Hi Friends! I know its been a long time since I have posted any new article. Sorry for that. I was occupied in my research life. Anyways, I hope you all are doing great. Today, I come with an interesting subject – the Aśvattha tree, as expounded in the Bhagawadgīta. I have been reading and contemplating on the Gīta in the past few months, trying to digest and understand the eternal teaching. The concept of Aśwattha caught my interest and somehow it planted its seed in my heart. I wanted to share what I understood. So, let us see what this concept has to offer to us.
Any scripture is multi-fold in its unfoldment. Gīta, being a grand key to the Vēdic lore, has the same property. That is why we find the tone in the Gīta to be confusing at times. For example, Krishna says that he is the initiator of SUN, MANU, etc. But at times he attributes the contents of his teachings to “elders or ancients”. In 10th chapter, he says that “HE” is Vasanta among seasons, Vāsuki among snakes, Mēru among mountains, etc. Does that mean other snakes or other seasons and other moutains are not HE? Does that mean, the “elders/ancients” have higher authority than his own word? No. Then why does he say so? Such instances are deliberately put (or have occurred) as a veil to the profane. The true student who is initiated into the path of Vēdic wisdom can see through such paradoxes and understand the light that emanates from within the caves of such mysteries. In the article 47) Foundations of Gita, I have explored in some detail about such hidden aspects.
For now, let us concentrate, in detail, on one such aspect – the Aśwattha tree and leave the rest for some other time.
What is this tree, where does Krishna mention about this and why is it mentioned at all? In regular terminology, the word Aśwattha is associated with Ficus Religiosa tree (sacred fig tree). But, from the descriptions given by Krishna, we will see shortly that this is not the tree he was referring to. Then what is the tree mentioned by Krishna? It is a metaphysical tree. Before exploring this metaphysical concept, we need to understand the etymological key of Aśwattha.
Aśwattha = That which has embedded in itself the Aśwa (horse?!)
So, Aśwattha is that tree which has incorporated a horse (Aśwaṃ) in itself. Does it even mean anything??! It does, when we understand what Aśwa means.
Aśwa = A+Śwa (no+tomorrow)
That which has neither tomorrow nor today
Śva means tomorrow. So, A+śwa is that entity which has no tomorrow (or no time aspect) and hence is that which is eternally new or that which exists forever. In our body, the Prāṇa or life force is Aśwa, because it exists eternally. When death occurs to a body, life force recedes (into the subtle bodies) but does not die. It is like electric potential. True potential exists in space and manifests physically as current. Even our life force exists in the space of heart (Hṛdaya) and pulsates physically as the life current. Such life-force is often compared to horse due to its ability to pull the bodily chariot. So, horse is only a derived meaning of the word Aśwa, but not the true root-meaning.
What did we conclude? Aśwattha tree is that entity which has incorporated in itself the key element of life-force or Prāṇa.
Description of Aśwattha in the Gīta:
Precisely, Aśwattha’s description occurs in the first three verses of the 15th chapter of the Gīta. The following are the verses and their meanings (I took help of Master E.K’s telugu book – Mandragīta):
ūrdhva mūlaṃ adhaḥ śākhaṃ aśvatthaṃ prāhuravyayaṃ/
chhandānsi yasya parṇāni yas taṃ vēda sa vēdavit//
Meaning: There exists an ancient tree called Aśwattha. It is beyond the measures of space and time. Its leavs are the Vēda. It has its roots upwards and branches downwards. The ancients said that those who knows this tree, knows the VĒDA.
adhaścōrdhvaṃ prasṛitā stasya śākhā
guṇa pravṛiddhā viṣaya pravālāḥ/
adhaśca mūlā nyanusantatāni
karmānubandhīni manuṣya lōkē//
Meaning: The brances are spreading in both directions (above and below). They are being strengthened by the Guṇās (qualities). Their buds are the senses (sight, smell, etc.). Their roots are spreading downwards. They are spreading into the human worlds and linking the karmās.
na rūpaṃasyēha tathōpalabhyatē
nāntō na cādir na ca saṃpratiṣṭhā/
aśvatthamēnaṁ suvirūḍha mūlaṃ/
asaṃga śastrēṇa dṛḍhēna chhittvā//
Meaning: The form of this tree is imperceivable in this mundane world. There is no beginning or an end to this tree; nor there is a special location for it. Its roots are deep rooted. One should start to cut them out with the axe of Asaṃga/detachment.
