02 February 2018

Lotus: Synonyms in Sanskrit

The lotus is one of the most prolific sources of symbolism and imagery in India—past and present. The growing habit of the lotus, which lifts flower buds above the mud, allowing blooms to unfold without blemish, makes it ideal for conveying ideas related to transcendence and purity. Girls are still routinely named for the lotus flower. Amongst Buddhists, names with lotus symbolism have long been unisex.

There is only one species of lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. However, the situation is somewhat confused because early taxonomists classified them together with water lilies, genus Nymphaea, on the basis of the superficial resemblance of their flowers. Older systems, including one still in use on the sub-continent, still classify the lotus as Nymphaea nelumbo. However, the lotus and water lilies are not closely related in modern taxonomies. They both belong to the clade angiosperm, but are from unrelated orders and families. In other words, the fact that they have flowers and form seeds is about all they have in common, from a biological point of view. Although the standard dictionaries attempt to assign botanical names to the Sanskrit terms, these are all from older, now deprecated, systems and are thus unreliable. 

The true lotus is an important food plant in Asia, especially in China. Young leaves, stems, seeds, roots and rhizomes can all be eaten. The fresh plants are susceptible to microbial infection and, though edible raw, are best cooked for consumption. The flowers of the true lotus are usually white with pink edges, though they may also be plain white, or substantially pink. 

True lotus showing leaves,
bud, flower and seed-pod

So-called blue and red lotus flowers are, in fact, water lilies. The two are easily distinguished. Lotus leaves and flowers tend to be raised above the water on long stalks, whereas water lily leaves and flowers float on the surface of the water. As with roses, most of the water lilies we see now are modern hybrid varieties. 

Water lilies

Although in Buddhism when we say "lotus" we most often think of the lotus flower, Sanskrit has words for specific parts of the plant, especially where those parts are useful, i.e., either edible or used for their fibres. However, I'm mainly interested in names for the flower, here.

I'll take the names roughly in the order given in Apte's English-Sanskrit Dictionary, with a few adjustments to cluster similar terms together. Apte lists 24 synonyms under "lotus", plus some additional names associated with specific colours of lotus.


The word padma is probably the most generic name for the lotus. It simply means lotus. Etymologically, it probably derives from √pad, "step", with the suffix -ma (Cf. dharma from √dhṛ + ma). Kamala is also frequently used but, strictly speaking, means "pale-red" (i.e., pink) or "rose-coloured". Clearly, it comes from the varying pinkness of the flower. The name nalina appears to come from nala, meaning a (hollow) reed, and may be a reference to the flower stalk. 

The name Aravinda or Arvin is quite a common given name in India. Notably, the Bengali form  is Aurobindo. The word aravinda is used to refer to the true lotus as well as both blue and red water lily. The etymology is obscure.  

By contrast, utpala is mostly used to refer to the blue water lily, Nymphaea caerulea (aka Egyptian lotus).  It means to "burst open" from ut, 'up, out', and √pal, 'to move'. The blue water lily flower opens at night. The word utpala can also be used to refer to lotus seeds and to the plant Cheilocostus speciosus, or crêpe ginger. Sometimes the compound nīlotpala (i.e., nīla 'blue' + utpala) is used to specify the blue water lily. It is also called the mahotpala, i.e., mahā-utpala or large water lily.

Another name for the blue water lily is kuvalaya. The etymology of this word appears to be ku, "earth" + valaya, "girdle, bracelet, armlet, etc.". In Pāḷi, Brahmins from the west are sometimes referred to as sevālamālikā "having garlands of sevāla." However, sevāla (Skt śaivāla) is a water plant, totally unsuited to making garlands. Pāḷi commentaries equate sevāla with utpala, which is more plausible. Note that Sanskrit words beginning with ku are often loan words from Proto-Munda. Such borrowing occurred early (words appear in the Ṛgveda) and at a time when the ancestor of the Munda family of languages was common in northwest India, a region where Munda languages are no longer spoken.

