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Note: My Anthropic Trilogy web-book, evolving since 1997, is a chronicle of my passing all considered opinion through the lens of my Nirvikalpa Samadhi with both an open-mind and healthy skepticism.

The Lotus and the Water Lily- Correcting the Confusion
About Their Botany, Iconography, Symbolism and Entheogenic Properties

No plant has been so historically embedded in such diverse cultural and mythological iconography and symbolism as those referred to as "lotus". Because of their deep historical religious tradition of being considered sacred and the antiquity of the term's voluminous references resulting from translation of cross-cultural literature- a legacy has been created that appears in modern references with much confusion in regards to exactly what their botanical identity, form and function is.

In the 1916 edition of The Standard Encyclopedia of Horticulture, Volume 4 by Liberty Hyde Bailey, he writes: Among common names the term "lotus" has been remarkably misapplied. It seems to be consistently used among us for the genus Nelumbo, Nelumbo nucifera being generally styled "Egyptian" or "sacred lotus." Historically this is entirely wrong. Nelumbo is not native in Egypt, and is not now found there in a wild state. It was cultivated extensively along the Nile in the Roman period, probably for food, and the flower is supposed to have furnished the design for one form of capital of the Egyptian columns. It is a native of southeastern Asia. In Egypt, however Nymphaea carrulea and Nymphaea lotus, the "blue lotus" and "white lotus," are indigenous. The Egyptian Blue Water-lily, Nymphaea caerulea, opens its flowers in the morning and then sinks beneath the water at dusk."

Hindu God Ganesh Seated on Lotus The lotus is the pre-eminent symbol in the non dual traditions. In Hinduism it is associated with the creation mythology featuring the gods Vishnu, Brahma, and Lakshmi as well as most other dieties. (See abstract concerning etymology of lotus and water lily confusion in Sanskrit.) In Buddism, the Buddha and various dieties are portrayed seated on and/or holding lotuses. In Egyptian mythology the term has been misapplied to the water lily by translators of their hieroglyphics and in references to its motif in art and architecture.

Nelumbo nucifera Following the return of the rains, primitive peoples witnessed the rise of the undefiled lotus and water lily from the bottom of dried-up watercourses and considered the living blooms symbols of immortality and resurrection. This undoubtedly led to the widespread adoption of each plant in antiquity as sacred. The Egyptian association of their indigenous water lily with an afterlife was advanced in Hinduism to recognize their native lotus as symbolizing the universal human potential to rise above the mire of phenomenal reality and through specific practice or grace of Nirvikalpa Samadhi to awaken to moksha.

The Internet is filled with seemingly authoritative websites that mix accurate information with "facts" about "lotus" that are patently just wrong as exampled in the following links.

Update 2/12/15: Seems all links referenced below have corrected their copy and illustrations since my citing their errors in this webpage composed in 2009.
End Update

Lotuses are 5 species of water lilies, three in the genus Nymphaea and two in Nelumbo; both genera are members of the water-lily family, Nymphaeaceae. Lotus is also the name of a genus in the pea family, Leguminosae, which contains such plants as the bird s-foot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus. Nymphaea lotus, the Egyptian white "lotus", is believed to be the original sacred "lotus" of ancient Egypt. It and the Egyptian blue "lotus", N. caerulea, were often pictured in ancient Egyptian art.

Statements as in the above that infer that water lily in the genus Nymphaea are "lotus" only add to the confusion as does calling Nelumbo Webster Dictionary - Nelumbo: "a genus that includes large water lilies having flowers with 4 to 5 sepals, numerous petals, and the discrete carpels embedded in a fleshy receptacle and that is usually considered to constitute a subfamily of Nymphaeaceae but is sometimes isolated in a separate family".

Nymphaea is a genus of aquatic plants in the family Nymphaeaceae. The common name, shared with some other genera in the same family, is water-lily or waterlily. Nymphaea leaves have a radial notch from the circumference to the petiole (leaf stem) near the center. There are actually about 50 species in the genus, which has a cosmopolitan distribution. There is a distinct genera for lotus- Nelumbo Adans with three species- N. nucifera, N. speciosa- both native to India and southeastern Asia with white to pale pink flowers and the North American Nelumbo pentapetala (a.k.a. Nelumbo lutea) that has yellow blooms. Various Nelumbo hybrids are found ranging from Ontario throughout Eastern N. America to the West Indies.

Other Internet sites deplore the inaccurate information that abounds and then add their own misinformation as in: "There's a great article called Blue Lily/Blue Lotus Flowers at Shaman's Garden, which makes it vividly clear which plant is which. In short, the reason for the confusion, is that [sic] India doesn't have ANY of the plants that are generally accepted as being called "lotus" flowers; they have Nymphaea caerula, which is the "Sacred Blue Lily of the Nile" made famous in Egyptian culture, but they refer to it as "Blue Lotus", confusing spiritual explorers the world over."

