Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why trees are revered in Hinduism

Nithin Sridhar

(This article was published in NewsGram on 12 June 2015)

Since time immemorial, trees have been worshiped all over the world. In Ancient Egypt, Sycamore and Date palm were considered sacred trees. In Ancient Greece, many trees were held sacred to various gods. For example, oak tree was held sacred to Zeus and myrtle tree was held sacred to Aphrodite. Also Nymphs like Alseids and Dryads were associated with grooves and trees respectively. The Celts worshiped the groves of trees. In Japanese Shinto Shrines, the trees such as cryptomeria are worshiped.

But, it is only among the Indians- the practitioners of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, that the worshipping of trees has become very deep rooted and an inseparable part of Hindu religion, culture and lifestyle.

Louise Fowler-Smith in her article “Hindu Tree Veneration as a Mode of Environmental Encounter”, writes that “The worship of trees occurred throughout Europe but declined with the rise of religions such as Christianity and Islam,which regarded such activity as pagan. In India, however, Hinduism accepted local cults, many of which worshiped nature. The Rsis, authors of the sacred Hindu texts, understood the importance of preserving the environment, and reference is made to the divine quality of the natural world throughout these Indian scriptures. The early Hindu sacred texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, make frequent reference to sacred trees, referring to them as the most important living forms on earth. This contributed to the gradual change of the cultural perception of the tree. Sacred trees may now be found throughout India”.  She further writes that “Trees are decorated in India for a wealth of reasons. Historically sacred trees have been connected with rites of renewal, sexuality, fertility, conception, birth, initiation, death and rebirth. Throughout India, Hindu communities have their own individual deities, or Gramadevata- which are regarded as synonymous with the locality and everything within it. (…..)The deity is not visible to the local community, so a specific place or object is chosen to direct the act of worship. The Devasthana,or shrine of a Grama Devata, is usually connected with an important feature of the natural world such as a hill, a rock, a stream or pond. These shrines are most commonly associated with a tree or grove of trees, with the tree embodying the local goddess”.

Hence, as far as India and Hinduism is concerned, the worship of trees is not only a very ancient practice, but it is also a current living reality.

The Hindu scriptures lay a strong foundation for the worship of environment in general and trees in particular. Some of the important trees that are worshiped by the Hindus are Peepal, Banyan, Ashoka, Shami and Palasha.

Rig-Veda, one of the four divisions that Vyasa created in the Vedas, dedicates an entire Hymn (Book 10, Hymn 97) to the herbs. The Manu Smriti (1.49) says that plants and trees have life and hence they also feel pain and pleasure.

Some of the Hindu festivals like Amala Ekadashi, Ashoka Pratipada, Bakula Amavasya, Vata-Savitrivrata, Kadalivrata and Sheetala Puja are especially dedicated to the worship of various plants and trees.

To properly understand the philosophy behind the worship of trees, one must first understand the philosophy of Hinduism.

Worship of Trees as Brahman


Hinduism considers that it is Brahman or God who manifests, sustains and absorbs back the entire Universe and all its objects. Hence, each entity, whether living or non-living, is sustained by Brahman itself.

In Bhagavad Gita (10.20), Lord Krishna declares- “I am the Self, O Gudakesa (Arjuna), seated in the hearts of all creatures. I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all beings.”

Similarly, Isha-Upanishad (Verse 1) declares that- “God inhabits all the objects in the Universe”. Hence, God or Brahman manifests all the objects and then becomes seated in their hearts as their very own innermost Self/Atman.

Therefore, plants and trees are not lifeless entities, but instead, they are living beings that are inhabited by Brahman itself.  The same Brahman who inhabits the humans also inhabits the trees. Therefore, at the highest level, the worship of trees is nothing but the worship of Brahman who exists as the Innermost Self of both the trees and the humans. 


The Trees are then realized as being non-different from Brahman. But, such worship in a real sense can be practiced only by liberated sages (the Jivanmuktas) who alone can perceive their Innermost Atman in all objects and all objects as in their own Atman. However, others can worship Trees as a manifestation of Divine.

