The Sacred Ficus
Śri Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavadgītā says:
अश्वत्थ: सर्ववृक्षाणां देवर्षीणां च नारद: | 10.26
“Of the trees I am the aśvattha (peepal, or the sacred fig tree); of the celestial sages I am Nārada..”
Hindu sages have long employed the paradox of the ficus seed in a parable, used to represent the imperceptible power within a banyan seed as a parallel to ātman, the invisible yet ubiquitous essence that permeates and sustains all living beings and the universe. Vedic doctrine says that “Just as the tiny, insignificant seed grows into a gigantic pīpal tree, this infinite universe has emerged from a tiny speck of the primordial egg (Hiranga garbha)” — alluding to a big-bang like phenomenon that led to the creation of the universe. While Ficus species have become embedded in so many diverse cultures, giant, powerful fig trees are perhaps most awe-inspiring in tropical forests where they stand as commanding life-forces.
Indians have been worshipping the sacred pīpal since pre-historic times, with the mahābodhi tree being venerated as a caityavṛkṣa (tree-shrine) or a vanacetiya (forest-shrine) long before the Buddhist period. Hindus venerate the mahābodhi tree and perform the fourth day of ritual piṇḍadāna (oblations to ancestors) at its foot.
Worship of sacred trees, especially the figs banyan and pipal, and the neem, continues to be a very important part of folk religion all over India. Images of deities, including Śiva liṅgās, snake deities (nāgas), are often kept beneath the sacred trees even today.
In most villages, the center of the village is often marked with a spacious stage around the trunk of a pipal (ficus religiosus), margosa, or banyan (Indian fig or ficus bengalensis) tree that also often represents the presence of goddess. The village pīpal is valued for its shade and beauty and association with the social life of the community. In many instances, the tree is regarded as the abode of grāmadēvata-s (village deities) and forms the village shrine where they reside and accept the offerings of devotees. Apart from banyan (ficus benghalensis), and pipal (ficus religiosus), the types of trees that are worshiped as goddesses include the margosa or neem or melia azadirachta (chinaberry tree), mimosa suma (white cutch tree or white thorn), philanthrus emblica ( indian gooseberry), acacia arabica (gum arabic or babul tree ), and ficus racemosa (glomerous fig tree).
As early as 3900–3300 BCE, the Harappan people of the Indus and Saraswati valleys were laying the foundations of a great civilisation. Harappan cities were the most advanced settlements of the time, with the world’s first sanitation systems, and these early Indians had transformed a wild landscape into the pinnacle of urban planning. Ficus religiosa was a tree was sacred to Harappans. There cannot be any doubt that this tree worship, using the mightiest trees native to the Indian subcontinent, has its origin in the Early and Mature Harappan culture, where fig trees are important art motifs.
The seals, thousands in number, bear brief, still-undeciphered inscriptions along with scenes of animals, mythical beasts, plants, trees, anthropoid figures, and deities. The pervasive motifs of pīpal (Ficus religiosa) and banyan (Ficus indica) suggest that sacred trees or groves may have been the primary sites of religious observance.
Several Indus seals and tablets depict an anthropomorphic deity standing inside a fig tree, sometimes with a worshipper kneeling in front of the tree, hands raised up, as if in prayer. Trees with railings around them are depicted in Indus tablets.
A possible tree temple has been identified at Mohenjo-daro: it has a higher floor, to which lead two flights of steps on opposite sides of the room, which contains the remains of what may have been a railing for a sacred tree. In the fig deity seal from Mohenjo-daro we see in front of the sacred tree with its deity a throne-shaped altar table. Both the pīpal and the banyan endure in later Hindu mythology as symbols of fertility and protection.
