Trees and religion: Hinduism

See Part IV of this series on trees and religions here.

Hinduism, which also arose from the ancient Vedic religion, also placed marked value upon trees (and plants, in general). With regards to the philosophical outlook on plant life, in contrast with Buddhism, there is a clearer and prevailing view of plants being taken into moral consideration. Granted, it must be stressed, prior to further explanation, that Hinduism itself has at least six different offshoots that have distinct differences between one another, and therefore it is the core texts that are generally referred to (Hall, 2011). This clearer view on plant life is because Hinduism generally considers all beings as being connected via Brahman, and as a consequence plants possess consciousness and are therefore sentient (Framarin, 2014b), and trees are even self aware according to the Yogavasistha (Hall, 2011). Consequently, plants are part of the cycle of death and rebirth, known as samsara. Whether this is sentience in the human sense, or simply because plants are alive, is however questioned by in another text by Framarin (2014a). However, one can observe how trees, in particular, were considered to be able to experience happiness and sorrow, as detailed in the ancient Puranas (Dwivedi, 1990).

Regardless of exact outlook, the fact that Hinduism recognises plants as at least living beings has implications towards their attitude towards plants, which is one of non-violence. Despite this, in the case of whether a plant must be sacrificed to save a human, it is considered that humans have greater moral standing, by virtue of their heightened sentience and their mobility (Hall, 2011). This outlook may however only be more recent, as more historic Hindu texts suggest that all life is of equal sanctity and must be safeguarded (unless there is adequate justification to do otherwise), because only God has dominion over all life (Dwivedi, 1990). In light of the aforementioned, it is of little surprise that conservation issues are becoming more pertinent within Hindu cultures, and particularly within the middle-upper class societies that can afford to care (Tomalin, 2004).

The medicinal deity Dhanvantari is associated with the neem tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With specific reference to trees, it is not surprising that it is the religiously- and economically- important trees that are most actively associated with the religion and culture. To begin, it is however necessary to recognise that Hindus consider all trees to have a tree deity, which can be worshipped and provided with offerings including water and sacred threads. These tree deities do lead trees to adopt a position of significant religious importance (Dwivedi, 1990), though nonetheless, some trees will hold particularly acute religious importance; and notably those that have direct associations with principal deities. For example, Shitala (the goddess of poxes) is considered to reside within a neem tree (Azadirachta indica) – perhaps because neem has been used to treat an array of poxes and other illnesses for many centuries (Edwardes, 1922; Norten & Pütz, 2000) – and as a result the neem tree is considered sacred (Hall, 2011). The medicinal god Dhanvantari also has associations with the tree. In fact, the neem may even be of divine origin, as the Hindu demigod Garuda was thought to have spilled a few drops of the elixir of immortality onto the tree, on his way to Heaven with the elixir (Puri, 1999). Neem leaves may also be used to ward off evil spirits, immediately after childbirth (Edwardes, 1922).

Leaves of the neem tree are used for their medicinal value. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The goddess of fortune and prosperity, Lakshmi, is also found to reside within a tree – the sacred fig, or pipal (Ficus religiosa) (Hall, 2011). In fact, the three principal gods in Hinduism, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishu, all have associations with the pipal, and is subsequently worshipped every Saturday during the fifth Hindu month of Shraavana (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Edwardes, 1922), and perhaps even every morning throughout the year (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991). The gular (Ficus racemosa) also has associations to all three of these gods: the roots Brahma, the bark Vishnu, and the branches Shiva (Krishna & Amirthalingam, 2009). Vishu is also associated with the banyan (Ficus benghalensis) and sometimes wholly portrayed as the gular (Ficus racemosa) (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991), whilst Shiva has associations with the bel (Aegle marmelos), where leaves are used to worship Shiva, in order to gain redemption from a sinful act (Jagetia et al., 2005; Niroula & Singh, 2015), and also maulsari (Mimusops elengi).