With these textual characterization of the tree of Aśwattha, as given by Krishna, we can dive into the metaphysical world of a grand concept of life expounded by him.
Metaphysical Tree of LIFE:
Every concept has a basic structure. A structure has an element of unfoldment based on the intuition levels of the observer. Let us breakdown the structure of this tree according to previous textual reference, and as we proceed along, let us also enter into the intuitive revelations associated with each step.
1. Aśwattha is very ancient => It means, the tree took birth along with the creation and hence is as old as creation itself.
2. It is beyond the measures of space and time => In this creation, we have a measure of all that is created. Length, time, energy, potential, rate of evolution, rate of decay, etc. But, what can not be measured? Can a measuring scale measure itself? So, that which is source of measurements is the only thing the measure can not measure. It seems that this tree is beyond any such measures which implies that this tree creates the measures i.e., source of measures.
3. It’s leaves are the Vēda => Parṇa means leaf. Leaves are the agents that utilizes the rays of the Sun and manifest the physical material (food) — via photosynthesis. It seems that the leaves of this tree are the Vēda. This would then mean the wisdom which helps manifestation of the un-manifest (GOD) into the created worlds are the leaves of Aśwattha.
4. It has its roots upwards and branches downwards => Generally all the trees have roots downwards and branches upwards. But it is being said that Aśwattha tree has this reverse. This itself is a key statement which clearly states that the tree that is being referred by Krishna is not a physical tree but something else. Why are its roots upwards and branches downwards? To know this, we need to understand roots and branches in their functional aspects.
Roots are invisible while branches are visible. Roots stay deep and hidden into the base of the existence of the tree (for example, soil – for mundane trees). What is the base of existence of the metaphysical tree in context? The clue is its roots being upwards. What does the word “upwards” signify? When we look up, we have the dome of SKY irrespective of Day/Night. The deep vast space, which we ignorantly call dome of sky is what exists upwards. From where do the created stars and planets originate from? Is it not from the same deep space that is right above us? (it also surrounds us, but we perceive it only by looking above our horizon and hence the context of “upwards”) What exists there? The source of all creation – whatever it may be (be it quantum fluctuations or be it Mūla Prakṛti). Thus, the Aśwattha tree has its roots deep rooted in the vast spaces from where all creation emerge. Hence roots can be associated with the primary cause(s) of creation
Branches often generate food material which imply physical matter. Where is physical matter? The moment we think of matter, we straight away think of mud or sand or clay materials. Therefore, the starting thought for GROSS world is Earth and it is “beneath/downward” to where we stand. Thus, branches of the Aśwattha tree extend downward implies that its fruition is associated with the mundane physical world. Hence, branches can be associated with primary effect(s) of creational cause.
Association to Human Body: In Human body, the causal world exists in the head region while the world of effects exist in the lower region. So a human body is also an Aśwattha tree! In fact, it is more appropriate to first draw parallels to human body and human world than to think in the size of Universe! This link is necessary for further self-analysis anyways – so just a hint.
ROOTS (HEAD) = The CAUSES – Exists in subtle worlds
BRANCHES (LIMBS) = The EFFECTS – Exists in gross worlds
5. The branches and roots are spreading in both directions (above and below) => Now, it is being said that the tree’s branches are spreading from downwards to upwards and roots from upwards to downwards. That means, the roots (causes) and branches (effects) are being intertwined in both the worlds and are forming a nexus.
For example, say we see fire for the first time. An impulse to touch it occurs in head. This is primary cause of an action. The hands move close to the fire in line with the cause. The heat felt by the hand retracts due to mundane effect. This information cautions the mind to not touch again i.e., an effect influences the causal world. This is the intertwining of cause & effects that is being spoken here.
What happens when roots and branches extend in both ways? The trunk becomes invisible. The trunk is the support of the tree. Therefore, the intertwined fabric of many causes and effects which emanate the visible world as a cloth covers and hides the trunk – lord almighty, which supports all this existence.
6. The roots are spreading into the human worlds and linking the karmās => This is what we explored just now. The causes are intertwined with the world of effects or grosser world and initiate the impulse to ACT. This is the linking of Karma with ROOTS.
