What is the reason behind the name aśvattha for a tree thus extolled in the Veda? Śvaḥ in Saṃskṛt means tomorrow. Śvastha is something that will exist tomorrow just as it exists today. Aśvattha then refers to something that will not be the same tomorrow as it is today. It is something that changes every instant - something constantly changing or fickle.
na śvo’pi sthātā iti aśvatthaḥ taṃ kṣaṇapradhvaṃsinam aśvattham
(As it will not exist tomorrow, as it is changing every instant, it is known as aśvattha)
-Śrī Śaṅkara’s commentary on Bhagavadgītā 15.1
The word jagat means the same as well - something that is moving, revolving, and changing.
The same Brahman that is firm, uniform, and immutable in its absolute aspect, is dynamic, of myriad forms and ever-changing in its active form. Whatever appears to our eyes as something born, dying, laughing, suffering, adventuring, emaciated, defeated, victorious or in one of those innumerable states is originally birthless, deathless, indefatigable, free from worldly limitations, of one form, and tranquil.
It is to bring that primordial origin to our notice that Bhagavān mentions ūrdhvamūlam.
A question here. Ūrdhva - means the direction above our heads or pointing to the sky. What is uniquely great about that? Does not Brahman exist in the direction below? Does Brahman discriminate between upward and downward directions? Aren't all directions the same for it? The answer is as follows - “Brahman is omnipresent and has no directional differences. In fact it is beyond the distinctions of space. The notions of "above" and "below" are for us - humans. Whatever we consider good or better, we denote by words such as “high”, “head” or “top”. Just placing an object worthy of reverence in a high position brings us satisfaction. In reality, there is no “above” or “below” for Brahman which is omnipresent. We attribute to it an “exalted” or “high” position to satisfy our devotional attitudes. The Taittirīya Upaniṣad states -
satyaṃ jñānamanantaṃ brahma | yo veda nihitaṃ guhāyāṃ parame vyoman |
so’śnute sarvān kāmān ||
(Brahman is truth, knowledge and without end. He who knows the supreme space in one’s heart, he attains all desires.)
Taittirīya Up. 2.1.1
Brahman is the greatest mystery - beyond even the reach of speech and mind. If such a mystery has to be indicated, a most excellent position needs to be pointed to. Such a reference in the previous Upaniṣadic statement is - guhāyāṃ parame vyoman. The thrust behind ūrdhvamūlam is similar.
The author of the Bhāgavata expands upon the description of the saṃsāra-tree in the Gītā with poetic flair. When Śrī Kṛṣṇa was in the womb of Devakī, the four-faced Brahmā and other Devas extolled him thus - “O Bhagavān! You are the seed of this saṃsāra-tree which is non-different from the world.” What is the nature of that tree?
ekāyano’sau dviphalas-trimūlaś-catūrasaḥ pañcaśiphaḥ ṣaḍātmā |
saptvag-aṣṭāviṭapo navākṣo daśacchado dvikhago hyaadivṛkṣaḥ ||
Ekāyanaḥ — There is one but one basis for it which is the primordial prakṛti.
Dviphalaḥ — It has two fruits - of pleasure and pain.
Trimūlaḥ — Three roots of the three guṇas - sattva, rajas and tamas. Whoever rends asunder these roots will no longer be bound by the world.
Chatūrasaḥ — Four tastes — dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣa.
Pañcashiphaḥ — Five prop roots of our five sense organs.
Ṣaḍātmā — Six characteristic qualities - hunger, thirst, fatigue, delusion, old age and death.
Saptatvak — Seven types of bark — skin, blood, flesh, fat, bones, nerves and seminal fluid
Aṣṭāviṭapaḥ — Eight branches — The five primordial elements - earth, water, sky, fire, air, the manas, buddhi and ahaṅkāra.
Navākṣaḥ — Nine hollows or orifices — two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, the two nether orifices and one mouth.
Daśacchadaḥ — Ten leaves — The five principal prāṇas - prāṇa, apāna, vyāna, udāna and samāna - and the five subsidiary prāṇas — nāga, kūrma, kṛkala, devadatta and dhanañjaya.
Dvikhagaḥ — Two birds — The jīvatmā and the Paramātmā.
With these two birds is created this huge saṃsāra-world. This is the primordial world-tree that has been created by you, O Bhagavān” - thus did Brahmā and other Devas praise Śrī Kṛṣṇa.
tvameka evāsya sataḥ prasūtistvaṃ sannidhānaṃ tvamanugrahaśca ।
tvanmāyayā saṃvṛtacetasastvāṃ paśyanti nānā na vipaścito ye ||
“You alone are the world’s origin! You alone are its residence! You are its caretaker! Those deluded by your Māyā see world-objects as different from one another. Those with knowledge are not deluded and see you as the undifferentiated one everywhere!”
