exist without their counterpoint, destruction. The heated petals of the lotus fall; a seed pod remains; the seed enters into dormancy at the bottom of a lake bed for one thousand years or more. Similar cycles of destruction are evident within our world, cycles which ricochet through the cosmos. Only seventy years ago the first atomic bomb was detonated in southern New Mexico. Lead physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer confided with us then:

‘We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the the prince to do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.’

The Japanese word for the sacred lotus is ‘hasu’. In Sanskrit the word is ‘padma’. The habit of the lotus to lodge its rhizomes in the mud, for its stem to navigate through the water and for its water-repellent leaves and flowers to elevate themselves above water level is a symbol in itself.

‘Place the right foot on the left thigh and the left foot on the right thigh, cross the hands behind the back and firmly take hold of the toes (the right toe with the right hand and the left toe with the left). Place the chin on the breast and look at the tip of the nose. This is called Padmasana; it destroys the diseases of the self-restrained.’ And so the lotus pose, padmasana, emerges in a tangle of words in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Settled in lotus, all of the seven chakra centres are aligned, each represented by a lotus of differently numbered petals. Traditional yoga practice is aimed at reaching balance in all of the chakras; opening all seven of the mystic lotus centres, from the root to the heart to third eye chakra and all points in between.

The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals,’ wrote Kahlil Gibran. ‘One love, one heart!’ sung Bob Marley. Both prophets knew the connectedness of our great cosmic lotus dream.

There is implicit mystery and wonder in the sacred lotus. It is a symbol of creation and the universe itself. Open and bent towards the sun, risen from the mud, it strikes an unmistakable mirror for our own course through the cosmos, during this once-only appearance on earth. ‘Who knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?’ This is the paradoxical hymn, confessed in the Rig Veda (c 1500–1200 BCE). ‘He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it, whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he knows it, or perhaps he knows not.’ The sacred lotus knows – surely? – as it daily opens its flower head in yogic semblance to the sun.

Shot on location at Blue Lotus Water Garden, Yarra Junction, Victoria.