In the Indian context we get mixed signals. On the one hand people, especially women worship the tulsi plant while we can see the reverence with which Indians treat the vat and the banyan tree. On the other hand trees are mercilessly cut down to make roads, construct buildings and sometimes for no excuse whatsoever. We also see that there is an awakening all over the world towards saving the ecology that is now the panacea against an increasing carbon footprint. However, the worship of trees did have a religious bias in India. Whether environmental sentiments were actually behind it all or not the reader has to judge for himself/herself.
Hinduism and Nature
Nature has been intertwined with Hinduism ever since the basic Aryan philosophy was born in the Vedic era. Today all one needs to do is to turn the pages of the great literary works such as The Vedas, The Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagwad Gita or the Puranas to be convinced of the fact that Hinduism has always been a philosophy that is sensitive to environmental concerns. The accent in these great religious and philosophical works has been to maintain a balance of the environment and ecology. Unlike in the West, there has never been an urge to look upon nature as a hostile element that needs to be conquered. As a matter of fact man has been directed not to exploit nature in any way but to live in total harmony with it while recognizing the divinity present in all God’s elements. These elements included not only the wind, water, earth and agni but also plants, animals and minerals besides mountains and water bodies such as rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.
(http://www.hinduwisdom.info/Nature_Worship.htm A Tribute to Hinduism)
The Rishis and Munis Respected Nature
The Rishis and Munis of the past had a great amount of respect for nature. This respect was free from superstitions and was based on rational theology. The way they perceived nature and its various manifestations in terms of rivers and trees and mountains or wooded valleys was that these were all shadows of The Master. This rational approach has been amply clarified in the scriptures that have directed that we do not attempt to transform the environment in any way or try to improve upon it. Ecology therefore has always been an inherent aspect in the philosophy professed in Hinduism.
The World is a Single Banyan Tree
In the Bhagwad Gita Krishna says that our world is like a banyan tree that has different branches. These branches are where different species of humans and animals exist. While Indian literature is replete with similar descriptions such as in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, you will find that in Greek literature there are very few references to forests or trees. This indicates that the bonding between the Indians and the trees is extremely strong. According to Hinduism and Ecology: Seeds of Truth, (by Ranchor Prime P 10), the Hindu tradition describes three different categories of the forest. The first among these is Shrivan, the forest that gives prosperity. The second is Tapovan, the forest where one can meditate like the sages who contemplated to seek out the truth. The third type of forest is Mahavana. This is a great natural forest and it is here that all of life’s species seek out shelter. All these three categories of forest need to be preserved. (Refer to Christian the Saint Who Chopped down Thor’s Sacred Tree-hinduhumanrights.info).
The Concept of the World as a Forest
The Vedic concept of the world is therefore that of a forest. Therefore, preservation of the world demands that the forest needs to be preserved. When we see Lord Krishna we see him in the meadows with his cows. He is playing on the flute in the Vrindavan forest. There are flowers and vegetables growing in the area as well as pastureland lush green with grass. In his mind’s eye the devotee sees Krishna in such an environment and this is the lingering image that is passed down to generation of Hindus. (Refer to Hinduism and Ecology: Seeds of Truth by Ranchor Prime).
Exploitation of Nature
There has been a wrong trend set by the West from medieval times. Medieval Europe sped to a feverish activity in exploiting nature. This activity in turn resulted in cutting down of trees, leveling of mountains and ravaging the seas, rivers and lakes. According to Swami B V Tripurari in his book titled Ancient Wisdom for Modern Ignorance, nature has become man’s monopoly. Over the last few centuries it is this materialistic desire to dominate nature and its bounties that has brought about a crisis.
The Need to Return to the Vedic Sense of Values
It is not as if India has not been affected by this predatory approach. One sees signs of this trend in India as well. What is necessary for survival is to return to the practices laid down in the Vedic school of thought and follow the rules of ecology laid therein. Swamiji says that the current environmental crisis is deplorable and demands a fitting spiritual response. What is necessary is the reorientation of our consciousness accompanied by a proper action. What India needs to do is to regenerate the basic values of Hindu culture and propagate them once again.
