Mother nature is vastly revered by Indians from the ancient ages. Vedas and puranas have upheld the sanctity of nature since the beginning of time. Our vedic scriptures recognize trees to be the source of existence, for it grants Vayu (oxygen) and thus prana (life), phalam (fruits), pushpam (flowers) and aushadhi (medicines). These attributes position trees at the very center of our ecosystem, around which life revolves.
However, not all trees that reside on Prithvi (Earth) were considered ‘Vedic’ by our ancestors. Vedic trees, or those of utmost significance to our vedas, puranas and the theory of vibhava (evolution), have been identified quite cleverly by scholarly men and women before our times, as those that are evergreen, medicinal, simple and traditional. Vedic trees were identified as sacred elements that not only served humanity but also housed Gods and celestial beings that radiated positivity and became a part of our traditions.
The 15th chapter of the Bhagavat Geeta refers to the Peepal tree as ‘samsara’ or the cycle of life and death in this material world. The tree is unique as its roots make for the top of the tree and not the bottom. Lord Krishna calls the tree ‘Asvatta’, which means impermanent and thus aptly represents ‘samsara’, the cycle bereft of ‘Moksha’ or salvation.
In the same chapter, Bhagavan also calls it ‘Avyayam’ which means imperishable. The peepal tree, representing samsara which is impermanent and ever-changing but also imperishable and a continuous cycle of ends and beginnings, is the perfect metaphor to help mankind understand the need to surrender oneself to the paramatma and lead an immaterial life with Yoga, siddhi and the likes that can help a jivatma attain salvation.
Puranas and multiple folklores of ancient India depict the peepal tree as the residence of ‘Tree-murti dev’, wherein Brahma, the creator, resides in the roots, Shiva, the destroyer, adobes in the leaves and Vishnu, the protector, dwells in the trunk of the magnificent tree.
Another sanctified tree that is also a source of great mysticism and historical truths, is the great Ashoka tree. A species of it, called the Shimsupa (also called Shinsapa or Shimsapa), was the very tree that housed Sita in Lanka pati Ravana’s Ashok vatika. It was also the tree under which Queen Maya of the Shakya dynasty birthed the baby boy Siddhartha, who went on to attain enlightenment and be revered as Lord Buddha.
The Shimsupa, a tree that witnessed the making of history that continues to shape the world today, its people and their beliefs, is also considered a holy source of medicines that can rid humanity of diseases such as diabetes. The tree, for its calm and centered demeanor, is grown vastly in Buddhist temples and is worshiped fervently.
Speaking of worship, many Hindu temples include large trees that span high and wide with roots above and red coloured threads on the bottom. Sometimes, the tree is also important to the structural integrity of the temple itself, thus becoming the foundation for the place of worship. This is the great Banyan tree. Initially growing on a host plant, the tree eventually takes up a large area and grows into a magnificent structure, becoming a gentle reminder of nature and the mighty power she wields. Vedas have ordained the tree as a sacred being that requires nourishment and worship. It is believed that when a thread is tied around the trunk of the tree, the seeker’s wishes come true. Many married women across India often indulge in this practice.
While talking about vedic trees, it is hard to miss Neem. The entirety of Ayurveda, which is derived from Atharvaveda, is built on the foundation of the Neem tree and its innumerable medicinal properties. The tree is considered Goddess Durga herself in many parts of the country. From anti-bacterial and microbial benefits to burning the leaves to drive away mosquitoes, every part of the tree has a medicinal use. The vedas call the tree ‘Sarva Roga nivarini’ or ‘one that cures all illnesses’.
It is said that while the devas carried ‘Amrita’ or ‘the elixir of immortality’ to heaven after samrudha manthan, a few drops fell on a neem tree, giving it the moniker ‘Kalpavruksha’. The neem tree is a representation of the self-sustaining nature of Dharthi (Earth) and all that mother nature has provided and continues to provide for the fruitful continuation of life.
It is nearly impossible to talk about vedic trees and forget to mention the Bael tree. While the English name might sound new, this Sanskrit hymn might jog one’s memory,
dantikōṭisahasrāṇi vājapēyaśatāni cha |
kōṭikanyāmahādānāṁ eka bilvam shivarpanam ||
Which translates to – “The offering of Bilva is greater in power than yagnas and sacrifices.”
(This forms a part of the Bilvashtakam Stotram)
The Bilva patra, that grows on the Bilva or Vilva tree, is famously offered to Lord Shiva, an act that is backed by numerous historical and mythological stories. The tree is also called ‘Shivadruma’ and is thought to represent the Trisulam Shiva carries. Not to mention, its medicinal properties have immense value in ayurvedic treatment. The yellow leaves of the tree are sweet and aromatic, a phenomenon rarely found in other trees. Trees, be it big, small, lean or dense, are the very source of sustenance and hold the knowledge of the universe within their sturdy trunks that act as guards. Scented and colourful flowers provide a sense of relief in this fast-paced world while their fruits continue to nourish life as we know it. Bringing rain to parched lands, dancing in the wind, providing shade on scorching days and purifying the air around us, each tree takes upon itself these roles with modesty and might. It is thus little to no surprise that our vedas consider these divine beings as abodes of goodness, purity and the secret to samsara itself.