INDIA: On the Banyan Tree

D iscover legends, myths and folklore of the Banyan tree in India and its use in traditional Indian culture.

As Kalpavriksha the tree is also a popular theme in Hindu and Jain cosmology and Buddhism, known as the Tree of Life, also meaning World Tree.

FICUS BENGALENSIS syn FICUS INDICA

Sanskrit: Nyagrodha, Kalpavriksha, Vat-vriksha, Bahupada,
Hindi: Vata, vad, Bargad, Ber
English: Banyan Tree

T he Banyan tree is one of the most venerated trees in India. It has the ability to survive and grow for centuries and is often compared to the shelter given by God to his devotees.

Indians knew the Banyan tree as the Vatvriksha. When the British came to India, they noticed that members of the trading or Bania community used to gather under a large shady fig tree, which they named the Banyan.

The Banyan tree is mentioned in many scriptures as a Tree of Immortality, Tree of life or World Tree. Its aerial roots grow down into the soil forming additional trunks and is therefore called Bahupada, the one with several feet. It symbolizes longevity and represents the divine creator, Brahma.

In Vishnu Parana, the tree is compared to Vishnu.

“As the wide spreading Nyagrodha tree is compressed in a small seed, so at the time of dissolution, the whole universe is comprehended in thee as its germ. As the Nyagrodha germinates from the seed and becomes first a shoot and then rises into loftiness, so the created world proceeds from thee and expands into magnitude”.

Nyagrodha planted in front of temples is tenanted by either Krishna or Shiva.
The tree planted in public places like cross-roads, village squares are tenanted by lesser divinities such as Yakshas, Kinnaras, Gandharvas etc.

The rustling of the leaves of the tree is attributed to the deities residing on it. It grows on Pushkara dvipa, a special abode of Brahma.

The Banyan is associated with Yama the god of death and the tree is often planted near crematoria.

The Banyan does not let a blade of grass grow under it. Thus it does not stand for rebirth and renewal. That is why it is not part of fertility ceremonies like marriage and childbirth.

Dakshinamurti (Shiva) under a Banyan Tree with his students (Kumaras)
Tiruvannamalai Temple, India.

In iconography, Shiva is visualized as Dakshinamurti (Giver of true knowledge), he who faces the south, that being the direction of death and change. He sits under the Banyan, the botanical embodiment of the universal soul, facing the terror of death and change stoically, unafraid because of his profound understanding of the world.

To some Oriyan tribes, the tree is the Sadru-shrine of the gods and it is a sacrilege to cut it. The taboo against felling it is so great that if anyone cuts it in ignorance, he has to sacrifice a goat to the gods living on the tree.

Some Indians consider the tree as mother, for according to a legend, two orphan children were left under the tree and they were nourished by the milk or the latex that dripped from the tree and were thus saved from starvation.

Kalpavriksha, the Wish fulfilling tree, Indian Museum, Kolkata. Sandstone. Besnagar, Madhya Pradesh, ca. 2nd cent. BCE. 172.5 cm. height.

In Hindu mythology, the tree is called Kalpavriksha, the tree that provides fulfillment of wishes and other material gains. It symbolizes Trimurti:

  • Lord Vishnu is believed to be the bark,
  • Lord Brahma the roots, and

  • Lord Shiva the branches

K alpavriksha is also a popular theme in Hindu and Jain cosmology and Buddhism, known as the Tree of Life, also meaning World Tree.

The sculpture, possibly the capital of a pillar, represents a banyan tree, enclosed by a railing at the base and higher up by a bamboo fence in the shape of a network. The branches of the tree bear coin purse, a conch shell, a lotus and a vase overflowing with coins.

Kalpavriksha is also identified with many other trees such as Parijata (Erythrina variegata), coconut tree (Cocos nucifera), Madhuca longifolia, Prosopis cineraria, Bassia butyracea, and mulberry tree (Morus nigra tree).

The Pardhans people worship the tree because of the following legend:

W hen Guru Jalranda of the Pardhans died, his body was buried by his sons under a tree of Palasa (Butca frondosa). The sons used to light a fire on the grave daily to keep away the wild animals from desecrating the grave. One day they found a Nyagrodha tree growing out of the grave. The eldest son saw his father in a dream that night who asked him to serve the tree as it had grown out of their father’s bones and brains. According to the Pardhan’s, the adventitious, hanging roots of the tree are the long and matted hair of the guru.

This tree is also sacred to the Buddhists. After attaining enlightenment (under a Bodhi Tree), Lord Buddha is believed to have sat under a Banyan Tree for seven days, absorbed in the extent of his new understanding.

Banyan Tree- Use

 

* The bark and leaf buds – are useful in arresting secretion or bleeding.

* The fruit – exercises a soothing effect on the skin and mucous membranes, alleviates swelling and pain, and serves as a mild purgative. It is also nutritious.

* The leaf buds – are beneficial in the treatment of chronic diarrhea and dysentery. The latex is also useful in the treatment of diarrhea and dysentery.

* latex (sap)– of the banyan tree mixed in milk and taken daily helps cure bleeding piles.

 – rheumatism, pain and lumbago.

* Tender roots – are considered beneficial in the treatment of female sterility.

* A regular douching of the genital tract with a decoction of the bark of the Banyan tree and the fig tree is helpful in leucorrhoea.

* –medicine for diabetes.

* Cleaning the teeth with the aerial roots of the Banyan is beneficial in preventing teeth and gum disorders. As one chews the stick and brushes, the astringent secretion from the root-stick cleanses and strengthens the teeth and gums.

* A hot poultice of the leaves can be applied with beneficial results to abscesses to promote suppuration and to hasten their breaking.

*The milky juice from the fresh green leaves is useful in destroying warts.

The latex is commonly used locally for sores, ulcers and bruises.

*The tender ends of the aerial roots can be taken to stop vomiting.

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REFERENCES, ATTRIBUTIONS AND FURTHER READING

  • Bhagavad Gita. Dakshinamurti.
  • Fergusson James. Tree and Serpent Worship in India. 1869.
  • Gupta Shakti M. Plant Myths & Traditions in India. 1968.
  • Significance of the Banyan. Times of India. June, 2011.