Nyagrodha-Udumbara-Ashvattha, the three gentle giants
The very large span in seven of the eight aishvaryas (as different from corresponding siddhis which men attain through sadhana) that Bhagavan possesses is indicated in sloka 90 of the Sri Vishnu Sahasranama, along with its significance to the cosmic creation play. Bhagavan is of course Vishnu and Vyapaka, a great spanner of extremes. This sloka has 12 names in it, numbering 839 to 850.
839. Bhagavan is anu: the very first, very minute singularity that was created by his srshtisankalpa. (animaa)
840. He is brhat, huge, the vast expanse of all his creation. (mahimaa)
841. He is krsha: light, weightless. (laghimaa)
842. He is sthoola: vast and expansive in size, reaching out everywhere. (praapti:)
843. He is gunabhrt, holding within himself all the attributes of all his creation.
844. He is nirguna: not having any of the attributes of his creation in his parabrahmasvaroopa, namely before the srshtisankalpa, thus having unlimited ability to do srshti exactly as per his sankalpa (vashitvam)
845. He is mahaan, great, in being able to translate every sankalpa of his into desired result. ( praakaamyam).
It is to be noted that garimaa, the eighth aishvarya, namely extreme heaviness or denseness is not indicated separately. The singularity, namely the first creation that expanded, would have after all been extremely dense before it started expanding!
There are five other names in the sloka. They are connected to the first seven too.
846. Bhagavan is adhrta: unsupported by any of his creation. Even when he is served it is the serving being that needs him.
847. He is svadhrta: totally self-supported.
848. He is svaasya: highest in status, higher than all muktas
849. He is praagvamsha: before and ahead of the sentient beings he created. The lines of those that would seek him as the Truth formed only because of his sankalpa
850. He is vamshavardhana: He does create and increase these lines of beings, so that some would help others to succeed in finding him as the Truth.
It is possible to scale down these aishvaryas to the level of saadhakas who would acquire siddhis. It is possible also to look for and admire the presence of some scaled down divine properties in life forms different from us, considered wrongly by us as inferior to ourselves.
Please try to look at the names in the above sloka and to apply them to the huge fig trees of India, for example the banyan tree.
Anu can refer to the extremely minute size of the seed, in which form the tree exists to begin with. Brhat refers to its vast size when reasonably grown and growing further. krsha can refer to the slenderness of the shoots and sprouts and the aerial rooters. Sthoola of course indicates the large increase in size that all these undergo. Gunabhrt the tree is, because it has a lot of attributes that enable its growth and its usefulness to beings other than itself. Nirguna can refer to the hidden state of all these attributes in the very small seeds. Mahaan the banyan certainly is. As it grows often without any help from us it is adhrta and svadhrta. Towering above ordinary mortals to great heights, the fig tree is certainly svaasya. One seed accidentally carried in a bird’s aliment or a pilgrim’s dress can populate whole new regions creating vamshas and is thus both praagvamsha and vamshavardhana.
Was this in Vedavyasa’s mind when he was in the third quarter of the 88th sloka, that the names of the three largest fig trees of Bharatavarsha spilled out as two names of Bhagavan from Bhishma’s lips, the first one, the 827th in the Sahasranama, nyagrodhodumbara, being a compound word from nyagrodha the banyan and udumbara the cluster fig, and the second, namely the 828th, ashvattha indicating the sacred fig? (Parashara Bhattar (1) explains the 827th name to mean Bhagavan being in an exalted state and being simultaneously available to a being in any low state whatsoever. The 828th name means Bhagavan being the antaryami even in beings which may not have a tomorrow.)
Or were the fig trees given these three names because of their divine attributes, by Vedavyasa?
Three gentle giants of the Ficus genus or Fig species occur freely in India, growing almost without human effort and making a huge difference to the landscape,
· Ficus benghalensis (otherwise known as Ficus indica),
· Ficus racemosa (alternately Ficus glomerata) and
· Ficus religiosa.
Popularly known as banyan, gular and pipal in northern India, these trees go by the names aal, atthi and arasu in Tamilnadu and Kerala.
Their formal names in Sanskrit are as already seen, Nyagrodha, Udumbara and Ashvattha.
