The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 21, 2001

Trees with spiritual attributes
Pran Nevile

A Hindu woman performing a religious ceremony around the tulsi plant by D.V. Dhurandhar, Bombay, C.1890 (courtesy V&A Museum, London).
A Hindu woman performing a religious ceremony around the tulsi plant by D.V. Dhurandhar, Bombay, C.1890 (courtesy V&A Museum, London).

FROM time immemorial, certain trees and plants in India have been invested with divine attributes. Hindus were taught to worship and revere trees and plants in the belief that it would influence their own personal well-being. Evergreen trees were regarded as symbols of eternal life and to cut them down was to invite the wrath of the gods. Groves in forests were looked upon as habitations of the gods.

The banyan tree occupies the pride of place amongst the sacred trees of India. It has aerial roots that grow down into the soil forming additional trunks. It is, therefore, called bahupada, the one with several feet. It symbolises a long life and also represents the divine creator, Brahma. It is invariably planted in front of temples. The numerous stems of the banyan tree are even regarded as the home of gods and spirits. It was under a banyan tree that the Hindu sages sat in a trance seeking enlightenment and it was here that they held discourses and conducted holy rituals. Some banyan trees reached a height of over 100 feet and more than 1000 feet in circumference. No wonder, it is stated that 10,000 men could be covered by a single tree. We come across a mention of the banyan tree in many travellers’ accounts.


Bishop Heber (1825) was so impressed by the sight of this tree that he exclaimed: "What a noble place of worship". Travellers’ tales even inspired the great English poet Milton to give description of the banyan tree in Paradise Lost in the following lines.

The fig-tree at this day to Indians known

In Malabar or Deccan, spreads her arms,

Branching so broad and long, that on the ground

The bended twigs take root, and daughters grow

About the mother tree, a pillar’d shade,

High over-arched and echoing walks between."

In Hindu mythology, the tree is called Kalpavriksha, the tree that provides fulfillment of wishes and other material gains. The worship of the tree is also represented in a Buddhist sculpture with its long hanging roots dropping gold pieces in vessels placed below.

Another great tree of India is the peepul to be found all over the country. Known for its antiquity, it finds a mention in many Hindu scriptures as a sacred tree whose worship is regarded as homage to the Trinity — Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The tree is treated as a Brahmin and special offerings made to it in the morning and lamps lit there in the evening. The tree is also associated with the old vedic ritual of lighting a sacrificial fire with a twig of the peepul tree.

Indian women engaged in the ceremony of tree worship by William Carpenter, Rajpootana C.1850 (courtesy V&A Museum, London).
Indian women engaged in the ceremony of tree worship by William Carpenter, Rajpootana C.1850 (courtesy V&A Museum, London).

Even now, village women may be seen worshipping the tree by watering its roots and placing some milk and eats for the serpents and insects residing there. Every village has its special peepul tree and the village elders hold their councils beneath its hallowed foliage. The most famous of these trees is the sacred peepul at Gaya under which Buddha sat when he attained Enlightenment. Since then the peepul tree is also called the Bo or the Bodhi tree and Prince Sidharath came to be known as Buddha. It is also believed to be a symbol of fertility and women worship it for progeny. The tree waves its leaves in an uncanny way and their trembling with a fluttering sound is attributed to spirits agitating in each leaf. This puts fear of the gods into the hearts of common folk.

The banyan and the peepul trees are symbols of the male and ceremoniously married to those of the female category. James Forbes, in his Oriental Memoirs (1813), mentions about a wedded banyan tree or the Palmyra and Burr tree united,that he saw at Salsette.

The bilva or oak-apple and the Asoka trees are associated with different deities. The Asoka tree is sacred to Kama, the god of love, and according to folklore, its buds will open up in full bloom when the foot of a young beautiful maiden touches its roots. The bilva with its three leaves resembling the trishul, or the trident held by Lord Shiva finds mention in Hindu mythology. Its fruit is a blood purifier.

Besides the sacred trees, there are some sacred plants, notably the tulsi plant which is found everywhere in sandy and fallow lands. It is an ancient variety of the basil. tulsi is considered to be the wife of Vishnu and worshipped by the Hindus. In homes, tulsi is grown in pots and womenfolk offer daily puja and pour an oblation of Ganges water. A mere touch of the plant is believed to purify the person and giving a twig of tulsi to anyone is considered as a protection from dangers and difficulties. Tulsi leaves are also put in the mouth of a dying man for the salvation of the soul. Among other virtues of the tulsi are its medicinal properties. Its leaves have a pleasing aroma and act as a cough elixir and cordial. Leaves are also eaten to help digestion and prevent other maladies like cold and chill. No wonder, the Hindus deified the plant for its numerous qualities.

Darbha or kusha is a sacred grass essential in all sacrifices. This plant is found in damp marshy ground. It is rough to the touch and pointed at the top. According to an old legend, it was produced at the time of the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons. It is also said that the gods while drinking amrita or the nectar of immortality shed some drops on this grass which thus became sacred.

There is a mention of it in the Hindu scriptures and the epics. The Kusha grass is therefore worshipped by Brahmins and used in various religious ceremonies as it is believed to have the virtue of purifying everything.

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