The Imperishable Asvattha Tree

“ They speak of the Imperishable Asvattha as having its root above and branches below. Its leaves are the Vedas and he who knows this he knows the Vedas ” (xv. i).

HERE is a picture of a tree with its roots in the air and its branches spreading downwards bearing leaves and fruit.


The Gita is not the only place where a picture of this inverted tree is given, there is an almost identical description in the Katha Upanishad, and other references to the Asvattha tree, or Tree of Life, occur in other Upanishads. This tree must therefore be important; it is important because it is a symbol or map of the universe, and he who can read and understand this map, he has a guide to help him through this life.

A map does not look in the least like the country through which one is travelling, but if one studies the key and reads the map correctly, it gives a very accurate idea of the kind of country through which one has to go, and which is the shortest and easiest route to take. A map is drawn up by one who has traversed the country himself and has measured and charted it with the sole purpose of helping those others who also wish to travel across it. Those who have crossed over this worldly life and experienced by direct intuitive perception the absolute Truth by which all things are supported, have given this symbol of the ‘ imperishable Asvattha tree ’ to enable others to reach this goal and experience this Truth for themselves.

The Asvattha tree is the Peepul or sacred fig ; it is a large and common tree in India, well known to everyone. The name Asvattha means literally, ‘ not standing until to-morrow,’ that is, it will not remain the same even until to-morrow, it is undergoing destruction every moment, it is ever changing. This is true of life and the world ; it is ever changing, in fact change is its very essence ; without growth and decay this world could not exist. “ One cannot step into the same river twice ”, says Heraclitus. So we are swept along on this river of time and change, from youth to maturity, from maturity to old age, from old age to death and then from death back to birth again. With a tree, it grows from a small seed into a sapling, and then gradually, giving off branch after branch, into a spreading tree. As the seasons change it puts forth buds, then flowers and leaves, the flowers develop into fruit which are hidden by the leaves, the fruit ripens and falls, the leaves turn colour and they fall, the tree is bare until next spring.

This tree can be compared to the individual man on the microcosmic scale, or to the world in general on the macrocosmic scale ; for individually man is always reaping the fruit of what he has already done, and is always putting forth buds in the form of plans and schemes for what he is about to do ; and collectively one generation is reaping the fruits of the actions and discoveries of the preceding generation, while all the time it is laying the foundations of the succeeding generation. Each year the tree grows bigger and more complex, with no apparent reason why it should not go on increasing for ever, therefore the Bhagavad Gita speaks of ‘ the imperishable Asvattha ’.

It appears to have no end, but equally it seems to have no beginning, for the seed from which this tree has grown was once a fruit on another tree and so ad infinitum, until we are confronted with the old conundrum—which came first, the tree or the fruit ? With the universe too there is apparently no beginning and no end ; scientifically there may have been a beginning to this planet on which we live but there were other planets before that ; man may have evolved from a lower form of animal life, and this animal life from organisms less developed still, but where did it all begin, for there is no spontaneous generation says Pasteur. The essence of the Asvattha tree, life and the universe is, as we have said, change.

Change is dependent upon time and causation, which together with space form the three props of the manifested universe. So long as there is time, space and causation there must always be an universe; so long as there was time, space and causation there must always have been an universe. Therefore, there can have been no first cause and no beginning. On the other hand outside time and causation there can have been no cause and no beginning for there can be no cause without causation and no beginning without time. The universe has always existed, but each individual can end it for himself by crashing through the barrier of causation, space and time.

The Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita speak of the universe as Maya, that is illusory, due to wrong perception or ignorance. Time, space and causation are our definition of Maya ; they distort the Absolute, Immutable Spirit, called Brahman by the Upanishads, making it appear to have name and form, and to be forever changing. The Asvattha tree is Maya with its manifestations. Although there is no apparent reason why Maya should not go on growing for ever, just as there is no apparent reason why a tree should not go on forever, it can be destroyed as a tree can be destroyed by laying an axe to its roots. For when the roots of a tree are separated from the trunk, the branches, leaves and fruit all crash to the ground and without nourishment perish. But how can we sever the root from the trunk of this tree of Maya ?