Association with the Pole Star
Later cosmological descriptions seem to associate the heavenly fig tree with the north star Dhruva; for in reply to the question why do the stars remain in the sky and not fall down, the purāṇas offer an explanation that reminds us of the Indian fig’s aerial roots: it is maintained that the stars and planets are fixed to the north star with invisible ropes. The pole star is of course the “immobile” center of the rotating heavens, known in Sanskrit as Dhruva, “fixed, firm, immovable, constant.” It is a fitting symbol of fidelity; indeed in the Vedic marriage ritual the pole star is pointed out to the bride as a model, in addition to Alcor.
In Folklore and Hindu Texts:
Gods and spirits are said to move among the banyan’s leaves and pillar roots. A myth told by the Kutia Kondh tribe in Odisha says the Goddess Nirantali formed the first human’s tongue from the quivering leaf of the sacred fig. In Vedic texts the gandharvas and apsaras are said to reside in different varieties of fig trees, where their cymbals and harps resound (Atharva veda; TS 3,4,8,4). The Mahābhārata refers to holy Ficus trees (caitya-vṛkṣa) in villages and towns that trees should not be injured as they are the abodes of gods, yakṣas, demonic spirits, and so on. The epics and other texts often mention gandharvas and apsaras together with the yakṣas and yakṣiṇīs as subjects of Kubera, the god of riches.
In South Kanara District, one commonly comes across Bhuta (=spirit) shrines, and Aśvattha Katte (a pipal tree with a platform) in villages.
A hymn of the Ṛgvēda speaks of the roots of a cosmic banyan tree being held up in the sky by God Varuṇa:
“Varuṇa, King, of hallowed might, sustaineth erect the Tree’s stem in the baseless region. Its rays, whose root is high above, stream downward. Deep may they sink within us, and be hidden.”
Ṛg Vēda 1.24.7
“The Holy Fig tree is your home, your mansion is the Parna tree”
Ṛg Vēda 10.97
It is also referred to in the context of Sōma libation:
“Ride hither to the offering of the pleasant juice, the holy Fig-tree which victorious priests surround: victorious be they still for us. At once the cows yield milk, the barley-meal is dressed. For thee, O Vāyu, never shall the cows grow thin, never for thee shall they be dry.”
Ṛg vēda 1.135
In the Atharva Veda (Book III, 6), the aśvattha tree is a destroyer of enemies.
“A male has sprung from a male, the aśvattha (ficus religiosa) from the khadira (acacia catechu). May this slay my enemies, those whom I hate and those who hate me!
Crush the enemies, as they rush on, O aśvattha, ‘displacer,’ allied with Indra, the slayer of Vritra, (allied) with Mitra and Varuṇa!
As thou didst break forth, O asvattha, into the great flood (of the air), thus do thou break up all those whom I hate and those who hate me!
Thou that goest conquering as a conquering bull, with thee here, O aśvattha, may we conquer our rivals!
May Nirriti (the goddess of destruction), O aśvattha, bind in the toils of death that cannot be loosened those enemies of mine whom I hate and who hate me!
As thou climbest up the trees, O aśvattha, and renderest them subordinate, thus do thou split in two the head of thy enemy, and overcome him!
They (the enemies) shall float down like a ship cut loose from its moorings! There is no returning again for those that have been driven out by the ‘displacer.’
I drive them out with my mind, drive them out with my thought, and also with my incantation. We drive them out with a branch of the aśvattha-tree.”
In the Skanda Purāṇa, it is said that sins perish at the very sight of the Aśvattha tree.
“If men glorify the name itself of the Aśvattha tree, they will never have the fear of the world of Yama on their journey. Even uttering the word ‘Aśvattha’ bestows knowledge.”
“The Pippala, a favourite of Hari, is the destroyer of evil dreams, wicked anxieties, sins, and attack of pernicious fever. It is the most sacred of all trees, and if worshipped with all auspiciousness (especially in the Caturmāsa), accords salvation.”
“Viṣṇu is always present at its root, Keśava in the trunk, Nārāyaṇa in its branches and Hari in its leaves. The tree iyself is a form of Viṣṇu.”
