The Cosmos in Indian Philosophy

Kedar Ragini: Folio from a ragamala series (Garland of Musical Modes) ca. 1690–95, by RuknuddinMet Museum

Reflecting on the sacred fig tree as a metaphor for the cosmos

The peace and tranquillity of a natural environment is something appreciated by us all.  Regularly spending time in the midst of nature has a benefit for mental wellbeing which has been validated by modern scientific studies.  The quasi-spiritual atmosphere afforded by forests and trees also impressed ancient peoples in many parts of the world, leading to worship and spiritual retreat in woods and groves.  However, it seems that the specific association of varieties of trees and plants with deities may be particularly associated with the proto-Indo-European tradition.

The Asvattha tree, also known as the Peepul tree or sacred fig tree, Latin name Ficus religiosa, is native to India and Southeast Asia.  It is important practically and symbolically in Indian religious belief and practice today.  But the importance of the Asvattha tree goes back to the most ancient recorded history of India.  Indeed, the Buddha is thought to have achieved enlightenment under an Asvattha tree, and hence it is also called Bodhi [perfect wisdom] tree.  There may also be a connection with the Kalpa-vṛkṣa or wish-fulfilling tree that the Bhagavata Purana uses as a metaphor for itself.  The Asvattha tree, like several other tree varieties, was already mentioned symbolically in several verses of the Rig Veda, for example –

Two Birds Joined in Friendship Embrace the Same Tree.

One Eats Its Figs [pippalam]; the Other Watches Without Eating.

[Rig Veda Book 10 verse 164.20; my own translation]

Though somewhat enigmatic, this verse can be understood to describe the total content of our experiential reality, comprised of a duality of agentive action and witnessing consciousness.  The fact that it is an Asvattha tree is indicated by its fruit, the fig.

Perhaps related to this, the Kaṭha Upanishad contains a famous dialogue between Yama, the Lord of death, and a precocious child, Nachiketas.  Yama explains to Nachiketas –

Roots Above; Branches Below; This Is the Eternal Asvattha;

It Is Pure; It Is Brahman; Only It Is Called Immortal;

All the Worlds Are Situated in It; There Is Nothing Beyond It

[Kaṭha Upanishad, 6th Vallī, verse 1; my own translation]

This verse employs the idea of an Asvattha tree as a metaphor for the entire cosmic reality as understood by these ancient sages and denoted as brahman (not to be confused with the term ‘Brahmin’).  Like the Nyagrodha or Banyan tree, the Asvattha can have aerial roots, that is, roots above ground level, which seems to have some symbolic significance.  Like the Rig Veda verse, however, the full significance of this metaphor is not entirely clear to the modern reader.

A similar presentation is found in the Bhagavad Gita as follows –

Roots Above; Branches Below; It Is Called the Imperishable Asvattha,

Whose Leaves Are the Vedic Hymns; Whoever Knows It Knows the Veda.

Above and below its branches are stretched

The sensory qualities fill it; sense-objects are its shoots;

And the roots continue below

Bound to karma in the world of humans

[Bhagavad Gita Book 15 Verse 1; my own translation]

This verse starts out the same way as that of the Kaṭha Upanishad description, also connecting the reality described with the Vedas.   However, the description quickly changes course with the second verse –

Above and below its branches are stretched

The sensory qualities fill it; sense-objects are its shoots;

And the roots continue below

Bound to karma in the world of humans

[Bhagavad Gita Book 15 Verse 2; my own translation]

This second verse clarifies that the roots also extend downwards (which is the case for the actual Asvattha tree) and also connects this metaphysical picture with the doctrine of Karma, a doctrine which first emerges in the Upanishads.  Here, the world of humans is somehow below and the downward roots are the means to effect the ties of karma, whereby our intentional actions repeatedly bind us into a life of actions and consequences.  Whereas for the Kaṭha Upanishad, the tree symbolised ultimate reality, now the tree is associated with our everyday experiences that fall short of such an ultimate reality.  Hence it should be no surprise to read in the third verse –

No form of it can here be comprehended,

No end and no beginning, no sure abiding-place:

This fig-tree with its roots so fatly nourished –

[Take] the stout axe of detachment and cut it down!

[Bhagavad Gita Book 15 Verse 3; translation by Professor R.C. Zaehner]

As the reality of consequentialist actions and karmic bondage is part of an erroneous or illusory world picture, we are now instructed to overcome it through the practice of mental detachment from such a consequentialist model.  It has been suggested that this is an indication of the Buddhist influence on the Bhagavad Gita.  As Zaehner explains in his commentary on the above –

“This joyous exultation in eternal life [in the Upanishads] belonged to a stage of Indian religion which as yet knew nothing of the Buddha and his teachings.  To him the sap of life was hateful, and his use of this same simile of the tree and its destruction must surely have had its effect on the author of the Gita, who, though he borrows his first line from the Katha Upanishad, develops the theme on lines that are more Buddhistic than Upanishadic.”

The association between trees and cosmic reality is also present in many places in the Christian Bible, including most famously the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis.  This dates back to at least the middle of the first millennium BC, but can be traced back to Sumerian prototypes from much earlier times.  There we read of the following events –

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food;

The tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying,

Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it:

For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

[Genesis Book 2 Verses 8, 9, 16, 17; KJV]

The metaphysical significance of the tree is again very different in these instances, yet it is striking that the tree is again a site of weighty meaning, both as a symbolic element of the ultimate metaphysical ground of being, and as a symbolic element in the perennial story of human suffering and spiritual bondage.  Indeed, it can be no coincidence that the crucifixion of Jesus involved a cross which was fashioned from a tree, reminding us of the Genesis story as well as the symbolic appearance of trees across ancient world literatures.

Indeed, there are many parallels in other ancient practices and ancient literatures.  Decorating a tree at Christmas is believed to originate from a pre-Christian tradition.  Worship of trees and tree-spirits as well as veneration and sensitivity towards trees has been and still is prevalent across many world traditions, from Jewish tradition to Japanese Shinto tradition.  In The Golden Bough, James Frazer documents many other examples in pre-Christian European religious practices and across the world.

We may also be reminded here of the tree Yggdrasil from Norse mythology, which inspired the metaphysically central role of trees in Tolkien’s Cosmology as follows –

“And as they watched, upon the mound there came forth two slender shoots; and silence was all over the world in that hour, nor was there any other sound save the chanting of Yavanna.  Under her song the saplings grew and became fair and tall, and came to flower; and thus there awoke in the world the Two Trees of Valinor … This began the Days of the Bliss of Valinor; and thus began also the Count of Time.”

[The Silmarillion, pp. 38-39]

Trees and forests continue to have totemic significance in modern culture and the modern economy.  Addressing contemporary deforestation in the Amazon and across the world is a significant concern that is strategic importance for the whole of humanity. Tree-planting schemes are one global response to this concern.  We have seen how the Bhagavad Gita creatively adapted the metaphor of the Asvattha tree from the Kaṭha Upanishad in order to respond to the new context of a later phase of history.  Perhaps we too can find contemporary relevance in the symbology of the Asvattha tree and in its parallels in other ancient literatures and practices, so that these Vedic and other traditions can likewise ‘inspire our minds’ with purposeful contributions to addressing this global challenge.

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