Trees in Indian Thought and Art


Dec 16, INDIA (SUN) — By Lord Krsna's arrangements, the inception of the human being on the globe could not detach him from the broad influences exerted by the environment elements. His interaction with nature assisted him in living a much more comfortable and healthy life. It was only from his surroundings that he got food to eat, medicines to counter the baneful effects of diseases and shelter from inclement weather and last, but not the least, fuel to warm himself and also to cook for better relish. It was by these five utilitarian purposes of trees (panca-yajna) that man was led to seeing into the mysteries latent in them; maybe the beauty of their flowers would have also excited his imagination.

As he held them in great reverence, he embarked upon the task of protecting the trees from any ravages. This action on the part of man unwittingly resulted in the ecological balance between environment and man. That trees were divine and abodes of various gods led to a point where man dared not fell them or inflict hurt on them. Such trees were designated as Brahma-taru. Some trees were given out to sustain life by the sap present in them (Jivana-Vrksa). Then, there were trees declared to have medicinal value, thereby earning manís tremendous reverence (rogi-taru).

Even the Buddhists and Jains recognised the divine concept of trees. The notion of caitya-vrksa, bodhi trees, Kevala vrksa gained popularity among the Buddhists and Jainas. In Brahmanical Hindu religion vata (shorea-robusta) was identified with Siva, asvattha (ficus-religiosa) with Visnu, lotus with Surya, and nine leaves of nine trees (nava patrika) were associated with nine different aspects of Durga.

Visnu is the primordial; when He wears a garland of wild foliage and flower, He is united with nature. Siva wears patra-kundla on the right and sankha kundala on the left ear, and he is symbolized thereby as ardha-narisvara, and known thereby as the god of creation. In this connection, Kapila Vatsyayan opines that the vegetative, animal and human emerge from the first principle of world order, i.e. seed and womb.

Archaeologically speaking, the nature of depictions in the paintings and artifacts of the prehistoric period of India do not allow us to conclude that the trees were worshipped in that period. But the excavations in other parts of India yield some artifacts which bear definite sign of tree worship during the Chalcolithic period.

More importantly, there are hundreds of references in the Vedic and post-Vedic literature where the glorification of trees is noted. In order to popularize this notion and in order to make an awareness regarding certain trees, the Indian artists carved them in stone, molded them in terracotta, and painted them in colour, reflecting them in the narrative art of India.

Interestingly, a notion of wish-fulling trees and creepers (Kalpa-Vrksa and Kalpa-lata) can also be seen to have developed in Early Indian art and thought. Its conception seems to be a part of folk-cult. The trees and flowers occupy an important place in the ancient Indian coins also. Some see the tree symbol on the coins as representing a Kalpa Vrksa, which was churned out as one of the fourteen jewels from the ocean.

Tree faith seems to have gone through different stages in India. In the first stage, trees, plants, etc. were respected because of their aromatic nature, and natural growth. Interestingly, we notice the association of spirits with trees, plants, flowers, leaves, etc. in the next stage. In yet another stage, spirits yield place to deities, and the worship of respective deities. Finally, most of the trees, plants, leaves, etc. are believed to have magical properties and power to scare away evil.

Nowhere in the Vedic culture are trees more significant than in the groves of Vrindavan, where Sri Sri Radha-Krsna had their pastimes. There, the mango and fig trees, the Kadamba and wish-fulfilling trees and the many illustrious creepers joined in the Rasa Lila of the Divine Couple of Braja. All trees can be seen as the perverted reflections of these most elevated transcendental personalities.

Source: IGNCA Vihangama

"There were various trees and creepers on all sides of the lake, and there were mad bumblebees humming all about them. The trees appeared to be very jolly due to the sweet humming of the bumblebees, and the saffron, which was contained in the lotus flowers, was being thrown into the air. These all created such an atmosphere that it appeared as though a festival were taking place there.

Purport: "Trees and creepers are also different types of living beings. When bumblebees come upon trees and creepers to collect honey, certainly such plants become very happy. On such an occasion the wind also takes advantage of the situation by throwing pollen or saffron contained in the lotus flowers. All this combines with the sweet vibration created by the swans and the calm of the water.

Srimad-Bhagavatam 4:24:22 Purport

"Accompanied by the cowherd boys and Balarama, Krsna brought forward the cows and played on His flute through the forest of Vrndavana, which was full of flowers, vegetables, and pasturing grass. The Vrndavana forest was as sanctified as the clear mind of a devotee and was full of bees, flowers and fruits. There were chirping birds and clear water lakes with waters that could relieve one of all fatigue. Sweet flavored breezes blew always, refreshing the mind and body. Krsna, with His friends and Balarama, entered the forest and, seeing the favorable situation, enjoyed the atmosphere to the fullest extent. Krsna saw all the trees, overloaded with fruits and fresh twigs, coming down to touch the ground as if welcoming Him by touching His lotus feet. He was very pleased by the behavior of the trees, fruits and flowers, and He began to smile, realizing their desires.

Krsna then spoke to His elder brother Balarama as follows: "My dear brother, You are superior to all of us, and Your lotus feet are worshiped by the demigods. Just see how these trees, full with fruits, have bent down to worship Your lotus feet. It appears that they are trying to get out of the darkness of being obliged to accept the form of trees. Actually, the trees born in the land of Vrndavana are not ordinary living entities. Having held the impersonal point of view in their past lives, they are now put into this stationary condition of life, but now they have the opportunity of seeing You in Vrndavana, and they are praying for further advancement in spiritual life through Your personal association. Generally the trees are living entities in the mode of darkness. The impersonalist philosophers are in that darkness, but they eradicate it by taking full advantage of Your presence.

"It is quite natural for these Vrndavana inhabitants to thus receive a great personality like You. The herbs, creepers and plants are also so fortunate to touch Your lotus feet. And by Your touching the twigs with Your hands, these small plants are also made glorious. As for the hills and the rivers, they too are now glorious because You are glancing at them. Above all, the damsels of Vraja, the gopis, attracted by Your beauty, are the most glorious, because You embrace them with Your strong arms."

Krsna Book, Chapter 15

"Govinda resides eternally in Vrndavana. In the spiritual world of Vrndavana the buildings are made of touchstone, the cows are known as surabhi cows, givers of abundant milk, and the trees are known as wish-fulfilling trees, for they yield whatever one desires. In Vrndavana Krsna herds the surabhi cows, and He is worshiped by hundreds and thousands of gopis, cowherd girls, who are all goddesses of fortune. When Krsna descends to the material world, this same Vrndavana descends, just as an entourage accompanies an important personage. Because when Krsna comes His land also comes, Vrndavana is not considered to exist in the material world. Therefore devotees take shelter of the Vrndavana in India, for it is considered to be a replica of the original Vrndavana. Although one may complain that no kalpa-vrksa, wish-fulfilling trees, exist there, when the Gosvamis were there, kalpa-vrksa were present. It is not that one can simply go to such a tree and make demands; one must first become a devotee. The Gosvamis would live under a tree for one night only, and the trees would satisfy all their desires. For the common man this may all seem very wonderful, but as one makes progress in devotional service, all this can be realized."

Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi lila Introduction
Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada.


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