Sacred Trees of the Hindus

Mythological and Social Linkages
Courtesy and Copyright Prabhuddha Bharata    

Trees being nature’s major processors of solar energy which is vital for our existence, and yielding flowers, fruit, wood or medicine, have been worshipped by the Hindus as a matter of gratitude. Manu believed that they were conscious like humans and felt pleasure and pain. Indian sages and seers eulogized asvattha or peepal (Ficus religiosa), gular (Ficus glomerata), neem (Azadirachta indica), bel (Aegle marmelos, bargad or banyan (Ficus bengalensis), Asoka (Sereca indica), amala (Phyllanthus emblica), Arjuna (Terminalia Arjuna) and many other trees which acquired social and religious sanctity with the passage of time.

Bel, rudraksa (seeds of Elaeccarpus) and ber (Zizyphus jujuba) are considered dear to Lord Siva, sala (Shorea robusta) and pipal to Lord Visnu; kadamba (Anthocephalus cadamba) to Lord Krsna; mango (Mangifera indica) to Lord Hanuman, asoka to Kamadeva; silk cotton (Bombax malabaricum) to the goddess Laksmi; and coconut or sriphala (Cocos nucifera) to Varuna or the lord of waters, and to many other gods and goddesses.

The five trees (panca-vrksa) which adorn Lord Indra’s garden (Nandana) in his paradise (Svarga) are: (1) mandara (Erythrina stricta) with scarlet flowers in horizontal clusters at the ends of branches; its shade relieves one of physical ailments and mental stress; (2) parijata (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis) with bark of gold, leaves of copper color, and fragrant, rejuvenate fruit; it arose out of the ocean of milk and was taken away by Indra to his paradise from where it was brought to Dvaraka by Lord Krsna at the instance of his wife Satyabhama. After the passing away of the Lord and the submerging of Dvaraka in the ocean, it was taken back to heaven; (3) samtanaka, a tree of wonder having leaves which promote fertility in men; its identification remains obscure; (4) haricandana or sandalwood (Santalum album) well known for its fragrance and cooling effect, it keeps evil spirits at bay; and (5) kalpa vrksa or kalpa taru, the tree of eternity which emerged as a result of the churning of the ocean of milk; it was lifted to Svarga by Indra, and is frequently mentioned in Sanskrit literature for its wish-fulfilling quality.

The Pauranic lore has it that Brahma metamorphosed into a palasa, Visnu into a pipal and Rudra into a bargad after being cursed by Parvati, the wife of Lord Siva. Neem is customarily believed to be the abode of the goddess Sitala; pipal of the goddess Laksmi (on Sundays), amala of both lord Visnu and Lord Siva, and Sami (Ficus benjamina) of Lord Hanuman, the son of the wind-god. Deodar (Polylathis longifolia) is believed to be the adopted child of Lord Siva. Pipal is said to form a link between earth and heaven. The flowers of five trees-asoka, mango, navamal lika (Ixora parviflora), pink lotus (Nelumbe nucifera) and blue lotus (Nymphae stel-lata) –adorn the tip of the bow of Kama, the god of love. Kadamba reminds one of Lord Krsna’s flute and bargad of Lord Siva’s matted hair which reflect in the tangled roots of the tree.

Some trees are considered sacred due to their association with prophets and holy men. The barged, for example, is sacred to Hindus because the sage Markandeya took shelter on its branches during the deluge; Lord Rama lived in a grove under five banyan trees near Nasik when he was in exile; and lord Krsna played around it during his childhood. Sala is sacred to Buddhists because Lord Buddha took birth and passed away under it; so are pipal and bargad, as the Lord meditated under them for gaining supreme realization. The trees considered sacred in the Jaina tradition were associated in some way with the Tirthankaras: bargad with Rsabha Deva, sala with Sambhavanatha and Mahavira, bel with Sitalanatha, kadamba with Vasupujya, pipal with Ananta, Asoka with Mallinatha, and bakula with Neminatha. Ber (jujube) is viewed with reverence by the Sikhs because Guru Nanak Dev planted a sapling of it on the banks of the river Bein when he was at Sultanpur Lodhi. Guru Gobind Singh stayed under a jujube tree in a village of Seeloana in Ludhiana district. Both the sites have been converted into shrines. The ritha tree, under which Guru Nank Dev sat during his sojourn in the Himalayas, began to bear sweet fruit, and now a shrine has come up centred around it. The ber under which Baba Buddha (1506-1621) used to sit supervising the excavation of the sacred pool at the Amritsar Golden Temple has also become an object of worship for the devotees.

