Critical Paper on The Lotus by Heinrich Zimmer
Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization
By Heinrich Zimmer
Edited by Joseph Campbell
The book unravels important elements in Hindu and Buddhist themes by narrating carefully selected legends and myths of India. The author, Dr. Heinrich Zimmer, sheds light to the Western mind on understanding some profound ideas of eternity and time, guardians of life, cosmic renewal and other equally arcane topics. Such concepts are explained in Hindu mythology through graphic representations and rather riddle-like scenarios for those unfamiliar to Sanskrit literature. Dr. Zimmer inches through selected Hindu iconography linking it with similar symbols pertinent to Mesopotamian history or Greek mythology or Chinese philosophy. In effect, one develops a mind’s picture of interlocking ideas imbued with the same set of universal tenets and values.
Much like India’s history, chapters of the book release a myriad of interesting images and icons of proverbial Hindu deities. All of them are as colourful as they are complex. Under the chapter on Guardians of Life, there’s one particular subtopic which I would like to focus on: The Lotus.
The article sets off with the role of the thousand-petaled lotus during the Hindu creation of the universe to the evolution behind this emblematic water plant pertaining to female deities like Shrī, Lakshmi and Padmā. The ubiquitous lotus has since been the highest feminine symbol personified as Mother Earth. From this towering and exclusive position, Dr. Zimmer notes how this has transformed into a representation of “an enormous democratization”. Taking from the Buddhist philosophy that each being is a reflection of a divine creative essence, the article concludes that the lotus seat and emblem then becomes available to every human ruler.
I am treading this text with a lot of caution as Dr. Zimmer advices that one unfamiliar to Indian culture be diffident in analyzing myths and symbols foreign to one’s own. For this reason, I have chosen to highlight an aspect of this text that is universally identified to the personification of nature.
Mother Earth is called by many names in different cultures. She is the Greek’s Gaia, the Inca’s Pachamama, the Thai’s Phra Mai Thorani and the Hindu’s Goddess Earth, one whose scores of epithets are just as numerous as her attributes and manifestations. In the article, Dr. Zimmer notes that this Lotus Goddess plays the role of Mother Earth. He records that:
The cosmic lotus is called “The highest form or aspect of Earth, also “The Goddess Moisture,” “The Goddess Earth.” It is personified as the Mother Goddess through whom the Absolute moves into creation.
Hindu gods and goddesses are based on the Rig Veda, an ancient sacred anthology of Vedic Sanskrit hymns. The sacred texts make no mention of any symbol or character equivalent to the Lotus Goddess. This is widely due to the situation of the Aryans, the first Indo-European settlers in India, who were still battling their way through the Ganges. Only in the latter appendages to Rig Veda that the beauty of this flower was made known as the deities Shrī and Lakshmi. Both are connected to being: “lotus-born,” “standing on a lotus,” “lotus-colored,” “lotus-thighed,” “lotus-eyed,” “abounding in lotuses,” “decked with lotus garlands.” She is also called Padma which literally means lotus. Her other epithets include Loka-Mata (World’s mother); Chanchala (the fickle fortune); Jaladhi-ja (the oceanborn); and Hari Priya (beloved of Vishnu).
The article fails to mention another epithet of an Earth Mother which was pointed out also in the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda, a sacred canon collected when the Vedic people have finally settled near the Northern part of India. These Atharva Veda hymns call out to her as Prithvi:
‘May Earth the goddess,
She who bears her treasure stored up in many a place
Gold, gems and riches
Giver of opulence, grant great possessions to us
Bestowing them with love and favour
Earth… pout like a constant cow that never fails,
A thousand streams of treasure to enrich me.’
Wangu, author of Images of Indian Goddesses, elucidates Pritvhi’s position as:
“…the goddess of material and emotional abundance. In other hymns she is considered the luck and light in men and splendid energy in women. She is firm, motionless and wide. She is the one who gives nourishment, wealth and love. She is asked to pour forth milk as a mother does for a son. Her breasts are full of nectar which gives long life, and she is praised as the nourisher of all creatures wicked and good, demonic and divine.”
