Tuesday, September 9, 2014

VRIKSHAM - The Vedantic metaphor

VRIKSHAM - The Vedantic metaphor

लक्ष्मीनाथ समारम्भां नाथयामुनमध्यमाम्
अस्मदाचार्यपर्यन्तां वन्दे गुरुपरंपराम्

Vedanta, which literally means 'End(or objective) of Vedas' is known from time immemorial for its metaphors to describe the state of affairs of this world, i.e., Samsara (the cycle of birth and death) and the physical body of living beings, the mystery of which still captures our imaginations. The evanescence of this material existence is an important theme.

When we analyse the cause and effects of a phenomenon/problem, we naturally tend to talk in terms of the 'root cause' or the 'seed' of the problem and the 'fruit' as the result. This suits Vedanta very well and hence we find the metaphor of the tree used creatively in similar contexts but with varying interpretations in different texts. The similes and metaphors of Sanskrit literature are timeless. Deviating a little from the topic, let us look at one subhashitam to illustrate this point.

दीपो भक्षयते ध्वान्तं कज्जलं च प्रसूयते
यादृशं भक्षयेदन्नं जायते तादृशी प्रजा ||

[The lamp consumes darkness and generates soot/smoke. (Similarly) The type of food you eat has a corresponding influence on the offspring.]

This is really an elegant comparison. At least I have never thought of darkness and soot as raw material and finished product, and that too relating them because of their black colour. The fact that a black input produces a black output is capitalized here to assert the importance of saatvik food. (Another variation of the subhashita ends as 'तादृशी मति: ' which means that the food you eat produces the quality of thinking that emanates from you).

Coming back to our metaphor, the tree**, the first example(and a famous one too) is from the Mundakopanishad (3.1):

द्वा सुपर्णा सयुजा सखाया समानं वृक्षं परिषस्वजाते |
तयोरन्य: पिप्पलं स्वाद्वत्त्यनश्नानन्यो अभिचाकशीति ||
[Two birds living together, each the friend of the other, perch upon the same tree. Of these two, one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, but the other simply looks on without eating]

The two birds are the Jivatma(individual soul) and Paramatma (Supreme soul). The tree is nothing but the human body while the fruit is the results of past karma. Here the onlooker, the Paramatma, is not touched by karma whereas the Jiva is bound to the cycle of rebirth. Observe how the flow of meaning occurs with this metaphor. An occurrence of the natural world is transformed into profound metaphysics.

** The tree is often used as a metaphor to describe the Vedic literature. The four Vedas, including the various Shakhas, six Vedangas, Itihasas, Puranas, Dharmashastras, Agamas, sutra Granthas, Bhashyams and Acharya Sri Sooktis are all different parts of the tree of Veda.

In the Bhagavatha Puranam (11.12.21-23), Lord Krishna, responding to Uddhava's question uses the tree as a metaphor with even more detailed correlations between its parts and the worldly existence.

य एष संसारतरु: पुराण: कर्मात्मक: पुष्पफले प्रसूते ||
द्वे अस्य बीजे शतमूलस्त्रिनाल: पञ्चस्कन्ध: पञ्चरसप्रसूति:
दशैकशाखो द्विसुपर्ण नीडस्त्रिवल्कलो द्विफलोर्कं प्रविष्ट: ||
अदन्ति चैकं फलमस्य गृध्रा ग्रामेचरा एकमरण्यवासा:
हंसा य एकं बहुरूपमिज्यैर्मायामयं वेद स वेद वेदम् ||

[This tree of mundane existence has no beginning, is characterized by activity and puts forth flowers and fruits. Two are its seeds, innumerable are its roots, three are its lower trunks, five are its upper trunks; it yields five kinds of sap, eleven are its branches; it bears the nest of two birds; three are the layers of its bark; it bears two fruits and spreads as far as the realm of the sun. Full of carnal desires, men of the world partake of its one fruit while the swan-like men of wisdom dwelling in the forest eat the other. He alone knows the Vedas, who through spiritual preceptors comes to realize the one God appearing as many forms through his Maya]

Here the objects indicated are:
Two seeds - Paapam and Punyam
Innumerable roots - Innumerable cravings
Three lower trunks - Sattva, Rajas and Tamas
Five upper trunks - Panchabhutams(the five elements)
Five Kind of saps - Objects of five senses(five tanmatras - touch, taste etc.)
Eleven branches - Mind, five karmendriyas, five jnyanendriyas
Two birds - Paramatma and Jivatma
Three layers of bark - the three humours (vatam, pittham and kapham)
Two fruits - happiness and sorrow
Thus the metaphor ties together all the important concepts of Vedanta in a coherent manner.
Lord Krishna uses the tree metaphor with a variation in the Bhagavad Gita(15.1-3).

