Ch. 15 Yoga of meditation on the root of the aśvattha (part 1)

This article is part 83 of 134 in the series Jīvana-dharma-yoga


parākṛtanamadbandhaṃ paraṃbrahma narākṛti |
saundaryasārasarvasvaṃ vande nandātmajaṃ mahaḥ ||

I bow to that Supreme Brahma in human form that dispels the bondage of those who bow to it, to the essence of all beauty, to that effulgence that is the joy of Nanda.

- Śrī Madhusūdana Sarasvatī


aśvatthadaṃtè jaṭilaṃ
viśvada saṃsāravṛkṣamaṃtu viśālam ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍
naśvaramadu śākhègaḻoḻ
śāśvatamadu mūlakaṃdadoḻagidu citram

’Tis a wonder, this world-tree
that is as many-branching and wide as the peepul,
is transient in its branches and
eternal in its root.


We act according to our whims and desires, forgetting that it is us who have created our own life circumstances, and that it is our present behaviour that forms our future. Bhagavān instructs us through a profound allegory that this world has its origin in Brahma. We are the ones who defile this saṃsāra that is born out of Brahma. It is possible to extricate ourselves from this relationship through a practice of detachment. The one who is detached is not weighed down by the world. The world becomes a place of entertainment for him.

Section 16 / Chapter 15 / Puruṣottama-yoga / Āśvattha-mūlopāsana-yoga

(The Yoga of meditation on the root of the aśvattha)

At the end of the previous chapter, Bhagavān showed us an excellent strategy of the escape from the web of the three guṇas and stated that it was him - the Supreme Self - that was the origin of dharma.

śāśvatasya ca dharmasya sukhasyaikāntikasya ca ||

BG 14.27

The first of the Puruṣārthas (the four primary human values) is dharma and the last is Mokṣa - both of which reside in Brahma.

brahmaṇo hi pratiṣṭhāham ||


(I am the support of Īśvara)
The above statement tells us that it is Brahma that appears as dharma in this world system. How is Brahma the same as dharma? The Svāmī now explains.
Dharma is an arrangement of relationships. For any relationship, there have to be two things. There is no talk of a relationship in the case of a story like Robinson Crusoe’s who is all by himself. There is a relationship only when there are at least two objects. Even Crusoe who lived on an uninhabited island considered himself as many and had to think  - “My body is dirty. I must wash it”, “My stomach is feeling hungry. I must look for some food for it” - thereby considering his own bodily organs as different from him. At those moments, the relationship between him and his body is through the tactile sense; the relationship between him and his stomach is through the affliction of hunger. When that relationship - that can exist between two or more objects - is as good it can be, it is called dharma. In the relationship of dharma, the jīva is one side while the jagat (the world) is on the other. Dharma sustains both of them.
Bhagavān uses a beautiful metaphor to drive home this teaching. A metaphor (rūpaka) is a figure of speech (an alaṇkāra). The function of an alaṇkāra is to compare a well-known object to a little-known or unknown object to better inform the reader about the nature of the latter. In such an alaṇkāra, if the object of comparison and the standard of comparison are treated as one without any distinction between them, it is called a metaphor. Consider the following example from a Kannada classic.

devapura-lakṣmī-ramaṇanāsyacaṃdran ānaṃdamaṃ namagīyali ।।

-Jaimini Bhārata 1.1

(Sought after by cakora-bird-eyes of śrī, may the moon-face of the deity of Devapura - Lakṣmī-ramaṇa - bestow bliss upon us.)

This is a rūpaka (metaphor) in which all the features of the moon are shown established in the face of Lakṣmī-ramaṇa. 

There are different rūpakas such as abheda (non-difference) and tādrūpya (having the same form). Let us not dwell upon the intricacies of alaṇkāra-śāstra (aesthetics) right now. What is relevant to us now is this - rūpaka is a figure of speech that gives a better understanding of something we don’t know. The jīva, the world, Brahma - are all things that are not directly perceived. Bhagavān uses the metaphor of the directly perceived aśvattha tree to help us visualise the nature of the relationship between the jīva, the world, and Brahma.

ūrdhva-mūlam adhaḥ-śākham aśvatthaḿ prāhur-avyayam |
chandāḿsi yasya parṇāni yas taḿ veda sa veda-vit ||

BG 15.1

“There is an indestructible Peepal tree. But its roots are above and its shoots are towards the bottom. Its leaves are the Vedas. Whoever knows is the knower of the Veda.”

