Forest and trees

Indigenous Trees in Indian Mythology and Folklore

Compiled by Priti Sawant


Introduction

Man has been fascinated by nature since he evolved from his primitive ancestors, the apes. If there was anything on which he could depend with any confidence towards its availability, it was plants. Large number of plants provided him with food, curative medicines and shelter.

In India trees and plants have been respected with devotion, have been affectionately fondled and almost treated as members of family. Large numbers of plants, considered sacred in India, are called the Bodhi trees, as certain sages received enlightenment under them.

The conservation of plants by worshiping them was very likely an important factor in making them sacred.

To mention few instances, Kalidasa mentions kindly spirits like Vanadevatas (godly trees), who had been companions of Shakuntala in the forest, almost shedding tears when she left her sylvan home for her residence in the palace of her husband, the king. When Sita abandoned by Laxmana in the forest at the command of Rama, Sita’s sorrow stirred the trees and plants and expressed their grief by shedding flowers like large drops of tears. Parvati makes no difference between her fond son Kumara and a Devdaru (Deodar) sapling almost chosen as her pet offspring. In Vishnusahasranama ( a holy prayer book of Hindus which contains 1001 names of Lord Vishnu), Vishnu is mentioned as the very embodiment of imposing trees like Udumbara, (Ficus glomerata) Asvattha ( Ficus religiosa), Asoka (Saraca asoka) and Nyagrodha( Ficus benghalensis).

Plants are repeatedly mentioned in connection with customs, traditions and beliefs. In fact, in India, no ceremony is complete without sacred plant being used.


The worship of trees in India is understandable as the trees not only provided shade in the hot scorching summers, food, medicine and fuel but the forests meant rain which was essential for a purely agricultural economy. The trees being beneficial to humanity, to protect them became a religion and were converted into the abode of tree spirits or vanadevatas. To cut down a tree meant depriving the spirit of its home and very often if it became imperative to cut down any tree, special prayers of forgiveness were performed before a tree was cut down or another abode offered to the vanadevata. Invariably, it is not the trees that are worshiped but the spirit residing in them. Myths vary in different parts of India.

Seldom has any culture been so deeply and consistently associated with plants and trees as that of Hinduism and Buddhism which are shared by India.

We start a new series under which you would be able to read stories about the indigenous trees/plants and their importance in Indian mythology and folklore. The list of such indigenous plants is infinite, yet some of the commonly known trees/plants will be presented before you.

(Photo: Roots of a banyan tree by Susan Sharma)


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