REPRESENTATIONS OF THE AŚVATTHA OR MAHĀBODHI IN EARLY HINDU AND BUDDHIST ICONOGRAPHY
Starting in the 3rd c. BC we see the earliest representations of the mahābodhi tree in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu iconography at Sanchi and Bharhut in Madhya Pradesh. Gautama Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment and spent an illuminated seven days in blissful meditation under this very Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya in Bihar, and the veneration of this tree was immortalised by the sculpture found at both sites. It was the tree beneath which the Bodhisattva took his seat upon the Adamantine throne (Vajrāsana), the Place of Enlightenment (Bodhi-maṇḍa) on the night of the Great Enlightenment (Mahāsambodhi) of the life of Buddha.
After Buddha’s death, the pious Buddhists would have visited the Bodhi tree, which is one of the four places which, in the words of Buddha himself before his death, “the believing clansmen should visit with feelings of reverence”.
Silence, The Root
To aham bhikku
who had attained everything
He stood a little away from the Buddha
and bowing, asked:
Shall I go and spread Dharma
Now that I am Enlightened?
The Buddha, still and silent.
We are yet on the shore of knowing
there is so much to experience
first become a tree
Its roots of silence
should pierce the earth-cave
and suck the river that flows at the middle of the night.
Translated from Kannada by O.L. Nagabhushana Swamy
(from: Bodhi Tree, Shankara Katagi and O. L. Nagabhushana Swamy)
Shadow of Silence
The Silence of Shadow
asleep on the fallen leaves
under a Bodhi tree
Woke up to a gentle breeze
and started sweeping up
Translated from Kannada by O.L. Nagabhushana Swamy
(from: Bodhi Tree, Shankara Katagi and O. L. Nagabhushana Swamy)
REFERENCES TO THE AŚVATTHA
Later texts continue to venerate the Ficus, from the Upaniṣads to the Mahābhārata to the Rāmāyaṇa, which are replete with references to the Banyan.
Śri Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavadgītā (15.1) says:
ऊर्ध्वमूलमध:शाखमश्वत्थं प्राहुरव्ययम् |
छन्दांसि यस्य पर्णानि यस्तं वेद स वेदवित् ||
“They speak of an imperishable aśhvattha (pīpal) tree, with its roots upward and branches below, whose leaves are the Vedic hymns. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.”
From the Kaṭhopaniṣhad, the line:
ūrdhvamūlo ’vākśhākha eṣho ’śhvatthaḥ sanātanaḥ
“The aśvattha tree, with its roots upward and branches downward is pure and eternal.”
ūrdhvamūlaṁ arvākśhākhaṁ vṛikṣhaṁ yo samprati
na sa jātu janaḥ śhraddhayātmṛityutyurmā mārayaditi
(Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 1.11.5)
“Those who know this tree with its roots upward and branches downward will not believe that death can finish them.”
In the Mahābhārata, Mārkaṇḍeya Ṛṣi has a vision of Viṣṇu’s Māya wherein he sees Viṣṇu as an infant, resting on a bough of a banyan tree. (for the full version of the story, see Vaṭapatraśāyī).
In the Valmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Rāma, Sīta and Lakṣmaṇa spend their first night of the vanavāsa under a nyagrodha*, a great Banyan. (Ayōdhyakāṇḍa 53.33)
ततस्तत्र सुखासीनौ नातिदूरे निरीक्ष्य ताम्।
न्यग्रोधे सुकृतां शय्यां भेजाते धर्मवत्सलौ।।
*nyag-rodha ‘downward-growing’ is based on the tree’s habit of growing new trunks from the hanging aerial roots
In the Araṇyakāṇḍa, Rāvaṇa sees a fig tree which Garuḍa had broken a branch of with his imperceptible might. Garuḍa, on his way to Devaloka is said to have rested on the branch of a fig tree, called Subhadra. Rāvaṇa sees the fig tree around which sages sought shelter, which bore marks made by Garuḍa sitting thereon. (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Araṇyakāṇḍa, Canto 35).