Worship of Trees as a manifestation of the Divine


Various trees have been associated with various deities. Ashwatta or Peepal tree has been specially associated with Lord Krishna. In Gita (10.26), he declares that among the trees, he is the “Ashwatta”. Similarly, Rudraksha (meaning Rudra’s eyes) seeds are associated with Shiva, Banyan tree is associated with Brahma, Ashoka tree is associated with Kaama (God of Love) and Palasha tree is associated with Soma or Moon.

Almost all Hindu deities are associated with one plant or the other. This association must be understood properly. Trees like Peepal and Banyan are living representation of the Gods. Hence, those Gods can be worshiped directly through the trees without having to invoke Gods into an idol or fire.

It is for this reason that Lord Krishna says he is the Peepal among the Trees, denoting that Peepal tree is home to Vishnu-tattva. Hence, a worship of Peepal is same as worshiping Vishnu in an idol. 


Trees and plants can be worshiped as a direct manifestation of various deities, or as objects conducive to the worship of those deities. Another way of worshiping the trees is by showing reverence to their life-force.

Worship of Trees as Living Spirits


The trees are to be respected and revered as living entities. They are not to be ignored as non-living objects that must be used and exploited for self-interest, but instead they are to be recognized as living forces that sustain the entire Earth.

Rig-Veda (5.41.11) says “May Plants, the Waters, and the Sky preserve us, and Woods and Mountains with their trees for tresses”.

This prayer recognizes plants and trees as living forces of nature that nourish humans and the entire planet. The flowers, fruits and shade that a tree gives are seen as items of nourishment that a tree provides us out of love.

This sentiment that recognizes trees as living beings can also be seen in the ritual that is prescribed for felling of trees for the purpose of making wooden idols for worship.

The tree that was selected for felling was worshiped by offering various substances to it. Then at night the Devatas, Pitrs, Rakshasas, Nagas, Asuras, Ganas and Vinayakas were all worshiped.
The idea behind the ritual is three fold. First, to ask permission from the tree to cut it; second to ask forgiveness from the tree for the violence caused to it; third to request the Devatas to impart better life to the spirit of the tree for the sacrifice it is doing.

These three modes of worshiping of the trees denote three stages of spiritual evolution of an Individual. A person first learns to communicate with the trees with an understanding that they are living forces of nature. Then, his understanding evolves and he perceives various manifestations of divine as inhabiting the trees. He will begin to worship different deities through the worship of different trees. Finally, he attains the self-knowledge that his innermost-self/Atman alone exists and he, the tree and all other objects are all in reality non-different from Atman. Hence, through the medium of tree worship, a person ultimately attains Moksha.

Bhoomi Suktam: Understanding the tender maternal nature of planet Earth

Nithin Sridhar

(The article was published in NewsGram on 5 June 2015)

The purpose of celebrating World Environment Day is to highlight the importance of preserving Earth. On this occasion, let us look into what one of the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Atharva-Veda has to say about environment and planet earth.

BhoomiSuktam or Hymn to Mother Earth is one of the most beautiful hymns that describes the beauty of Mother Earth and imparts lessons regarding the attitude a person must cultivate towards the environment.

It has 63 verses and occurs in Atharva Veda (12.1). The very first verse opens with a bold statement that defines the proper manner in which the Earth and the environment must be understood.

It (Verse 12.1.1) says that the Earth is upheld, is sustained by Truth (Satya), Eternal law/Order/Righteousness (Ritam), Consecration/Initiation (Deeksha), Devotion (Brahma) and Sacrifice (Yajna). That is, the earth that includes both the living beings as well as the surrounding environment are not just held together by gravitational and other physical laws of the Universe.

Earth is not a “jada/non-living” entity. Instead she is the “Queen of what was and what will be”. She is a living mother, a force that is sustained by Truth, Order, Austerity, Devotion and Sacrifice. Hence, it is these attitudes that a human is expected to implement in his life.

