In many cultures, trees are recognised as symbols of life, regeneration or even resurrection whilst many cultures view trees as a symbol of knowledge. Trees have always been given deep and sacred meaning: their birth, growth and death, the elasticity of their branches, their sensitivity to annual decay and their revival have all been interpreted as powerful symbols. In many cultures throughout the world, various trees hold multiple meanings. In India, we’ll find the Banyan Tree is held in great reverence and is known as the “Tree of Life”. In this article, we shall discuss what is the tree of life, what’s its significance in Indian Art and see examples of some famous paintings projecting the “Tree of Life”.
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What is the “Tree of Life”?
In India, the Banyan Tree is also known as the Vat or Bargad and is considered to be one of the most venerated trees. For centuries, it has been likened to the shelter that God provides for his devotees. Other references to the Banyan tree come in the form of it being known as the “Tree of Life”. The “Tree of Life” is also known as the “Akshaya Vata” which translates to Akshaya meaning immortal and Vata meaning tree. A common saying in Varanasi, a pilgrimage town in North India is that the Banyan Tree never dies. The Banyan Tree has been ascribed its own personality- one of a kind and generous rule that nourishes all. The motif of its large branches and beautiful leaves are recreated in various temples across the country. The Banyan Tree is mentioned in various Indian texts and scriptures dating back to the Puranas. These scriptures describe the Tree of Life as the divine creator and symbolises longevity.
In Hindu mythology, the Banyan Tree is supposed to provide fulfilment of wishes and provide material gains. According to the Agni Purana, one of the 18 Mahapuranas, an important sub-sect of Hindu religious texts, the Banyan Tree is symbolic of fertility and provides help to childless couples. Therefore, the Banyan Tree is never supposed to be cut. This also symbolises its importance as the Tree of Life. The Banyan tree not only propagates itself through its fruit but over time sends down aerial roots that become supportive trunks themselves. Over time, the tree will have thousand such trunks. Due to its serial roots, the tree is referred to as the “Bahupada” or the one with several feet.
Themes of The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life or Banyan tree as we’ve mentioned above holds various meanings and is extremely significant in Hinduism and Indian Culture. Some of these significant meanings are listed below-
Symbolism of Trimurti: In Hinduism, the Banyan Tree is considered as the symbolic representation of the Trimurti- Lord Brahma (the Creator), Lord Vishnu (The Protector), and Lord Shiva ( The Destroyer). As per Hindu traditions, the Trimurti resides in various parts of a Banyan Tree. Lord Brahma in the roots, Lord Vishnu in the bark and Lord Shiva in the aerial roots.
Abode of Lord Shiva: The Vata Vriksha is also known to be the home of Lord Shiva. A banyan tree is considered immortal and free from change. Similarly, Lord Shiva is ever-present in his Linga form and resides under the Banyan tree. According to another belief, the countless branches of a banyan tree are symbolic of Lord Shiva’s divine hair (jhuta jhuta).
Abode of Dakshinamurthi: An incarnation of Lord Shiva, Dakshinamurthi is seen sitting under the Banyan tree and facing south. South is considered as the direction of Yama, The Lord of Death. Therefore, sitting in the southern direction depicts that he is unafraid of death and change.
Association with Lord Vishnu: Lord Vishnu’s incarnation Krishna loves to sleep underneath the shade of the Banyan Tree. During the Maha Pralaya, the final dissolution of the Universe, Lord Krishna appears on the Banyan leaf in the form of a newborn, sucking his toe. This is also the reason why Lord Vishnu is also known as VataPatra Sai which means one who sleeps on the vata patra (Banyan leaf) like a child.
- Symbol of Knowledge: Banyan- the national tree of India is also known as the symbol of knowledge as per Hinduism. According to Hindu scriptures, there are two types of knowledge- temporary and permanent. Temporary knowledge is related to Grihastha (family man dharma) while Permanent knowledge is associated with Sanyasa (Hermit life). Banyan represents the hermit life. As it is known, anyone who seeks the shade of the Banyan for enlightenment will be gifted with permanent knowledge related to Sanyasa. This becomes clear from the fact that Lord Buddha attained enlightenment after sitting under a Banyan tree for 7 days.
A powerful folk depiction of the Tree of Life is a wall hanging made by Laxmi, Durgi and Sita, three Lambani women from the Bellary district in Karnataka. It is shown as half-man, half-woman, the left half is male, with stiff, rugged, unbending branches, and the right side as female, soft and curvaceous, laden with flowers and fruit. Created under the auspices of Dastkar, this piece combines mirror-work, patchwork, shells, beads and coins with a variety of embroidery stitches to provide an insightful commentary about the nature of human beings as perceived by these non-literate rural women.
A marble replica of the carved screen at Sidi Saiyyed mosque was installed in the lobby of The Oberoi in New Delhi when it was built in the late 1960s, where it remained until April 2016 when renovation work began. The same jali design in a graphic motif is the logo for the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) and Asif Shaikh, a celebrated embroiderer, has created a miniature version using miniscule stitches in ari embroidery. Even though one may have seen this backlit jali countless times at The Oberoi, there was no cognition of what it represented, other than a beautifully carved pieces of marble. The Tree of Life, rich in mystic and religious representation, continues to find a place in our lives, though we may not always notice it.
Further Reads and Citations-