RETUR N TO TH E CENTR E
So also with plants and trees, especially certain plants like the tulsi plant and certain trees like the banyan. Animals are sacred, especially the cow, which gives her milk as a mother, but also the elephant, the monkey and the snake. Finally, Man is sacred; every person is a manifestation of God, but especially a holy man, in whom the divine presence can be more clearly seen.
The Marriage Between East and West It is the vision of a cosmic unity, in which Man and nature are sustained by an all-pervading spirit, which the West needs to learn from the East. It is this that explains the extraordinary sacredness which attaches to every created thing in India. The earth is sacred, and no ploughing or sowing or reaping can take place without some religious rite. Eating is a sacred action, and every meal is conceived as a sacrifice to God. Water is sacred, and no religious Hindu will take a bath without invoking the sacred power of the water, which descends from heaven and, caught on the head of Siva, is distributed in the fertilising streams of the Ganges and other rivers. Air is sacred, the breath of life which comes from God and sustains all living creatures. Fire is sacred, especially in its source in the Sun, which brings light and life to all creatures.
This is the sacred universe, in which Man has lived as far as we know from the beginning of history and which has been completely demolished by the Western scientific world. Every trace of sacredness has been removed from life, so that Western Man finds himself in a universe in which both Man and nature have been deprived of any ultimate meaning. - Bede Griffith This extract has been reproduced with the kind permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
Detail from the Sanchi temple in Central India depicting a group praying to a sacred tree, 3rd century B.C.
The Tree of Life The universal use of the tree as a religious symbol is extremely ancient (dating at least from the third millennium B.C.) and belongs to a rich body of myth. It mainly signifies 'the Centre'; the point of 'beginning,' where the forces of the sacred first broke through. In the symbolic language of myth and religion, the tree is 'the navel of the world' or 'the cosmic axis' (Axis Mundi) which stands at the centre of the Universe and passes through the middle of the three cosmic zones; underworld, Earth and sky.
Sacred architecture like the Buddhist stupa and the pyramid-ziggurat (such as those found in Mesopotamia and Mexico) represent the centre within the primeval mound which arose out of the infinite depths of the primordial ocean in the beginning.The tree is also closely associated with fertility. Artemis, the many - breasted tree divinity, is the Mother of Earth; embodying the powers from which all life emerges.
To shamans ranging from China to Asia, and from Oceania to the Americas, the tree is a bridge to heaven; symbolising the ascent to the sky world. To the Kabbalists, creation was the manifestation of an inner world of the Divine, and they used an inverted tree to symbolise this idea. A passage in the Book of Zohar reads: "Now the Tree of Life extends from above downwards,
and is the sun which illuminates all."
The tree of Life is not, however, the same thing as the Tree of Knowledge, which, according to Christians, led to Man's fall. After expelling Adam and Eve from Paradise, God left a cherubim with a flashing sword to guard the Tree of Life (Gen 3:24). This tree signified the essence of life, whilst the other signified the knowledge of good and evil. To the earliest Christians, Christ was sacrificed at the centre of the world, on the cosmic tree. And it was upon an altar under a banyan tree, attributed to Shiva, that Buddha chose to sacrifice his selfhood and achieve enlightenment. A cutting of this very tree is still venerated at Bodh Gaya. The Nordic god Odin sacrificed his Self on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to gain the wisdom of the runes.
Essentially, the tree - the source of endless regeneration - is synonymous with imagination. In the words of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: "Imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree imperceptibly becomes the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomises a universe, which makes a universe."1 - Stephanie Roth 1. Quoted from Roger Cook, The Tree of Life, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1974, p.9
Man climbing a palm tree was a popular way to illustrate the following verse from the Bible: 'The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a Cedar in Lebanon'(Ps 92:12). Miniature from Beatus 'Commentarius in Apocalypsin', A.D. 975
The Ecologist, Vol. 30, No l , January/February 2000