Discover legend, myth and folklore of the Bodhi or Ashwattha tree in India and its use in Indian culture. The Ashwattha is unrivaled throughout Hinduism, the sacred ficus mentioned in the Bhagavata Gita where it is called the “one that is not the same tomorrow”, with reference perhaps, to earth, that is ever changing.

Table of Contents

Ficus Peepul

Family: Moraceae
Sanskrit: Ashwattha
Hindi: Peepul, Peepal, Bo tree, Bodhi tree
English: Indian Fig tree or Sacred Fig

Other names are Assattha in Pali, Asvattha in Sanskrit, Bo in Sinhala, Po in Thai, Bawdi in Burmese, Pipale in Hindi, Bodhi Tree or Sacred Fig in English, Ficus religiosa synonyms: Ficus peepul, Ficus superstitiosa, Ficus caudata, in botanical writings.

There is a belief that the plant gives off oxygen at night, but this is not supported by any scientific fact.

Sacred Asvattha tree and the Hindu pantheon

Aswattha is described as “Tree of knowledge”, “Tree of life”, ”Tree of Eternal Life” and “Tree of Creation” … Felling of this sacred tree is considered as capital sin.

Ashwattha’ and ‘Ashvattha’ come from an ancient Indian root word “Shwa” means ‘morning’ or ‘tomorrow’. This refers to the fact that Ashwattha is the mythical Hindu world tree, both indestructible and yet ever-changing: the same tree will not be there tomorrow.

Some people are particular to touch the peepal only on a Saturday.

The Brahma Purana explains why, saying that Ashvattha and peepala were two demons who harassed people. Ashvattha would take the form of a peepal and peepala the form of a Brahmin. The fake Brahmin would advise people to touch the Peepul, and as soon as they did, Ashvattha would kill them. Later they were both killed by Shani. Because of his influence, it is considered safe to touch the tree on Saturdays.

Lakshmi is also believed to inhabit the tree on Saturdays. Therefore it is considered auspicious to worship it. Women ask the Peepul to bless them with a son tying red thread or red cloth around its trunk or on its branches. Shastri et al.,1978

.

Moolatho Brahma roopaya, madhyatho Vishnu roopine,
Agratha shiva roopaya Vruksha rajaya they Nama.

(My salutations to the king of trees.
Whose root is the form of Brahma,
Middle is the form of Lord Vishnu,
And top is the form of Lord Shiva.)

Aswatha sarva papani satha janma arjithanicha,
Nudhaswa mama vrakshendra, sarva aiswarya pradho bhava.

(The holy fig tree pushes away, all sins earned,
In several hundred births, and Oh king of trees,
Please grant me all different types of wealth.)

Rig yaju Sama manthrathma, sarva roopi, parathpara,
Aswatho Veda moolo asou rishibhi prochyathe sada.

(Great sages go in search of Aswatha,
As it is the soul of Rig, Yajur and Sama Vedas
And takes all forms, greater than the greatest,
And is the root of all the three Vedas)

Vyaktha avyaktha swaroopaya, srushti sthithyantha karine,
Adhi madhyanth soonyaya vishtarasravase Nama.

(Salutations to the very stable one,
Who has clear and unclear forms,
Who creates, looks after and destroys,
And who does not have beginning, middle and end)

Ashvatta Vruksha Stotram

The sacredness of the Ashwattha is mentioned in the Mahabharata:

“Aswattha, having its roots above and branches below is eternal.

Its leaves are the Chhandas. He who knows it, knows the vedas. Downwards and upwards are stretched its branches which are enlarged by the qualities; its sprouts are the objects of sense. Downwards, its roots leading to action are extended to this world of men”.

According to the footnotes given by Roy in his translation of the Mahabharata:

“upwards and downwards means from the highest to the lowest of created things. Enlarged by the qualities i.e. the qualities appearing as the body, the senses etc. The sprouts are the objects of sense, being attached to the senses themselves as sprouts to branches. The roots extending downwards are the desires for diverse enjoyments”.

Detailing the sacredness of Ashwattha, it is said that its form cannot be known or its end, or its beginning, or its support.

“Cutting with the hard weapon of unconcern, this Aswattha of roots firmly fixed, then should one seek for that place repairing wither one returned not again . . . thinking, I will seek the protection of that primeval Sire from whom the ancient course of worldly life hath flowed”.

Hindus associate the Peepul with the three gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The tree is considered to be a Brahman and worshiped daily after the morning bath.

If an elderly member of the family dies, special offerings are made to it during the full thirteen days of mourning. If a boy dies during his funeral ceremony, he is supposed to haunt the Aswattha tree.

“This is That eternal Asvattha with its root above and branches below. That root, indeed, is called the Bright. That is Brahman, and That alone is the Immortal. In That all worlds are contained, and none can pass beyond. This verily is That.”

