The Upside Down Banyan Tree – Gita 15.2


Banyan Tree
Image by Beneteau Sailor via Flickr

The Bhagavad Gita gradually examined all different spiritual paths, explaining how they are interconnected and how they all culminate in the yoga of devotion – bhakti-yoga: the most potent path of spiritual awakening. All paths of spirituality support and facilitate the central path: bhakti yoga.

Chapter 12

In the 12th chapter Kṛṣṇa noted that the path of gaining accurate knowledge is a particularly crucial support enabling bhakti-yoga. Therefore the 13th chapter onwards discuss the paths of knowledge (jñāna). The knowledge that we gain by studying these chapters gives us a solid foundation from which we can more truly engage in the yoga of divine love, bhakti-yoga.

Chapter 13

In the 13th chapter Kṛṣṇa explained that knowledge consists of three components: the knower, the known, and the process of knowing. In the course of describing these three in detail, Kṛṣṇa said that the knower (the “soul”) becomes enmeshed within the known (the “world” or the “body”). This is a very important point, the soul that is enmeshed in the body becomes diverted into selfish pursuits and cannot express true divine love. So it is essential to know more about what binds the soul into the body. Knowing that we can unbind the soul from its entanglement in the body and its world – and thus become freed from selfish concepts and attain a condition in which true divine love becomes feasible.

Chapter 14

Therefore, in the 14th chapter, Kṛṣṇa explained the force which entices the soul to enmesh herself in the body and which holds her therein. This force is the “three modes” – the three ways that matter entices spirit, and thus binds spirit within it. After describing some details about these modes, Kṛṣṇa explains that there is a reality that is free from the modes, and the soul must strive to attain it.

Chapter 15

Now, the 15th chapter is all about explaining how to cut through the bonds tied around the soul by the three modes, which keep her enmeshed in its illusion of self-centeredness.

The Upside-Down Banyan Tree I

The chapter begins by painting a picture of a tree, and will then talk about how to cut this tree down. This tree is a Banyan tree. Banyan’s a huge trees that live for thousands of years because they keep putting down new roots.

The first thing we hear about this tree is that it’s upside down! “ūrdhva-mūlam adhaḥ-śākham” – “Upward roots, downward branches.”

It’s not initially clear why it’s upside down, but 2 verses later Kṛṣṇa explains it is upside down because it is not the real form of the tree – it is a reflection. When you look at a tree standing on the other shore of a clean lake, in the lake will be an upside-down reflection of the tree.

The next thing we hear about the tree is that it’s famous. It is not an allegory Kṛṣṇa is making up for the first time in the Gita, it is a famous allegory that has been spoken about many times before in the Veda (prāhur). This analogy, in other words, has been presented in scripture before – and Kṛṣṇa is repeating it here in the Gita.

Then we hear that the tree is both aśvatthaḿ and avyayam – it is both temporary and eternal. In other words it appears to be eternal, but it is eternally changing form and shape, and the form that it is in today will be gone tomorrow. Therefore any specific version of the tree is temporary, although the tree itself always exists in some version.

The fourth thing we learn about the tree is that the Vedic Hymns are its leaves. Leaves carry out photosynthesis and thus bring energy and life to the tree. So Vedic Hymns allow this upside down tree to flourish and grow.

The fifth thing we hear is that knowledge of this tree = knowledge of the veda. In other words the Veda is meant for clearly knowing what this tree is.

The Upside Down Banyan Tree II

Everything so far was just from the first verse of the 15th chapter. Now let’s see what the second verse tells us.

6) The branches go up and down.  (adhaś cordhvaḿ prasṛtās tasya śākhā)

7) It is nourished by the three modes. (guṇa-pravṛddhā)

8) Its buds are the sense-objects. (viṣaya-pravālāḥ)

9) It also has additional roots going downward. (adhaś ca mūlāny anusantatāni )

10) Those roots are tied to the Earth, and the actions humans perform there. (karmānubandhīni manuṣya-loke)

It is a custom in many languages and cultures to withhold the name of the subject until after the descriptive have been given. In English generally we do just the opposite, so reading Sanskrit can get confusing. But I am getting used to it from (a) reading Sanskrit stuff for a while and (b) getting familiar with Japanese. In this case, as is usual in Sanskrit – we don’t know what this tree is for a while, first we hear descriptions of its branches, roots etc.