This does not mean that the Suktam is denying the physical aspect of the Earth. In fact, the verse (12.1.26), clearly says that rocks, stones and dust constitute the Earth. Hence, the aim of the Suktam is to highlight the fact that physical aspect is only the outermost layer of the ‘Reality’. And in order to understand Earth in a deeper, spiritual and in a meaningful way one must practice the qualities of Truth etc.

The Suktam (in verse 12.1.12) calls “Earth as the mother and humans as her sons”. Hence, as offsprings of Mother Earth, it becomes a duty of humans to not only help her sustain herself, but also to protect and enrich her. Therefore, it becomes an obligation on part of humans to practice truth, righteousness, and austerity in their day to day life.

They should develop the attitude of devotion and sacrifice regarding every object, every entity present in the surrounding environment. It is only such a practice which can sustain and enrich mother Earth. A practice of truth results in a strict adherence to righteousness. A righteous person will always be upright without caving into the selfish desires. Such a person will never commit those actions that can harm other entities that are present in the environment because he realizes that Himsa or injury is adharma or against the cosmic law.

The lifestyle of Ahimsa(non-violence) itself becomes an austerity that is driven by devotion and a sense of sacrifice. If, every person cultivates these attitudes towards the surroundings, it would automatically result in the protection, preservation and enrichment of environment.


The Suktam (Verse 12.1.4-6) further describes Mother Earth as the “Mistress of four quarters in whom food and cornfields have come to be, who bears in many forms the breathing and moving life; in which men of old have performed many tasks, where the gods have defeated demons, which is the home of cattle, horses and birds; which is all sustaining, treasure bearing, firm staying place, gold breasted home of all creatures, who supports the Universal Fire (Virat/Vaishwanara)”.

These verses further bring out the understanding of Earth as a nourishing, all sustaining Mother. All objects both living and non-living, the humans, animals, and the plants, depend upon the earth for their life. They derive their very existence from Earth and at death they merge back into it. It is Earth again which makes it possible for various plants and animals to be exposed to Sun-rays and hence be able to sustain and grow.

This is clearly spoken in the verse (12.1.15), wherein Mother Earth is described as one who supports both bipeds and quadrupeds, because of whom, the rising Sun spreads its undying rays on mortals. The nourishing aspect of the Earth is further highlighted in verses (12.1.29-30), wherein the Earth is referred to as “Purifier” using whose pure water a person purifies himself.

Mother Earth is further described as a place where all human actions are carried out. She is the basis, the foundation that holds together all actions. It is on her foot, that the altars are built and sacrifices are carried out (Verse 12.1.13). It is on her the riks and samans are chanted (Verse 12.1.38). The men sing and dance and the people beat their drums, rise the war cries and battle with each other (Verse 12.1.41). It is on her, the people grow various food grains (Verse 12.1.42), where people speaking different languages, practising different customs, all exist together (Verse 12.1.45).

But, the Bhoomi Suktam is concerned about those human actions that may turn to be harmful to nature. Verse 12.1.35 says, “What, O earth, I dig out of thee, quickly shall that grow again: may I not, O pure one, injure thy vitals or thy heart”.  The verse is clearly speaking about the misuse of natural resources and its harmful effect on the environment. It is advising humans to renounce greed and utilize the resources given by the Mother Earth in a useful way without hurting the nature in the process. The current activities such as unregulated and harmful mining and other such activities are clearly against these tenets expressed in the Suktam.

Towards the end, in Verse 12.1.48, Mother Earth is described as supporting both the fools and the wise, the good and the bad. The verse goes to highlight the motherly love and compassion of Mother Earth. She, in her magnanimity and compassion has given abode to all people, all objects. She does not discriminate between the fool and the wise or between the good or the bad. She supports everyone, including those who harm her and the environment in a dangerous way.

Such, is the compassion and love of Mother Earth for her children. Hence, people should realize her supreme love and sacrifice, and begin to live their lives in such a way that the environment is not harmed in any manner.

The BhoomiSuktam (Verse 12.1.63) ends with a prayer asking the Mother Earth to stabilize life and fill it with grace and splendor.