Bilva – Lord Shiva’s Tree

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

Lakshmyaascha stana utpannam Mahaadeva sadaa priyam,
Bilva vriksham prayachchhaami eka bilvam Shivaarpanam.
Darshanam bilva vrikshasya sparshanam paapanaashanam,
Aghorapaapasamhaaram eka bilvam shivarpanam.

Born from the breasts of Goddess Lakshmi, the Bilva tree is ever dear to Mahadeva. So I ask this tree to offer a Bilva leaf to Lord Shiva. To have darshan of the Bilva tree, and to touch it, frees one from sin. The most terrible karma is destroyed when a Bilva leaf is offered to Lord Shiva.

Sri Bilva Shtakam (v. 6–7)

Indians believe that the knowledge of medicinal plants is older than history itself, that it was gifted hundreds of thousands of years ago to the original inhabitants by Brahma, the divine creator himself. Thus when the sages of the Ayurveda sought to heal human suffering, they were able to draw on knowledge that had already been evolving for millennia in the forests of India. One tree about which they had a very deep knowledge was the Bilva tree. The science of Ayurveda values the Bilva highly for the medicinal properties contained in its root, fruit and leaves. According to Swami Sivananda, it is a healing tree which cures all diseases caused by vata (wind) and gives strength to the body.

About the Bilva tree

The Bilva tree grows in almost all parts of India, irrespective of the nature of the soil, and is bitter, astringent and dry by nature. Tall and austere, with a stern aspect, gnarled trunk and sharp thorns, the Bilva is undoubtedly Lord Shiva’s tree. Shiva is always worshipped with its leaves, and it is said that this tree is much loved by him. It is to be found in all Shiva temples throughout India. The Bilva is also found in Devi temples, where it is worshipped. At midnight, on the evening before Durga and Kali pooja (worship), a tantric ritual called Bel Varan is performed with the appropriate mantras. A particular energy is taken from the tree and placed in a kalash (pot). This energy is then transferred to the statue of Durga or Kali to charge or empower it for the coming pooja. The process is called prana pratishtha, the establishing of the life force in the statue. When the pooja is over, the energy is released, a process called visarjan.

The English name for Bilva is Bael, also called ‘stone apple’ as its rather large fruit is like pale yellow suns when ripe. The Hindi appellation is Bel or Bael Sripal. In Sanskrit it is also called Bilva or Sriphal. The botanical name for this tree is Aegle Marmelops, and it belongs to the Rutaceae family. In the Atharva Veda it is described as being so sacred that its wood may not be burned for fuel. It is still worshipped today as a totemic deity by the Santhal tribes in India.

Medicinal properties

The fruit has a hard wood-like rind, which is pale green when unripe, turning pale yellow to brown as it ripens. Its pale tawny flesh is sweet and astringent, containing tannin, which acts as an astringent to the bowels. It has a pleasant, agreeable and aromatic flavour, and provides an excellent dietary supplement. This fruit contains gums, vegetable acid and a very small quantity of sugar. It also contains white seeds and a tenacious transparent gel. The pulp of the dried Bilva fruit, powdered and mixed with arrowroot, is called ‘dietetic Bel’. It is both a sustaining food and a curative medicine, and is traditionally called by Indians ‘the fruit of plenty’. Puranic legend calls it ‘the breasts of the goddess of plenty’.

The unripe fruit is roasted with a covering of mud, and the softened pulp mixed with water and sugar or buttermilk. It is more medicinal than the ripe fruit, particularly if dried in the sun. According to Swami Sivananda, “This is highly beneficial in sub-acute and chronic dysentery or diarrhoea, and is particularly useful in irregularity of bowels in children, because it acts as a mild stimulant to the intestinal mucus membrane and therefore stops diarrhoea, acting as a laxative when there is constipation. The unripe fruit cures excess vata and kapha, indigestion, stomach ache and dyspepsia.” A confection is made out of the pulp with amrita and honey, which stops vomiting.

The half-ripe fruit is astringent, digestive and anti-diarrhoeal; it binds the bowels.

The ripe fruit acts as a laxative, and is aromatic and cooling. The juice is an appetiser and blood purifier.

The leaves. The dark trifoliate leaves symbolize the three eyes of Lord Shiva, and contain a small percentage of Shiva’s alchemical substance – mercury. These leaves have a very pleasant aroma, are used in the worship of both Shiva and Devi, and form an essential ingredient in tantric rituals. It is said that offerings of water sprinkled on these leaves at any shrine will always remain fresh. Sri Bilva Shtakam (v. 5) states, ‘Dantikoti sahasraani avamedhashtaani cha, Koti kanya mahaadaanam eka bilvam Shivaarpanam’, which means “Donating a thousand elephants, and horses, and giving daan (offering) to crores of kanyas (virgin girls) is equivalent to offering one Bilva leaf to Lord Shiva.”

