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Home >> Across Cultures  >> Trees and tales of gods

Trees and tales of gods

Be it the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden or the banyan tree of Lord Brahma, trees have been part of mythology and culture. Having stood the test of time, they have witnessed calamities that have wiped civilisations from the face of earth. Yet they stand resilient and firmly rooted on the ground. Being one of the oldest living creations on the planet, they could possibly provide answers to man’s existential questions. Novelist Hermann Hesse in his book Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte writes: “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”

Perhaps that is why our ancestors believed trees might have consciousness of their own and possess the power to communicate. Often believed to be stairways to heaven where the gods dwell, trees were worshipped by men.  Jim Robbins in his book The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Grooves, Champion Trees and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet writes: “Many cultures thought trees were antennae for divine energies. There is a persistent idea in mythology all over the world that trees are related to the heavens. It looks as though early societies might have been on to something.”

Soulveda thus explores the importance of trees, the reason they are revered across cultures and the legends associated with them.

The banyan tree

One of the most venerated trees in the Hindu mythology, the banyan tree is said to be a gift from the creator to his creation. Often referred to as the Kalpavruksha or the wish-fulfilling tree, it is compared to a generous king who shelters his subjects, provides for them and protects them. It is also believed that the banyan tree is home to gods and spirits. It is believed to be Lord Krishna’s abode for he is said to have explained the cycle of life and death, taking this tree as an example. This tree also stands for the symbol of Trimurti (Trinity). Lord Shiva is believed to be the branches, Lord Vishnu, the bark and Lord Brahma, the roots.

According to Buddhism, the Buddha, after attaining enlightenment, sat under this tree introspecting. Sages and monks sit under the shade of this tree to attain enlightenment even today.

Bodhi tree

Buddhists believe that the day a bodhi tree is born also marks the birth of the Buddha, who will sit under the tree and attain enlightenment. It is well-known as the tree of wisdom and enlightenment. Legend has it that the tree would live on till the end of Kalpa (a time beyond measure). At the end of Kalpa, emerges Kalpanta, a period where the world would be destroyed by rain or fire or wind. But, the last place to be destroyed on earth would be the site of the tree. When the world would reappear, the site of the bodhi tree would also be the first place of creation. Thus, in Buddhism, it is inauspicious to cut a bodhi tree. In the Hindu mythology, it is believed that Kali Yuga began under this very tree after Lord Krishna’s death.

Bilva tree

Known as the Indian Bael, bilva is undoubtedly Lord Shiva’s favourite tree. Its trifoliate leaves represent preservation, creation and destruction. It also represents three eyes of Lord Shiva. The leaves of the tree are offered to Shiva to appease him. According to the Shiva Purana, if a person worships Shiva sitting under a bael tree, he will attain a state of Shiva. It is also believed that if one washes his head with bilva, it is equal to taking a holy dip in sacred rivers. If one worships the bilva tree, he will be free from all vices.

Therefore, it is no surprise that we see them in divine light. In addition to being culturally significant, trees teach us a simple lesson–to stay grounded, to turn over a new leaf, to let go and keep growing.

Sacred groves

These relic forests have been part of many folklores and tales in the English countryside. Mythologically, they find their mention in India, Rome, German and ancient Greek culture. It is a place of religious importance. In India, they are mostly found on temple premises. Prayers are offered to local deities in these sacred groves. Generally, rivers and other water sources originate in these groves making them important sources of water to the people in and around the vicinity.

Baobab tree

These huge deciduous trees are believed to house the souls of ancestors. It is also said that once the ancestors pass away they live in these trees and look over their kin. The souls convey messages from gods and grant wishes. In Madagascar, food and wine are offered to these trees. These trees also serve as community centres.

Abraham’s Oak

Legend has it that angels visited the founding father of Israel and promised him a son under this very tree thousands of years ago. It is also said that this 5,000-year-old tree will die before the appearance of the antichrist. The term oak is associated with God in Hebrew. It was considered holy to Druids, a pre-Christian Celtic society.

According to Genesis, God created trees three days after he created earth. Over a period of time, trees became a part of our culture. These cultures narrate stories of spiritual origins through trees. Therefore, it is no surprise that we see them in divine light. In addition to being culturally significant, trees teach us a simple lesson–to stay grounded, to turn over a new leaf, to let go and keep growing.


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