Under the divine shade
The generous, life-supporting trees, with regenerative powers, are the abode of our revered Gods. In some contexts, they are referred to as God. one of the hymns in Rigveda (10.97.5) refers to the supreme being who resides in the Asvatha (peepal- पीपल) - "your abode is the Asvatha tree". From the Vedic times to the epics, Purana and till the time of different philosophical schools that emerged on Indian soil, trees and the forest grooves has been relevant, sacred and divine.
Various fascinating terms and concepts built around trees, like, kalpvrikasha (कल्पवृक्ष - the wish-fulfilling tree) obtained during Sagar Manthan (सागर मंथन churning of the Ocean), Dev vriksha ( देव वृक्ष) or Nakshatra vriksha (नक्षत्र वृक्ष), Akshya vat (अक्षय वट )- the eternal banyan tree, vandevta (वन देवता), chaitya vriksha (चैत्य वृक्ष), Sthala vriksha (स्थल वृक्ष), tree of life in Mundaka upanishad, cosmic tree in Chandogya upanishad are indicative of the fact how trees have been a constant companion of our religious and social life and continue to do so. The terms associated with them kept changing, but the essence of divinity was an essential feature.
The list of plants and their sacred status since Vedic times is long and cannot be contained in this short content. However, a few examples are taken up here for understanding. Peepal (पीपल) and Shami (शमी) trees are a few of the earliest to attain divine status. The shami or khejari tree (prosopis spicigera), which houses fire inside and is associated with Goddess kalratri and Lord Shiva, has had exalted status since the Vedic times, is used as a sacrificial wood. The divine shade of the peepal tree (ficus religiosa) under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment is the tree with which Lord Krishna compares himself, in Bhagavadgita, when he says 'among the trees, I am Asvatha."
The shadow of the Kadama tree (क़दम- anthocephalus), which gave joyful moments to the growing Krishna, is still revered; Lord Vishnu adores its flowers. Bilva / bel leaves (बेल-Aegle marmelos), according to a legend, saved a lost hunter in the deep jungle who kept on offering the leaves on the shivling(शिवलिंग) throughout the night: pleased by the offering, Lord shiv saved him. Without Sandalwood paste, shringar of the God is not complete and thus commercially high on value; sandalwood (santalum album)gets in the list. Married women tie sacred threads and take rounds of the Banyan tree ( vat /bargad /ficus Bengalensis) to ensure the longevity of their husbands during Vat Savitri puja. The banyan tree is also associated with fertility as it is believed that sages Jamdagini and Vishwamitra were born when their mothers embraced the tree. With marriage and Parenthood being significant for humans, Vat Savitri puja is relevant even in modern societies. Neem tree associated with Devi Durga, the medicinal plant, is believed to ward off the evil eye. In Neem tree dwells the mother shitla (शीतला)who cures us of pox. These are revered and part of a devout Hindu practitioner's socio-cultural and religious life.
There are hardly any religious rituals performed without coconut, betel leaf (piper beetle) and supari (areaca nut), which personifies Lord Ganesh. The propitious banana tree finds its place in all auspicious religious ceremonies. A tulsi (ocimum sanctum) plant finds its place in the courtyard of every Hindu family, and many families still follow the tradition of lighting a Diya (lamp)every evening in front of the Tulsi plant. Tulsi Vivah (तुलसी विवाह) is a Hindu festival around Karthik Poornima (कार्तिक पूर्णिमा) when Tulsi is married to Shaligram (a form of Lord Vishnu), giving sacred status to this medicinal plant. Anwala Navami (आँवला नवमी), also known as a Akshaya Navmi( अक्षय नवमी), is another Indian festival in Karthik (कार्तिक) month when people gather around the Anwala tree( Indian gooseberry), offer prayers, and eat Prasad under its shade. It's believed that the Anwala tree appeared out of the tears of Lord Brahma. The list of scared trees and their divine stories goes long and piques the interest of the environmentalists and the international community.
