Indian Culture and Traditions - 9

Indian Culture and Traditions

Sacred Trees Of The Hindus
By Dr. Satish Kapoor 

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 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 Pratipada
1st day of Caitra sukla; only women worship the Tree; they also observe fast seeking longevity.
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.
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.
Grow more Trees

Seven Sacred Rivers
By Vimla Patil 

In India, a river is a mini-cosmos in concept. Every river is a mother deity who spawns mythology, art, dance, music, architecture, history and spirituality. Each one has a clear identity, appearance, value, style and spirit just like a beautiful woman. In every age, diverse human communities have reinvented themselves on river-banks with fascinating nuances….
‘Her shimmering gold-and-white garments dazzle like a thousand suns. The jewels in her crown shine like the crescent moon. Her smiling face lights up the whole world. In her hands, she carries a pot of nectar, a symbol of immortality. Her lotus-fresh presence brings a sense of purity and joy to all beings….’. At first glance, this reads like an over-the-top flowery description of a beautiful woman coined by some besotted lover. But to those conversant with the fascinating river-lore of India, this is the mythical portrayal of the River Ganga, written by Sage Valmiki, author of India’s immortal epic Ramayan. It describes the celestial Ganga as she descends from the heavens to the earth to bring salvation to mankind. This story, known as Gangavataran, is such a fundamental tenet of Indian culture that it has held countless generations of Indians in awe for millenniums. The Ganga, arguably the most picturised and written-about river in the world, has been called the Mother of India’s Spirituality and has been immortalized in sculpture, art, literature, poetry, music and dance.
Following her descent to the mortal world to sanctify human efforts to attain salvation, the Ganga is perceived as mokshdayini, the Mother Goddess whose waters bring relief from sin, sorrow and suffering. To wit, through the millenniums, the river’s banks have been hallowed by a galaxy of saints and seers who either meditated or built great institutions of spiritual research and teachings on her embankments. Great poetic works, including Tulsidas’ Ramcharit Manas, which continues to run in the veins of Indians for centuries, were written alongside her tranquil flow in Varanasi. Great cities like Haridwar, Rishikesh, Prayag and Varanasi were built on her banks and these have become famous centres of art, music, textile weaving, literature and every other artistic endeavour apart from spiritual pursuits. Haridwar and Prayag are the sites of gigantic Kumbh Melas, which celebrate the relentless search of human beings for immortality through the mythical pot of nectar, a motif that repeats itself constantly in Indian mythology. From India’s prehistoric ages, the Ganga, with her myriad tributaries, has not only been the harbinger of rich harvests in India’s plains, but also the precious lifeline of India’s cultural heritage.
However, Ganga is not the only river in India to be given pride of place in the hearts of its millions. For millenniums, Indians have worshipped seven holy rivers that crisscross the sub-continent, fertilising its sprawling plains and watering its misty mountains and lush forests. These are the Ganga, the Yamuna, the invisible Saraswati, the Narmada, the Godavari, the Kaveri and the Sindhu. Since the Sindhu now flows through Pakistan, the Krishna has been added to the list of the sacred rivers of India. Each of these rivers has a unique persona and quality attached to it. While the Ganga is shimmering white-and-gold and represents purity or salvation (Moksh), the Yamuna is blue like Krishna, who was born in Mathura, a holy city on her banks. Like him, she represents romance (Shringar). The legendary Saraswati, white and elegant like a swan, is now extinct and is called the river of knowledge (Vidya), being associated with Brahma, the creator of the universe. The dark and elusive Narmada, rising in the Vindhya-Satpura range in Central India, meets the Arabian Sea in Gujarat. With few, if any, tributaries, the Narmada is often referred to as the virgin river associated with the quality of detachment and surrender (Vairagya). The Godavari, rising in Gangadwar near Nasik in Maharashtra, flows eastwards to the Bay of Bengal. She is the saffron river of devotion (Bhakti), sanctified by the presence of Ram, Sita and Lakshman, who spent much of their exile years from Ayodhya in the forests along the river. Kaveri, the silvery river of wisdom (Dnyan or Gyan), flows from the Sahyadri Hills in Karnataka to the Bay of Bengal through Tamil Nadu. The Krishna, flowing from the Sahyadri Hills in Mahabaleshwar to the Bay of Bengal is green and represents courage and valour (Shourya).
The quality and appearance associated each of these seven rivers have such a strong influence on the Indian psyche, that history, architecture, art, music and dance and even social movements show their impact. Each river represents a specific colour and image and Indian scriptures weave innumerable legends around them.
The Yamuna is deeply entrenched in the wonderful saga of the birth and childhood of Krishna. Krishna was born in Mathura, a holy city on the banks of the Yamuna and taken across the raging river on a rain-stormy night to Gokul, to be raised by his foster parents Nand and Yashoda. Here, in the pastoral ambience of fragrant gardens and bowers, he grew up as the divine child among cowherds and milkmaids. He romanced with the milkmaids in his Raas Leela on moonlit nights on the banks of the Yamuna and gamboled in her dark waters every day of his life. Yamuna, having touched the blue-toned Krishna, herself became blue in colour in all her portrayals. So also, Krishna being the epitome of romance and love, Yamuna became the river of romance. She was named as his ‘consort’ in Madhurabhakti – a religious cult concurrent with Sufism. Both philosophies decree that ‘a devotee has only to raise the veil of ignorance to face divinity’. The veiled Yamuna, clad in blue and purple robes and carrying lotuses in her hands, became the Maharani of Krishna, the beloved devotee of his wondrous miracles in Gokul. Through the ages, the portrayals of Yamuna, including a huge number of miniature paintings, showed a distinct Sufi influence. As the Maharani of Krishna, she became the eternal bride. Even today, thousands of years later, pilgrims and devotees who trek to Yamunotri – the origin of the river in the Himalayas – offer her bridal fineries with chunris, bangles, tikas and other ornaments.