The King as the Guardian of Ecology
In the days of old the king administered dharma. He needed to seek guidance from the principle of balance that existed among man, nature and minerals besides vegetables and animals. It was dharma that was behind all activities in domains that included politics and economics as well as social relations. This was to be extended to earth and her products. One can appreciate the significance attached to the maintenance of ecological balance in the oath that was administered to King Aitareya Brahmana in which the king promises to the Purohit that he prefers death rather than oppression of his subjects and his territory in terms of earth and her products. It was this feeling for nature that had kept India rich in terms of both human qualities and its environment. India’s attitude towards nature has always been of participative comradeship. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Hindu’s worship of trees. This feeling of reverence for trees can be readily seen during the times of the epic Mahabharata when forests were considered sacred while one was especially reverential towards flowering trees. The Mahabharata says that ‘even if there is only one tree full of flowers and fruits in the village, that place becomes worthy of worship and respect’.
The Worship of Trees
It is interesting the manner in which the ancient Hindu started his worship of trees. The main reason behind the special reverence attached to trees stems from the fact that during the Vedic period there were no temples. One will not find temples in the pre-Buddhist era except for temples made of wood. While the Buddhist considered the stupa as his sacred place, the Indians loved the open air and did not wish to worship in the confined atmosphere of a closed space. They simply loved the outdoors. Even in modern times one will note the absence of temples in several villages in South India. You may find the deity in the shadow of an imposing tree or lodged in small shrines. In several villages no attempt is made to deify any idol and instead the tree itself is considered to be the embodiment of the god.
It is difficult to say with any degree of surety as to when man started worshipping trees. However, it must have been thousands of years ago sometime in the Vedic age. The Italian traveler Della Valle while visiting India during 1623-25 observed in Surat the worship of Parvati in the form of a tree. ‘her face was painted on the tree and offerings were of vegetable origin’ (Belief, Bounty and Beauty, Rituals Around Sacred Trees in India, Albertina Nugteren 2005, Wheller and Macmillan, 1956).
Lord Shiva has been personified too and he has been shown living in the mountains while his tousled and knotted hair symbolized the ‘primeval untamed forest’. His origin will probably date back to the Indus Valley civilization. Ganges is shown as starting from down his tresses while serpents are indicated ‘coiled around his neck’. The entire image is one of coexistence with the various partners in the ecosystem. Lord Krishna has also impressed on the significance of nature when he says in Bhagavad Gita (9.26):
Patram pushpam phalam toyam, yo mey
Bhaktya prayachchati tadaham bhakt
Yopahrutam asnami prayataatmanaha.
I accept a leaf, flower, fruit or water or whatever is offered to me with devotion. Down the ages the worship of certain trees and the preference of certain flowers have been evident. Among the trees and plants preference has been shown for Vat, Neem, Tulsi, coconut, banana, bilwa, sandalwood and pipal among others.
Worshipping the Sacred Vat Savitri
The story of the Puranic legend of Savitri and Satyawan is one of the endearing stories one may have heard or read in childhood. In this story Savitri wrenches the life of her husband, Satyawan, from Yamaraj. In achieving this impossible feat Savitri is today one of the most venerated among women for her tenacity in overcoming problems that were insurmountable.
The Savitri festival is celebrated in the Hindu month of Jyeshtha on full moon. Women fast and worship the Vat tree while praying that their families grow and are as strong as the Vat that lives for centuries. The ritual of newly married women visiting a Vat tree and tying colored threads around it are very common sights in Indian villages and towns especially in the north. You will find women offering sweets and flowers to the tree and with the rising moon feasts will be shared by the families. (Source: Nag Panchami and Vat Savitri- The Worship of Sacred Trees).