Here are the relevant verses (3.35.27, 28, 28, 36)
तत्रापश्यत्स मेघाभं न्यग्रोधमृषिभिर्वृतम्।
“He (Rāvaṇa) saw a banyan tree with its branches spread like a canopy measuring a hundred yojanas like a large cloud, providing shelter to sages.”
यस्य हस्तिनमादाय महाकायं च कच्छपम्।
भक्षार्थं गरुडश्शाखामाजगाम महाबलः।।
“In the past, the mighty Garuda had brought an elephant and a huge tortoise and sat on a branch of this tree to feed on them.”
तस्य तां सहसा शाखां भारेण पतगोत्तमः।
सुपर्णः पर्णबहुलां बभञ्ज च महाबलः।।
“Due to the weight of this King of birds, the mighty Garuda, the branch that was dense with foliage broke off at once.”
तं महर्षिगणैर्जुष्टं सुपर्णकृतलक्षणम्।
नाम्ना सुभद्रं न्यग्रोधं ददर्श धनदानुजः।।
“Rāvaṇa, the younger brother of Kubera, beheld that banyan tree called Subhadram, which bore the insignia of Garuḍa and was a favored resort of the sages.”
There is also a connection between this tree and Laṅkā, according to the Kathāsaritsāgara. Garuḍa flew hither and thither fearing about the safety of the Bālakhilyas who hung on the branch of the Aśvattha tree in tapas. Garuḍa, as directed by Sage Kaśyapa, deposited the branch of the tree somewhere in the middle of the sea. At that spot in the sea where the branch was deposited, sprang up an island like the peak of a mountain. It was this island which, after years, became reputed as Laṅkā.
mūlato brahma rūpāya madhyatō viṣṇu rūpiṇe
agrathaha śivarūpāya vṛkṣa rājāya the namaha
My salutations to the King of trees, whose root is Brahma, whose middle is a form of Viṣṇu, and whose summit is the form of Śiva.
ṛgyajushu sāmamantrātmā sarvarūpi parātparaha
aśvattho vēdamūlo sāṛṣibhi prōchyatē sadā
Great sages seek the Aśvattha, which takes all great forms, as it is the soul and root of the Ṛg, Yajur and Sāma Vēdas.
THE AŚVATTHA AS A SYMBOL OF FERTILITY
The Aśvattha or the pīpal is said to be a symbol of Viṣṇu/Kṛṣṇa, and is worshipped by the womenfolk as a symbol of fertility. In ancient India the tree was considered a benefactor for mankind by blessing barren women with sons. In Rajasthan, the tree is worshipped especially on the 29th day of Vaiśākha for offspring. In Karnataka, similar rituals are observed. In Bengal, the tree is believed to be closely connected with human fertility and is worshipped by women wanting children. In some parts of Bengal, a vrata known as Aśvattha-pātā-vrata is observed that starts at the end of Chaitra and extends to the end of Vaiśākha. Five leaves of the Aśvattha are collected by the bratini (vratini) — tender, unripe, ripe, dry, and fallen leaves — each representing the five different phases or desires of human life: tender leaf for the birth of a son, unripe for the preservation of beauty, ripe for the long life of the husband, dry for the increase of happiness and prosperity and the fallen leaf for vast wealth. After collecting the leaves the bratini takes partakes in a ritual bath in a rivulet or tank nearby. When she dips in the water, she holds the leaves on her head with her hand and recites a Chhara.
The plantation of an Aśvattha tree it’s also common practice in rural Bengal, especially among childless persons or whose offspring day after birth. A childless person or a woman who has has stillborn children vows to Nārāyaṇa saying that if they are blessed with a child they would plant and Aśvattha. The plantation ceremony is called a vṛkṣa-pratiṣṭha, conducted by a Brahmin priest according to the śāstras.
The Bat or Banyan tree is believed to be associated with Brahmā, Lakṣmi, Kuvera, and Shaṣṭhi, the Goddess of children, worshipped throughout India.