~ Katha Upanishad II.iii.1

According to Bhagavata Gita, the tree is supposed to typify the universe. This perhaps is because the figs growing on the tree are eaten by birds and its, seeds pass through the alimentary canal of the birds unharmed and take root at most unimaginable places like the roof or walls of a house or even on another plant.

The root after going into the crevices of the house or into the bark of other trees then becomes invisible. It has aerial, hanging adventitious roots which come down to earth and act as props to the plant; the slender petioles cause its leaves to tremble readily in a breeze, making a characteristic fluttering sound.

Vishnu

For Vaishnavas, the Peepul is considered to be Vishnu himself.

The Brahma Purana and the Padma Purana, relate how once, when the demons defeated the Gods, Vishnu hide in the peepal. Therefore spontaneous worship to Vishnu can be offered to a peepal without needing his image or temple. The Skanda Purana also considers the peepal, a symbol of Vishnu. He is believed to have been born under this tree.

Bodhi tree worship in Rajasthan.
Bodhi tree worship in Rajasthan.

That is the reason why the tree or its branches are never cut unless it is for worship.

A ceremony called Aswattha Pratishta or the consecration of the Aswattha is performed to transform the plant into a divinity by inducing Vishnu into it. Brahmanas believe that untold blessings will overcome anyone who performs this ceremony.

A battala woodcut with Krishna on tree and Gopis. Calcutta. Akar Prakar

Krishna

Krishna was sitting under an Aswattha tree when Jara shot him in the foot with an arrow.

When Krishna stole the clothes of the Gopis (Cowgirls), he took them to an Aswattha.

Some identify it with the Kadamba tree (Neolamarckia cadamba).

Lakshmi

According to the Mahabharata, the man who worships Aswattha daily, worships the whole universe. It is looked upon as Incarnation of Vishnu and embodiment of Lakshmi.

Lakshmi on Sacred Fig in Bombay/Mumbai, Maharashtra.

A tree of Aswattha is believed to be growing on the mythical island called Plaksha dvipa. The gods are said to sit under the Aswattha in the third heaven.

Shiva

Even though the Ashvattha is mainly associated with Vishnu, some consider Shiva as the patron deity of the plant.

Shaiva worship under Peepul tree, burned leafs a form of Parvati, Nandi on the left, flags, sacred tulsi plant, lamp near Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, MP.

Brahmanic worship

Brahmans (priests) worship sacred figs during their daily evening prayer. They go to the tree and facing east repeat a prayer and sing hymns in praise of the tree which says:

“Oh Aswattha tree! You are a God.
You are king among trees.
Your roots represent Brahma, the Creator;
your trunk represents Siva, the Destroyer and your branches,
Vishnu the Preserver.
As such you are the emblem of Trimurti.
All those who honor you ;
in this world by performing Upanayama,
walk round you, adoring you and singing your praise;
obtain remission of their sins in this world and bliss in the next.
I praise and adore you.
Pardon my sins in this world and give me
a place with the blessed after death”.

The worshiper then walks round the plant 7, 14, 21, 28, 35 or more times but always in multiples of seven.

Ficus Peepul is a fertility symbol

Marriage between a bodhi tree (left) and a neem tree in South India. Kurt Walter.

The plant is also a symbol of fertility and is worshiped by women for the grant of a child. Women worship the tree by going around it, wrap cotton yarn round its trunk and water its roots.

The marriage of Aswattha with other trees

According to the Muria’s, the tree is not worshiped as it is considered to be untouchable.

Aswattha is regarded as a symbol of the male and is ceremoniously married to a Neemtree which is symbolic of the female.

In villages in India, usually these two trees are grown side by side with a platform built around them. On the platform intertwined or coiled snake stones are placed which are symbols of fertility.

Tree shrine with snake images placed in front of the trunk.

This symbolic association of the sexes is reversed in Rajasthan and Punjab where the Neem (Azadirachta indica) tree is considered a male.

Since women do not show their face to male strangers, women in these areas cover their face with a veil on passing a Neem.

In Orissa a marriage is performed between the Vata (Ficus bengalensis) which is considered as the male and the Aswattha (अश्वत्थ or Sacred fig or Ficus religiosa), which is considered as the female, the tree is frequently planted near a Vata so as to mix their foliage and stems, they are of two different sexes and their growing together is regarded as an emblem of marriage. It is invested with the triple cord like Brahman.

The Aswattha is also sometimes married to the Kadali tree (Musa sapientura), the two trees are grown so close and their trunks intertwine so much that they look like one.
The plant is considered sacred by some peoples of the Ganjam district of Orissa.