This is a topsy-turvy, root-over-head tree! Look at its speciality! Its roots are up somewhere - unseen by our eyes, unreachable by our hands while its branches point downwards where we can reach them. This means that the branches and twigs of this tree form the entire material of the world. This tree is - avyayam prāhuḥ - said to be unmodifiable; that can never be destroyed; always of one form. The Vedas are the leaves of this tree. He who knows the secret of this tree knows everything.

adhaś cordhvaṃ prasṛtās-tasya śākhā
guṇa-pravṛddhā viṣaya-pravālāḥ |
adhaś ca mūlāny-anusantatāni
karmānubandhīni manuṣya-loke ||

BG 15.2

“The tree’s branches extend both upward and downward. The three guṇas of sattva, rajas and tamas are the fertiliser that nourish the tree. The objects of desire are its tender shoots. Its props and roots sprawl across the human world, binding jīvas with karma.”

As long as the three guṇas of sattva, rajas and tamas are operating, this tree stands well-nourished. The shoots of this tree - viṣaya-pravālāḥ - are objects of desire that are ever fresh; making us think “I need this, I desire that” and have myriad cravings. This tree’s props and roots are anusantatāni - which continuously follow, and are karmānubandhīni as well - they bind us with our own karmas. Manuṣya-loke is mentioned here as humans are endowed with more awareness and responsibility than animals and birds. The world of humans lies between the upper heavens of the devas and the nether regions. The human jīva can go up or down.
The origin of the world-aśvattha cannot be comprehended by the human mind. It is not possible for humans to newly extend the tree. It is Prakṛti that has sustained the growth of the tree from time immemorial using her three guṇas. It is only the tree’s fruit that is for man’s consumption. 
Let us look at the many interesting features of this saṃsāra-tree. Saṃsāra is not to be construed just as family and children. It is the river of life of the form of birth and death. Whatever we meet in our life journey - all of it constitutes saṃsāra while being - karmānubandhīni - binding us with karma.
Any tree could have been used as the object of this metaphor. Why was the Aśvattha or the holy Peepal tree chosen? The use of this tree as a metaphor is as ancient as the Vedas. Why did the great sages choose this tree? What is the secret behind their choice of the Aśvattha? The features of the Aśvattha tally well with the circumstances of saṃsāra. This great tree has four special characteristics that are the same as saṃsāra.

  1. Longevity: The Aśvattha has a long lifespan. While one of its sides wilts away another side blossoms.Saṃsāra is similar - non-existent on one side while growing on the other. Through the succession of offspring, it is long-lived as well.
  2. Widespread: The branches, the roots and props of the Aśvattha extend in all directions for a long distance. The branches of saṃsāra too extend afar from hither to thither.
  3. Many knotted: The props and the branches of the Aśvattha are knotted and braided haphazardly. Saṃsāra similarly is knotty in its numerous narrow and arduous circumstances that arise due to the push and pull of relationships.
  4. Nourishes many: The Aśvattha gives refuge to many insects and birds and protects them. Saṃsāra too protects and nourishes many relatives, friends, guests,  strangers, and those who come in contact with us through their professions and trades.

Thus the comparison is quite apt. This is an ancient metaphor described in the Yajurāraṇyaka as follows.

ūrdhvamūlamavākśākham । vṛkṣaṃ yo veda samprati । na sa jātu janaḥ śraddadhyāt । mṛtyurmā mārayāditiḥ ।

-Taittirīyāraṇyaka 1.11.5

“The one who knows the secret of the tree with its roots at the top and branches at the bottom will not be afraid that death might strike him. This is because he knows that the tree’s roots lie in eternal Brahma-consciousness.”

Bhagavān’s statement echoes the same. The one who knows that the world originates in Brahma does not need to fear death. There is no need to fear for the tree’s existence just because a branch dries and falls off. Likewise, there is no danger to the primordial consciousness because of one man’s death. A jñānī thus has realised the eternality of the ātmā. This indeed is the essence of statements from the second chapter such as “nainaṃ chindanti śastrāṇi”, “acchedyo’yamadāhyo’yam.” The same is taught in the Upaniṣads as well. The Kaṭhopaniṣad is clear about this.

ūrdhvamūlo’vākśākha eṣo’śvatthaḥ sanātanaḥ |
tadeva śukraṃ tad brahma tadevāmṛtamucyate || 
tasmiṃllokāḥ śritāḥ sarve tadu nātyeti kaścana ||

Kaṭhopaniṣad 2.3.1

“The roots are above and the shoots below. This aśvattha is eternal. That is the light. That indeed is Brahma. That indeed is immortal. All the worlds are dependent on it. There is nothing beyond it.”

To be continued...

The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.



Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Engineer. Lapsed blogger. Abiding interest in Sanskrit, religion, and philosophy. A wannabe jack-of-all.


Mother of two. Engineer. Worshiper of Indian music, poetry, and art.

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Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...