The tale of Savriti from the Mahābhārata also reinforces the association of the Banyan with married women. Savriti convinces Yama, the god of death, to resurrect her husband Satyavan, who had died beneath a banyan tree. Indian women practice the Savriti vrat (vaṭa-sāvitrī-vrata) wherein they tie a string around the trunk of a sacred Banyan wishing for their husbands’ health and longevity.
These symbols of love, life and fertility became agents of death after the British arrived in India and began to subjugate the local population. They defiled many sacred banyans by using them as gallows to execute rebels who resisted their rule. Many hundreds and perhaps thousands of local people died hanging from these trees — most commonly banyans (Ficus benghalensis) but also peepal trees (Ficus religiosa), though both species of strangler fig were important to the culture and religion of the region for millennia. The British turned to these trees as gallows. By the 1850s, there had been multiple occasions when they hanged over a hundred men to death from a single banyan tree. In 1860, in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, they are said to have hanged 257 rebels from the branches of an individual banyan in a single day. These public executions were designed to not only punish but also to terrorise the local populace. (read more at: “The trees of life that became agents of death” by Mike Shanahan https://underthebanyan.blog/2018/04/12/the-trees-of-life-that-became-agents-of-death/)
Banyan trees are part of the ficus or fig genus of plants and are the world’s largest tree in terms of canopy coverage. Ficus benghalensis, commonly known as the Indian Banyan, is considered sacred and is the national tree of India. Notable examples found in India include a specimen found in the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden at Howrah, near Kolkata, India, said to be around 250 years old and the Thimmamma Marrimanu tree at Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh that covers an area of roughly 8 acres.
Compared to the familiar oak trees, the banyan trees must have seemed amazingly exotic to early travellers to India. A banyan is a fig that starts its life by growing on another tree, or a building, gradually sending down roots and enveloping its host plant or structure (called strangler figs). Traveller’s accounts noted that temples were placed under banyans in the villages they visited, and that Hindu temples are ‘exposed or half concealed among deep and solemn groves, no less holy in the popular opinion, than the edifices they shelter. The trees were a focus for worship, repositories of history, guardian spirits, and in their advanced age, more than ever objects of veneration and wonder.
“The bride and groom were as silent as stones throughout the wedding that took place on June 10th, 2008, in Jimiti, a village in the Indian state of Odisha. This was no ordinary marriage, for they were both fig trees, he a banyan (Ficus benghalensis) and she a pipal (Ficus religiosa). The villagers spoke for the trees, the men representing the groom and the women the bride. The practice of marrying trees is ancient and widespread in India; it has various meanings, but this time the purpose was to raise awareness of the need to protect trees. ‘Our village was covered with hundreds of trees four decades ago,’ said local man Nabin Rout in an interview with The Times of India. ‘But the green areas have been shrinking year by year, and if we do not protect them they will disappear in a few years.” (Excerpt From: Mike Shanahan. “Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.”)
- The Migration of Symbols, by Goblet d’Alviella 1894
- “The trees of life that became agents of death” by Mike Shanahan https://underthebanyan.blog/2018/04/12/the-trees-of-life-that-became-agents-of-death/
- Gods, Wasps and Stranglers (UK title: Ladders to Heaven) by Mike Shanahan
- The Rig Veda, Ralph T.H. Griffith, 
- The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization by Asko Parpola
- Hymns of the Atharva-Veda translated by Maurice Bloomfield
- “The majesty and mystery of India’s sacred banyan trees” by Mike Shanahan https://underthebanyan.blog/2016/09/23/the-majesty-and-mystery-of-indias-sacred-banyan-trees/
- Katagi, Shankara, and O. L. Nagabhushana Swamy. “Bodhi Tree.” Indian Literature, vol. 49
- Human Fertility Cults and Rituals of Bengal: A Comparative Study, Pradyot Kumar Maity
- Skanda Purana, GV Tagare, Motilal Banarsidass