I assume the latter "they" (in the above commentary) correctly refers to the Egyptian recorders but the information about "lotus" flowers of India exactly reverses the botanical facts regarding indigenous locality.

Some content with otherwise authoritative information repeat as fact aspects taken directly from mythological accounts such as The Egyptian Blue Water-Lily, Nymphaea caerulea, opens its flowers in the morning and then [sic] sinks beneath the water at dusk." (Flowers do not "sink beneath the water" despite this "fact" being repeated in numerous websites.)

Nymphaea White Lotus The Egyptian White Water-lily, Nymphaea lotus, flowers at night and closes in the morning. Remains of both Nymphaea lotus and Nymphaea caerulea flowers have been found in the burial tomb of Ramesses II. This 19th century lithograph shows both leaves and the lily bloom uncharacteristicly rising "lotus-like" high above the water.

The most common category of error is in website content about "Blue" Lotus the sacred lotus, but often show images of Nymphaea water lily as illustration. For years the Wikipedia page on Nelumbo_nucifea had an image of a Nymphaea water lily (since corrected). In a Google image search for "lotus" or any of its algorithms- at least a third of the hits will show images of Nymphaea.

I've extracted excerpts from the following links which so far as I can ascertain, accurately distinguish the botanical qualities, mythology, symbolism, iconograpy motif and entheogenic properties between the identities of the lotus (Nelumbo) and water lily (Nymphaea).

Links primarily concerned with botanical distinctions between
true lotus (Nelumbo) and water lily (Nymphaea)

Emergent Blue Lily Blooms A concise I.D. Nelumbo (lotus) and Nymphaea (water lily) are two very different plants. The easiest way to differentiate them are through their leaves. The leaves of Nelumbo (lotus) stand above the water and their stems go into the middle
of the leaves. The leaves of all Nymphaea (water lily) float on the water and their stems connecting to the leaves [sic] on the side. Confusing enough? (More accurately, stems connect close to the origin of the notch that is nearer the center of the leaf's outer circumference.) While most Nymphaea flowers lie close or in contact with the water some have stouter stems that allow the blooms to rise lotus-like, ten or more inches above.

Shravasti Dhammika The botanical name for the lotus is Nelumbo necifera or sometimes the older name Nelumbium speciosum is still used. Botanists like giving plants two, three, four or even more names to a single plant; it helps confuse the lay man. In the same family as the lotus, i.e. Nympheaceae, is the water lily, Nymphaea lotus, a name which of course further muddies the water. Thus the lotus and the water lily are often confused despite the distinct differences between the two plants...Now the problem is that there is no blue lotus. A blue lotus is a botanical chimera. No such flower exists or ever has. Lotuses can be white and they can be pink or pink going on red, but they are never blue. (see next link.)

Egyptian Blue Water Lily as motif The Egyptian "lotus" is a white water lily, Nymphaea lotus (family Nymphaeaceae). Nymphaea is a genus of aquatic plants in the family Nymphaeaceae. The common name, shared with some other genera in the same family, is water-lily or waterlily. Nymphaea leaves have a radial notch from the circumference to the petiole (leaf stem) in the center. The blue "lotus" (Nymphaea caerulea) was the dominant "lotus" in Egyptian art. The sacred lotus of the Hindus is an aquatic plant Nelumbo nucifera with white or delicate pink flowers; the lotus of eastern North America is Nelumbo lutea Also named Nelumbo pentapetala, similar to other Nelumbo except with yellow blooms. (see Nelumbonaceae). Many hybrid Nelumbo lutea are distributed across N. America ranging from Ontario to Florida and beyond into the West Indies.

In a comparison where religious taboos dictate a tolerance towards inconvenient fauna like cows and flora such as lotus- in India Nelumbo are considered sacred whereas the U. of Florida IFAS lists Nelumbo lutea simultaneously a "native" and a "non-native invasive" potentially scheduling it for eradication by herbicide- adding to the tension between our two cultures.

Egyptian Blue Lotus "Blue Lotus" of Egypt or Nymphaea caerulea (Wikipedia illustration shows a white lily?) which is actually known today to be a blue water lily. (Although this 19th century lithograph of an Egyptian landscape has accurately represented the notched leaves and blue florescence of a Nymphaea caerulea, it shows the leaves in a lotus-like attitude rising high above the water. Nelumbo nucifera is never found in blue color. Although no Nelumbo were native to Egypt, in Roman Times it was cultivated along the Nile.