Within the plant kingdom, these trees belong to the class Magnoliopsida (dicotyledons, a class of flowering plants generally characterized by having two cotyledons and net-veined leaves, with vascular bundles borne in a ring enclosing pith) in the broad division of Magnoliophyta or angiosperms (angiosperms have leaves, stems, and roots, and vascular, or conducting, tissue namely xylem and phloem, and also ovules, which develop into seeds, enclosed within an ovary, hence the term angiosperm, meaning “enclosed seed.” Their flowers put them in the order Rosales or Urticales (like roses). Their fruits place them in the family Moraceae (like mulberries).
I mentioned that the fig trees grow almost without human effort. The figs (fruits) are eaten by both birds and mammals. Fig seeds are dispersed by birds such as the Indian Mynas and studies have shown that seeds that pass through the digestive system of the bird are likely to germinate better and to sprout earlier than the ones reaching the ground directly. In the case of banyans, one may read about it in (2)
Ficus benghalensis, also known as Bengal fig, Indian fig, East Indian fig, Indian Banyan or simply Banyan, also as barh/borh, nyagrodha and Vada/Vata , Aal or Peraal, is a species of fig endemic to Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Of the two Sanskrit names, Nyagrodha and Vatavrksha, the latter is understood all over India. The banyan can grow into a giant tree covering several hectares. Ficus benghalensis produces propagating rooters which grow downwards as slender, initially leaf-free, vine-like growths. Once these reach the ground, they take root and grow into woody trunks that can become indistinguishable from the main trunk.
Hindus believe that the soul of a deceased person needs to be supported in its onward journey towards eventual liberation through the time-honored ritual called shraaddha, which is performed at regular periodicity, and at least once a year by the son of the departed person, with the help of priests versed in the lore. The holy city of Gaya on the Ganga has been held as the most appropriate Shraaddha Kshetra.
If the modern Indian finds that he has to make special plans well ahead of time if he needs to go to Gaya, in olden days it would have been still more difficult for a person living in a distant part of India to pack up and proceed to Gaya once every year or more often, after his parents passed away. This must have led to a relaxation through a ritualistic procedure during shraaddhas performed at home or in permitted nearby public places. Thus one meditatively reflects on the shraaddha venue itself as Gaya. The symbolism is confirmed through a respectful ritual-walk consisting of a few steps, first towards the south and then back to starting point, then similarly towards the north and back.
While taking the southward steps, the shraaddha-karta believes he is walking towards the Vishnu paada temple in Gaya. (Lord Vishnu as Janaardana is considered shraaddha-samrakshaka, the protector of shraaddhas and is believed to receive offerings during the shraaddha from the karta, along with Lord Brahma, Visvedevas and the ancestors of the karta including the recently departed.) The northward steps are supposed to take the karta to a banyan tree of yore, believed by many to be immortal, and therefore referred to in the Shraaddha texts as Akshayavata. The Vishnupaada shrine and Akshayavata may be visited by Hindus once or more in their life time if feasible, and shraaddha offerings to ancestors made at these two venerable sites.
There are conflicting claims that the akshayavata exists slightly north of the Prayag at Allahabad, inside a fort. Kumbhamela pilgrims are allowed into the fort one day in a year to have a look at it, it is reported. What they are shown inside is described differently by different visitors. In any case, any vata tree is sacred to Hindus because of the association with the vatapatrasaayi manifestation of Bhagavan Vishnu, visualized by Rishis on penance mode. When all creation is reabsorbed by him, He is seen lying relaxed on a leaf floating in an ocean of sorts, and the leaf appeared to the Rishis to be a vata leaf. The Dakshinamurti manifestation of Mahadeva Shiva has been described by seers as preferring a vata tree’s shade for his silent teaching sessions. The banyan is therefore considered sacred in India, even when it does not shelter a little or larger temple underneath, and is venerated on its own. It is worshipped especially on a full moon day in summer when the full moon occurs near the last star of the constellation Scorpio but definitely before the beginning of Sagittarius.
