Kalpavriksha or the Tree of Life – Origins and Historical Relevance

Moolatho Brahma roopaya, madhyatho Vishnu roopine,
Agratha shiva roopaya Vruksha rajaya they Nama.

(My salutations to the king of trees.
Whose root is the form of Brahma,
Middle is the form of Lord Vishnu,
And top is the form of Lord Shiva.)

Aswatha sarva papani satha janma arjithanicha,
Nudhaswa mama vrakshendra, sarva aiswarya pradho bhava.

(The holy fig tree pushes away, all sins earned,
In several hundred births, and Oh king of trees,
Please grant me all different types of wealth.)

Rig yaju Sama manthrathma, sarva roopi, parathpara,
Aswatho Veda moolo asou rishibhi prochyathe sada.

(Great sages go in search of Aswatha,
As it is the soul of Rig, Yajur and Sama Vedas
And takes all forms, greater than the greatest,
And is the root of all the three Vedas)

Vyaktha avyaktha swaroopaya, srushti sthithyantha karine,
Adhi madhyanth soonyaya vishtarasravase Nama.

(Salutations to the very stable one,
Who has clear and unclear forms,
Who creates, looks after and destroys,
And who does not have beginning, middle and end)

– Ashvatta Vruksha Stotram

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The sacred Bodhi tree in Shravasti where the Buddha spent most of his monastic life teaching. The tree is considered the second most holy among the Buddhists, and is a descendant of the tree that Buddha’s leading disciple Anathapindika had planted here in 6th c. BCE

Ashwattha tree is synonymous with our country, and is symbolic of our ancient culture and traditions. The figs are the most commonly found trees in India, and also the ones that are worshipped the most. Ficus religiosa / Pipal / Ashwattha tree was considered sacred and worshipped from the times of Indus-Saraswati Valley civilisation. However, it is the Ficus bengalensis / Banyan / Vata that gained more prominence later and ended up as our national tree. While the Buddhists reclaimed Ashwattha as the Bodhi tree, the Hindus clung onto the Vata. Associated with Yama, the Banyan is considered the botanical equivalent of a hermit, for it provides shade but cannot support new life or provide food. It is timeless like the soul and so the great sages, even Shiva, chose its vast canopy to contemplate under. There are tree shrines as idols consecrated below these trees, and even today women go around these trees longing for eternity of their marriages in the memory of Savitri who lost Satyavan under a Banyan and later regained his soul from Yama. Incidentally, the British named the Banyan tree so, as they noticed members of the trading community (Banias) gather under its shade for many a meetings.  The figs were the first among trees to be considered as Kalpavriksha – the wish fulfilling tree of the ancient scriptures that provided fruit and nourished the first people on earth, and the giver of immortality.

The concept of Kalpavriksha emerged from nature worship that has been an integral part of all ancient cultures of the world, including India. The strong belief that trees, like us, possess a soul of their own has led to such reverence that if we look around we can still find many sacred groves. They are believed to be the abodes of departed souls and divinities that bring us good luck in the form of rain, sunshine, good harvest, increasing herds, and fertility blessings for women. While most tree spirits are considered amiable, there are some that are also seen as malevolent, the “evil spirits,” or the “ap-devta.” Such spirits cause harm, hence people avoid going near the trees that harbour them. One good impact that these beliefs had was protecting many trees from being mindlessly cut down for their wood.

My discussion here will revolve around the concept of kalpavriksha spanning a timeline of more than two thousand years. It will focus on how it started from the notions of nature worship, influenced religions, and still continues to be an integral part of our social, religious, and cultural heritage.

Looking at some of the oldest civilisations of the world we find that the ancient Egyptians worshipped Sycamore trees, which they thought were homes of sacred spirits. The dense, lush Sycamores are among the oldest species of trees, and are known for their longevity and hardiness.

sacred sycamore
Seen in the picture here is an Egyptian making a regular offering of food, such as, cucumbers, grapes, and figs, to the tree. Pic source

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Image result for indus valley seals with trees  

Ficus religiosa on different Indus- Saraswati valley seals. The last seal shows a goddess standing inside a pipal tree and the priest is clearly wearing a headdress made from the branch of a peepal tree. These seals with their emphasis on the peepal tree and various animals show a distinct reverence for nature.   Source  Source  Source

In ancient Indian literature, Kalpavriksha is referred to as Ashwattha, or the seed of life that produces nectar (the water of life), which is our very own Pipal tree. The Vedas (Upanishad part) describes it as, “The roots upwards, the branches downwards, thus stands the eternal fig tree; The leaves of which are veda songs; Upwards and downward its branches are bending; Nobody on the earth is able to conceive of its form, either its end, or beginning, or duration.

