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Columbia The New Americans: Homelands and Diasporas

Under the Bodhi Tree

By Karla Bruning, June 20, 2007

Tree shrines are commonplace at many of India's religious sites. But tree reverence has roots in many religions around the world, including in the United States.

Click for a slideshow of India's tree shrines. Here, a woman bows before a Hindu tree temple to the god Hanuman in Mumbai. (Photo by Karla Bruning)

MUMBAI, INDIA–In India, a tree is not always just a tree. Take the pipal tree growing near the Arabian Sea just off Desai Marg in Colaba. The tree is a temple to Hanuman, the monkey god who in Hindu legend unswervingly served the Lord Rama. A makeshift shrine circling the tree attracts a number of devotees passing along the road. They pause to bow next to the raised platform built around the tree, which is decorated with candles, pictures and statues of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, his son Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and of course, Hanuman himself, the ultimate embodiment of devotion, who Hindus believe is an incarnation of Shiva. At night, bright lights illuminate the tree, the trunk of which is painted white, and the odd worshiper sits in prayer under a canopy tied to one side of the tree.

“In India, we worship trees,” said Sharad Kumar, a businessman who works nearby. “This is a form of God. It is a sacred tree. All the gods have their souls in it.”

Trees are the natural embodiment of the divine, explained his coworker, Mithlesh Kumar. “They represent God in a sacred manner,” he said. “They have the spirit of God in them.”

Religious pilgrims and tourists trekking across India might notice a theme common to many a temple, shrine and church. In New Delhi, trees hold places of honor at a Sufi shrine and a Catholic church. In the Punjabi city of Amritsar, tree shrines grace the complex surrounding the Sikh Golden Temple. Tree shrines figure prominently at a Hindu temple in Varanasi and at a Buddhist site in Sarnath. Not just Hindus, but nearly every Indian tradition, it seems, has a profound respect for trees.

Perhaps the most famous is the Bodhi Tree, a pipal under which Buddhists say Siddhartha Gautama, founder of the tradition, attained enlightenment and became a Buddha. In Sarnath, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Buddha first preached his teachings after reaching nirvana, stands a Bodhi Tree that the faithful believe was grown from the original Tree of Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. The symbol of the tree is central to the legend of the Buddha’s awakening or “bodhi.”

In New Delhi, a large tree stands inside the Dargah of Hazrat Inayat, the tomb of Pir Inayat Khan who was responsible for introducing Islam’s mystical strand of Sufism to the West. An opening in the roof allows the tree to grow unencumbered. Inayat Kahn taught that the soul was like a tree and every leaf akin to divine revelation. Such tree symbolism is common in Sufism and more mainstream Islam as well.

Elsewhere in New Delhi, outside the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, stands a stunning Pieta, a work of art depicting Mary cradling the lifeless body of Jesus, carved out of a single tree trunk. The sculpture occupies a prominent place on the steps of the Roman Catholic church. Christian tradition certainly has its own tree iconography from the Tree of Knowledge, which Christians believe bore the fruit of Original Sin to the crucifix upon which Jesus died.

Further west in Amritsar, the marble promenade that surrounds the Golden Temple, the holiest site of the Sikh religion, is home to three shrines centered around jujube trees. Dating over 400 years to before the temple was built, the trees are said to be the oldest inhabitants of the complex, witnesses to the temple’s living history. The main tree shrine, the Dukh Bhanjani Ber, marks the spot where the pool surrounding the temple is said to have curative powers. Another shrine known as the Ber Baba Buddha marks the spot where the temple’s first head priest sat as he supervised its construction. Pilgrims stop at these shrines before visiting the Golden Temple itself.

In Varanasi, the holiest city of the Hindus, two large banyan trees grace the courtyard entrance to the Sankat Mochan Temple. A shrine to Hanuman, red-faced monkeys roam the grounds and play among the banyans’ thick, curling branches. One tree in particular is decorated with flowers, shreds of cloth and streaks of electric vermillion and orange and pink gulal powders. Worshipers leave offerings in hope that Hanuman, the remover of problems, might grant them a wish. Each tattered cloth tied to the banyan’s sprawling limbs represents one person’s hope. Some leave pink, orange, gold or green string and others place garlands of flowers from around their necks. Also called “kalpavriksha” or “wish-fulfilling trees,” banyans are sacred in Hindu lore representing eternal life because of their expansive branches.

But the idea of a wishing tree is not unique to Indian culture. In the New Territories just north of Hong Kong, at the Tin Hou Temple in Lam Tsuen, pilgrims and tourists alike visit two banyan “wishing trees” where they write requests on red paper tied to oranges and then throw the wishes as high as they can into the trees. Some believe that the higher the branch one’s wish lands on, the sooner the wish will come true.

Certainly, too, Western tradition has its share of tree lore and reverence. Christmas trees, rooted in ancient German fertility worship, are a form of wishing tree. Even today, children make wish lists for Santa Claus at Christmas time, and if they are good, find their wishes granted in the form of presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Indeed, a version of the fairy tale “Cinderella,” as recorded by the Brothers Grimm in Germany in 1812, includes a wishing tree: planted on her mother’s grave from a hazel twig, Cinderella watered the plant with her tears until it grew into a beautiful tree. There she would sit and pray, crying “Shake and wobble, little tree! Let gold and silver fall over me,” and a little white bird would throw whatever her heart desired, including an elegant gown and, of course, slippers for the ball.

Furthermore, the notion of trees representing eternal life or immortality is common around the world from Nordic mythology to Egyptian cosmology, ancient Mayan lore to Japanese Shinto tradition. In ancient Babylon, the Mesopotamian Tree of Life gave birth to the Tree of Paradise found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the biblical Garden of Eden, the fruit from the Tree of Life promised immortality and the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge promised the dual wisdom of God—knowledge of both good and evil. These are universal notions: trees as a bridge between heaven and earth, a symbol of sustenance and enlightenment.

But what makes trees so evocative, so emblematic of some other reality? As living entities they represent longevity and prosperity, providing food and shelter in countless ways. They are at once stoic and immobile, but at the same time bend with the breeze and change with the seasons. Simply, trees are strong, supple, and seemingly, ever-lasting. They bridge the gap between three contiguous realms—colloquially, heaven, hell and earth in between.

For what would the legend of the Buddha be without the Bodhi Tree? Without some concept of the other, the divine, some alternate reality that exists both above and below, both constant and changing, both unyielding and bending, religion might not be religion at all. Trees let us believe that if we climb their limbs, eat their fruit, or take refuge in their shade we too might be privy to the secrets of the other, the unknown reality of existence.

At the heart of tree reverence, too, is the symbolism of a tree’s very structure. Roots for grounding, a solid trunk for stability, and an endless web of branches that flower and prosper with each passing season, each passing year. Perhaps, each person represents a leaf, born green with the spring, fading and dying with the autumn, to be replaced anew after winter’s end. The various branches might be the many religious traditions in which we, as humans, divide ourselves. And perhaps the trunk is the ultimate reality from which all religions, in all their variants, spring.

As such, our reverence for trees only continues to blossom—in India and at home.

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Over six months, members of the Columbia News21 team traveled 525,000 miles across the United States, Canada, India and Iran in search of a better understanding of minority religions and the immigrants who practice them.

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