Christmas trees and Indian literature

Kalpataru, the divine tree of life – Wikimedia Commons (Gunawan Kartapranata)

Many Christmas traditions have taken on a rather secular character in the modern world and can be fully enjoyed by us all, whatever the case is about our religious beliefs or lack of them.  Among such traditions, the practice of decorating a tree for Christmas appears to be a rather modern one, but with many ancient precursors, both within Christian history and in comparative Indo-European and world-historical perspective.  The Judeo-Christian tradition in some sense begins with the following mythological events –

“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.”

[Book of Genesis 2.9; KJV]

The Islamic Qur’an similarly has reference to a tree of life or tree of immortality, and there are also ideas about a cosmic tree in the mythologies of Persia, Mesopotamia and other ancient cultures.  In Buddhism, Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment by meditating under a bodhi tree (sacred fig tree or ficus religiosa), similarly perhaps to how Newton is supposed to have attained scientific enlightenment while sitting under an apple tree. 

When it comes to Indian literature, I have already considered how the sacred fig tree is used as a metaphor for the cosmos in the Rig Veda and other texts.  This short article will briefly adduce two literary examples that show how trees figure in special ways in the work of the Indian poet and playwright Kālidāsa.

In his play Abhijñānaśakuntalam, Kālidāsa describes a magical moment when Śakuntalā must leave her home in the forest hermitage.  The trees of the forest miraculously provide all the things Śakuntalā might need or want  –

One tree revealed a lucky linen garment white as the moon.
Another tree produced a lac oil to be used on the feet.
By others, hands of forest gods appeared and in their palms,
which rivalled the new shoots of the trees, jewellery was presented.

[Abhijñānaśakuntalam Act 4, Verse 4, p.109; my own translation]

Indeed, this is on a par with the close bond that Śakuntalā has developed with these trees, having tended them so lovingly all her life.  As Kāśyapa explains –

Oh, trees which cluster round this sacred forest-grove,
This Śakuntalā who is not ready to drink water before you,
Who, despite being fond of ornament,
Did not pull off a spray of blossoms through affection for you,
Who felt joy  when you blossomed,
Is going to the home of her husband.

May you all consent to it.

[Abhijñānaśakuntalam Act 4, Verse 8, p.113; my own translation]

In his poem Meghadūta, too, Kālidāsa refers to the kalpa-vṛkṣa, or wish-fulfilling tree as follows –

“The yakṣas, accompanied by women, enjoy drinking the aphrodisiac wine that is produced by the wish-fulfilling tree”

[Meghadūta Uttaramegha Verse 5 (part); my own translation]

This notion of a kalpavṛkṣa is widely referenced in Hindu and Buddhist literature and thought.  It seems to have been one of the many extraordinary things that emerged at the time of the churning of the ocean, and to fulfil all good and positive wishes.  Accordingly, we may conclude with a wish for an enjoyable Christmas season and a better 2021!

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