May 5, 2014

Banyan Tree

The Banyan can be found throughout this area. There are several in the old part of Ramana Ashram and the side of the Samudram Bund, south of the Hill, are a number of young Banyan Trees.

The Banyan Tree (Ficus Benghalensis linn. Tamil = Al) which is the National tree of India, is an evergreen that grows to a height of about 100-ft. It has been reported that some Banyan reach more than 1000 feet in circumference and could cover 10,000 with its span. This tree is easily identified by its aerial roots, which hang from its branches. These roots often get embedded in the ground and become minor trunks. The leaves are broad, oval and glossy. If broken, a white, milky fluid oozes out of the leaves. 

The name Benghalensis comes from India where early travellers observed that the shade of the tree was frequented by “banias” (Indian traders). English writers began to tell of the banyan tree, a tree under which Hindu merchants would conduct their business. The tree provided a shaded place for a village meeting or for merchants to sell their goods. Eventually "banyan" became the name of the tree itself. 

Ficus means fig and Benghalensis is of or pertaining to Bengal. The Sanskrit word Vata means to surround or encompass. The tree symbolizes all three gods of the Hindu Triad. Vishnu is the bark, Brahma, the roots, and Shiva, the branches. Another name for Kubera, the treasure-keeper of the gods, is Vatashraya, one who lives in the Banyan tree. According to tradition it is visited by the goddess Lakshmi on Sundays.

The Banyan is said to have nourished mankind with its 'milk' before the advent of grain and other food. The legend for this follows thus: 

Nirantali, the first keeper of the world, was sent by the gods to live in Saphaganna. She brought with her Banyan seeds, wrapped in leaves. When the Earth and the clouds were ready, men were born. They took the Banyan seeds and planted them. These grew into slender trees with very tiny leaves that provided no shade at all. Nirantali tugged and pulled at the leaves till they were large then she stretched the branches till they came down to Earth. But men still did not have proper food to eat. So Nirantali told the Banyan tree, “Feed men with your milk”. The Banyan replied, “I have only blood in my body. Where should I get the milk from?” Nirantali swung her axe, hit the trunk of the tree and said, “Let milk flow”, and so it did and men lived on it until grain came to the world. According to the Agni Purana, the Banyan symbolises fertility and is worshipped by those who want children. For the same reason, it is never cut. Even its leaves, which are used as cattle fodder, are broken only when there is a famine. It is believed that if the tree is cut, a goat should be sacrificed in atonement.

Young Banyan tree, Samudram Bund, Arunachala

It is stated in the Vishnu Purana, during the deluge at the end of an epoch or yuga, Vishnu sleeps on a Banyan leaf. It also compares Vishnu to the seed of the Banyan: just as a huge tree originates from and is contained in one little seed, the entire universe is reduced to its germ after these periodic deluges. This germ is contained in Vishnu, who then recreates the Universe. 

The Banyan tree is one of the most venerated trees in India. Because of its ability to survive and grow for centuries, it is often compared to the shelter given by God to his devotees. It also symbolises the personality of a benevolent ruler or head of family who nourishes and looks after all those under his care. Its large leaf is a motif commonly used in worship, rituals and festive sacrifices. The Banyan tree is mentioned in many scriptures as a tree of immortality. It was under a Banyan tree that the Hindu sages sat in a trance seeking enlightenment and it was here that they held discourses and conducted holy rituals. In Hindu mythology, the tree is called Kalpavriksha, the tree that provides fulfillment of wishes and other material gains. 

The Vishnu Purana states: "As the wide-spreading Nargodha (Sanskrit for Banyan) 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 Nargodha germinates from the seed, and becomes just a shoot and then rises into loftiness, so the created world proceeds from Thee and expands into magnitude." 

In Hinduism the leaf of the Banyan tree is said to be the resting place for Lord Krishna. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says: "There is a Banyan tree which has its roots upward and its branches down, and the Vedic hymns are its leaves. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas." (Bg 15.1) 

Elsewhere in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says: Of all trees I am the Banyan tree . . . " (10.26) 

According to another legend the Banyan Tree is believed to have originally been situated in Vasuki's garden. Amba or Mother Earth, wanted it for her children. After a fight with Vasuki and by invoking Shiva's help, Amba managed to obtain the Banyan. 

This tree is also sacred to the Buddhists. After attaining enlightenment, the Buddha is believed to have sat under a Banyan tree for seven days, absorbed in his newfound realisation. A pilgrimage to one of the main Banyan trees is considered the equivalent of twelve years of sacrifice. The worship of the tree is also represented in a Buddhist sculpture with its long hanging roots dropping gold pieces in vessels placed below. 