Sacred Grove, Plants and Trees
India has several plants and trees as well as flowers that have been blessed by the gods. It is for this reason that one will find all over the country men and women worshipping trees and plants while using selected flowers for offering pujas to the gods. One of the most important among the trees being worshipped is the pipal tree also known as the asvatta tree. This tree has been in the landscape of North India and very conspicuous in human memory for more than 5000 years. One can find the tree on Mohenjo Daro seals while Buddha found enlightenment under a pipal tree (Mansberger, 1988). He is known to have been born in a sacred grove Lumbini Vana that was full of sal trees (Gadgil, 1985).
For Hindus the bel tree is associated with Shiva while tulasi is associated with Vishnu and the fig with Dattatreya, the son of Trimurty. The Kadampa tree is likened to Lord Muruga while according to Nakeera, the famous Tamil poet, Lord Muruga can be found in the forest where the place has water all around, in meeting places covered by trees and groves that are newly grown.
The Neem tree is also very sacred. Its flowers are offered to God while the bilya or bel tree with its flowers as well as its fruits are considered to be sacred for the worship of Shiva. The Tulsi or sage similarly is considered to be the abode of Lord Krishna besides being essential for just about any Hindu puja. Sandalwood paste and oil are also important in respect of all Hindu pujas.
During the churning of oceans the divine medicine man Dhanvantari is said to have brought plants and flowers of medicinal value that are now a part of Ayurveda form of medicine. The coconut tree and the fruit are also very sacred and both the leaves of the tree and the fruit are offered to the gods whenever pujas are conducted. Similarly mango leaves are used as festoons especially during Durga Puja and marriages. Among flowers the lotus finds special mention as a sacred flower for the Hindus. The banana plant and its leaves are also commonly seen as ornamentation as well as worship and in Hindu marriages.
Tulsi has Special Place for the Hindus
Among all the plants the tulsi probably is the most venerated. A tulsi plant can be found in the courtyard of most Hindu families as it is worshipped by the women in the morning and the evening. The name tulsi means ‘the incomparable one’ and among the several varieties the Krishna or Shyama tulsi is most commonly used for worship. While the plants and trees discussed are considered holy, the sacred tulsi is one of the rare plants that is actually worshipped.
Vaishnavites, the believers in Lord Vishnu, worship tulsi. This is because Lord Vishnu is said to like this herbal plant the most. Vaishnavites wear necklaces made of the tulsi and due to this reason tulsi necklaces are the favored cottage industry in most temple towns. Tulsi has a legendary origin. It is said that when Lord Krishna was weighed in gold it was found that all the gold ornaments could not outweigh him while a single leaf of tulsi placed by Rukmini was adequate to tilt the scale. In accordance to religious customs, tulsi is ceremonially married to Lord Vishnu in the month of Kartika on the 11th day of the moon. This ceremony that continues for five days concluding on the day of the full moon is known as Tulsi Vivaha and it actually heralds the marriage season in India. (http://www.hinduwisdom.info/Nature_Worship6.htm)
Tulsi’s Worship is Total
There are other reasons too for the worship of tulsi. Tulsi is also an elixir. It has great medicinal values and is one of the important herbs used in Ayurveda. Tulsi is easily recognized owing to its strong aroma and a sharp tangy taste. It is said to promote longevity and its extracts are used for the prevention and cure of several types of illnesses. Throughout India the tulsi that can be seen just about anywhere is used in the extracted form for fighting common ailments that include cold and headache besides stomach disorders and inflammation. It is understood that tulsi is also used for heart disease and diverse forms of poisoning as well as malaria. Currently it is also being used in toiletry products.
According to Jeevan Kulkarni, the author of Historical Truths & Untruths Exposed, “When Hindu women worship tulsi, they in effect pray for less and less carbonic acid and more and more oxygen-a perfect object lesson in sanitation, art and religion”. The tulsi is known for its purification properties and its ability to cleanse the atmosphere while ridding it of the menace of mosquitoes besides flies and other insects. Tulsi has also been used as a universal remedy to treat cases of malverdana fever.
