By Nithin Sridhar
Since time immemorial, trees have been worshiped all over the world. In Ancient Egypt, Sycamore and Date palm were considered sacred trees. In Ancient Greece, many trees were held sacred to various gods. For example, oak tree was held sacred to Zeus and myrtle tree was held sacred to Aphrodite. Also Nymphs like Alseids and Dryads were associated with grooves and trees respectively. The Celts worshiped the groves of trees. In Japanese Shinto Shrines, the trees such as cryptomeria are worshiped.
But, it is only among the Indians- the practitioners of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, that the worshipping of trees has become very deep rooted and an inseparable part of Hindu religion, culture and lifestyle.
Louise Fowler-Smith in her article “Hindu Tree Veneration as a Mode of Environmental Encounter”, writes that “The worship of trees occurred throughout Europe but declined with the rise of religions such as Christianity and Islam,which regarded such activity as pagan. In India, however, Hinduism accepted local cults, many of which worshiped nature. The Rsis, authors of the sacred Hindu texts, understood the importance of preserving the environment, and reference is made to the divine quality of the natural world throughout these Indian scriptures. The early Hindu sacred texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, make frequent reference to sacred trees, referring to them as the most important living forms on earth. This contributed to the gradual change of the cultural perception of the tree. Sacred trees may now be found throughout India”. She further writes that “Trees are decorated in India for a wealth of reasons. Historically sacred trees have been connected with rites of renewal, sexuality, fertility, conception, birth, initiation, death and rebirth. Throughout India, Hindu communities have their own individual deities, or Gramadevata- which are regarded as synonymous with the locality and everything within it. (…..)The deity is not visible to the local community, so a specific place or object is chosen to direct the act of worship. The Devasthana,or shrine of a Grama Devata, is usually connected with an important feature of the natural world such as a hill, a rock, a stream or pond. These shrines are most commonly associated with a tree or grove of trees, with the tree embodying the local goddess”. Hence, as far as India and Hinduism is concerned, the worship of trees is not only a very ancient practice, but it is also a current living reality.
The Hindu scriptures lay a strong foundation for the worship of environment in general and trees in particular. Some of the important trees that are worshiped by the Hindus are Peepal, Banyan, Ashoka, Shami and Palasha.
Rig-Veda, one of the four divisions that Vyasa created in the Vedas, dedicates an entire Hymn (Book 10, Hymn 97) to the herbs.
The Manu Smriti (1.49) says that plants and trees have life and hence they also feel pain and pleasure.
Some of the Hindu festivals like Amala Ekadashi, Ashoka Pratipada, Bakula Amavasya, Vata-Savitrivrata, Kadalivrata and Sheetala Puja are especially dedicated to the worship of various plants and trees.
To properly understand the philosophy behind the worship of trees, one must first understand the philosophy of Hinduism.
Worship of Trees as Brahman
Hinduism considers that it is Brahman or God who manifests, sustains and absorbs back the entire Universe and all its objects. Hence, each entity, whether living or non-living, is sustained by Brahman itself.
In Bhagavad Gita (10.20), Lord Krishna declares- “I am the Self, O Gudakesa (Arjuna), seated in the hearts of all creatures. I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all beings.”
Similarly, Isha-Upanishad (Verse 1) declares that- “God inhabits all the objects in the Universe”. Hence, God or Brahman manifests all the objects and then becomes seated in their hearts as their very own innermost Self/Atman. Therefore, plants and trees are not lifeless entities, but instead, they are living beings that are inhabited by Brahman itself. The same Brahman who inhabits the humans also inhabits the trees. Therefore, at the highest level, the worship of trees is nothing but the worship of Brahman who exists as the Innermost Self of both the trees and the humans. The Trees are then realized as being non-different from Brahman. But, such worship in a real sense can be practiced only by liberated sages (the Jivanmuktas) who alone can perceive their Innermost Atman in all objects and all objects as in their own Atman. However, others can worship Trees as a manifestation of Divine.
Worship of Trees as a manifestation of the Divine
Various trees have been associated with various deities. Ashwatta or Peepal tree has been specially associated with Lord Krishna. In Gita (10.26), he declares that among the trees, he is the “Ashwatta”. Similarly, Rudraksha (meaning Rudra’s eyes) seeds are associated with Shiva, Banyan tree is associated with Brahma, Ashoka tree is associated with Kaama (God of Love) and Palasha tree is associated with Soma or Moon.
Almost all Hindu deities are associated with one plant or the other. This association must be understood properly. Trees like Peepal and Banyan are living representation of the Gods. Hence, those Gods can be worshiped directly through the trees without having to invoke Gods into an idol or fire. It is for this reason that Lord Krishna says he is the Peepal among the Trees, denoting that Peepal tree is home to Vishnu-tattva. Hence, a worship of Peepal is same as worshiping Vishnu in an idol.
Trees and plants can be worshiped as a direct manifestation of various deities, or as objects conducive to the worship of those deities. Another way of worshiping the trees is by showing reverence to their life-force.
Worship of Trees as Living Spirits
The trees are to be respected and revered as living entities. They are not to be ignored as non-living objects that must be used and exploited for self-interest, but instead they are to be recognized as living forces that sustain the entire Earth.
Rig-Veda (5.41.11) says “May Plants, the Waters, and the Sky preserve us, and Woods and Mountains with their trees for tresses”.
This prayer recognizes plants and trees as living forces of nature that nourish humans and the entire planet. The flowers, fruits and shade that a tree gives are seen as items of nourishment that a tree provides us out of love.
This sentiment that recognizes trees as living beings can also be seen in the ritual that is prescribed for felling of trees for the purpose of making wooden idols for worship.
The tree that was selected for felling was worshiped by offering various substances to it. Then at night the Devatas, Pitrs, Rakshasas, Nagas, Asuras, Ganas and Vinayakas were all worshiped.
The idea behind the ritual is three fold. First, to ask permission from the tree to cut it; second to ask forgiveness from the tree for the violence caused to it; third to request the Devatas to impart better life to the spirit of the tree for the sacrifice it is doing.
These three modes of worshiping of the trees denote three stages of spiritual evolution of an Individual. A person first learns to communicate with the trees with an understanding that they are living forces of nature.
Then, his understanding evolves and he perceives various manifestations of divine as inhabiting the trees. He will begin to worship different deities through the worship of different trees. Finally, he attains the self-knowledge that his innermost-self/Atman alone exists and he, the tree and all other objects are all in reality non-different from Atman. Hence, through the medium of tree worship, a person ultimately attains Moksha.