Ripe figs on tree, April 2014 

Parts of the Banyan Tree

Indra was portrayed as sitting with his queen shaded by a Banyan from whose branches people gathered jewels, clothes, food and drink. Also called the Agastyavata, it symbolizes immortality. When the whole world was flooded during the Great Deluge, a leaf of the Banyan tree cradled Balmukunda safely through the waters.

The Puranas tell the story of Savitri, who lost her husband a year after their marriage. He died under a Banyan tree and by worshipping it, Savitri was able to follow Yama himself and win back her husband's life as well as secure prosperity and progeny. This powerful legend has made Savitri an ideal of Indian womanhood and established the Vat-Savitri Vrata. On Vata Poornima, the full-moon night in Jyeshtha, married women fast and circumambulate the Banyan to pray for the long and healthy life of their husbands.

On this day, Hindu married women worship the Banyan Tree by tying threads around its bark. The ritual is performed to obtain divine grace to secure the life of their husbands and get the same groom for several births to come. Banyan trees were regarded as symbols of fertility, venerated by those who wanted children. The Mahabharata tells of a mother and daughter who embraced two Banyan trees and became the mothers of Sage Vishvamitra and Sage Jamadagni.

Giant Banyan Tree, Botanical Gardens, Howrah

In certain areas of the Philippines, people believe in sorcery, witchcraft, enchanted beings or objects, and other supernatural forces. The most feared of all is Baliti, the great Banyan tree which villagers believe possesses super-natural powers. To disrespect Baliti is to call the tree's wrath upon oneself.

According to legend, Banyan or Baliti, was a man who was a great healer. He was respected and well loved by the people. The god, Engkantada, known as the enchanted lady of the forest, acknowledged his good character by giving him healing powers far beyond the earthly ones he already possessed. Engkantada told him that these powers could only be used to aid others, and that he must never ask for, or take, any payment in return for his healing services. Baliti agreed.

For many years Baliti worked refusing all offerings of payment. Eventually he met a beautiful woman called Brunhilde and after a short courtship they married. Soon Brunhilde started to demand that Baliti take payment for his healings. Batili's love for Brunhilde had become greater than his promise to Engkantada, so he asking for, and accepting payment for his services. His wife started to use her sorceress powers to make the people of the village ill. After making the villagers ill she would tell them that only her husband could heal them as Brunhilde knew that spells she had cast could only be removed with magic, as they had been created.

Those who were not able to pay were refused Baliti's services while all the time Baliti and his wife lived lavishly. The villagers began to hate Baliti and his wife and prayed to God Engkantada, to help them. Engkantada after confronting the couple with their wrongdoings, transformed Brunhilde into a huge snake, so that everyone would see and avoid her. Engkantada knew that Baliti had been fooled by his wife so in retribution for his errors, she turned him into a great Banyan tree, but did not take his powers away. This way he could still be of help to the villagers who came to him requesting aid.

Many claim that Baliti's powers still exist. There are stories of unusual things happening when someone offends Baliti. It is believed that tragedy always follows those who have offended him, therefore, respect is given to him by all. Whenever passing the tree people say such things as "excuse me", or "may I sit under your branches great one?"

The Banyan tree occupies the pride of place amongst the sacred trees of India. It has aerial roots that grow down into the soil forming additional trunks. It is, therefore, called Bahupada, the one with several feet. It symbolizes a long life and also represents the divine creator, Brahma. It is invariably planted in front of Temples. The numerous stems of the Banyan tree are even regarded as the home of gods and spirits. It was under a Banyan that Lord Shiva as Dakshinamurthi is nearly always depicted sitting in silence with Rishis at his feet. It is thought of as perfectly symbolizing eternal life due to its seemingly unending expansion.

In a South Indian tale Luxman accompanies Rama, who is carrying home his bride. Luxman overhears two owls talking about the perils that await his master and mistress. First he saves them from being crushed by the falling limb of a Banyan-tree, and then he drags them away from an arch which immediately after gives way. By and by, as they rest under a tree, the king falls asleep. A cobra creeps up to the queen, and Luxman kills it with his sword; but, as the owls had foretold, a drop of the cobra's blood falls on the queen's forehead. As Luxman licks off the blood, the king starts up, and, thinking that his vizier is kissing his wife, upbraids him with his ingratitude, whereupon Luxman, through grief at this unkind interpretation of his conduct, is turned into stone.

In the Philippines children at a young age are taught never to point at a fully mature Banyan tree for fear of offending the spirits that dwell within them, most especially when they are new to the place. They would always utter a respectful word or two to the spirits in the Banyan tree when they are near one, walking near or around it to avoid any harm. They believe that provoking the spirits in a Banyan tree can cause one great harm, illness, misfortune, untold suffering and death.

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