Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Trees are there, Lord, which glow in crimson now,
In quest of fruit they've cast aside their leaves.
But still the blossoms hang there, red as blood.
Now is the time, o Lord, to travel there.
For trees in blossom give us high delight,
That spread the sweetest fragrance all around.
The loss of leaves betokens coming fruit.
Now is the time, o Lord, for setting forth.
This is the season that is full of glee:
Not over hot is it, nor over cold.
Let Sakiyas and Koliyas behold
You when you westward cross the Rohini.
Urging Buddha to visit his hometown at Kapilavatthu; Theragatha, (Psalms of the Brethren).

The lotus--perhaps the most sacred plant connected with the Buddha.
When the Buddha was born, he immediately took seven steps in each of the four cardinal points, and each step caused a lotus to blossom for him to walk on. When Buddha gains enlightenment, he is often depicted sitting on a lotus throne. The lotus often carries the symbolic meanings of "birth" or "creation," for example in such important early canonic traditions as the Mahabharata and the Rigveda. In Buddhism as well, especially in the teachings of the Mahayana, the lotus and this symbolism continued to play a prominent role. The graceful and pure lotus is often compared to the heart unsullied by the corruption of the world. The lotus is mentioned repeatedly in Mahayana sutras and gives its symbolic power to the title of the Lotus Sutra.
The golden shower, (Cassia fistula).
India in the Buddha’s time was poorer botanically speaking; many of the beautiful flowering trees which grace the Indian scene today were brought by later European colonizers. But the orange-colored blossoms of the kadamba, (Nauclea cordifolia), the champaka, (Michelia champaka), with its scented golden yellow blossoms, the brilliant flame of the forest, (Butea frondosa), the queen’s tree, (Lagerstroemia flos-reginae), covered with pale blue candles, the golden shower, (Cassia fistula), with its magnificent cascades of yellow, the shining coral tree, (Erythrina indica), and the Asoka tree, (Saraca indica), with its balls of blossoms which turn from orange to red—all these must have already existed to delight the Indians of the fifth century BCE.

The golden shower, (Cassia fistula),

Queen’s tree, (Lagerstroemia flos-reginae).

A sal tree, (Shorea robusta). Buddha died between two sal trees; Christ died on the cross between two thieves. See Buddhism & Christianity Link.
Buddha’s mother gave birth while standing and holding onto the branch of a sal tree, (Shorea robusta); he came out of her side, and not as usual through the birth canal. Buddha was also supposed to have died lying between two sal trees, (compare Jesus crusified between two thieves), so this rather ordinary tree is twice blessed.

Then there’s the story of the Buddha, when a child, being placed under a rose apple tree, and the shadow of the tree stayed with him the whole day. His father realized that a miracle had taken place and came and worshiped him. Ancient India was known as Jam-bhu-dvipa, the Rose Apple Tree land, because it was shaped like the rose apple tree leaf; so probably connecting the story of Buddhism with Jam-bhu-dvipa was connecting the religion with India.

Rose apples.

Leaves of a rose apple tree.
Tellingly enough, in the Buddha’s account of his enlightenment he nowhere mentioned that this event occurred under another tree, let alone that it was the assattha or pipal tree, (Ficus religiosa), of later legend. Some scholars therefore consider the tree as the location of his enlightenment to be unhistorical, and suggest that pre-Buddhist tree cults have found their way into Buddhism at this point.
According to Alfred Foucher (1865-1962), a French scholar who identified the Buddha image as having Greek origins, the myth of the tree of enlightenment was begun in faraway Sri Lanka:
In other words, various myths and legends were accreted to the story of the Buddha by disciples in various countries until with the passage of centuries they became "historical".

Heart-shaped leaf of a pipal tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment.
Note that all the Aryan tribes in Europe were great tree worshipers, according to Frazer, who devotes a chapter to it in The Golden Bough. Buddhist apologists argue that it was natural for a homeless wanderer to sit and meditate under a tree and that Buddha could have mentioned to his disciples that it was a pipal tree, so it should be taken as historical.

According to J.L. Mehta in The History of Ancient India, the people of the Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished in the Indus-Saraswati valleys between 2500-1500 BCE—who he regards as the precursor of present-day Indians—regarded the pipal tree as a sacred plant, worthy of veneration, as it is in Hinduism (and Buddhism) today. So again, we can see that
Buddhist writers would not fail to position the Buddha under this tree when he attained enlightenment.
The tree at Bodh Gaya is said to be a descendant of the bodhi (enlightenment) tree. Asoka hundreds of years later was said to have placed the bodhi under his protection and had a stone fence, no longer existing, built round the tree. Saplings were taken to other Buddhist countries, famously to Anu-radha-pura in Sri Lanka; the debt was repaid when the ‘original’ tree was destroyed and a replacement was planted from a sapling from the Sri Lanka tree. But if the legend of the enlightenment tree being the Ficus Religiosa was started in Sri Lanka, as we saw above, could not the enlightenment tree of Bodh Gaya have been planted from a sapling from the original ficus religiosa brought over from Sri Lanka? History to conform to scripture, so to speak.