The Gita says, “ Cut asunder this firm-rooted Asvattha with the strong sword of non-attachment.”

It is non-attachment to the fruits of the tree and to the tree itself, which is the weapon with which we destroy the Tree of Life or Maya. You may well ask, why should man wish to destroy this beautiful tree with its lovely flowers, its shady leaves and its fruit both sweet and bitter ? It is because man seeks perfection. In him there is an eternal, unchanging element which he seeks to know. He cannot rest until this something is found. He wants happiness which does not cloy and which time can not allay. In the arts he seeks perfect beauty, in science ultimate truth, in mathematics infinity, in religion absolute good and in philosophy complete wisdom. It is not until the Asvattha tree is destroyed that what man seeks can be found, for its leaves and branches hide it from view.

“ Having cut asunder this firm rooted Asvattha with the strong sword of non-attachment,

“ Then that Goal should be sought for, whither having gone none return again, ‘ I seek refuge only in that Primal Spirit from which has come forth this ancient current of the world (XV 3 and 4.)

“ They speak of the imperishable Asvattha Tree as having its root above and. branches below.”

By ‘ root up ’ it is meant that the root, support and origin of the universe is Brahman. Brahman is the Absolute Spirit, theologically called God and philosophically Truth. The Upanishads say that although Brahman is beyond speech and without attributes. It can be described as Sat—Chit—Ananda (Existence’— Consciousness—Bliss). These are not three different attributes, but three aspects of the one and the same— Reality. This Existence-Consciousness-Bliss is the essence of the whole material universe. It is obvious that this world cannot exist without Existence or be known without Consciousness, but the Bliss aspect is less self evident.

However everything in the universe is a source of happiness to something or somebody. For instance snakes are very repugnant creatures to many people, but to others they are most beautiful, and to its mate the snake is the source of all joy. Again human beings dislike manure, but the vegetable kingdom thrives on it. Everyman, everything seeks consciously or unconsciously for happiness. Plants grow towards the sun, animals strive to satisfy their instincts, man pursues security, comfort, wealth, power, excitement, often mistaking pleasure for happiness, which he may call beauty or good.

So in this universe without Brahman, this Sat-Chit-Ananda, there would be no universe, just as without its root there would be no tree. But although Brahman is in one sense the sole support of the universe, without Maya as time, space and causation there would be no manifestation of existence, consciousness and bliss as the world of name and form as we know it. Consciousness perceived incorrectly through time, space and causation becomes thought, perception and action.

Existence distorted by time, space and causation appears as dimensional objects, subject to growth and decay. Bliss limited by time, space and causation is the happiness and beauty apparently belonging to the objects of the world but actually distinct from them and merely revealed or veiled by these objects as they change with time and circumstance. So the root of this Asvattha is said to be Brahman in conjunction with Maya.

A tree, however, does not have one root but many.

The main root of the tree of Life is Brahman with Maya, but the secondary roots are those of latent impressions in the minds of men.

“… below, in the world of men stretch forth the roots resulting in actions.” (XV 2.)

These roots are nourished by desire for the fruit. The fruit is both sweet and bitter, being the experiences of pleasure and pain which are reaped, both individually and collectively, as the result of our previous deeds. These experiences of pleasure and pain lead to fears and further desires, which in turn lead to more deeds and more fruit. One might describe it, in the life of the tree, as season following season ; but in the life of each individual man, and of the world as a whole, there is a perpetual reaping and sowing of deeds without the latent period of winter, when a tree pauses before putting forth new growth in the spring.

According to the law of Karma,—Karma literally means work or action, but the law of Karma, as expounded in the Gita, is really the law of cause and effect’—every act performed by man produces an effect, an effect immediate and an effect in the future ; just as eating a meal allays one’s immediate hunger and also goes into the stomach to be absorbed into the blood stream and later reappear as the tissues of the body. Every deed performed has the immediate effect of being successful or unsuccessful, which will lead directly, through the law of causation, to more deeds ; in the same way the branch of a tree divides and divides, the bough giving off branches, the branches twigs, the twigs buds and so on. But each deed has an effect on the mental plane also ; these deeds go out of view as it were, between their cause and its result, just as the food disappears before it reappears as body tissue. Illness and health, good and bad luck, material circumstances and opportunities, all come to us as the result of the deeds we have committed in previous lives or at an earlier date in this one. The mind of man might be compared to a soft wax tablet upon which everything that he thinks and perceives makes an impression.