7. Their buds are the senses (sight, smell, etc.) => What do the branches of this tree bear? The buds of senses itseems. As we already stated, this tree is TREE OF EXISTENCE. The existence is known only through senses. If not for the 5 senses and the mind (the 6th which will be spoken in later verses) there is no input of the outer world into our brains. Without that, there is no life. We live because we can interact with outer world. Thus, the buds or the evolving sources for the branches of this tree are our senses.
8. The form of this tree is imperceivable in this mundane world => This obvious now that we have understood that this tree is not the physical tree but a metaphysical tree of life or metaphysical tree of existence.
These eight points, in quintessence give a clear picture as to what is the Aśwattha tree and how one can associate it with our human body as well as with the concept of our existence.
The essence of above analysis is that, Aśwattha tree is a tree of existence that em,anates a huge imperceivable nexus of many causes and effects which immerse us into the world of matter and hinders us from the truth of THAT which supports ALL.
The mention of this tree occurs at many places in Vēdic lore. Especially, in Kaṭhōpaniṣad and Rig Vēda there is the mention of this tree and its characteristics in a similar way, though subtle. But it is only in Gīta that a solution was given by Krishna to understand the structure of this tree and to go beyond the nexus of roots and branches which veil the source of creation. What is the solution?
9. One should start to cut them out with the axe of Asaṃga/detachment => What to do when the roots of causes and branches of effects engulf our perception of life? Krishna suggests us to cut them off with the axe of ASAṂGA. What is Asaṃga?
Asaṃga = A+Saṃga (No+Attachment)
Detachment or Non-Attachment
The axe of detachment will cutoff the many effects that play on our mind and lets us see through the causal worlds. This is the solution offered by Krishna for the problem of Aśwattha tree hindering our truth-perception.
Krishna mentioned about Aśwattha in order to make Arjuna understand the nature of creation. He says that the creation starts from the subtle planes or causal world and emerges into the world of manifestation. But the process is a resultant of many causes and effects which intertwine and result in all the plethora of stars or galaxies or life forms that we see around. But this multitude of creation sprung from ONE primary cause which is teh trunk of the Aśwattha or Lord Almighty. As the branches and roots hide this trunk, Krishna suggests Arjuna to take up the weapon of Detachment and asks him to start o cut off the nexus of the roots/branches. This would result in his perception of TRUTH behind the veil of illusion.
Key Word-summary: Krishna = GOD, Arjuna = The explorer of Truth, Aśwattha = Tree of Existence, Roots = Causes, Branches = Effects, Leaves = the wisdom which allows us to realize that we exist, Asaṃga = The Axe of Detachment.
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After a long time Tejasvi… Classic as ever… just loved it… especially the asang part in the end…
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Hi Ameet ji! Thanks for the kind words. Indeed a long time. I am glad you loved it 🙂 🙂
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Beautifully analogised ! 🙏
Delving deeper as follows.
Intertwined is a term for the sum of both forward and backward connections aka attachments. Since the envelope of backward links hides the original viz. truth of forward link, we need “a-sañga” viz. “the axe of detachment” to cutoff the backward illusive links i.e. to stop attributing causes to effects, instead of effects to causes.
A common example is the recent trend of failing to realize oneself as one who “lives to earn” instead of “earns to live” – a confusion in the causal relationship of earning money with living a life – that “money can only be a necessity of, not the purpose of, living”.
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Hi, Well said. TO add some more to what you exemplified, the wrong attributes are results of the natural veil and the WILL to cut is lacking for present generation. But once a human realizes the art of utilising the WILL, the weapon in his hands – ASAṂGA – will be fruitful in its purpose.
Enjoyed quite an absorbing reading after some break from you. The profile of the Aswattha tree is indeed deep-rooted. Its relationship to the human body is very true. The head, being the root cause to generate a cause, and the rest of the body creating actions to sustain ourselves are interestingly explained. Indeed, in the multi-folds of Gita, Aswattha is eternal.
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Hi, thank you 🙂 Glad to see your summary asusual.
Excellent explanation !
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Thank You Sir!
Omg 😍 astonishing articles in your blog ,I downloaded some parts of the free sample of some pages of Lalita priyadipika , I feel my goddess kamakshi led me to your blog ,awesome writing sir 🤗
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Hi! Thanks for dropping by my blog and I am happy to receive your comment. Delighted to hear that you are liking the articles. Looking forward to hear your views and ideas on the same. If you like the line of thought of this blog, I am sure you will like the line of thought of Lalitā Priyadīpikā.
If I may ask, how did you come to know of this blog and the book? Just curious.
All the best!