The consumption of Bilva leaves alleviates diseases caused by excess vata and kapha (mucus). They are also useful in diabetes mellitus. For this a few leaves should be chewed daily and their fresh juice drunk. They are diaphoretic (producing more perspiration), thus reducing temperature and lowering fevers, and an aphrodisiac. A decoction of leaves is a favourite remedy for ailments that often occur during seasonal changes, such as fever, flu and fatigue. There are sadhus who sustain themselves on Bilva leaves alone. According to Swami Sivananda, “The fresh juice of the leaves is given with the addition of black pepper in cases of jaundice, and when diluted with water or honey, this is highly praised remedy in catarrh and feverishness.”

The root is the most important part of the tree medicinally, after removing the outer skin. A preparation made from the root with ginger and toasted rice cures vomiting. For the treatment of piles, dysentery and diarrhoea, a preparation is made from the root mixed with the tuberous root of Padha. The oil extracted from the Bilva root, boiled with the juice of Bilva leaves and applied to the head is excellent for nasal catarrh and diseases of the ear. The confection Vilvadi Lehiam is also made from this root.

The flowers cure diarrhoea, vomiting and thirst, while the gum of the inside pulp of the fruit is an aphrodisiac (kama-vardhani).

The Bilva tree in the Shiva Purana

According to the Shiva Purana (7 AD) the Bilva tree is the manifest form of Lord Shiva himself, while all the great tirthas (pilgrimage places) are said to reside at its base. One who worships the shivalingam while sitting under the Bilva, claims this great epic, attains the state of Shiva. Washing the head by this tree is said to be the equivalent of bathing in all the sacred rivers. One who performs Bilva pooja with flowers and incense achieves Shiva loka, the abode of pure consciousness, and has happiness and prosperity bestowed upon them. The lighting of the deepak (lamp) before this tree bestows knowledge and enables the devotee to merge in Lord Shiva. The Shiva Purana also claims that if the devotee removes the new leaves from one of the branches of that tree and worships the tree with them, they will be freed from vice, while one who feeds a devotee under the Bilva will grow in virtue.

The hunter and the Bilva tree

The Shiva Purana also relates the following story or myth. Once there was a cruel-hearted hunter by the name of Gurudruh who lived in the lonely forest. On the auspicious day of Maha Shivaratri he had to go out hunting because his family had nothing to eat. Maha Shivaratri (the great night of Shiva) is the most sacred time for fasts, prayers and offerings, when even the most involuntary acts, if pleasing to Lord Shiva, are made holy. By sunset Gurudruh had not been successful in the hunt. Coming to a lake, he climbed a tree and waited for some unsuspecting animal to come and drink. He did not notice that the tree he had climbed was the Bilva tree. Neither did he notice the shivalingam beneath it, nor the water pot hanging in the branch just above it.

After some time a gentle deer came to quench her thirst, and Gurudruh prepared to shoot. As he drew his bow, he accidentally knocked the water pot hanging in the tree and some water fell down on the shivalingam beneath, along with a few Bilva leaves. Thus, unknowingly and unwittingly, Gurudruh had worshipped Shiva in the first quarter of the night. As a result his heart was a little purified by this act performed on such an auspicious night. Meanwhile the deer, startled by the movement in the tree, looked up and saw the hunter about to release his arrow. “Please do not kill me just yet,” pleaded the deer. “I must first take care of my children, and then I will return to be food for your family.” The hunter, whose heart had been softened a little by the accidental worship, on noticing the beauty of the deer, let her go on condition that she would return on the morrow to give her body as food for his family.

Later that same night, the sister of the deer came looking for her. Once more the hunter took aim and once more, without his being aware, the water and the Bilva leaves fell down upon the shiva lingam. Again, unknowingly, the hunter had worshipped Shiva in the second quarter of the night. The effect of this was that Gurudruh’s heart was further purified. His pranas softened a little more, and he allowed this animal to also go and tend to its young, provided it returned the next day to provide him and his family with food.

In the third quarter of the night, the mate of the first deer came in search of her, and again the strange worship took place as the hunter took aim for the third time. But the hunter’s heart was beginning to melt due to the worship, and he let the deer’s mate go also for the same reason and under the same conditions. Later when the three deer met together, they discussed who should go and offer themselves for the hunter’s food. Even the children offered to give their lives. Finally the whole family decided to surrender to the hunter together, for none of them could bear to live without the others. Thus they set off towards the lake with heavy hearts.

When they arrived at the Bilva tree, Gurudruh was very pleased and relieved to see them, and he immediately prepared for the kill. He took aim for the fourth time, but in the same accidental manner as before, worship in the fourth quarter of the night took place unknown to him. This final action of Gurudruh brought about a complete change of heart and, as he was about to release the first arrow, his heart overflowed with pity for the innocent deer. Tears filled his eyes at the thought of all the animals he had killed in the past, and slowly he lowered his bow. Greatly moved by the selfless action of these animals, he felt ashamed and allowed the whole family of deer to leave unharmed. Such is the purity and spiritual power of the Bilva tree that, even without his knowledge or conscious effort, the cruel-hearted hunter had been transformed into a man of compassion and understanding, and was delivered from his past bad karma by the grace of Shiva and the Bilva tree.