Everything he reads, everything which he hears or discusses, everything which he does or observes being done, every emotion he experiences makes a mark. These impressions lie latent in the subconscious until one day they spring into the conscious mind, like a seed which lies dormant in the ground and when the season, soil and weather are right gives forth a shoot. Sometimes these impressions will spring up as desires, sometimes as talents and mental propensities or characteristics. We see this law working in the old who lose their memory for recent events, but recall clearly and vividly what happened when they were young, or in the infant prodigy who displays talents which are quite out of proportion to the experience and technique which he can have acquired in his short life. It is these latent impressions in the minds of men which are said to form the secondary roots of the Asvattha tree ; they spring up manifesting themselves as the trunk and branches. It is desire for the objects of the world which causes us to remain in the world and to return to it again and again. It is desire which prompts us to act, desire for money, for children, for the pleasures of the senses, for learning, for happiness and even to do good.

It is well known that when an old man with no hobbies retires, he often loses interest in life and dies ; or that a man who considers he has a mission in life will live until it is accomplished. This is carried even further by the law of Karma, which says that should a man die with his desires unfulfilled he will be reborn on this planet to fulfil them, and that it is attachment to the things of this world which bring him back to this world. It is desire therefore which nourishes the tree of life, causing it to flourish and to grow buds and leaves, and its fruit to mature and ripen. It is those people who are tired of this struggle to reap the fruits of pleasure and to avoid the harvest of the fruits of pain, who wish to fell this Asvattha tree and end it for ever, not to end themselves but to end their eternal journeying from birth to death.

“ Its leaves are the Vedas and he who knows this he knows the Vedas.”

The leaves of the tree are the various forms of learning, the Holy Scriptures, the sciences, the religious rituals, the arts, mathematics and so on. They are the means given to man to lead him to the knowledge of Truth. It is by the leaf of a tree that one can tell the genus of the tree, and if one studies these leaves of learning closely they can lead one to the knowledge of Brahman. But the leaves of a tree also hide the shape of the tree, its branches and its fruit, in the same way attention to the outward forms of learning hide the nature of the world, its fruit of joy and sorrow and the deeds which bring them about. Not only does this superficial learning hide the inconstant nature of the world and uphold its reality, as the leaves protect the tree and nourish it from the air and sun, but they are another form of attachment growing from the buds even as are the fruits.

The buds of the tree are the objects of the senses, such as sound and form. Our knowledge of the time-spatial world is entirely built on these senses, and so Maya might almost be said to consist of nothing but sense objects. The arts, the sciences, the religious rituals are all dependent upon sense perception, as the leaves of the tree are a development of the bud. Some buds develop into flowers and fruit as sense perception is translated into action, and action as we have shown produces fruit. To know Brahman there must be non-attachment to flower, fruit and foliage and like the Gita we must say,

“ I seek refuge only in that Primal Spirit from which has come forth this ancient current of the world ”.

To most men life is not seen as the Asvattha tree, ever changing, and supported by the eternal indestructible Spirit, and rooted in ignorance in the minds of men. They do not realise that it is nourished by desire for this and that, by attachment to one object and fear of another ; that its fruits are the fruits of joy and sorrow ; that its branches are spreading, increasing and without end ; that man is acting, acting always acting, reaping the fruit of one deed and sowing the fruit of another, sometimes happy, sometimes miserable, but always like a blindfolded bullock tied to the cornmill, going round and round, but getting nowhere.

When man sees the world like this, the fruit is realised to be unworthy of reaping, and all desire and attachment for it is discarded. Then ‘ with the strong sword of non-attachment ’ he fells the tree of Maya and seeks refuge in the Goal, the Primal Spirit.

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