By M.R. Narayan Swamy
Title: Sacred Plants of India; Authors: Nanditha Krishna and M. Amirthalingam; Publisher: Penguin Books; Pages: 295; Price: Rs.399.
This is a fascinating account of tree and plant worship in India from time immemorial. Worship of trees, some of which were believed to be home to spirits good and bad, was probably the oldest form of worship in India. The authors say the earliest temples in the country were little more than images placed under trees which, over time, turned into formal places of worship.
Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata make several references to the worship of sacred plants and trees. Even if one looks at the Ramayana only as a myth, the fact is that Valmiki’s botanical information is authentic. And tree worship was not confined to Hindu religion alone.
Based on oral traditions and extensive interviews, the book delves into the history of sacred plants in India. The hugely informative introductory section is followed by a wealth of details on 81 sacred plants/trees, with their spiritual and religious linkages and their highly valued medicinal properties. These include ashoka, bamboo, banyan, Bermuda grass, champaka, coconut, deodar, lotus, mango, marigold, neem, pipal, plantain, tulsi (Sacred basil), sandalwood and turmeric.
It is a common sight in rural India to see snake stones installed in front of trees, particularly the pipal, undoubtedly the most sacred tree in India. The pipal tree is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. The Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under the pipal tree. Hindus believe the pipal is home to its trinity: Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Lord Shiva as Dakshinamurthi, the teacher, sits under the banyan tree. Both the Mahabharata and Buddhist texts warn against harming trees. Many Sufi saints also lived beneath trees and, when they died, were buried at the very spots that became dargahs or shrines.
Thanks to the intricate forms of worship in Hinduism in particular, tree worship remains alive in both rural and urban areas – from circumambulation to making votive offerings. Just as religious reasons played a role in saving animal species like the elephant and monkey from annihilation, Hinduism has wittingly and unwittingly helped protect many forms of trees, plants and herbs although, as the authors warn, reckless urbanization threatens the environment and some plant species in particular.