The banyan is one of the most ‘sheltering’ trees in our tropical country, with a large and soothing shade, and was thus found extremely useful by travelers in olden and even not-so-far-away days, on foot, oxcarts, or for horse riders – traveling for hours or days. Traditionally it was found almost ubiquitously on roads and in village centers, the latter very useful for any formal or informal gathering to be conducted in a cool place or even for any poor person or a traveler to sleep under. The Pandya King Adhiveera Rama, who was known for his didactic verses in chaste Tamil, is known to have wondered, ‘A single seed from a little fruit of the Aal tree (Banyan) is not even as big as the egg of the smallest fish in the pond. It is able, however to grow into a mighty tree which can shelter a royal entourage, complete with large elephants, chariots and elegant horses apart from all the royal attendants! The respect for this and other trees of this nature is thus linked both to the use and the sacred associations. The Indian Banyan is quite appropriately the National tree of India. (3)
The Great Banyan in the Indian Botanic Garden, Howrah, is considered to be one of the largest trees in the world in terms of area covered. Two other well known large trees of this species are one in UP near Varanasi and another in Karnataka near Bangalore, the latter known locally as Doddamara which in Kannada simply means large tree. The circumference of the whole complex of trees grown from the one central ancestor – still very much alive and all connected to it via the rooters visible well over human height – is measured in kilometers. The Aalamaram (banyan tree) in the Theosophical Society’s premises in Adyar, Chennai used to be a regular place to visit for the young and old at Chennai when I was young. I had the shocking experience of hearing of its death due to a mysterious disease, some twenty years or so ago.
On the banks of the Narmada stood a celebrated specimen, supposed to be that described by Nearchus, the admiral of Alexander the Great. This tree is believed once to have covered an area so immense, that it was known to shelter no fewer than 7000 men, and though much reduced in size by the destructive power of floods, the remainder was described by James Forbes (1749-1819) in his Oriental Memoirs (1813-1815) as nearly 2000 ft. in circumference, while the trunks large and small exceeded 3000 in number. (4)
Shri L D Kapoor’s CRC Handbook of Ayurvedic medicinal plants (5)has pages devoted to the great Indian figs, and talks about medicinal properties of the banyan bark and some other parts of the tree. In actual practice, however, atthi or gular bark is used more than the other two, and we will read about it in the section that follows on Udumbara (gular/atthi). Meanwhile, it is of interest to note that the encyclopedia refers to the nyagrodha word as the Tibetan rather than Sanskrit name of the tree. It is possible that the nyagrodha word, common to Sanskrit, some Prakrits and Pali would have gone to Tibet too along with the earliest Buddhist pracharaks. The use of small twigs fashioned out of the banyan rooters, with one edge fanned out like a brush by being hammered by a stone, has been prevalent for several centuries in India to clean teeth. The habit persists in some villages even now. Twigs from the vel and the vembu (neem ) trees were also used similarly. In all three cases the exudation from within the twigs was also believed to be beneficial to the teeth. The first line of a couplet in praise of the compositions of the Tamil poets Avvaiyar and Tiruvalluvar refers to this belief when it says the aal and the vel provide strength to teeth. (Aalum velum pallukku urudi)
Ficus racemosa (syn. Ficus glomerata Roxb.) is popularly known in Australia as the Cluster Fig Tree. This is native to Australasia, South-East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Could it have been a part of the flora at a time when India and Australia were part of the same land mass? The cluster label is because the figs grow in clusters on or close to the tree trunk. The cluster fig serves as a food plant for the caterpillars of the butterfly of northern Australia popularly known as the Two-brand Crow (Euploea sylvester). (6) The gular fig fruits are a favorite staple of the common Indian macaque., as indicated in the Wikipedia reference on Ficus racemosa, (7) which also mentions the Vietnamese name sung for the cluster fig. Nick Ray and Wendy Yanagihara, in their book on Vietnam have a glossary which also translates sung as the timber of a fig tree (8). It appears too that a few other fruit go by the name sung in Vietnam.
Ayurvedic practitioners in Kerala use a decoction made from the bark of atthi (gular, ficus racemosa) to treat 50 different diseases including syphilis.(9) The preparations further made from the extract are both internally administered and applied externally for different requirements. Keralites and Tamils call this tree atthi and hold that it should not be planted within domestic compounds. As the tree is freely available in rural and urban neighbourhoods, this does not cause any problem of availability.
In parts of north India, this tree enjoys an auspicious position and forms a major part of worship and religious festivals. The inspiration could have come from the reference to its sanctity in atharva veda. A hymn extols an amulet made from a small leafy piece broken from a branch of the tree. The hymn (AV xix, 31) goes somewhat this way:
The Lord of amulets art thou, most mighty! In thee the Lord of wealth
hath engendered riches;
These gains are lodged in thee, and all other great treasures.
Amulet, conquer thou: far from us banish malignity, indigence and hunger.
Vigour art thou, in me too do thou plant vigour: riches art thou, so
do thou grant me riches.
