Peepal – The Tree of Life

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

Swami Satyananda tells us in Bhakti Yoga Sagar: “The atmosphere has two aspects, physical and spiritual. The physical ecosystem depends on the spiritual ecosystem. If the spiritual ecosystem of any place gets spoiled, the physical ecosystem cannot improve either.” This is why it is so important to plant and also to care for trees, especially those having an adhyatmic or spiritual vibration. In this way we can help to keep both the spiritual and environmental ecosystems pure. As soon as Sri Swamiji came to Rikhia in September 1989, he started to plant trees. During his period of intense tapasya (austerity), the panchagni sadhana (sitting in the middle of five fires), Sri Swamiji worshipped two spiritually powerful trees that he planted himself – the peepal and the rudraksha. Talking about this period of his life, he said, “I get up at 5 a.m., take a bucket, and water Tulsi first, then the peepal tree, and then all the other trees in my garden. I keep on chanting my mantra, simultaneously, and I feel I am being blessed.”

The tree of life

Sri Swamiji performed daily arati (worship) of the peepal tree that grows outside Raghunath Kutir, where he did many anushthanas of the Ramayana of Tulsidas, completing the entire epic poem daily for periods of up to one month at a time. Due to his efforts, the Ramacharitamanas is jagrit or ‘awake’ in Rikhia, and all are welcome to partake of the fruits of his sadhana by joining in the chanting of this great epic. Every day, at sunrise and sunset, Sri Swamiji used to squat before this tree, ringing a bell and waving incense, before entering the Rama Mandir for worship of Sita and Rama.

The peepal is a huge tree whose roots travel very long distances and whose branches spread expansively, giving a wide area of shade. It is cultivated throughout India, particularly in temples and their vicinity. Lord Vishnu is said to dwell in this tree, and it is believed that planting, watering and worshipping it brings prosperity to the planter and the surrounding environment.

In the Bhagavad Gita (10:26) where Krishna tells Arjuna the different symbols of perfection in the material world, he says, “Among all the trees I am the peepal”, which shows us the greatness and divinity of this tree. In chapter 15, verse 1, Krishna also refers to the peepal or ashvattha as a symbol of kundalini, the roots of which are in the human brain and the branches the pranic pathways and nerves in the body: ‘Urdhvamoolamadhahshaakham ashvattham praahuravyayam. Chhandaamsi yasya parnaani, yastam veda sa vedavit.’

An invocation from the Rig Veda (2500 BC) also refers to this in the following verse, “He (Vishnu the preserver), the powerful and the holy, holds straight this tree in unsupported space. Its rays, whose roots are high above, stream downward. Deep may they sink within us and be hidden.”

The peepal and enlightenment

The botanical name for the peepal is Ficus religiosa, and it is from the Moraceae family. In Sanskrit it is called ‘ashvattha’, in Hindi ‘peepal’, while in English it is known as the ‘sacred fig’. The wind playing in its heart-shaped, tapering leaves, has been likened by Indian poets to India’s oldest musical instrument, the veena or flute, and indeed it has a magic all of its own. The peepal is deeply associated with both the origin and the symbiosis of life. It is therefore also referred to as ‘the tree of life’. Indians believe that the wood from the peepal was used to light the original sacred fire with which the gods granted knowledge to humanity. In the 5,000-year-old remains of the Indus valley civilisation, seals were found depicting the peepal encircled by worshippers who were aware of its sacred power.

Countless Indian legends tell of sages meditating under the peepal, and it is therefore thought to induce illumination in those who seek its shade for purposes of sadhana. The sacred fig is the Buddhist symbol for consciousness. Under this tree, Lord Buddha, ‘the compassionate one’, experienced nirvana or enlightenment, and to this day it is worshipped by Buddhists who call it the ‘Bodhi’ tree or the ‘tree of enlightenment’. Buddha is very often depicted by his artist devotees as having a body in the shape of a peepal leaf.

The peepal in Ayurveda

The peepal was known by Ayurvedic physicians to contain mercury. They used the tree’s medicinal properties to maintain health of the vital functions – circulation, vision, lungs and kidneys. According to Swami Sivananda, “The seed is a laxative, refrigerant and astringent. It is useful in constipation, in spermatorrhoea, hoarseness of the voice and thirst. The tender leaves increase semen and are useful in fevers. It is a good appetiser and increases the digestive fire. The juice obtained by incising the tree is useful in fissures of the feet.” Swami Sivananda gives the following prescription for fever, sexual debility and impotency: “Boil two tablespoons of the tender leaves in eight ounces of milk, add two tablespoons of sugar and eat.” For skin diseases, and for keeping the body cool, he recommends the following infusion: “Soak one teaspoon of powdered bark in twenty ounces of water for half an hour and then strain.” So we can see that the peepal tree has practical as well as spiritual applications.