Specific directions for the plantation of sacred trees are mentioned in the Vrksa Ayur-veda: bargad should be planted in the eastern side of the house; bel and peepal in the west; mango and amala in the south; Asoka in the southeast; and itti, a wave-leafed fig tree, in the north. Auspicious stars for planting them all are Svati, Hasta, Rohini, Sravana and Mula.

The day, time, month or occasion of worship of sacred trees has a mythical, astrological or utilitarian basis. Amala and pipal are worshipped especially in the month of Kartika (October-November), bel and gular in Sravana (July-August), kadamba in Asadha (June-July), Sami in Asvina (September-October), bargad in Jyestha (May-June), and so on. A number of festivals and vratas are also observed in their honor as per the table given at the end of this article.

Due to their ecological value and efficacious properties, trees continue to be used in the religious and social ceremonies of the Hindus. The trunk of banana is used to erect welcoming gates and its leaves to make the ceremonial pavilion. The five most sacred leaves of peepal, gular, pilkhan (Ficus lacor), bargad and mango-are ubiquitously employed in making prayers and offerings. On auspicious occasions, mango leaves are tied to a string and hung on doors; leaves of palasa and bargad make workable plates and bowls during community feasts. Leaves of some other trees are also customarily offered to deities of bel to lord Siva, of banana and arjuna to Lord Ganesa, and of amaltas (Cassia fistula) to all the gods and goddesses. The red flowers of the Indian coral tree are used in the worship of Lord Visnu and Lord Siva; of kaner (Nerium indicum) in the worship of Lord Siva and the Sun-god; of ketaki (Yucca gloriosa) in the worship of Laksmi, and of panas or breadfruit (Artocarpus integrifolia) in the worship of Lord Visnu.

The use of some flowers is prohibited in worship rites-of sirisa or parrot tree (Albizzia lebbeck) in the worship of Lord Ganesa and vijaya sala (Pterocarpus marsupium) in the worship of Lord Siva. Supari or areca nut which symbolizes Lord Ganesa is commonly used in various rites. Banana is offered to Lord Visnu and Laksmi on the eleventh day of the bright half of Pausa (December-January) and to the Sun god on the sixth day of the bright fortnight of Kartika (October-November). Mango and bel fruits are also included in the worship material-the former is offered to all gods, the latter especially to Lord Siva.

The wood of sacred trees like bel, bargad, sami, palasa and pipal is never used as fuel as it invites the wrath of gods. But it is employed, in other ways, in sacrificial rites and ceremonies. Sandalwood is turned into paste and applied to the forehead. The wooden seat used during the sacred thread ceremony is made of mango or palasa; the brahmacarin is also made to walk with a stick of palasa. During the sacred thread ceremony the brahmacarin has to perform sacrifice using pipal twigs called samit. After a person dies, twigs of bel are placed near the central pillar of the house and those of neem scattered near the corpse.

Sacred trees are invoked on special days for long life, for the expiation of sins, for averting mishaps, or for the fulfillment of a particular wish. Young girls are symbolically wedded to the pipal tree or bel fruit to avoid future widowhood. Tree trunks are tied with thread and circumambulated 108 times and adorned with vermilion and sandal-paste; earthen lamps are lighted under them-and the effect of all these is considered equal to a thousand sacrifices. The Saivites count prayers by using rosaries made of rudraksa berries.

