Mystic symbol of life

Since the roots of trees are underground, their trunks above ground, and their leaves in the sky, they are seen as linking the three levels of the universe, writes B. N. Goswamy

Oh, I who long to grow,
I look outside myself, and the tree inside me grows.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

The Tree of Life. From a kalamkari piece; south India, 20th century
The Tree of Life. From a kalamkari piece; south India, 20th century

AS one engaged with art, and with images, I am all too familiar with the Tree of Life motif. At the mere mention of the words, remembered images come hurtling to the mind: a 15th century Indian bronze, now in Kansas, with its wonderfully stylized branches and bird life, containing hints of hidden meanings, for example; a Persian carpet showing a delicately worked tree peopled with feathered beings of all ilk and plumage; the celebrated Mughal painting of ‘The Speaking Tree’ with innumerable figures of men and animals suspended from its branches that fork off from a great trunk made up of intertwining snakes. And so on.

Painters and sculptors and weavers have been playing with the motif, creating some stunning works in the process. For countless years, thinkers and mystics and myth-makers of nearly every culture have immersed themselves in the theme, seeing it as a symbol sometimes of life, sometimes of the universe. The views that are taken of the Tree vary naturally from culture to culture, but there are commonalities, too. Thus, since the roots of trees are underground, their trunks above ground, and their leaves in the sky, they are seen as linking the three levels of the universe, and the way in which they reach up into the heavens to seek the sun gives them a mystic quality.

The tree, we perceive, also epitomises the cycle of life, its blossoming in spring and bearing of fruit being associated with birth, and the falling of its leaves with the end of life.

The deeper one enters this field the more exciting, and mystifying, does the theme begin to appear. In the ancient Egyptian tradition thus one would find the legend of Osiris in which a sacred tree occupies a central position. In the Jewish Kabbalah, the Tree of Life consists of the mysterious thirty-two paths, and describes the descent of the divine into the manifest world. Among the Mayan, it represents the axis mundi, the stable world centre, and a symbolic vertical line—like the line of balance on a spinning top—that unites the three realms of underworld, earth, and heavens.

Most moving is the manner in which the Bhagavadgita speaks of the ‘Inverted Tree’, in chapter 15, in the verses beginning with the words: urdhvamulam adhahshakham: "It is said that there is an indestructible ashwattha tree with roots above and branches below, `85Its branches spread below and above being nourished by the gunas, objects of perception being its twigs`85 Its leaves are the Vedic hymns: he who knows it is the knower of the Veda`85."

I am fascinated equally by the manner in which, within each culture, a specific tree becomes invested with symbolic meanings. If in India it is the banyan with its aerial roots above the ground and earthly ones under it, in France the oak has a special place. In Germany it is the linden, in the Scandinavian lands the ash, in Lebanon the cedar, in Siberia the beech, and in Turkey the cypress. Around these trees legends grow, within themselves they contain virtual ‘forests’ of symbols, above them hovers a sense of mystery and of romance.

What I was only dimly aware of till now, however, is the extent to which the Tree of Life figures in the world of science. There it describes the relationships of all forms of life on earth in an evolutionary context. In his classic work, The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin used a branched diagram—very tree like—to put forth his ideas about the relationship between different forms of life on this earth.

"From the first growth of the tree" he wrote in a passage that is so often quoted, "many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these fallen branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only in a fossil state`85 As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications."

Not unexpectedly, everyone in the world of science, especially biology, is interested in the Tree of Life, for therein lies perhaps the final mystery of it all. Phylogeny and biodiversity enter the discussion around it; the phrase is used in association with the DNA molecule; a great multi-disciplinary multi-national project has been conceived with the Tree of Life at its centre.

Boundaries are being transcended, cross-fertilisation of ideas is taking place.

But to return to art and its images with which I began. The mail brought me recently a card of greetings on the cover of which appears the Tree of Life that I reproduce here. It is a rich image, a little loud in colouring perhaps, but closely thought out and carefully executed. What struck me especially in it is the game the artist appears to play with the viewer for, almost unnoticed, he has quite artfully placed in it, within the flowering branches, several birds delicately perched on them. You are meant to discover them for yourself and, if possible, to distinguish them one from the other. Forms of life? Different, and yet related?