When you see a water lily or lotus flower floating atop the surface of a pond or swamp, you’d be remiss if you weren’t taken by its beauty. There’s something majestic, almost ethereal, about that stately flower’s bold presence amongst the tangles of weeds and muck. It is that stately presence that has captured the attention of poets, artists, and even the Gods themselves since the beginning of time. It is the subject of legend, folklore, and spiritual enlightenment – and more recently, it is the subject of many tattoos worn by those who have been captivated by its symbolism.
The specific symbolism of the lotus flower depends on which culture you feel most connected to, if any. Remember that tattoos, like any other form of art, are open to interpretation and can mean something completely different to each person. There is no “wrong” way to believe – even if you simply think the flower is beautiful and nothing more, that’s enough of a reason to get it as a tattoo; there are no rules that govern what something has to mean to you before you can have it inked on your body.
This article isn’t designed to tell you how to believe; only to share the various historical, cultural, and spiritual symbolism that the lotus flower has been associated with. From there, it’s up to you to decide what – if anything – it means to you.
The lotus flower is steeped in many ancient belief systems including ancient Egyptian mythology, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese paintings and poetry, and even Mayan folklore. Although, it’s been discovered that the Egyptians often confused the difference between water lilies and lotus flowers, thus creating some misunderstanding about the distinction between the two.
So, what’s the difference between a water lily and a lotus? They both look very similar and grow in identical conditions. To explain the difference, I found this video that give a very clear and concise explanation (the music is a bit annoying and isn’t necessary, so you may want to turn your sound off):
While most of the stories and pictures shared by these cultures depict what they call a lotus, it’s now understood that the ancient Egyptians, when referring to the white and/or blue varieties, were actually describing water lilies, not lotuses.
Ho Hsie-Ku, One of Taoism’s Eight Immortals
Because the lotus flower grows in the east, and most of the legends and folklores come from the east, most of the symbolism - especially that found in Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, refers to the lotus flower, not water lilies. If that distinction matters to you when choosing a design for a tattoo, it’s something you’ll want to keep in mind when doing a photo search.
Basic Symbolism Across All Cultures
Regardless of which culture you study, just about all of them appreciate the lotus for the same basic properties:
Its ability to grow from mud, rise through murky waters, and ascend clean and pure in appearance.
Its emergence from the water and gradual opening throughout the day that shares similarities with the rising of the sun over the horizon, symbolizing rebirth or resurrection.
The fact that you never see a wilted, dying or dead lotus flower on the water is because they sink below the surface after they have reached the end of their lifespan, which created the illusion of them never dying, but simply being reborn each day in a new location (which we know now was simply a new flower).
Each of the lotus colors – white, blue, pink, and sometimes red or purple – has its own special symbolism in addition to the symbolism of the flower itself.
Word Lotus in Other Languages:
If you want to know what the word lotus is in some of these various cultures, here’s what I’ve found:
Blue: The most commonly portrayed color in Egyptian art, the blue lotus is said to have been a significant part of the earth’s creation, rising from the primordial muck and giving birth to Rah, the sun God.
In addition to its rich significance in Egyptian mythology, the blue lotus grew in abundance along the Nile River. The ancient Egyptians revered the flower for its longevity, being the only flower that bloomed consistently throughout the year. Parts of the flower had many medicinal and practical applications, and is still appreciated today for its narcotic effects that can relieve pain, muscle spasms, and anxiety.
In Buddhism, however, the blue lotus symbolizes wisdom and knowledge. Manjushri , known as the Buddha of Wisdom, is portrayed as being seated upon a pink lotus but holding a blue lotus flower in his left hand.
In both Egyptian and Buddhist art, the blue lotus is always depicted as only a partially open flower, never showing its center.
White: As with most things white, this lotus flower symbolizes purity. In Buddhist lore, the Goddess Maya, who was to give birth to the Buddha, was compared to a white lotus flower by her people. In the Buddhist faith, the white lotus represents the spiritual state of bodhi, which means awakening and/or enlightenment – Buddha was sitting under a mahabhodi tree when he, himself, became enlightened.
In Hinduism, the white lotus symbolizes the beginning of all life on earth. The flower was said to protrude from the navel of Vishnu and sat upon by Brahma, who then carried out Vishnu’s orders to create the world.
Pink: The most prominent of all lotus flower symbolism in Buddhism, it is reserved only for the highest deity, Buddha, who is often portrayed as sitting atop the flower. In many cultures, it is a symbol of being unattached and above the rest, as the flower itself grows higher than the surface of the water. A fully open pink lotus blossom represents the most complete state of enlightenment, which all strive for and very few ever reach: nirvana.
The pink lotus is often referred to as the “Sacred Lotus” or “Indian Lotus” and is the national flower of India, where in Hindu lore, Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth – sits atop the flower from which she was born.
The lotus’s sacred status, however, does not prevent it from being a popular ingredient in many Asian dishes.
Purple: In Buddhism, the purple lotus is not nearly as common as the other colors, but it represents mysticism and spirituality. In artistic renderings, it’s often drawn with eight prominent petals to represent the eight auspicious symbols that lead to enlightenment, the lotus flower being one of those 8 symbols.
Red: The red lotus, unsurprisingly, is said to represent love and compassion as well as purity of heart.
What the Lotus Means to You
Once you’ve read enough to feel comfortable that you have a basic understanding of what the lotus flower means in other cultures, you then have to decide what it means to you. If you decide to get a lotus flower tattoo based on a belief system, however, I encourage you to research that faith more thoroughly so that you truly understand the deep significance of the spiritual culture you declare yourself to be part of. Inking that design on your skin without fully understanding its significance to those who hold that faith very dear would be disrespectful.
If you decide you just want a lotus flower (or water lily) simply for its beauty, then by all means do so. In the end, it’s your body, your skin, and your decision.