Plenty art thou, so prosper me with plenty: Great House-holder, hear
a householder’s petition. (10)
The tree is abundant in the northern plains. In the North Indian worship traditions, gular leaves are counted among the five most sacred leaves fit for prayer offerings and prayer hall decoration. Interestingly, four out of these five are figs and the fifth one mango. These include the three giants we are talking about apart from pilkhan (Ficus lacor).
Both the tree and the flower are referred to as the udumbara (Sanskrit, Pali) also in Buddhist lore. (12) Udumbara is sometimes used to refer to the blue lotus (Nila udumbara) flower. The udumbara flower that appears in chapters 2 and 27 of the Lotus Sutra, an important Mahayana Buddhist text, can only be the lotus and not the fig flower. The Japanese word udonge was used by Dōgen Zenji to refer to the flower of the udumbara tree in chapter 68 of the Shōbōgenzō (“Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma”). Dōgen places the context of the udonge flower in the Flower Sermon given by Gautama Buddha on Vulture Peak. (12)
In historical times both Hindu and Buddhist ascetics on their way to Takshasila, travelling through vast areas of Indian forests used to consume the fruit during their travels. One challenge to vegetarians were the many fig wasps that one finds when opening a gular fig. One way to get rid of them was to break the figs into halfs or quarters, discard most of the seeds and then place the figs into the midday sun for an hour. Gular fruit are almost never sold commercially because of this problem.
The goolar (gular) tree does not have the vast ground-span of the banyan, but is still an attractive fig tree with a crooked trunk and a spreading crown. Unlike the banyan, it has no aerial rooters. The most distinctive aspect of this tree is the red, furry figs in short clusters, which grow directly out of the trunk of the tree. Those looking for the flower of goolar should know that the fig is actually a compartment carrying hundreds of flowers. One might wonder how these flowers enclosed in a ball are pollinated. The flowers are pollinated by very small wasps that crawl through the opening in search of a suitable place to reproduce (lay eggs). Without this pollinator service fig trees cannot reproduce by seed. In turn, the flowers provide a safe haven and nourishment for the next generation of wasps. The difficulty in finding flowers on the tree before the fruit clusters appeared had led old time Tamils to think that they stay visible for a very small time and that it is difficult to sight them. Even these days in Tamil Nadu, when a friendly person visits you after a long time, you exclaim, ‘It appears that the Atthi has bloomed!’ As mentioned already, atthi/goolar is a tree commonly found in cities and towns. It has evergreen leaves, if it is close to a water source. Otherwise it sheds its leaves in January. Figs have been traditionally used by children to play. Thin sticks can be joined by inserting them in goolar figs to make interesting shapes.
Ficus religiosa or the Sacred fig, also Bo-Tree (from the Sinhala bo) (13) is a species of fig native to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, southwest China and Indochina. Has its spread in some of these countries been as unscheduled luggage through itinerant Buddhist travelers from India? It is a large dry season–deciduous or semi-evergreen tree up to 30 m tall and with a trunk diameter of up to 3 m. The leaves are cordate in shape with a distinctive extended tip; they are 10–17 cm long and 8–12 cm broad, with a 6–10 cm petiole. The fruit is a small fig 1-1.5 cm diameter, green ripening to purple.
