Lotus flowers have been influential in cultures across the world from ancient times until today, from ancient Egypt and India to all across Asia. They have been associated with the human soul, gods and goddesses and featured in stories and legends. The meaning of a lotus flower ranges from divine purity and enlightenment, as in Buddhism, wealth, as in Hinduism, to rebirth, as in the ancient Egyptian religion. Many of the ancient meanings are still in use today.
The Egyptians used the lotus to symbolize the sun and rebirth and it was also a symbol of Upper Egypt. There are three creation legends that share similarities, in which the lotus’s symbolism is expressed. In one creation legend, the sun rose out of a lotus that had grown from a watery chaos. The next legend, which originated from Heliopolis, states that from the infinite ocean Nun, a lotus rose along with dirt mound. The lotus bloomed revealing the sun-god Atum. The third legend, which comes from Hermopolis, differs from the second legend only by saying Ra came from the lotus. In writing, the lotus was used to represent numbers. One lotus meant 1,000, while a bush with two lotus flowers meant 2,000.
In Buddhism, lotus flowers mean purity of speech, mind and body rising above the waters of desire and attachment. The lotus is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols. Different colors of lotus are symbolically used to represent aspects of perfection. There are four colors, which are pink, blue, red and white. Red represents the heart--its purity, original nature, compassion, passion, love and other qualities. White symbolizes spiritual perfection and complete mental purity. Pink represents the Buddha and is the supreme lotus. Blue means wisdom, knowledge and victory over the senses.
Lotuses in Hinduism symbolize prosperity, beauty, fertility, eternity and eternal youth. Like Buddhism, it also means purity and divinity. A lotus is often used analogously for how people should live. One book that does this is the Bhagavad Gita at 5.10, where it states: "One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus leaf is untouched by water." Lotuses are also used to represent chakras, or the body’s energy centers.
There are five different types of lotus and all are in the water lily family. Two are in the genus Nelumbo and three are in the genus Nymphaea. It is understood that the white lotus, or Nelumbo nucifera, was the sacred lotus to the ancient Egyptians. However, in ancient Egyptian art the blue lotus, Nelumbo caerulea, is also depicted.
In modern cultures, lotus flowers are still used with their ancient meanings of purity and perfection, along with reinterpretations of those meanings. Lotus tattoos are meant to represent life, new beginnings and the possibility of people growing to change into something beautiful. An Indian nationalist political party called the BJP uses the lotus as its election symbol.