Apsaras, female spirits living in trees

Apsaras – Temple Sculpture from Belur, Karnataka, India. From left Dwibhuja Sharade; Padanguleeyadhare; Surasundari with mirror; Nagna Sundari; Shukha Mayuri. Source.

The word Apsaras अप्सरा or Salabhanjika has roots in Sanskrit, meaning breaking a branch of a sala tree (Shorea robusta). Some are said to inhabit sacred Fig in which their lutes resound.

Their favorite Fig trees are the Nyagrodha, Aswattha, Udumbara and Plakshi (Ficus bengalensis, Ficus religiosa, Ficus glomerata and Ficus lacor (also identified as Butea monosperma).

Apsaras have many names, they are also known as Shilabalikas, Alasakanyas, Devakanyas or Surasundarīs सुरसुन्दरी or Yoginīs योगिनी.

The Apsaras, are famous for their grace and beauty and common in Indian temple sculpture. They are female spirits, damsels and celestial beings in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist culture. Apsaras have been found in sacred spaces of India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Aswattha and agni, the sacred fire

The sacredness of the Aswattha comes perhaps from the old vedic ritual of kindling the sacrificial fire at religious ceremonies by friction between two peculiarly shaped pieces of wood, one of which was the Aswattha wood and the ceremony was called “the birth of Agni”.

A story in the Mahabharata and Vishnu Purana mentions the importance of Aswattha in the ritual of kindling the sacred fire of Homa.

Pururavas in sadness. Khitindra Nath Mazumdar – Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists (1914) by Nivedita, Sister, 1867-1911. Public domain, edited.

Pururavas, son of Ila and Buddha saw the heavenly nymph Urvasi sporting with her friends and instantly fell in love with her. She also fell in love with him and both lived together happily for many years.

Urvasi had to ultimately return to her heavenly abode as an Apsara cannot live for ever with a mortal. Pururavas became inconsolable at his loss and the Gandharvas took pity on him. Since it was not possible for Urvasi to live with him on earth, these semi-divine beings decided to include Pururavasamong them by making him an immortal.

They gave him the divine fire and by wishing to be united with Urvasi before it, he could become an immortal. Pururavas left the fire in the forest and went on an errand. On his return he found the fire and the pan turned into the Aswattha and the Sami (Acacia suma) tree respectively.
In fact the Aswattha was growing out of the Sami plant.

Having lost the fire, Pururavas could not wish for permanent life with Urvasi. So he approached the Gandharvas again who asked him to make the fire drill or Arani from the wood of the two trees into which the fire and the pan had been converted and with the fire thus produced, wish for a permanent life with Urvasi and the wish would be granted.

Pururavas first made the fire drill with two twigs of the Sami plant but it was not the right type of fire; then he took two twigs of Aswattha but still did not succeed.
Ultimately he made the drill by using the upper wood of Aswattha and the lower of the Sami plant for making the fire and the fire was right and by wishing before it, he obtained his wish.

Since the fire is produced by friction between the Aswattha and the Sami plant in the sacred Horns ceremony, the analogy between this and the intercourse of sexes is apparent. Aswattha is the male, Sami is the female and the Agni thus produced is the child.

Agni once hid himself in the Aswattha and because of this temporary home of Agni devatta, Aswattha tree became sacred.

The importance of sacrificial fires as initiatory rites to the final attainment of immortality has been accepted by Hindus since very early times. Their, origin lies in the philosophy that the mere mortal must realize the necessity to strive after higher and finer values and not hanker after merely earthly passions.

Homa is performed at practically all important sacred functions such as the investiture of the sacred thread, at the hair cutting ceremony, marriage and other ceremonies, when an offering of curds, ghee, rice etc. are made to it.

Legend from Odisha: On how the Ashwatta came to be

The Majestic sacred fig of Bilaspur ବିଳାସପୁର Odisha.

According to the creation myth of the Kittung tribe from Odisha:

Before the creation of the world, Kittung and his sister used to live in a gourd. When the gourd broke, the two started living on the Kurabeli hills. This was at a time when there were no trees on this earth. When summer came, the sister complained of the intense heat as there were no trees to give them shade.

About this time, a squirrel bit off four fingers of the left hand of the Kittung while he was asleep at night, leaving only the third middle finger. On hearing his sister complain of the heat, the Kittung cut off his left hand and put it on a stone which grew into the Aswattha called the Onjerneban tree by the tribal people. The apex of the leaf is prolonged into a long projection which to the people represents the middle finger of Kittung’s hand. The tribes make offerings in cups made of its leaves.

Bengal: Aswatthapats-vrata ritual

In Bengal a ritual called Aswatthapats-vrata is observed by women on the last day of the month of Vaisakh (April-May).