Links Concerned With the Historic Symbolism
and Iconography of the Lotus and Water Lily

Lotus in Multi-Cultural Iconography

The Spiritual Meaning of the Lotus by Rev. Sue Annabrooke Jones. References additional transcultural lotus symbolism.

A Wisdom Archive on Lotus Flower Its Symbolism in Hindu and Buddhist Iconography

Great Buddha Seated on Sylized Lotus- Lingyin Si Shrine in Hangzhou China © Rolf Gross Image of historical statue of Buddha on right from wonderful portal of world-wide photos © by Rolf Gross. Every important Buddhist deity is associated in some manner with the lotus, either being seated upon a lotus in full bloom as in the highly stylized Tibetian Thangka renderings of Tara and bodhisattvas or holding one in their hands. In esoteric Buddhism, the heart of the beings is like an unopened lotus: when the virtues of the Buddha develop therein, the lotus blossoms; that is why the Buddha sits or stands on a lotus bloom.

Buddhism and the Lotus (Another resource with good history of lotus symbolism but bad botany- mistaking two photos of Nymphaea for lotus.) The Lotus symbolism in Buddhism -The lotus (Sanskrit and Tibetan padma) is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols and one of the most poignant representations of Buddhist teaching.

The Lotus Theosophy Essay (link not found) by Amanda F. Rooke (From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2000)

The Lotus in Hindu Symbolism

Vishnu Seated on Lotus The Hindu Lotus Mythologically speaking, lotus is a symbol of creation, since both Vishnu and Lakshmi when individually depicted are shown seated on a lotus symbolizing their serendipitous emergence. The holiest of flowers for Hindus, the beautiful lotus is symbolic of the true soul of an individual. It represents the being, which lives in turbid waters yet rises up and blossoms to the point of enlightenment. Lakshmi, Lakshmi, Devi, Lady Padma, She Who Evokes Maya Devi, Lady Padma, She Who Evokes Maya The name for the familiar lotus position in meditation and yoga is derived from early Buddhist sculpture portraying Buddha seated on a lotus flower. Each of the various chakras in the iconography of Kundalini yoga are derivative of the lotus- culminating in the thousand-petaled symbol of awakening. The lotus is the national flower of India and Bangladesh and controversial as used for the symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - the Hindu Right-wing political party of India, and on water tanker trucks.

vishnu Vishnu, Lakshmi and Brahma Brahma (the Four-Faced God emerging from the lotus flower growing from the navel of Vishnu who is attended by his consort Lakshmi- CA 1870. Vishnu is always to be depicted holding the four attributes associated with him, the fourth being: A lotus flower or Padma, held by the lower right hand, represents spiritual liberation, Divine perfection, purity and the unfolding of Spiritual consciousness within the individual.

Egyptian Water Lily Motifs on Fans and Oars Egyptian "Lotus" Motifs (probably derived from Nymphaea caerulea lily a motif commonly found in the decoration of both utiitarian objects and architechual components like capitals on columns.

Funerary Stele of Ba Water Lilies and Lotus in Ancient Egypt: Iconographic Use and Expression. Abstract only: For nearly 4000 years the native Egyptian water lilies (Nymphaea caerulea and Nymphaea lotus), and later the imported lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), were used as strongly expressed symbols, favored art forms and religious adjuncts. The data set supporting this paper and its interpretations is supported by approximately 5600 images drawn from ancient sources spanning the entire interval of Egyptian history from the late Predynastic to Roman times.

Links primarily concerned with evidence from motifs from
the art and architecture of antiquity showing transcultural
use of species of Nymphaea for their entheogen properties

Species implicated: In Egypt- Nymphaea caerulea Sav (the Egyptian blue "lotus") and re the Maya- Nymphaea ampla DC.

Transcultural use of narcotic water lilies in ancient egyptian and maya drug ritual by William A. Emboden, Department of Biology, California State University. Abstract only: Comparisons are made between ancient ritual uses of the flowers of Nymphaea (Nymphaeaceae) in Maya and Egyptian civilizations. Recurrent motifs encountered in the art of both of these ancient civilizations suggests that the role of the water lily was that of a narcotic (psychodysleptic) used to mediate ecstasis among a priestly caste. Relevant literature is reviewed as are chemical data. Elements in the complex belief systems of these two civilizations need to be reinterpreted in view of the use of two water lilies as ritual narcotics. The species implicated are Nymphaea caerulea Sav., in Egypt, and N. ampla DC., among the Maya.