A variation of Pritvhi is Prthivī. In Goddesses and Sacred Geography, Kingsley gives his insight on the same hymns and her role as Earth Mother to the Hindus and Buddhists alike.
“It is clear that the hymns to Prthivī are grounded in reverence for the awesome stability of the earth itself and the apparently inexhaustible fecundity possessed by the earth. When Prthivī is described, characterized, or otherwise praised, the earth itself is usually the object of the hymn. Prthivī is the earth in a literal sense as much as she is a goddess with anthropomorphic characteristics.”
If Prithvi and Lakshmi share the same role as Earth Mother, then why was the epithet Prithvi edited in the article? Looking at the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses, it is highly likely that some of their attributes would converge. I think Dr. Zimmer just wanted to focus on a single aspect of India’s Nelumbo necifora, the lotus. There is still so much to say regarding the prominent deities who utilize the symbol of the sacred flower. By not expounding on this, he isolates a huge part on the transformation of the lotus-born Lakshmi’s role as goddess of prosperity and fortune vis-à-vis Prithvi’s one-sided element as goddess of Earth.
Narrating on a different myth, Dr. Zimmer made mention of Father Sky and Mother Earth:
“The eagle belongs to Father Heaven, Father Zeus in the mythology of the Greeks. Serpents, on the other hand, attend the goddess Hera, Zeus’ consort, Mother Earth.”
On mention of Greek counterparts for one who has powers on the Earth, this could also be contested. (Uranus and Gaia or Cronus and Gaia perhaps?) There are a number of loose ends that could have been answered. But, I get the point where he is leading to anyway.
The book narrates a number of myths which Dr. Zimmer meticulously translated. After each myth, he goes into extensive lengths discussing the possible meanings behind the stories through the iconography used. Knowing the making of this book is a story on its own. Dr. Zimmer, a German Indologist, migrated to America in 1940. It was quite abrupt and extremely unfortunate that he died in 1943 while lecturing at Columbia University. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization is actually a tribute to him for all the painstaking research he did on Hindu mythology. With the many spin-offs and manifestations of Hindu deities, this book would just be a good starting point to be captivated in such a multi-faceted religion.
 For instance, the serpent pair motif which is a symbol of Ningishzida, god of healing in Mesopotamia. Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990. 74. Print.
 The same intertwined serpent is linked to Asklepios, god of medicine in Greece. Zimmer 74.
 The archetypal characters of Heaven and Earth such as the Hindu lingam and yoni in comparison to the Chinese Yang and Yin. Zimmer 127-128.
 Zimmer 102.
 The lotus seat signifies that the being seated on it (whether it be a deity or human being) has transcended the material world suggesting spiritual authority. Kinsley, David. “Goddesses and Sacred Geography.” Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Motilal Banarsidass, 1998. 21. Google Books. Web. 27 Aug. 2011. <http://books.google.com/books?id=hgTOZEyrVtIC>.
 “Myths About Earth.” Windows to the Universe. National Earth Science Teachers Association, 2011. Web. 01 Sept. 2011. <http://www.windows2universe.org/mythology/pachamama_earth.html>.
 Zimmer 90.
 Zimmer 91.
 Chandra, Suresh. “Encyclopaedia of Hindu Gods and Goddesses” Google Books. Web. 02 Sept. 2011. <http://books.google.co.in/books?id=mfTE6kpz6XEC>.
 Griffith, Ralph T.H. “A Hymn of Prayer and Praise to Prithivī or Deified Earth.” Sacred-texts.com. John Bruno Hare, 2010. Web. 02 Sept. 2011. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/av/av12001.htm>.
 Wangu, Madhu Bazaz. Images of Indian Goddesses. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 2003. 35-36. Print.
 Kinsley 178.
 Rhodes, Constantina Eleni. “The Awesome Power of Auspiciousness.” Invoking Lakshmi: the Goddess of Wealth in Song and Ceremony. Albany: State University of New York, 2010. 16. Print.
 Zimmer, 73.
 Londhe, Sushama. “A Tribute to Hinduism.” Hinduwisdom.info. 28 Oct. 2008. Web. 1 Sept. 2011. <http://www.hinduwisdom.info/quotes101_120.htm>.