ऊर्ध्व मूलमध:शाखमश्वत्थं प्राहुरव्ययम् |
छन्दांसि यस्य पर्णानि यस्तं वेद स वेदवित् ||
अधश्चोर्ध्वं प्रसृतास्तस्य शाखा गुणप्रवृद्धा विषयप्रवाला:|
अधश्च मूलान्यनुसंततानि कर्मानुबन्धीनि मनुष्यलोके ||
न रूपमस्येह ततोपलभ्यते नान्तो न चादिर्न च संप्रतिष्ठा |
अश्वत्थमेनं सुविरूढमूलमसङ्गशस्त्रेण दृढेन छित्त्वा ||

[The wise speak of the imperishable banyan tree, which has its roots above and branches below. Its leaves are the Vedas and he who knows this is the knower of the Vedas. Its branches extend all about; nourished by the three gunas, the sensory objects are its shoots and below, in the world of men, its secondary roots stretch forth, binding them in Karma. Its real form is not perceived here, nor its end nor beginning nor its foundation, but with determination one must cut down this strongly rooted tree with the weapon of detachment]

The inverted nature of the tree is important. Since Brahman or the Supreme soul is the substratum for all activities and existence itself, it is the root of all worlds and hence this tree is rooted in Brahmam. However, during every creation cycle, After samashti srishti (i.e., creation of raw materials like the 5 elements and their admixture, Sriman Narayana, the eternal Supreme soul creates Brahma, who then creates with his knowledge of the Vedas, the rest of the material universe that he is in-charge of. Hence the tree has its trunk as Brahma, who then goes on to create the inhabitants of all the fourteen lokas including bhoo lokam. Hence the tree's branches extends all over this material realm.

The comparison of the leaves of the tree to the Vedas are is very clear to my level of understanding. However, I have an interpretation. The leaves are the receptors of Sun's energy and nourish the plant because of this property. They lead to all further growth, production of flower and fruits in the tree. Similarly the Vedas are the source of any kind of prosperity, be it monetary or Spiritual. Hence, they are the leaves of the samsaric tree.

We find in the foregoing discussion that the tree is used as a metaphor for both the physical body of organisms as well as the whole world of samsara and this is an interesting fact in itself. There is a school of belief which sees an organism's body as a microcosm. Every physical body is a universe in itself and undergoes the cycle of birth, growth and decay very similar to the universe. Thus the universe is the largest reflection of this microcosm.

Now what does this have to do with the tree?

'Hunting the hidden dimension'- a NOVA documentary on fractals has an interesting fact about the relationship between a tree and its parent forest. The distribution of sizes of the individual trees within a forest appears to exactly match the distribution of sizes of different branches within a single tree. The forest has a fractal structure in the tree as an element and of course the tree itself has a fractal structure. Similarly, the whole world of existence could be thought as a fractal of the innumerable Jivas who undergo the cycle of their own.
The tree occurs in many other texts like Kathopanishad, AnuGita and other parts of the Mahabharata, Vivekachoodamani of Adi Shankaracharya and also alluded to in devotional hymns, from which we can be quite sure that our ancestors wanted to get this message across to us down the ages. At least the spiritually inclined people, instead of trying to accumulate more wealth and/or power and fame, must strive to cut down this tree.
The solution to this 'tree' problem is given by the Lord himself in the Bhagavad Gita(15.4)

तत: पदं तत्परिमार्गितव्यं यस्मिन्गता न निवर्तन्ति भूय: |
तमेव चाद्यं पुरुषं प्रपद्ये यत: प्रवृत्ति: प्रसृता पुराणी ||

Thereafter, one must seek that place from which, having gone, one never returns and surrender to that Supreme Purusha (i.e., Lord Sriman Narayana) of whom has streamed forth everything, from time immemorial.

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