The term sarasija means "produced", ja, "from the lake or pond", sarasi. While abja and ambhoja both mean "born", ja, "in the water", ap/ambhas. A lot of the symbolism of the lotus involves highlighting that it emerges from the water as a bud and then blooms. Paṅka means "mud" and another similar term is paṅkaja, "born of the mud".

The two words śatapatra and sahasrapatra refer to flowers with 100 (śata) and 1000 (sahasra) petals (patra). They are lotuses by implication and often have esoteric significance. 

The term kuśeśaya is said to literally mean "lying (śaya) amongst the kuśa reeds." But is also taken to mean "lying in the water", i.e., a water lily. However, this doesn't explain the medial e. I can see no easy way to explain this and we have to say that etymology is obscure. Again, possibly a loan word from Proto-Munda. 

Apte lists paṅkeruha as a name for the Lotus. We also have related words saroruha, sarasīruha, and ambhoruha. The word ruha means "mounted, ascended" from √ruh, "ascend". Then paṅka means "mud", sara, "lake", sarasi, "pond", and ambhas, "water". So we have paṅkeruha, "ascended from the mud", saroruha, "ascended from the lake", sarasīruha, "ascended from the pond", and ambhoruha, "ascended from the water". Sārasa is another adjective meaning "of or related to the pond" that is used to mean lotus. 

Monier-Williams says that tāmarasa is the "day lotus". Rasa is the juice or sap of a plant and tāma is probably from tamas "dark". 

The word puṣkara is used for the blue water lily, amongst many other things such as the bowl of a spoon, the skin of a drum, the tip of an elephant's trunk, and so on, in a series of seemingly unrelated objects. The etymology here is unclear. One is tempted to say that it means "flourishing" or "that which makes one flourish" from √puṣ, "to flourish", and √kṛ, "to make or do". However, Monier-Williams argues against this. It is perhaps instead related to puṣpa, "flower". Nothing seems to connect the various usages which suggests that several words have become confused and merged together over time. It may also be a loan word. 

Bisaprasūna is from bisa, the lotus plant, especially the stalks or edible rhizomes and roots. In fact, bisa effectively means "lotus" and should have been included in the original list. It occurs in several compounds such as bisa-kusuma, "lotus flower", bisa-ja "lotus flower", bisa-tantu "lotus fibre" and so on. Prasūna is from sūna "born, produced" (from √sū, "generate") and means "bud, flower". Similarly, Apte misses out giving mṛṇa, "crushed", as a name for the lotus plant, particularly the fibrous parts, though not usually the flower.  

And finally rājīva, "streaked" or "striped", is used for the blue water lily. 

Apte then includes a few more words that are colour specific. For example, names specific to the white lotus include puṇḍarīka, "that which bears a mark or sign (puṇḍa)" , and sitāṁbhoja, "white and bountiful". The red water lily is sometimes called kokanada, though more specifically this refers to the bright red (koka) colour of the flower. Similarly, raktotpala (i.e. rakta-utpala) means a burst of colour (rakta), especially red colour (recall that utpala is used for the blue water lily). This word is also used for bloodshot eyes. One last name for the blue water lily is indīvara, "the reward of/for beauty" or "whose reward is beauty".

We can extend this list a little by referring to the Amarakośaa thesaurus composed by Amarasiṃha, a Buddhist author in the middle of the first millennia CE. Further synonyms include: saugandhika, "sweet smelling"; kalhāra (or kahlāra), hallaka, "red water lily", rakta-sandhyaka, "reflecting colour", śālūka, "shining"? And finally, Kumuda, "exciting joy", a name used variously for the white lotus and red water lily, but also or many other plants and things that make people happy. 

Further notes

The plant itself, as distinct from the flower, can be referred to by feminine versions of many of the nouns, e.g., nalinī, kamalinī, padminī, mṛṇālinī, kumudinīpaṅkeruhiṇī, and so on. 

Many of the names for lotus are also names for cranes (e.g., kamala, aravinda,). Also, names associated with red colours are also names for copper and deer. 

Most of these can be combined in compounds to form adjectives of women as  "lotus-eyed", -ākṣī, lotus-hued (e.g., padmā) or lotus faced,  -mukhī.

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