Rudra, who pre-dated Shiva and was a storm god, and who is now seen as perhaps interchangeable with Shiva, is also linked with the rudraksha tree (Elaeocarpus ganitrus). For this reason, those who worship Shiva will often adorn themselves with rosaries made with seeds of the rudraksha tree, during meditation (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991; Garg et al., 2013; Naresh et al., 2013). Temples dedicated to Shiva will also be surrounded by five species of sacred tree, as detailed in the Puranas: the amala (Phyllanthus emblica), banyan (Ficus benghalensis), bel (Aegle marmelos), neem (Azadirachta indica), and pipal (Ficus religiosa) (Haberman, 2013). The avatar Dattatreya, who is considered to comprise all three gods Brahma, Shiva, and Vishu, is associated with the gular (Ficus racemosa), and this is not surprising as all three deities, individually, have links with this tree (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991).

A Hindu woman worshipping the pipal (peepal) tree. Source: Hindutva.

Krishna, another important Hindu deity, has many associations with the kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba), and was, for example, understood to have greatly enjoyed its presence (Haberman, 2013). It is also a tree that Krisha grew up around, and into where he climbed after stealing the clothes of some very beautiful cowherd girls (Krishna & Amirthalingam, 2009). The banyan (Ficus benghalensis) was also said to have been linked to Krishna, by virtue of the fact it was the tree that was said to have saved his life during the world flood (Altman, 2000). Such aforementioned trees may also themselves be worshipped, for the god(s) that they represent (as the gods, according to the Puranas, could adopt the form of a tree), and this would be the case in particular when in rural and forested areas of India. In these instances, the trees may even have been caged, so to protect them from damage (Haberman, 2013).

Persisting with the religious aspects of trees within Hinduism, one can also observe how the planting of trees – particularly groves – is a highly important act worthy of marked religious merit (Coward, 2003; Edwardes, 1922; Haberman, 2013). At times, these groves may be planted in patterns that accord to the cosmic alignment of the stars, planets, and the Zodiac, as understood in Hinduism; as may temple forests, which frequent the Indian landscape serve multiple spiritual and religious purposes (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991; Chandrakanth et al., 1990). These groves may also be more simple plantations, as is the case in eastern Kumaun, where the deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) has been abundantly planted beyond its natural range (Guha, 2000). Established groves within forests, such those of mangrove (Rhiziophora spp.) in Bangladesh, are also a site for prayer once per year, for Hindus of the lower castes (Khan et al., 2008). Where these sacred groves have been assumed from pre-dating cultures, unlike with Christianity, and to a slightly lesser degree Islam, their spiritual importance is conserved and the groves remain as places of worship (Ormsby & Bhagwat, 2010).

Trees may also be formally married to one another, in some instances. In fact, the creation of groves and the marriage of the trees within the groves to one another (some years later) is considered a particularly important custom within the Hindu religion, and cases of individual mango trees (Mangifera indica) being married to individual tamarind trees (Tamarindus indica) are documented (Edwardes, 1922). Neem (Azadirachta indica) and pipal (Ficus religiosa) trees may also be planted so close together that they essentially grow ‘as one’. This ‘marriage’ of the two tree species is considered to represent the bonding of male (pipal) and female (neem), and if the unified trees are circumambulated after bath in the morning then they are said to cure sterility (Chandrakanth et al., 1990; Haberman, 2013). In some cases, these marriage ceremonies are incredibly grand (and thus expensive), such as when a neem and pipal tree were married in the Indian town of Palakkad – the neem was four years younger than the pipal, and was adorned with traditional wedding items. In this case, a Hindu priest was employed to undertake the ceremony, whilst an astrologer was employed to select the correct (appropriate) date (Haberman, 2013).

A pipal and neem tree that have been married to one another. Source: In India.