Nymphaea alba It contains the active alkaloids nupharine and nymphaeine, and is a sedative and an aphrodisiac/anaphrodisiac depending on sources. Although roots and stalks are used in traditional herbal medicine along with the flower, the petals and other flower parts are the most potent. Alcohol can be used to extract the active alkaloids, and it also boosts the sedative effects. The root of the plant was used by monks and nuns for hundreds of years as an anaphrodisiac, being crushed and mixed with wine.

A test was carried out to see if there were any narcotic effects of the blue water lily. There were no known psychotropic substance found in the flower itself. In The Mystery of the Cocaine Mummies Rosalie David ('Keeper of Egyptology, Manchester Museum') says that "we see many scenes of individuals holding a cup and dropping a water lily flower into the cup which contained wine". The assertion by Dr Andrew Sherratt, based on these depictions, is that he believes that when the flower was infused with wine, that the chemical content might change and become the ancient Egyptian party drug or a shamanistic aid.

This has amplified the speculation that Nymphaea was the botanical identity of the "lotos" refered to in the Homeric legend in The Odyssey where Odysseus has to rescue his crew from the land of the "lotos eaters" who were reduced to a continuous state of stupifaction due to their addiction to the sporific plant. Alternative theories consider the relative mildness of the narcotic effect from Nymphaea and include plants with a higher potential for intoxication such as the opium poppy or its unripened calx as the "lotos" referred to. There is a similar enigma regarding the identity of the "soma" in legendary accounts in Hindu and Buddhist literature with candidates ranging from potent forms of cannabis in concentrated hashish to psilocybin mushrooms.

Lotus Eaters In Greek mythology, the lotus-eaters also referred to as the lotophagi or lotophaguses (singular lotophagus) were a race of people from an island near North Africa dominated by "lotus" plants. The lotus fruits and flowers were the primary food of the island and were narcotic and addictive, causing the people to sleep in peaceful apathy. Scholarly attempts to link the lotos with a known narcotic have never convinced a broad spectrum of readers. Speculation as to the plant or flower actually referred to: opium poppy, or a water-lily, Nymphaea caerulea, or Nymphaea stellata. Recent studies have shown that the blue water-lily of the Nile, Nymphaea caerulea, also known as the "blue lotus" (already known under this name to the Greeks), is a likely candidate. It can be processed to be used as a soporific and, in some formulations, has psychotropic properties. It is very common in Egyptian iconography which suggests its use in a religious context.

About Celtic and Vedic Soma

Links to Images of Lotus and Water Lily

Gilly Shaeffer Gallery   watercolor painting of Nelumbo nucifera   (to right)

Nelulmbo nucifera by Gilly Shaeffer Lotus and Water Lilies Gallery Community for selected images of some lotus and mostly water lily blooms.

Chinese Subtle-Style Lotus The traditional Chinese and Japanese paintings of lotus that are done with ink on Xuan (rice) paper are highly sophisticated expressions of a subtle aesthetics that depreciates the obvious, showy, colorful nature of the full blooms and captures the abstract beauty in the tones and compositions of the various elements even in their stage of withering.

Photos of various hybrid varieties in different stages of bloom. Photos showing lilies - Note stamen cluster in center with NO seedpod.

Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn The Lotus (see page 8 of 12) paintings by Emily Eden between 18366 and 1842 Bombay, India "Flowers principally wild from Mahableshwar" (a village and hill station in Maharashtra, western India, about 90 miles southeast of Mumbai (previously Bombay) including this illustration entitled "The Lotus" [Sacred Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn].

Egyptian Blue Water Lily Egyptian Blue "Lotus" or Nymphaea caerulea Google image gallery showing Wikipedia's white water lily compared to a collection of blue-colored lilys. Many people misunderstand that Lotus is Nelumbo nucifera, actually Nelumbo nucifera is never found in a blue color.

Lotus-Hope Everson

The Lotus Pond Essay and Picture Gallery about the perennial attraction, universal draw, and spiritual impact of living lotus- here, lovingly cultivated in an artificial pond as part of the architectural landscape of an office building in my hometown of Stuart, Florida.

Blue Lotus - Photoshop - illustration in seed catalog for blue water lily seeds Blue Lotus - Photoshop Photoshop'ed image illustrating flower in catalog for "Blue Lotus" seeds.

Lotus Miscellany

lotus leaf effect The roughness of the new solar cells at nanoscales mimics the fibrous bumps on the leaves of the lotus plant, which helps it repel water (and serves to keep it clean of silt).

Baha'i Lotus Temple, Delhi The Baha'i Lotus Temple in Delhi- a modern achievement of what before the Mogul invasion of India were efforts to render entire architecture in the form of the pre-eminent icon of the Hindu religion.