Sunday article of Mohan Pai

 
 
 
Peepal (Ashwatha)
-the Tree of Life
Ficus Religiosa
Black-hooded Oriole eating Peepal fig in Kolkatta
 
“Among trees, I am the Ashwatha”
– Bhagavad Gita
Flora in general play a central role in the Indian sacred culture. Two varieties of the fig (called Ashvatha in Sanskrit), the banyan tree and the peepal tree are the most revered in the Indian tradition, and both are considered the trees of life. The banyan symbolizes fertility according to the Agni Purana and is worshipped by those wanting children. It is also referred to as the tree of immortality in many Hindu scriptures.
 
Ashwatha: The Tree of Life
Called Ashvatha in Sanskrit, the Peepal (Ficus religiosa) is a very large tree. Its bark is light grey, smooth and peels in patches. Its heart-shaped leaves have long, tapering tips. The slightest breeze makes them rustle. The fruit is purple when ripe. The Peepal is the earliest-known depicted tree in India: a seal discovered at Mohenjodaro, one of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation (c. 3000 BC – 1700 BC), shows the Peepal being worshipped. During the Vedic period, its wood was used to make fire by friction.
Ashwatha is sacred to Hindus as well as Buddhists. Ashwatha literally means “Where horses stood” (ashwa + tha).Sage Shankaracharya interprets this tree as representing the the entire cosmos. ‘Shwa’ in Sanskrit means tomorrow. ‘a’ indicates negation, and ‘tha’ means one that stands or remains. He interprets Ashwatha to indicate “One which does not remain the same tomorrow”, or the universe itself. Ashwatha tree is quite remarkable because it grows both upwards as well as top to bottom. The branches themselves morph into roots, so even if the original tree decays and perishes, its branches underneath are young and continue to enclose the parent. This eternal life of the the Peepal tree has inspired many Indian philosophers and Hindu thought. Besides harboring thousands of birds, insects, and providing shade to animals and humans, its foliage is very rich in protein and the bark of the tree is used in several native medicinal drugs. There was a time in India when a Peepal tree was planted in the premises of every temple, and was regarded as the Tree of Life.
The Brahma Purana and the Padma Purana, relate how once, when the demons defeated the gods, Vishnu hid in the peepal. Therefore spontaneous worship to Vishnu can be offered to a peepal without needing his image or temple. The Skanda Purana Peepal Tree also considers the peepal a symbol of Vishnu. He is believed to have been born under this tree. Some believe that the tree houses the Trimurti, the roots being Brahma, the trunk Vishnu and the leaves Shiva. The gods are said to hold their councils under this tree and so it is associated with spiritual understanding. The peepal is also closely linked to Krishna. In the Bhagavad Gita, he says: “Among trees, I am the ashvatha.” Krishna is believed to have died under this tree, after which the present Kali Yuga is said to have begun. According to the Skanda Purana, if one does not have a son, the peepal should be regarded as one. As long as the tree lives, the family name will continue. To cut down a peepal is considered a sin equivalent to killing a Brahmin, one of the five deadly sins or Panchapataka. According to the Skanda Purana, a person goes to hell for doing so. Some people are particular to touch the Peepal only on a Saturday. The Brahma Purana explains why, saying that Ashvatha and Peepala were two demons who harassed people. Ashvatha would take the form of a peepal and Peepala the form of a Brahmin. The fake Brahmin would advise people to touch the tree, and as soon as they did, Ashvatha would kill them. Later they were both killed by Shani. Because of his influence, it is considered safe to touch the tree on Saturdays. Lakshmi is also believed to inhabit the tree on Saturdays. Therefore it is considered auspicious to worship it then. Women ask the tree to bless them with a son tying red thread or red cloth around its trunk or on its branches. On Amavasya, villagers perform a symbolic marriage between the neem and the peepal, which are usually grown near each other. Although this practice is not prescribed by any religious text, there are various beliefs on the significance of ‘marrying’ these trees. In one such belief, the fruit of the neem represents the Shivalinga and so, the male. The leaf of the peepal represents the yoni, the power of the female. The fruit of the neem is placed on a peepal leaf to depict the Shivalinga, which symbolises creation through sexual union, and so the two trees are ‘married’. After the ceremony, villagers circle the trees to rid themselves of their sins.
 
In Buddhism
The Bodhi tree and the Sri Maha Bodhi propagated from it are famous specimens of Sacred Fig. The known planting date of the tree in Sri Lanka is 288 BC which gives it the oldest verified age for any angiosperm plant.This plant is considered sacred by the followers of Buddhism, and hence the name ‘Sacred Fig’ was given to it. Siddhartha Gautama is referred to have been sitting underneath a Bo-Tree when he was enlightened (Bodhi), or “awakened” (Buddha). Thus, the Bo-Tree is well-known symbol for happiness, prosperity, longevity and good luck.
According to the Buddha – ‘He who worships the Peepal tree will receive the same reward as if he worshiped me in person’. The Peepal tree has its own symbolic meaning of enlightenment and peace.

Ram Bahadur Bamjom…the meditating boy under the peepal tree. This scene no doubt has become one of the widely photographed scene in recent times in Nepal. Posters have been circulated in Nepal and people are already wearing lockets with photos of Ram Bahadur Bamjom. Ram, famous as the Buddha Boy or the Little Buddha or the Meditating Boy stayed there meditating for about 10 months “without eating”.

The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple. Propagated from the Sri Maha Bodhi, which in turn is propagated from the original Bodhi Tree at this location.

References: Wikipedia, gurjari.net, kamat’s potpourri

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