There are many more purāṇic descriptions of this saṃsāra-tree metaphor. Śrī Śaṅkarācārya quotes a few of them. Śrī Kṛṣṇa himself states this in the tenth chapter.
aśvatthaḥ sarvavṛkṣāṇām |
He praises the greatness of the aśvattha which is a visible symbol of the invisible Brahman. It is with this feeling and belief that all Hindus consider it sacred and worship it by pūjās and pradakṣiṇas - even while being mocked at by foreigners for “worshipping trees, sticks and stones.” Even some of us who consider the words of those foreigners as great testimony join them in deriding ourselves. So be it. This too is the effect of the aśvattha whose nature it is to wither on one side while flowering on the other.
We need to bring our attention to two points about this tree.
1. Chandāṃsi yatra parṇāni — “The Vedas are the leaves of this tree!” What does this mean? The leaf performs a vital function in the life of a tree. The leaf protects the tree. The leaf absorbs various nutrients from the environment and nourishes the tree. If all the leaves are plucked off, a tree becomes akin to a skinless man and perishes. How are the Vedas the protectors of the saṃsāra-tree? It is dharma that nourishes our lives and dharma in turn is known through the Vedas.
vedo’khilaṃ dharmamūlam |
Therefore the Vedas protect the saṃsāra-tree. From the Vedas proceeds dharma and through dharma is the sustenance of the world-system. Brahman that is the cause of the saṃsāra-tree is thus also the cause of dharma and the śāstras that teach dharma. It is because of dharma that saṃsāra stands. It is through the Vedas that there is a social system. Without the structure of a social arrangement, society would get pulled apart in all directions. We see a similar statement in the Upaniṣads as well. When Bhagavān as the Virāṭ-puruṣa created the universe, the created beings began consuming one another. Bhagavān saw this anarchy and he thought to himself, "Having done so much, I forgot to appoint a policeman here." Thinking thus, he created dharma. This allegory is narrated in the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad. It is dharma alone that can protect people. That is the reason for Bhagavān comparing the Vedas to the leaves of the saṃsāra-tree — chandāṃsi yatra parṇāni.
Despite the greatness of this tree, a violent statement has been made about destroying it.
asaṅgaśastreṇa dṛḍhena chitvā ||
This seems to imply on the surface that the saṃsāra-tree is insignificant, and befits destruction. That, however, is not the intended purport. How can we destroy the tree created by Bhagavān, for the protection of which he established a system in the form of the Vedas and śāstras? As saṃsāra has Brahman for its origin, it is worthy of our worship. Its origin is the excellence of excellence. We, the jīvas, manage to desecrate it, that is all. How do we escape this impure relationship is the question. The answer for this question is — "asaṅgaśastreṇa dṛḍhena chitvā". Detachment is the mechanism to be followed in saṃsāra.
2. There is another point worthy of our special attention - "karmānubandhīni manuṣyaloke". All the bonds that bind us - be they friendly relationships or barbed wires of rivalry - are results of our former karmas. Old actions, old debts, and old tendencies result in impediments, irritations and complexity in our lives. We experience pleasure and suffering in our lives thinking that these are accidental, seemingly absolving us of any responsibility towards them. We forget that all of our experiences are due to our previous actions. In reality, whatever we experience is the result of our old karma. The responsibility is ours.
Why do the learned say that this saṃsāra is beginningless and endless? Because this saṃsāra is the creation of Brahman. What, then, about us who are enmeshed in it? Should we be stuck in it eternally? Is there any release from it? They reply - "Yes. There is release from it." Those who earnestly seek release from saṃsāra have a chance at it. However, for those who say - “Why release? We like it here!”, Bhagavān says, “So be it. Stay here itself!”. How does release happen for those who seek it? Will the world vanish once there is release? The world does not go anywhere. We are no longer deluded by it, that is all. The power that created the world will continue to protect it. It is not possible for us to destroy it. Why should we even try to destroy it? It is enough to destroy the web of misunderstanding that we have about the world. It is enough if there is no suffering from the world for us. We don’t have to desire the destruction of the world. It is enough if the reason behind our view of the world as burdensome or evil is resolved once and for all. Mokṣa is also the same. For one who does not consider the world a hard place, the world becomes a place of enjoyment and entertainment. Such a person could not possibly desire for the world to be destroyed.
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.