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

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7 thoughts on “The Eternal Ashwattha Tree and the Status of the Purushottama

  1. I have a question related to the second line “The physical Ashwattha, also known as the Banyan tree …. ” . Isn’t the ashwattha tree the peepul tree (ficus religiousa) and not the Banyan tree? Why does the translation say “banyan”? Thank you!

    • thanks for writing. many translators and commentators refer to the tree mentioned in 15.2 of the Bhagavad Gita as a Banyan Tree and go on to describe its characteristics and the meaning of those characteristics as symbols of material reality. Some translations of Ashwattha refer to it as the Ficus religiosa, or Peepul Tree as you correctly note. We chose to go with the commentary that most directly addresses the characteristics being brought out in line with a large body of traditional commentators. Both are forms of fig tree, and both are sacred. You may of course prefer to read the translation as peepul tree, and that would obviously be technically correct as well.

      • Thank you for your response. If you don’t mind, I have another question. Could you expand on who the traditional commentators are? This might be related to Sri Aurobindo and his teachers (I’m clueless about this). Your input on this will be appreciated. Thank you very much!

      • not necessarily related to Sri Aurobindo, some of the resources you can easily locate in English translations include Geeta Vahini by Shri Satya Sai Baba,
        Wikipedia on Banyan Tree quotes Bhagavad Gita in 15.2 translated as Banyan Tree,
        Gita Insights: Wisdom into Sacred Teachings published by Jaico Publishing House cites in Chapter 9.
        Both the Peepul and the Banyan have numerous references as Ashwattha Tree, of course.

  2. also Bhagavad Gita As It Is published by ISKCON. The Bhagavad Gita in any case is not speaking about a PHYSICAL tree but the invisible “tree of the universal manifestation” and trying to apply symbols from the physical world to describe its qualities. Both the Peepul and the Banyan are varieties of Fig, both are sacred in India and have a long history in the spiritual life of its people, and each can be seen to symbolize the issue being raised by the Gita in both 10.26 and 15.1-3

    • Thank you for the detailed replies. I am not following ISKCON’s Bhagavad Gita because it does not conform to the the disciplic succession specified in the Introduction. But I will follow up on the other resources you mentioned.

      To add to this list, maybe, Madhwacharya’s interpretation might be interesting to you where he says “the etymological meaning of the word Ashwatta is “what is there today may not be there tomorrow” implying the transient nature of the world around us. It is permanent but ever-changing (i.e. avyayam).

      This is then linked back to Markandeya rishi’s vision of Krishna lying on a ashwattha leaf during maha-pralaya. Why ashwatta leaf? The hint lies in BG 15.1 which says that the leaf signifies the Vedas which are ever permanent and also present during maha-praLaya. I find all of this very fascinating.

      Thank you very much for maintaining this website 🙂

      • thanks for the insights. i also do not put a lot of emphasis on ISKCON’s version myself as it is not my specific “cup of tea”. Ashwattha also has been noted as coming from “Ashwa” (horse) and there are legends about this being the tree under which horses were tied for the horse sacrifice, etc.

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