Not only in Hinduism but all the religions that originated in the Indian soil, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism talk glory about various trees with which their spiritual gurus have been associated. Lord Buddha was born and attained parinirvana under the shades of generous Sal tree. So Sal (shorea robusta) and peepal, under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment and the mango tree which Lord Buddha planted in Shravasti are revered. The Ritha (Sapindus mukorossi) tree under which Gurunanak sat during Himalayan travel and the ber (बेर - jujube) tree in Ludhiana are special for Sikh religious tourists. Ber tree under which Ber sahib (Baba Buddha) sat supervising the sacred pool in the premises of Golden temple is a holy place, where devotees mark their presence unfailingly. Each Jain Tirthankara have been associated with one of the trees: Sal with Mahavira, bargad with Rishabhdeva, bakula (बकुला- mimusops elengi) with Neminath and various others.
In India, trees have a complex relationship with humans and their sacred deities, either being the saviour of humans or being representative of the Divine while simultaneously being dependent on the human race to be nurtured. Apart from this complex interplay, what was clear was a harmonious interdependent relation of each deriving purpose from the other. Amongst this intricate connection of Man, God and trees, there is a simple overarching feature that flora and fauna find an essential and inseparable place in the Hindu religious life. Along with temples, deities, even flora and fauna are sacred and associated very closely with one or the other God in the Hindu religious philosophy.
One context in Ramcharitmanas talks about the type of tree and the associated meditation or prayer rituals that are most beneficial when performed under them. This is mentioned in Shiv -Parvati samvad (शिव पार्वती संवाद- a dialogue between Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati). Under the peepal tres, meditative practices (Dhyan- ध्यान) give fruitful results. Manas puja (मानस पूजा) or the worship of our personal God without any material offering is best when practised under a mango tree. Pakar tree (पाकड़- ficus virens) shade is most beneficial for yajna rituals, and under the shadow of vat vriksha( बड़/ वट /banyan), religious discussions and discourse about God should be undertaken.
पीपर तरु तर ध्यान सो धरई। जाप जग्य पाकरि तर करई॥
अँब छाँह कर मानस पूजा। तजि हरि भजनु काजु नहिं दूजा॥3॥
भावार्थ:-वह पीपल के वृक्ष के नीछे ध्यान धरता है। पाकर के नीचे जपयज्ञ करता है। आम की छाया में मानसिक पूजा करता है। श्री हरि के भजन को छोड़कर उसे दूसरा कोई काम नहीं है॥3॥
बर तर कह हरि कथा प्रसंगा। आवहिं सुनहिं अनेक बिहंगा॥
राम चरित बिचित्र बिधि नाना। प्रेम सहित कर सादर गाना॥4॥
भावार्थ:-बरगद के नीचे वह श्री हरि की कथाओं के प्रसंग कहता है। वहाँ अनेकों पक्षी आते और कथा सुनते हैं। वह विचित्र रामचरित्र को अनेकों प्रकार से प्रेम सहित आदरपूर्वक गान करता है॥4॥
This religious association of trees is mainly responsible for safeguarding the significant trees and the ecosystem. Most sacred plants and the forest grooves house medicinal plants with great economic significance and are equally crucial for maintaining biodiversity. That could be a fundamental reason why they were associated with Divine as they needed to be protected for ecological balance, health and commercial usage. These plants and forests provide enormous natural resources and are vital support systems for local communities. Containing the local community in their original place was essential to avoid unmindful migration and the purity of culture and languages.
From a philosophical perspective, trees are sacred since they teach us life skills. The life cycle of a tree shows us that change is a constant process, and all the time would not be the same. There would be favourable times as well as unfavourable times. Bloom and grow when it's a good time. It tells us that every tree, however mighty it is, will eventually fall on the ground. Endurance, resilience, generosity and selfless nurturing of others are what makes it divine.
The verse from Aswatha strotam ( अश्वथ स्त्रोतम) sums us the reverence and sacred origin of plants which is recited by a devout Hindu while doing a pradkshina (प्रदक्षिणा) of the divine peepal.
मूलतो ब्रह्मरूपाय मध्यतो विष्णुरूपिणे
अग्रतः शिवरूपाय वृक्षराजाय ते बमः
(Moolatho Brahma roopaya, madhyatho Vishnu roopine, Agatha Shiva roopaya Vruksha rajaya te bamah., )
I offer my prayers and tributes to the king of trees.
Whose root is the form of Lord Brahma
The middle is the form of Lord Vishnu
And the top is the form of Lord Shiva.