Prof Shrinivas Tilak, who is a teacher of Religion at Concordia University, Montreal has made the historical citation: “In a letter written to The Times, London, dated May 2, 1903 Dr George Birdwood, Professor of Anatomy, Grant Medical College, Bombay said, ‘When the Victoria Gardens were established in Bombay, the men employed on those works were pestered by mosquitoes. At the recommendation of the Hindu managers, the whole boundary of the gardens was planted with holy basil, on which the plague of mosquitoes was at once abated, and fever altogether disappeared from among the resident gardeners’”.
The Reverence for Trees the World over
The reverence for trees is not confined to India alone. In The Telegraph (02 April 2014) Ed Cumming writes (19 Dec 2013) in his article “Tree Worship: why are our trees so sacred?” that they provide fuel, food and shelter and it is for these reasons that many religions consider them holy. This is probably a western way of looking at the subject. However, in the foregoing a more rational view has yielded different ideas altogether. In the western concept Christmas time means that there is an accompanying demand for Christmas trees. Before Christmas therefore people buy these trees that mark the onset of the festivities. However, Christians surely do not look at the Christmas tree with any feeling of reverence. It is a tree on which the gifts are piled and decorating the tree becomes a family ritual, a ritual for which all have fond memories. In the words of the author, “the tree is a symbol of our mastery over the harsh winter forest; a wild species that has been dragged indoors and domesticated”.
The author later acknowledges that the tree has an uneasy relationship with a religious Christmas and later that the “tree is separate from the other nativity celebrations”. As a matter of fact Jim Robbins, the author of “The Man who plants trees” states that pagans worshipped trees as a form of idolatry. However, his hypothesis is that “many cultures thought trees were antennae for divine energies. The forest was a sacred place” and finally that “there is a persistent idea in mythology all over the world that trees are related to the heavens”. This then is the truth. Because of this feeling of natives all over the world the people from Scotland worshipped the Sitka spruce tree in Scotland while “the yew tree was sacred to Celts, who would gather in glades for rituals” and “oaks were another commonly worshipped species”.
The views of Jim Robbins are fairly accurate when these are applied to the Indian scene. He states “as living organisms on a much longer timescale than humans, they are obvious focal points for spirituality” and “they (trees) accomplish a whole range of amazing things. They filter water, cool cities, reduce air pollution in urban areas. We are waking up to just how important they are”. Finally, the author admits that “it’s good that trees are brought into the house at this time of year (speaking of Christmas). Having a tree in the living room reminds people of nature-its smells, sights and warmth. Trees are in serious trouble. We need to restore the sense of wonder around them”. Our Bahuguna, of the Chipko Andolan was therefore on track when he exhorted people to cling onto trees and prevent them from being cut down.
Jim Robbins goes onto speak about the importance of the banyan tree in the Indian context. He says that in the Bhagvad Gita, “Krishna uses the tree to explain the meaning of life. The banyan is also sacred to Buddhists as a place of reflection. After attaining enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have sat under a banyan for seven days, reflecting”. Later on in the feature the author talks about sycamore that was among the earliest recorded sacred trees in ancient Egypt. He also talks about the baobab with its unusual shape and long life (some said to have lived for 3000 years) which is a national symbol in Madagascar where the “early societies believed that the spirits of the dead lived in its branches. Baobabs were focal points of the community, sites for meetings and sources of advice”.
We have come to the end of our study. We started with the analysis of the Vedic approach that attributed everything connected with nature with a mystical quality. Trees were considered sacred as were the rivers, oceans and the stars. Trees were also worshipped and the reverence with which we hold the vat and the asvatta trees besides the tulsi, banana and the bel is simply amazing. The world is finally coming around to appreciating the wisdom of the ancient Indians. With the global warming and the constantly enlarging carbon footprint we have realized the true worth of trees in general and some special trees in particular such as the neem. A bigger push is necessary to ensure that cutting down of trees must be the last resort and even then there must be a law that makes it imperative that the tree assigned to the axe should be replanted elsewhere.