According to popular belief, all plants are conscious beings, with distinct personalities. They are represented as gods, demons and animals. And since time immemorial, the grateful populace found it entirely natural to worship trees that gave them food, fire, shelter, shade, clothing and medicine. In fact a seal discovered during excavations at an Indus Valley site (the first-known ancient Indian civilisation, c. 3000 BC - 1700 BC) shows the peepal tree being worshipped. The importance of trees is also mentioned in the Puranas.
Because they do not stop growing, trees symbolise reproduction, especially the flowering and the fruit-bearing species. Therefore in villages, any large tree is revered as the power that sustains the community. Trees play an important role in almost all ceremonies, especially their leaves, fruit and roots.
Some sacred trees are the mango (Mangifera indica), the neem (Azidirachta indica), the peepal (Ficus religious), the banyan (Ficus bengalensis linn), the bel or wood apple (Aegle marmelos), and the ber or jujube (Zizyphus jujube). Most trees mentioned in mythology also have medicinal properties, which was acknowledged in the ancient scriptures. The bark of the kadamba tree (Adina cordifolia) is an antiseptic; the roots of the bel tree are used to treat fever; the fruit of the banana tree (Musa paradisiaca) is one of the most energy-rich foods, containing vitamins, iron and other minerals; the leaves of the mango tree are used as an astringent and its seeds contain gallic acid.
Some trees are considered sacred because they represent a specific deity. For example, all trees, which have trifoliate leaves, like the varu (Crataera religious), are believed to be associated with the Trimurti. The leaves of the bel, which are also trifoliate, represent Shiva's three eyes and are offered to him in worship. Other trees are held sacred because they are believed to be the homes of certain gods. According to the Padma Purana and the Brahma Purana, there was once a time when the demons defeated the gods. To save themselves, the gods hid in various trees: Shiva in the bel, Vishnu in the peepal and Surya in the neem. The Skanda Purana says that the parijata (Nyctanthes arbor tristis), the mango and the banyan emerged from the samudra manthan.
Because trees are sacred, it is an act of virtue to plant and water them. Elaborate rituals precede the planting or cutting of trees. Traditionally, trees are cut only if absolutely necessary. Before being cut, the tree spirit is asked for forgiveness. Various mantras are recited, so that the ill effect is minimised.
There are different beliefs associated with trees. It is believed that during the Chaturmasya, the gods rest in trees and plants. Therefore if trees are worshipped and boons asked for during this time, the gods are said to be generous. Kalpavriksha, a mythological tree mentioned in the Puranas, is believed to be a wish-granting tree. The spirits that live in certain trees like the jackfruit are believed to wander from their arboreal homes at night. For this reason, people avoid certain trees after dark (see Popular Superstitions) However not all trees are considered auspicious. The tamarind (Tamarindus indica) is one such tree that has no place in ceremonies, since the sourness of its fruit is not appropriate to the auspicious spirit of such events. The chaitan or Devil's Tree (Alstonia scholaris) is believed to be the home of the devil.
Trees also help avert unhappiness. Boys and girls are married to trees, if it has been foretold that their first marriage will be unhappy or end with the spouse's death. The tree is considered the first spouse, who will bear the effect of the prediction. The person is then married 'again', to a human spouse. Since an unmarried girl cannot be cremated, a daughter who remains unwed past a certain age, is married to a tree. These practices are still followed, though rarely, in remote areas.
Threads are tied around certain trees, like the peepal, to seek a boon. It is believed that the thread bothers the tree spirit, which therefore grants the boon. After the boon is granted, the thread is untied and buried at the foot of the tree.
Because of their strong bonds with trees in general, people have been known to actually lay down their lives in defense of trees. A sect in Rajasthan, called the Bishnois, are proud and aggressive environmentalists who attack those who violate their rules of ecological conservation in Bishnoi 'territory'. Their zeal is a legacy from the time of Jambaji, their medieval founder, whose people were hacked down with the trees they hugged protectively, by the soldiers of a local tyrant.
Environmentalists are a vocal and active force in India today, with notable successes like saving the rain forests of the Silent Valley in Kerala from threatened destruction, and campaigning against the deforestation of the Himalayan foothills, through the 'Chipko Andolan' (literally 'hugging movement') in which village and city activists hugged trees to prevent their felling. There are also deeply concerned protests against the building of large dams, which threaten to flood ecologically rich areas. Many consider the creation of biospheres and sanctuaries, and programmes for reforestation and social forestry, as right and proper measures, blessed by the gods.
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