It is interesting to look at some of regional names of the sacred fig tree in India:
Hindi: pipal (sometimes transliterated as: peepal, peepul, pippala, etc.) (pippala could have been an early alternate Sanskrit name too)
Marathi: pimpaL (where L stands for the German ld sound) (close to pippala)
Sanskrit: aśvattha vrksha
Pali: assattha rukkha (related to the Sanskrit word)
Tamil: arasa maram
Malayalam: arayal (arayan and arasan both mean king in Tamil and Malayalam)
Bengali asbattha, peepal (related to Sanskrit terms)
Telugu: raavi, also raagi (raaya in telugu and Kannada also means king)
Kannada: arali, ashwattha (the non Sanskrit name resembles the Malayalam name)
Plaksha is another possible Sanskrit term for the sacred fig. According to Macdonell and Keith, however, it rather denotes the wavy-leaved Fig tree (Ficus infectoria) (14). In Hindu texts, the Plaksha tree is associated with the source of the Sarasvati River. The Skanda Purana states that the Sarasvati originates from the kamandala of Brahma and flows from a Plaksha on the Himalayas. Vamana Purana (32.1-4) also says that the Sarasvati was rising from a Plaksha tree (Pipal tree) (13). Plaksha Pra-sravana denotes the place where the Sarasvati appears. (Pancavimsa Brahmana, Jaiminiya Upanisad Brahmana, Katyayana Srauta Sutra. Also the Rigveda Sutras, namely Asvalayana Srauta Sutra, Sankhayana Srauta Sutra) (14)
The Bodhi tree and the Sri Maha Bodhi propagated from it are famous specimens of the Sacred Fig. The known planting date of the latter, 288 BC, gives it the oldest verified age for any angiosperm plant. The Akshayavata does not have similar data about it, though it could be much older. (Where exactly is the akshayavata?) Ficus religiosa is considered sacred by the followers of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, and hence the name ‘Sacred Fig’ was given to it. Siddhartha Gautama is said to have been sitting underneath a Bo-Tree when he was enlightened (Bodhi), or “awakened” (Buddha). Thus, the Bo-Tree is a well-known symbol for happiness, prosperity, longevity and good luck. Today in India, Hindu sadhus still meditate below this tree, and in Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia, the tree’s massive trunk is often the site of Buddhist and animist shrines. In Tamilnadu, a large number of these figs called arasamarams are close to sacred ponds and shrines and have an image of Lord Vinayaka under their shade. Naga murtis are also installed and worshipped under the arasu tree. The Sanskrit name ashvattha is used also in Karnataka and the tree is identified with Lord Narayana. Many kannadiga families belonging to different castes like to name newborn male children Ashvatthanarayana.
The very air in the shade of an arasu tree is believed in Tamil tradition to act against microorganisms which may prevent or interfere with the progress of pregnancy in women. Married women circumambulate the arasamaram and bow down to it asking for the favour of sat-santaana.
Fallen twigs from an ashvattha tree are collected by newly initiated brahmacharis and are used as samit in ritual offerings to the sacred fire.
Valmiki’s hero passed through panchavati during his vanavaasa and the vata name must have been the earliest for the mighty banyan. When was it named nyagrodha?
Did both Vedavyasa and his proxy, (Bhishma in the recitation of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama) see the divine form of Narayana in the great Indian figs? Were nominal higher and lower statuses accorded to the banyan and the gular and were they named nyagrodha and udumbara? Did the antaryami resident in mortal beings become visible when they looked at the pipal?
Ashvattha Narayana is Garbharakshaka Narayana.
UdumbaraNarayana is Srshtipaalaka Vaidya Narayana
Nyagrodha Narayana is Shraaddhasamrakshaka Narayana.
The gentle giants look after us from before birth, through life and beyond death.
- Sri Vishnusahasranama Bhashya in Tamil, Ramanujacharya, M.V. along with English translation by Vedanta Desikan, V.N. Sri Visishtadvaita Research Centrs, Madras, 1997, page 297-9.
- Midya, S.; Brahmachary, R.L. (1991), The Effect of Birds upon Germination of Banyan (Ficus benghalensis) Seeds. Journal of Tropical Ecology. 7(4):537-538.
- “National Tree”. Govt. of India Official website. http://india.gov.in/knowindia/national_fruit.php.
- “Fig“. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th edition.). 1911.
- Kapoor, L.D. CRC Handbook of Ayurvedic medicinal plants, pages 186-8
- Braby, Michael F. (2005). The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia. Collingwood, Victoria: CSIRO Publishing. p. 194. ISBN 0-643-09027-4
- Griffith, Ralph T.H. (trans.) (1895-6). Hymns of the Atharva Veda, pp. 236-7. Retrieved 19 Nov 2008 from “Sacred Texts” at http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/av/av19031.htm.
- McCullough, Helen Craig; Murasaki Shikibu (1994). Genji and Heike: Selections from The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Heike. Stanford University Press. p. 94. ISBN 0804722587
- Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971, p.1014
- Keith and Macdonell.1912, Vedic Index of Names and Subjects
More posts by this author:
- The twelve-name shield/cage
- Classical Language Studies
- Indian languages: further questions
- On the antiquity of Dravidian scripts.
After R & D and technical management experience of over three decades in petroleum and organic chemical industry, have been devoting the past fifteen years to the study of Tamil and Sanskrit classics, including dharmic works and doing some serious translation work. Have been a significant contributor to the medha journal almost since its inception upto 2013 and expect to continue my association with it.