In India, the sacred kalpavriksha refers to both the ficus varieties  (religiosa and bengalensis), that is, both the Pipal and Banyan. So next time when you see a Vata or an Ashwattha in your neighbourhood, take some moments off to remember that you are looking at a tree that has been venerated right from the beginning of our civilisation. A long journey that is still continuing in the form of little shrines that are still extant under roadside ficus trees.

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The wish fulfilling tree or Kalpavriksha in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism

Kalpavriksha, also known as kalpadruma or kalpataru, is said to have appeared during samudramanthan along with Kamdhenu. The tree can bear all kinds of fruits, hence identified with different trees, varying according to  the local vegetation. Thus, mahua, champak, pipal, banyan, tulsi, shami, parijata (baobab), and even coconut trees are often said to be the earthly manifestation of the heavenly kalpadruma. Kalpavriksha (of five types) are said to be located in the gardens of Indraloka with the devas and asuras at perpetual war over these trees. Kalidasa’s “Meghadutam” tells us that kalpatarus yielded garlands, clothes, and provided for all fineries for the women in Alaka, capital of Kubera’s Yaksha kingdom. Thus, while bestowing immortality, we find that kalpavriksha also provides for all our material desires.

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Samudramanthan as depicted in a mural in Orchhha.  Notice the Kalpavriksha (parijat or baobab) above the posse of animals. Picture courtesy: Jitu Mishra 

A 3rd century BCE pillar in the form of a banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) found in Besnagar, can be said to be the earliest representation of a kalpavriksha with the various symbolisms that we associate with it. The tree has a kalash or a pot full of coins, a sack tied with a string, a conch, and a lotus hanging from it, signifying the goddess of wealth or Lakshmi devi. Thus, we can say kalpavriksha is a giver that stands for growth, generosity, and prosperity.  It is therefore not surprising to find it as a common motif on the Gupta and Satavahana era coins.

Kalpataru (Picture from internet).

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The Bodhi tree is a sign of knowledge. It is a well known fact that Buddha attained enlightenment under this tree. The above depiction of the Bodhi tree is seen in Sanchi. The Hindu kalpataru on the other hand denotes wealth and benevolence, along with spiritual guidance for those that seek it. Picture Courtesy: Jitu Mishra

In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism we find that the kalpavriksha is not a deity by itself, but rather a way to reach God. A giver, it grants wishes pertaining to both material and spiritual types. While providing us with shade, fruits, nuts, wood, and the life giving oxygen that purifies air, kalpavriksha also helps human minds to focus on attaining spiritual enlightenment. Thus, by glorifying kalpavriksha, we are in reality deifying an aspect of nature, and celebrating its immense contribution in our daily lives and existence.

Ancient texts, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, frequently mention a term, chaitya-vriksha. Interestingly both chaitya-vriksha and kalpavriksha are similar in concept. Chaitya-vrikshas are tree shrines with dense leaves and fruits that provide shelter and food for all living beings. These are open air shrines with railing or fence like structures that cover the tree trunks, or sometimes the tree is placed on a pedestal. Various tree spirits known as yakshas and yakshis, and sometimes even the nagas, are believed to live in these trees. They are worshipped as protectors of both human beings and gods alike. It is interesting how our ancestors acknowledged the importance of trees in our lives and venerated them in various ways.

According to the historical epics, kalpavriksha or kalpadruma was gifted to Aranyani, a daughter Related imageof Shiva and Parvati. The chief aim was to protect the tree, so we often see it being guarded by kinnaras, apsaras, and animals, such as lions, peacocks, etc.

From simple depiction of the Bodhi tree and Ashvatta, in the later part of Indian sculptures we see a more complex depiction of kalpavrikshas. While these complex and beautiful floral patterns make us gaze in wonder at their aesthetic beauty, on the other hand, it has become increasingly difficult to rightly distinguish the tree it might be representing. In the picture we find the deities Nara and Narayana sitting under a complexly represented Badri tree, at the 5th c. CE Gupta period temple in Deogarh (photo from the internet for representational purposes only). 