Five leaves of Aswattha are required for this ritual and each leaf signifies a different stage of human life. For instance, a new leaf for the birth of a son, a young green leaf for beauty and youth, an old leaf for long life of the husband, a dry leaf for increase in happiness and wealth, a withered leaf for precious wealth beyond expectation.

Buddhism and the Bodhi

Bodh Gaya where Buddha sat for enlightenment under the Maha Bodhi Tree
Bodh Gaya where Buddha sat for enlightenment under the Maha Bodhi Tree. Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India.

Buddhists consider the Bodhi tree sacred as Prince Siddhartha sat in meditation under it and found enlightenment. The tree since then is known as the Bo or the Bodhi.

Siddhartha came to be known as the Buddha. There are three trees associated with the attainment of Omniscience by Lord Buddha.

Bodhi tree, worship- as seen in early Buddhist Stupa in Sanchi dated from 300 BC.
Bodhi tree, worship- as seen in early Buddhist Stupa in Sanchi dated from 300 BC. Madhya Pradesh

The Buddha sat for seven years under an Aswattha (Bodhi or Peepal), the tree of Enlightenment, growing on the banks of the river Nairanjans.

Sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura Sri Lanka. Before c.1913. Author Unknown / Uploaded By MediaJet.

Then he arose and sat under a Nyagrodha tree (Banyan Tree) for seven days, absorbed in the bliss of his illumination.

At the end of that period he sat in blissful calm under a third tree in form of a big Serpent, named Muchalinda. The serpent king, protected Buddha with his hood from a storm as Buddha sat in meditation under it.

The three trees are also known as:

  • The tree of Enlightenment;
  • Tree of the Goatherd;
  • Tree of the serpent king Muchalinda respectively.

The tree of enlightenment, or Maha Bodhi planted in Sri Lanka in B.C. 228 is still alive and the seedlings are planted in many Buddhist temples around earth.

Adivasi or Tribal worship of the sacred ficus

For the tribes, everything is related to an invisible power and items are both practical and supernatural at the same time. Red and ochre painted horses serve as votive figures and auspicious omens. The figures are crafted by making cylinders and then joining them together. Bhils, Bhilalas, Barelas, Patalias, Nayaks, and Mankas tribes are associated with this figures.

Bhils and Bhilalas of Jhabua make clay temples called dhabas, ranging in height from 1 cm to 1 m. These are offered with terracotta horses at the village shrine. This tribes of Jhabua and adjacent Chhota Udaipur in Gujarat also trust in animal offerings made from clay. Their potters mold distinctive clay horses, camels, elephants, tigers and bullocks that are then offered to a village deity or to a revered animal itself such as the tiger.

The top of the dhabas are decorated with a kalash or a circular pot-like motif. The dhaba has a small door through which a diya or lamp can be placed inside. Horse gures are offered to the deities two days before Diwali (on dhanteras and kali choudas or diwali) and between the months of April and June ( chaitra and vaishakh), when a community meal is organized. Clay horses are also offered to ward off evil spirits from the fields and to seek blessings for a bumper crop. The clay figures replace animal sacrifices.

Set down in the sacred grove that always lies in a secluded spot near the settlement, the terracotta animals are clustered together in a jumble of new and old, all eventually disintegrating and returning to the earth in their turn.

Ficus tree of a sacred grove belonging to the tribal communities along with clay pots, horses, cows, tigers, flags and other traditional items as offering. Madhya Pradesh

All parts of the Bodhi Tree have been used as a medicine for their cooling and healing properties, as part of the Ayurvedic healing system. They have been used to treat various diseases of the skin and blood, digestive, reproductive, respiratory and other body systems.

Peepal is synonymous with India, and is symbolic of it’s ancient culture and traditions. The figs are the most commonly found trees in India, and also the ones that are worshiped the most.

Unicorns emerging from a tree trunk. Mohenjo-daro
Unicorns emerging from a peepal tree trunk. Mohenjo-daro. Ernest John Henry Mackay. Public domain, edited.

The Ficus religiosa, Pipal or Ashwattha was considered sacred and worshiped from the times of Indus Valley civilization.

A seal from Mohenjo-daro found by Wheeler in the 1920’s. From his 1931 text:

“The plant on the [seal] has been identified as a Pipal, which in India is the ‘Tree of creation’. The arrangement is very conventional and from the lower part of the stem spring two heads similar to those of the so-called unicorn.”

Next time when you see a Peepal, take a moment off to remember that you are looking at a tree that has been venerated right from the beginning of Indus civilization.

A long journey that is continuing in the form little shrines that are still extant under roadside ficus trees.

The Ficus bengalensis, Banyan or Vata gained more prominence later and is now the Indian national tree.

~ ○ ~

Keep exploring:

Works Cited & Multimedia Sources