Kautilya laid down that those who cut even small branches or sprouts of trees yielding fruit and flowers, or providing shade in parks, places of pilgrimage, hermitages, and cremation or burial grounds should be sternly dealt with. In ancient India, people offered prayers and performed other rites to expiate themselves from the crime of harming or up-rooting a holy tree. To plant a pipal, banyan or some other sacred tree at a holy place or on the roadside continues to be regarded by the Hindus as an act of virtue. The Brhat Parasara Smrti (10.379) admonishes in this context: He who plants and nurtures the following trees will never see hell: one each of the holy fig (pipal), margosa (neem) and banyan (bargad), ten tamarind trees and three each of wood apple, the holy bel, myrobalan and five mango trees. The Hindu religious mind was thus keen on environmental stability.

Important Festivals or Vratas Related to Trees

Name of the Tree Related Festival or Vrata Time of Celebration and Rituals
Amala Amala Ekadasi 11th day of Phalguna sukla; bath with water soaked in amala fruit; eating it; worshipping it; and worship of Radha-Krsna.
Amra or Mango Amra-puspa Bhaksana Vrata 1st day of Caitra sukla; eating of mango blossoms and worship of Kamadeva.
Asoka Asoka Pratipada 1st day of Caitra sukla; only women worship the Tree; they also observe fast seeking longevity.
Bakula Bakula Amavasya Bakula flowers are offered to the manes, seeking Their blessings.
Vata or Bargad Vata Savitri Vrata Jyestha purnima or amavasya day; having fasted for three previous days, married women worship the bargad tree by circumambulating, tying with the sacred protective thread (raksa sutra), and listening to the sacred Savitri-Satyavan story; some women stay awake during the night and omplete the vow feeding a brahmin; in western parts of India, devout women observe this vow for five consecutive years
Bilva or Bel Bilva Tri-ratri Vrata On a Tuesday of Jyestha purnima when the cons-tellation is Jyestha; worship of the bel tree for three consecutive nights as per Hemadri’s injunctions in the Skanda Purana; the vow compr-ises bath with water mixed with mustard seeds, partaking of sacred sattvic food (havisyanna),adorning the tree with two pieces of red cloth and placing the image of Uma-Mahesvara beneath it; homa is performed and 1,008 bilva leaves are offered; Brahmins are fed.
Bilva or Bel Sravana Krsna Ekadasi Ceremonial offering of water to the bel tree.
Bilva or Bel Bhadra Sukla Caturthi Offering of trifoliate leaves of bel to Lord Ganesa
Bilva or Bel Bilva Nimantrana Asvina sukla sasthi; summoning the tree-goddess and worshipping the Devi.
Bilva or Bel Bilva Saptami Asvina sukla saptami; a twig of bel, bearing two fruits, is offered to Devi.
Bilva or Bel Bilva Navami Asvina sukla navami; bel leaves are offered to Siva.
Karavira or Kaner or Oleander (Nerium indicum) Karavira Vrata Jyestha sukla prathama tithi; kaner roots and branches are bathed and adorned with red cloth; offerings of seven cereals (sapta dhanya) and fruit are made followed by fasting; Savitri, Satyabhama, and others performed this when they were in trouble
Kadali or Kela Kadali Vrata Vaisakha, Magha or Kartika sukla caturdasia banana tree is planted and nurtured till it bears fruit; wishing the welfare of one’s family, a person should worship the tree with flowers, fruit, etc and circumambulate it.
Kadali or Kela Yaksa-samantaka Kadali Vrata A golden banana tree is worshipped and offered to a brahmin on any auspicious day.
Kevada or Screw Pine (Panadanus odoratis- simus) Kevada Teej Bhadra sukla trtiya; soliciting unbroken married life, women offer Kevada leaves to Lord Siva.
Neem Sitala Puja Caitra navaratras; goddess Sitala who is said to reside in the neem tree is propitiated ritually; Pat Gosain festival in Bengal means neem tree worship; neem leaves are eaten on Vaisakha sukla saptami.

This is not an exhaustive list but there are other festivals too.

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