Looking back as far as we can see, in the Rig Veda we find Earth and Heaven often addresses in union as a single being(dyava-prithivi) and honored together; they are ‘parents of the gods’, ‘father and mother’ but also the twins; together keeping ‘all the creatures safe’. From the beginning, out planet is imbued with divinity, as is the rest of the creation.

Further proof of the earth’s divinity is that she holds in her depths the hidden sun, Martanda, and the divine Fire, Agni, another name for whom in Vanaspati, the tree-lord of the forest :
O Agni, the splendor of yours which is in heaven and in the earth and its growths and its waters (3.22.2)
He is the child of the waters, the child of the forests, the child of things stable and the child of things the move. Even in the stone, he is there(1.70.2)
In a pregnant image, the Rig Veda sees the cosmos as a thousand branched tree(3.8.11, 9.5.10). Turning this image upside down to reminds us of the source of this manifestation, the Gita(15.1) speaks of cosmic ashvattha(the pipa or holy fig tree) with its roots above and branches below. Elsewhere, in Mahabharata, he who worships the ashvattha is said to worship the universe: such is the often forgotten concept behind the worship of sacred tree in India, particularly in temples – once again, the universal at the centre of daily life. In the same line, the kalpavriksha or kalpataru, the heavenly tree, grants our every desire, since there is nothing the universe cannot give us.
The Atharva Veda movingly sings our planet’s beauties and bounties in its ‘hymn to the Earth’, bhumi sukta (12). Indeed, the Vedas are replete with images drawn from nature to from mighty mountains, impetuous rivers and oceans, to majestic trees such as the papal or the banyan. Some hymns ask not only the gods but the waters, trees and other plants to accept prayers; the Black Yajur Veda(4.2.6) even invokes plants as ‘goddesses’. India’s ancient medical system, Ayurveda, which makes use of thousands of medicinal plants, is rooted in this attitude; a branch of it, vrikshayurveda, is entirely dedicated to the treatment of trees, plants and seeds.
In historical times, art forms, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jain made generous use of trees, plants and birds, and literature was pervaded with nature’s many charms – who has not thrilled at Kalidasa’s exquisite descriptions of forest ashrams or mountain ranges? Who has not marveled at the boldness with which the Sangam poets of the Tamil land made use of hills, forests, and rivers or the ocean to convey their heroes’ moods, and weave the cosmic into the human? For generations, children too have been entertained by the irrestiable fables of the Panchatantra.
In the scriptures, Aditi, the mother of the gods in the Rig Veda, is often called ‘the divine Cow’. Shas or the Dawn comes drawn by horses or by cows, or both. Indra, Surya and other gods are addresses as the ‘Bull’. Even the humble dog finds its exalted representation in Sarama. Animals acts as vahanas, vehicles for many of the gods. Animals are the objects of affection; we know how lovingly the Ramyana describes the branve vultures or the monkeys, and how the Bhagvatam evokes Krishna’s devotion to his cows, which they more than reciprocate.
Even to this day, many patches of the country’s forest cover exist thanks to the ancient tradition of ‘scared groves’. Named kovilkadu in Tamil Nadu, kavu in Kerala, nandavana or deivavana in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, deorai in Maharashtra, they can be found in many parts of India on the outskirts of the villages the portect them from hunting and tree cutting. Some contain hero stones or a small shrine surrounded by large terracotta figures, especially of horses. Part of an endangered tradition, sacred groves have been vanishing; the few that remain well protected are host to a remarkable biodiversity.

So too, India’s numerous rural communities, and tribes many living off the forest, knew how to protect it – Bishnois, Bhils, Warlis, Santhals, and Todas, or the Chipko movement have provided fine illustrations of this mindset. And it is not ‘secular’; temples generally have at least one sacred tree(sthalavriksha),and the greater its age, the greater its sacredness. Kanchipuram’s Ekambareshwar temple boasts of a venerable mango tree of impressive size and contorted appearance, which according to tradition is a few thousand uears old; its four massive branches are said to represent the four Vedas(interestingly, the temple’s presiding deity is the prithvilinga : the ‘earth linga’). In fact, in rural and tribal India, trees have long played an important part in rituals and festivals associated with moments of life such as puberty marriage, praying for a child, praying for rains and so on… In the Vata Savitri, puja still in vogue in Maharashtra, which enacts the tale of Savitri, and Satyavan, women tie a thing thread around a papal; the longer the thread, the longer the husband’s life will be…
Most rituals make use of one or several specific plants – bilva, sandalwood, neem or tulasi…The plant provides a channel for the worshipper to attune to the universe. Since the rituals depended on them, such sacred plants had to be tribal ones : The Todas of the Nilgiris, for example, depend on a number of rare species for their complex rituals, which have to be abandoned if any of the plants involved comes to disappear.

From the sacredness of trees and other plants derives the sacredness of food, food-giving, and food-sharing. One of the high traditions of India running through the scriptures as well as historical records. The recipient of Bhishma’s monumental discourse on dharma, and the duties of a king, Yudhishthira asked Lord Krishna to summarize the teaching. Lord Krishna’s answer –
The world, both animate and inanimate, is sustained by food…The giver of food is the giver of life and indeed of everything else. Therefore, one who is desirous of well-being in this world, and beyond should make special endeavor to give food….

 

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