But when we hear # 8 we finally understand what this upside down tree really is – and what it is all about. When we hear that the tree produces the sense objects (form, sound, smell, touch, and taste) we know that the tree is the sensorial world, a.k.a. the “material world” a.k.a. the thing that the soul is enmeshed in.

Now the whole thing makes sense. The tree is upside down. The root of the tree is at the top – because the root of the universe is Brahma – the original creator of things, and Brahman – the ingredients supplied by the transcendental Godhead with which Brahma creates. That is the root that is at the top of everything.

Now it makes sense why the tree is both eternal and temporary – because the material world is constantly changing shape. Constant = eternal, changing = temporary. The material world is a tree that is constantly changing.

This is also interesting about the Vedic Hymns. The Vedic hyms cause the tree to grow. And the Vedas are meant for knowing the tree. The tree is the material world. Thus the Vedas themselves are not “spiritual.” They are “religious.” That is, they teach us how to best enjoy the tree, and by following their advice we cause the tree to be healthy and enjoyable. A very small portion adjunct the Vedas is actually “spiritual” this is the Upandishads, the Vedanta Sutra, and the Puranas particularly Srimad Bhagavatam. Even more spiritual than these Vedic adjuncts are the words of the Six Goswamis.

Branches going up and down.

The root of the tree is Brahma, the topmost living being in the universe. Some branches move away from this root, downward. Others curve upwards and move towards it. These branches are all the 8,400,000 species of life in the universe. The branches curving upwards are the religious and spiritually progressive human beings, also the higher life forms who are counted as demigods and semidemigods and goddesses. The branches curving downward are the animals, fish and insects.

You and I live on this tree, and we transmigrate from one lifetime to the next sometimes moving into higher branches sometimes into lower branches. Constantly changing location on the constantly changing tree.

Nourished by the Three Modes

Every tree needs water and light. The light comes in through the Vedic hyms acting as leaves. The water comes in through the modes of nature. In other words the modes of nature bring vitality to this tree. How can the tree be constantly changing? That takes a lot of energy, a lot of vitality. Where does the power to constantly change come from – it comes from the three modes.

We have already discussed these three modes in some detail in the 14th chapter.

Buds are the sense objects

The material world exists to provide an experience desired by the mentally unstable soul. This experience requires objects to be experienced. Thus the tree produces those objects. Involved in the experience of objects are also the instruments of experience – the senses – as well as the result of the experience, some variety of pleasure or pain. So the small branches of the tree are the senses that our body possesses. The buds are the objects these senses hold / perceive. The buds become fruits that are either bitter or sweet – this is allegorical to the way the senses perceive sense objects and derive attraction or disgust, pleasure or pain as a result.

Additional Roots

What makes the Banyan tree so special is that it has more than one root system. It has a central root, but it keeps dropping new roots from its extending branches and this becomes nearly eternal and gigantic. In the allegory of the banyan tree as the material world – the allegorical tree also has secondary roots.

Thus the cause of the material world is not just Brahma who built it, or Vishnu who supplied the ingredients. The cause is equally something else – which is all the secondary roots. Let’s hear more about the secondary roots to figure out the other cause of the world’s existing…

Roots tied to human activity on earth

These secondary roots drop downward towards earth, where they dig into the activities that human beings perform here. This is the other cause of the universe – our desires! Our fruitive activities – our desire to enjoy things for ourselves. This is what our mental instability really is – and this the cause of our being in the upside-down version of the tree.

Doing fruitive work to change our future takes a lot of effort. This effort nourishes the secondary roots which keeps the tree alive. If we stopped these selfish activities, the tree would die.

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