The Eternal Ashwattha Tree and the Status of the Purushottama

The image of the Ashwattha tree is one which frequently recurs in the spiritual tradition of India, including the Bhagavad Gita. The physical Ashwattha, also known as the Banyan tree by some translators (or the Peepul Tree by others–both trees of the family Ficus), has a unique growing habit that makes it an excellent metaphor for the manifestation of the universe. The tree has deep roots, lush and ever-expanding branches and foliage, and sends down aerial roots from the branches as the tree expands its scope.

The expanding universe is pictured in this image as the eternal Ashwattha tree. Sri Aurobindo describes the eternal Ashwattha tree: “This tree of cosmic existence has no beginning and no end…, in space or in time; for it is eternal and imperishable…. The real form of it cannot be perceived by us in this material world of man’s embodiment, nor has it any apparent lasting foundation here; it is an infinite movement and its foundation is above in the supreme of the Infinite. Its principle is the ancient sempiternal urge to action, pravritti, which for ever proceeds without beginning or end from the original Soul of all existence…. Therefore its original source is above, beyond Time in the Eternal, but its branches stretch down below and it extends and plunges its other roots, well-fixed and clinging roots of attachment and desire with their consequences of more and more desire and an endlessly developing action, plunges them downward here into the world of men.” “The branches of this cosmic tree extend both below and above, below in the material, above in the supraphysical planes; they grow by the Gunas of Nature…. Man…so long as he enjoys the play of the Gunas and is attached to desire, is held in the coils of Pravritti, in the movement of birth and action, turns about constantly between the earth and the middle planes and the heavens and is unable to get back to his supreme spiritual infinitudes.”

The sages, the seekers of liberation, found a path to liberation by undertaking to break the rhythm of the urge to action, through cessation of the force of desire. “But for this purpose it is necessary to cut these long-fixed roots of desire by the strong sword of detachment and then to seek for that highest goal whence, once having reached it, there is no compulsion of return to mortal life. To be free from the bewilderment of this lower Maya, without egoism, the great fault of attachment conquered, all desires stilled, the duality of joy and grief cast away, always to be fixed in a pure spiritual consciousness, these are the steps of the way to that supreme Infinite.” “that is the highest status of the Purushottama, his supracosmic existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 429-430