It seems fortuitous that Buddha chose the pipal tree to associate with his enlightenment; or his PR people were good at their job. With its distinctive heart-shaped leaves it became an easily recognized symbol of Buddhism. If the tree had had less distinctive leaves, not so memorable. However, notice Buddha under the tree of enlightenment in Gandharan art (below); no attempt is made to depict the leaves in the shape of the pipal tree. So could the pipal tree have been agreed upon at an even later date? Also, one wonders how people identified the original tree that Buddha sat under, supposedly in thick jungle, hundreds of years after his death before the cult of the bodhi tree arose.

The Buddha sitting under a tree, the leaves of which don't appear to be pipal leaves (Gandhara art).
Tradition says that after his enlightenment, Buddha spent seven days at the foot of the bodhi tree, and seven days under each of a number of other trees at Uruvela, which even H. W. Schuman in The Historical Buddha doesn’t give much credence to. Anyway, here are some of the other trees:
Goatherd’s banyan, (Ficus indica), where Buddha explained to a Brahmin the true nature of Brahminism;

Mucalinda tree, (Barringtonia acutangula), where a naga living in the root of the tree wrapped its body round the Buddha to protect him from the rain with its outspread hood;
Rajayatana tree, (Buchanania latifolia), where the merchants Tapussa and Bhallika gave Buddha barley gruel and honey as alms, and were promptly converted by him, to become his first lay followers.
From L. Cranmer-Byng's preface to Samuel Beal's The Life of Hieun-Tsiang (1911):
Wherever our pilgrim [Hieun-Tsiang, or Xuanzang] goes [in India] he finds traces of a worship far older than Buddhism. He does not tell us so in so many words, yet underneath the many allusions to Bodhi-trees and Nagas we may discover the traces of that primitive tree and serpent worship that still exists in remote corners of India, as, for instance, among the Naga tribes of Manipur who worship the python they have killed. In Hieun's time every lake and fountain had its Naga-raja, or serpent-king. Buddha himself, as we learn from both the Si-yu-ki and the Life, spent much time converting or subduing these ancient gods. There were nagas both good and evil... .
Nagas next to lotus blossom at a Thai temple.
The connection between Buddhism and tree-worship is even closer still. The figure of the Master is for ever reclining under the Bodhi-tree beneath whose shade he dreamed that he had the "earth for his bed, the Himalayas for his pillow, while his left arm reached to the Eastern Ocean, his right to the Western Ocean, and his feet to the great South Sea." This Bodhi-tree is the Ficus Religiosa or peepul tree, and is also known as Rarasvit or the tree of wisdom and knowledge. The leaves are heart-shaped, slender and pointed, and constantly quivering. In the Si-yu-ki it is stated of a certain Bodhi-tree that although the leaves wither not either in winter or summer, but remains shining and glistening throughout the year, yet "at every successive Nirvana-day (of the Buddhas) the leaves wither and fall, and then in a moment revives as before." The Buddha sat for seven days contemplating this tree; "he did not remove his gaze from it during this period, desiring thereby to indicate his grateful feelings towards the tree by so looking at it with fixed eyes."
How did Buddhism come to be connected in any way with tree and serpent worship? The answer is, through its connection with Brahmanism. As Buddhism was Brahmanism reformed, so Brahmanism in its turn was the progressive stage of tree and serpent worship. Siva the destroyer is also Nag Bhushan, "he who wears snakes as his ornaments."
The tree and the serpent coiled at its roots are the two essential symbols of primitive religion, whether the tree is the peepul and the serpent a Naga-raja, or the serpent be the Tiamat of the Babylonians and the tree the date-palm. There are the serpent-guarded fruits of the Hesperides; there is the serpent beneath the tree of knowledge in the garden, or rather grove, of Eden; there is Yggdrasill, the sacred ash tree of Norse mythology, with Nidhogg the great serpent winding round its roots. The first mysteries of religion were celebrated in groves, as those of Asher and Baal and the groves of the early Romans. See here also.


  1. What is posted as Sal Tree is actually Canon Ball Tree.
    Just thought would bring to your notice that Canon Ball tree (Couroupita guianensis) and Sal Tree (Shorea robusta.) are not one and the same.

  2. I can't see any difference between Couroupita guianensis and Shorea robusta.
    Why are they not the same tree, what is the difference?
    +Ramjee Nagarajan