The lotus poser

Sumana Roy | Updated on February 08, 2020

Above all else: It is the nature of the lotus to look upwards, for the soft spikes of its petals point skywards, where light has been imagined   -  PTI

The rich metaphorical history of the national flower is being destroyed by a political party that only understands the literal

My nephew was being taught how to draw a lotus. Not quite an artist, the then five-year-old was struggling to arrange lines that would create the likeness of the flower. He imagined them as slices of apple arranged on a pie, or pizza slices from time to time, and once his mind was there, he couldn’t understand why they needed to be arranged so meticulously — why this design? Soon it was Lakshmi puja, and there was the goddess — sitting on a lotus. Gods and goddesses in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are commonly seated on a lotus. My nephew was, of course, too young to be aware of this iconography. What intrigued him though was how comfortable the gods and goddesses looked while sitting on the flower. That was what he tried to do as soon as adults had tired of their rituals of worship. He was trying every flower — sitting on them to test them for their comfort. Marigold and periwinkle, the jasmine and the aparajita, and eventually the long-stemmed delicate lotus. They were no match for the chairs and sofas he’d sat on. The gods were quite foolish, he decided.

Armed with this deduction, he went to art school (art school only in name, of course, for all that he was taught there was to see that paint did not spill outside the stern lines). Flowers were not easy to draw, he told us later. Leaves were more obedient to the pencil. But it was the lotus that would have to be drawn — it was an instruction from ‘somewhere’. It was the ‘national flower’ of the country, after all — the art teacher explained to parents.

My nephew wasn’t alone in not being able to get the geometrical symmetry of the lotus — there were other children, too. What followed this was unexpected. The little boys and girls, the oldest among them no more than seven, were asked to sit like the lotus — that is, do the padmasana. It is a posture that is said to enable the ‘highest level of consciousness’ in hatha yoga.

The padmasana is, as anyone who has tried it knows, a difficult asana. My nephew, with a body as flexible as those of most children at that age, couldn’t get it right — he admitted this, saying that a little more practice would let him sit like the gods and goddesses. What that meant metaphorically was that the little boy had begun to see that the lotus on which the gods sat was perhaps only an extension of their bodies, that limbs and the way they were arranged could do what his drawing pencil could not.

The lotus is, as is well known, a metaphor because of the virtue of its birth — a purity and freedom that is possible in spite of the conditions of its birth, in mud as it were, which is meant to stand for materialism and its attractions and distractions. In Buddhist literature, the different stages of the blooming of its petals represent the arc of a person’s enlightenment. The open lotus, that is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral symbol (revamped before the 2014 elections to make it ‘bold’, its outlines made ‘darker’, because the party felt that the older lotus symbol ‘looked much lighter in comparison to other symbols’), is meant to stand for the highest form of enlightenment. The urge to give it ‘bolder outlines’, to ‘darken’ them, reminded me of my nephew’s drawing class. The rose he’d managed to imitate with a cluster of broken lines arranged in whorls; other flowers, more generic to children’s art, he’d found easy to arrange the petals around a thalamus. There was something about the lotus that resisted simplification. This is perhaps why mathematicians (and artists), across cultures, have often used it as a model for geometric formations.

‘One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by water,’ says The Gita. All of this is completely at odds with what the political party using this symbol has been doing. Its equating other religions, particularly a Muslim population, repeatedly with animals, particularly with those who live their lives inside soil such as the rat, has created a new iconography of filth around the lotus. It is the nature of the lotus to look upwards, for the soft spikes of its petals point skywards, where light has been imagined. In the art through which we have been protesting against this regime, there are moments of epiphany, of recognition emerging from subversions of lines and arcs. In one poster, where the background is saffron, a face comes to us in synecdoche — from the moustache we recognise it as Hitler’s. When I looked closely, I saw that the moustache was an inverted, even limp, lotus. And I realised that this is what has been done to the lotus — its metaphorical history destroyed by a political party that only understands the literal.


Sumana Roy (@SumanaSiliguri )is the author of How I Became A Tree;

Published on February 06, 2020

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