Thus, we see Buddha meditating under a Bodhi tree, Shiva imparting knowledge under a Banyan tree, and Krishna standing under a Kadamba tree. Guru Adi Shankaracharya was also known to have meditated under a kalpavriksha, which is a mulberry tree located in Joshimath (Uttarakhand). Other trees that we find culturally significant are jackfruit, amalaka, haritaki, lemon, vilva or bel, neem, sandalwood, mango, and banana. All these trees are known to have medicinal properties, besides other uses in our daily lives. What better way to celebrate the benefits of nature, than to worship it.

In Jainism, we find the kalpavrikshas help in fulfilling wishes in the early stages of the cosmic cycle, and there are 10 kalpavrikshas that grant 10 different desires, which include nourishing food, good music, ornaments, utensils, among others.

Artisitc representation of the Kalpavriksha in Jainism. A wall painting of a tree on red backdrop.

The wall painting of Kalpavriksha in Saavira Kambada Basadi, Moodbidri, Karnataka. A Jain kalpavriksha.(Photo from Wiki by Vaikoovery).

The Jain goddess of wealth, prosperity, and fertility is Ambika yakshi, who is always shown seated under a mango tree. Source  Source

The Tree of Life in Christianity and Islam

The concept of the Tree of life is a part of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic versions of the creation of life, commonly termed as the Genesis.

Interestingly, the Islamic concept of tree of life that we see woven on silk carpets or sculpted on monuments, is likely to have been largely influenced and derived from the Sassanian and Assyrian art forms depicting the World Tree/ tree of life.

 

A mid 19th c. CE Islamic prayer rug from Iran/Persia showing the tree of life within a pointed niche, a mihrab (first on left). It appears distinctly inspired from the Assyrian Aserah (Mother Tree/God’s wife, a symbol of fertility) on the right  Source Source 

In Islamic literature, the tree of life is termed as the Sidra or Tuba, which grows in Paradise (seventh heaven, placed at the right side of God’s throne). Being sacred, we find it depicted in mihrabs, on rugs, and otherwise. The tree marks the limits of heaven, and angels cannot cross this boundary. The Sidra has its earthly manifestation in a deciduous shrub that grows in Arabia and India, known as Zizyphus jujuba (bears edible fruits known as the red date or Indian date).  While the Quran refers to it as only ‘the tree’, and forbades Adam and Eve to taste the fruits of this tree, it was Satan who referred to it as the tree of immortality/life.

Curled foliage with floral patterns arising from a thick central stem representing the Tree of life in the Sidi Sayyid Mosque in Ahmedabad. Here we can see a palm tree depicted at the top. photo from wikipedia. 

In Christianity, the Old Testament is likely to have drawn inspiration and derived frombanylonia the old Babylonian concept of the tree of life, known as the tree of Ea or Ukkanu that grew in Eridu, the Babylonian name for paradise.  A Babylonian seal which is now in the British museum (seen here on right: source) It shows two figures on two sides of the tree of life, stretching their hands ready to pluck the fruit, with the serpent (representing the cycle of life and death in Babylonian times) standing behind the woman. Another Babylonian cylinder, now kept in the Museum at the Hague, depicts a garden with a palm tree at the centre, surrounded by other trees and birds. There are two figures plucking the fruit, while a third figure is holding the fruit, looking as if speaking to the other two. It is quite likely that these symbols were later adopted in the Bible by the Christians and Jews, and later also in the Quran.

       

Left: Holy Mary with the Child on the tree of life by Nicholas Froment, 1476, (“the burning thorn bush”) in Aiz Cathedral, France. Here the bush is shown on a hilltop signifying the world mountain. Source Right: The tree of life in a Sweden church, 11th c. CE. Source    

Sacred trees or the tree of life from different parts of the world

mexican mansnuitscared pine

 Left: A tree of life From a Mexican manuscript, (Goblet d’Alviella).  Below: Sacred pine of Silvanus (Roman folklore). Right above: The Egyptian goddess Nu̔ît in her sacred sycamore bestowing the bread and water of the next world.  source

German Folk Art… details and color - stencil or screen print

Left: Yggdrasil—the Norse world-tree, 1847. Source Right: tree of life in a German folk art. Source

While we see that the tree of life is a universal symbol of worship and its depiction since time immemorial has changed form and figure, it is the most recognizable symbol in Indian art and architecture. Whether it is a temple, a chaitya, a Jain derasar, a mosque, or a church, the Kalpavrisha is somewhere there proclaiming how everything in the world is historically connected.

(The cover picture is the depiction of tree of life at a 2000 year old Jain site. The temple was found in ruins, and recently renovated. At kolanapuka in Telengana ).

(All photos that have been used here from various sources are for representational purposes only, and has no commercial use)

This article was published first on Virasat E Hind.

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