As she descends into the plains in Himachal Pradesh, Paonta Sahib, the Gurudwara built by Guru Gobind Singh, stands majestically on her banks. Here, legend says, the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, lost his paonta or anklet in the river while bathing. Nearby, the Tons River, joining the Yamuna, creates the romantic spectacle of Sahasradhara, where a thousand streams dance down the rocky landscape to create a visual wonder. Further down her flow, the awesome Taj Mahal, the world’s most resplendent monument, stands on the banks of the Yamuna as a testimony to her romantic personality. The Yamuna merges into the Ganga in Prayag.
The Saraswati, confluencing with the Ganga and Yamuna in Prayag, has been extinct for ages, though she continues to live in the hearts of Indians. Ever since India attained Independence, teams of archeological researchers have made relentless efforts to excavate several regions of India to find its now-barren bed. Various experts have wagered the guess that she flowed westward from the Himalayas and emptied into the Arabian Sea in Gujarat. Yet, those who wish to seek knowledge and find her origin continue the search for the elusive river. Today, only a roaring torrent named Saraswati can be seen in Mana village near Badrinath in the Himalayas, where she meets the Alaknanda at Keshav Prayag.
The Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswati represent the trinity of divinities in Indian culture. Saraswati is Brahma, the creator; Yamuna is Vishnu, the sustainer and Ganga is Shiva, the destroyer. But most important, this divine trinity is seen as ‘one’ in the confluence of the three rivers at Prayag.
The Narmada has been named the most beautiful river of India by Western travellers like Bill Aitken in his book ‘The Seven Sacred Rivers’. Deep, dark and mysterious, the Narmada flows from Amarkantak in the central mountain ranges of India to the Arabian Sea. The forests on her banks are dotted with quaint temple-heritage cities and tribal villages. The river, symbolizing detachment (Vairagya) and surrender, attracts devotees who do the ‘Parikrama’ of circumambulation of its flow from its origin to its emptying in the sea and back – a distance of 917 kilometres. Pilgrims need more than a year to complete this journey on foot. Describing the dense riverside landscape, they record that on silent nights, as they lie down in the forest groves, they often hear miraculous strains of flutes resonating in the stillness. This ‘music’ is caused by the wind rushing through holes made by birds in the clumps of bamboos which line the river in some areas. On the banks of the Narmada are heritage cities like Mandu, where the tragic love story of the Hindu dancing girl-turned-queen Rani Roopmati and her Muslim poet-emperor husband Baz Bahadur unfolded. Legend says that Roopmati gave up her life by drinking poison rather than be abducted by the king’s lustful enemies. On Narmada’s banks too, stands Maheshwar, the beautiful city built by Rani Ahilayabai, the celebrated Maharani of Indore, who repaired thousands of temples across India, giving up her royal wealth.
The Godavari, rising in Gangadwar near Nashik, represents devotion and its traditional colour: saffron. On her banks are several legendary monuments dedicated to Ram, Sita and Lakshman in addition to the Jyotirlinga temple of Trimbakeshwar. Nasik is also the site of the Kumbha Mela, which has been named the biggest bathing festival on earth! The Godavari brings fertility to the plains of peninsular India and is worshipped as the symbol of single-minded devotion to divinity.
The silvery Kaveri flows through the scenic forested slopes of the Sahyadri and Nilgiri ranges. The river of wisdom, she is referred to as the ‘Dakshina Ganga’ or the Ganga of the South. Sanctified by presence of Adi Shankaracharya, the greatest philosopher-seer of India, the Kaveri is the blessing of South India as she originates in Talaikaveri and flows through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to empty into the Bay of Bengal. Through the past ages, the banks of the Kaveri have attracted great poets, writers, saints and philosophers who have sought to interpret the many-splendoured culture and spiritual wisdom of India.
Finally, the River Krishna, symbolizing valour, rises in the boulder-strewn, verdant hills of Mahabaleshwar, and flows through Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, bringing plentitude to her basin, before meeting the Bay of Bengal in the east. Krishna, through the eyes of her undulating green waters, has witnessed many epoch-making chapters of India’s history. The earliest historical reference to this river is as ‘Kannavenna’, the southern boundary of the Mauryan Samrat Ashoka’s vast empire in 236 B.C. With a strategy of peace, non-violence and unparalled valour, Ashoka ruled his great empire to become one of the world’s tallest grand monarchs. The Vijayanagar Empire flourished on her banks in the 13th century and unfolded a golden era of India’s history.  From the 17th century, the Marathas, led by Chhatrapati Shivaji, fought many a battle to free India from the clutches of the Moghuls. The Peshwas of Maharashtra built grand monuments and temples on her banks, which even today attract a procession of Bollywood producers to exploit the locations!
Rivers have been the lifelines of India’s ancient, pulsating, throbbing civilization. They have brought prosperity, culture, style, colour, values, wisdom, devotion, knowledge, romance, wonder and above all, a priceless spiritual heritage to the people of India for thousands of years!

Om Tat Sat

(My humble salutations to  Sri Dr. Satish Kapoor ji, Vimla Patil ji and hindu samskrit dot com  for the collection)


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