A variety of tree species have also historically been worshipped by individual tribes of the Hindu religion, across India. Specific tribes will attribute a specific group of tree species to their ancestry, including the banyan (Ficus benghalensis), kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba), mango (Mangifera indica), and shami (Prosopis cineraria), and the marriage of individual tribe members to those of different tribes can only occur if the two tribes do not share ancestral tree species (Edwardes, 1922). The trees sacred to the tribes will also usually not be cut down or damaged, and instead revered and protected.

The theme of trees and marriage in fact extends even further, when it can occur between a man (or woman) and a particular tree (of the opposite gender) (Haberman, 2013). This is usually a practice that occurs after an individual has been married twice already, as a third marriage is seen as inauspicious (and is also illegal in the Punjab). Therefore, instead of marrying a human for the third time, a Punjabi individual is married to a babel tree (Vachellia nilotica), and afterwards married to another human (for the fourth marriage). In the city of Chennai, a similar custom can be observed, and instead an individual is married to a serut tree (Streblus asper), that is then unfortunately felled, paving the way for a fourth marriage (Edwardes, 1922; Haberman, 2013).

Hindu brides may also, prior to marriage, assuming they were born under “inauspicious planets”, be married to a tree (which rids her of any ill-omens that may harm her husband), and then to the groom. Conversely, if a groom is found to have been born under very well-aligned planets, the marriage between him and his bride is sometimes compared to the bride marrying a fig tree (Ficus religiosa). The general idea behind why this marriage between a woman and a tree occurs may be, again according to Edwardes (1922), to “avert the curse of widowhood”, because the tree (groom) is always alive (hopefully!). It may also be to pass-off any bad luck onto the tree, which is, of course, not necessarily that good for the tree! On a more philosophical level, it also keeps alive man’s kinship with nature, which is important within Hinduism (Haberman, 2013). Hindu women, each year, will also fast and worship both the goddess Savitri and the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis), in order to ensure their husband and sons have long and married lives (Wadley, 1980).

This pipal tree was married to a woman, and has been suitably ‘dressed’ for the occasion. Source: Homegrown.

On a more cultural level, numerous traditions can be observed with regards to the consumption or utilisation of certain trees, in accordance with particular calendar months. For example, in West Bengal, certain Hindu tribes do not consume fruits of the genus Zizyphus until after January’s full moon, nor do they eat mango (Mangifera indica) until after the Baruni ceremony in late March, or the fruits of the drumstick tree (Moringa oleifera) until after the Charak festival in April. Other tribes refrain from harvesting the sal (Shorea robusta) until after the Salui festival in March to April, and the fruits of the karam (Haldina cordifolia) until after the Karam festival in August to September (Deb & Malhotra, 2001). It is most likely that these harvesting limitations are due to economic reasons, so that the trees are not adversely impacted prior to the time in which they provide the most value. Within other Hindu rituals and customs, there is also the overt declaration that trees that have been struck by lightning, display dieback in the periphery of the crown, contain many bird nests, or grow upon a sacred site, are unfit for use in the timber trade to make bedsteads, as they are wholly certain to bring ill health – and possibly death – to an individual (Edwardes, 1922).

On a symbolic level, within the Bhagavad Gita, which is a Hindu text, the upside-down tree mentioned by Krishna also has importance within the religion (Arapura, 1975). This tree’s roots are up in the skies, whilst its foliage is down upon the earth, and this is said to symbolise man’s origins (or roots) from divinity and consciousness (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999). The suspended roots displays these origins of man, whilst the branches upon the earth detail the workings of the mind, which is vastly complex in composition and function. The leaves, which are attached to the branches, symbolise emotions and thoughts that man will experience, and their temporary nature, as these leaves are eventually shed and re-grown. However, these leaves also need the water and nutrients from the roots, which connects man back to divinity and consciousness (the roots in the sky – the spiritual world), from where the mind should be based and build from, in spite of the temptation to base conscious existence upon emotion and the material world (the leaves) (Prabhupada, 1989).


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Trees and religion: Hinduism

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