The Banyan Tree
Banyan Tree Theosophy
The English name for the banyan tree derives from the fact that in ancient times there were such trees in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf. Banias (or merchants) from India would camp there when they visited and gave to these great arbours their name. There are many tales of ghosts and spirits associated with their often strange shapes and people tend to be afraid of them in the dark. The most outstanding characteristic of the banyan is the fact that it frequently germinates in another tree and drops its roots down to the ground. A bird may drop a seed in the leaves of a palm or other forest tree, where it grows and sends down long rope-like roots that gradually thicken and embrace the host tree. This epiphytic pattern is looked upon by Hindus as a holy union but it marks the beginning of a long struggle between the so-called strangling fig and its host. From as high up as one hundred feet the roots grow around and band the trunk of the host until eventually, after many years or even decades, the host will die, leaving the banyan supported by roots that are often as large as great and sturdy trunks. Though not a parasite, the strangler figs flourish at the expense of other trees.
The banyan and the Ashwatha tree combine the elements of cosmic sacrifice and eternal life or Wisdom. But the sacrifice of the banyan exacts the sacrifice of a host in order to spread and take root. One might imagine the host tree as man, whose spirit is reaching up towards the source of life. The Vital Force moves heavenward within him like the spiritual serpent entwining the caduceus and provides the seat in the brain where the seed of Wisdom can germinate. The conscious spirit of man, like the bird, flies up in willing sacrifice, knowing that its lower nature will eventually have to die. In this way man becomes a host of the earthbound Great Sacrifice which, once rooted, will provide a canopy of shade and shelter to multitudes of other struggling souls. Eventually, after the sacrificial tree or the wood of the earthy man is dead, there will be only the sacrifice left. That which was breathed down as the Great Breath has been inhaled and breathed forth by a human agent, and in this way the inspiration and expiration of the Vital Force binds together heaven and earth.
Of the banyan tree it is said: “Under the protecting foliage of this king of the forests, the Gurus teach their pupils their first lessons on immortality and initiate them into the mysteries of life and death.” This links up with the mysteries represented by the Ashwatha tree, which suggest that when it touched the earth it became soiled and the Serpent of Eternity (the Logos) was degraded. The likening of the trunk of the Ashwatha to the caduceus reminds one that the two serpents of spirit and matter (life and death) descend along its trunk, and their tails joining below produce the maya of worldly existence. This is all very suggestive and ancestral to the fragmented symbolism illustrated by the tree and the serpent in the Book of Genesis. All the more does this rendition of the ancient myth seem distorted and diminished when one compares it to the arcane teaching that “those who dwell in the microcosmic tree are the Serpents of manifest Wisdom”. In fact, man is this tree and the serpents represent his higher Manas, the link between heaven and earth.
In Hindu mythology, the banyan tree is also called kalpavriksha meaning ‘wish fulfilling tree’. It represents eternal life because of its seemingly ever-expanding branches and people have great respect for it. There are many stories about it in ancient literature
Banyan trees are sacred in South Asia, particularly to Hindus and Buddhists. The tree features in many myths. The tree represents eternal life because it supports its expanding canopy by growing special roots from its branches. These roots hang down and act as props over an ever widening circle, reflecting the Sanskrit name bahupada, meaning ‘one with many feet’.
In Hinduism the banyan tree represents immortality and there are many stories about it in ancient literature. In a song called the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ or ‘Song of the Lord’, Krishna uses the banyan tree as a symbol to describe the true meaning of life to the warrior hero Arjuna. Banyan is viewed by Hindus as the male plant to the closely related peepul or bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa). It is regarded as a sin to destroy either of these trees. It is commendable for a person to plant a young banyan close to a peepul, and this is done with a ceremony similar to that of marriage. It is customary to place a piece of silver money under the roots of the young banyan.
Banyan is mentioned in the Buddhist Jataka tales. In the tale of Satyavan and Savitri, Satyavan lost his life beneath the branches of a banyan. Savitri courageously entered into a debate with Yama, the God of Death, and won his life back. In memory of this couple, in the month of Jyestha during May and June, the tree is celebrated. Married women visit a banyan and pray for the long life of their husbands.
The tree is associated with the life of the 15th century saint Kabir. A giant tree is said to have sprung from a twig he had chewed. People of all religions use its great leafy canopy to meditate or rest. It is said that the wise Markandeya found shelter under it during a torrential downpour.
Minor deities such as yakshas (tree spirits), Kinnaras (half-human, half-animal) and gandharvas (celestial musicians) are believed to dwell in the branches on banyan trees. Ghosts and demons are also associated with its branches, because it is believed that many spirits are harboured in the banyan.
Banyan Tree Ficus Benghalensis
A single mature Banyan Tree will have many trunks and support roots which gives the appearance of a forest of separate trees. A single tree can spread to cover well over an acre, the largest, in Sri Lanka, covers just over two acres.
Height: up to 30.5 meters.
Lifespan: possibly over a thousand years although the age of the Banyan Tree is difficult to determine due to the fact that the original trunk is usually hidden by years of arial or support root growth.
Habitat and Range: grows in India and adjacent countries. It prefers areas of high humidity and moist soils.
Roots in the Air
Banyan Trees have aerial roots – running from branches to the ground – which enable trees to become very large – up to 200 metres in diameter
We know that all fruit must have a blossom – or do they?
Sometimes the Banyan fig is called a fruit without a flower. This is nonsense of course. But- where are the blossoms?
You will need better eyes than even our Shikra hawk to find a Banyan flower. That’s because they are hidden inside the fig.
The blossoms are very small and hundreds of them spend their entire lives inside the fig.
The flowers have a unique friend called a fig wasp. Each kind of Ficus (fig tree) has its own special species of wasp attached to it. The wasp’s job is to pollinate the fig flowers.
The wasp enters the fig through a natural hole in the top and lays its eggs. When the insects hatch and leave their home they become covered with pollen. Then they make their way into another fig and fertilize its blossoms, making sure it will produce seeds.
Banyan trees are important as shady gathering places and they feature strongly in South Asian mythology. They also provide a source of shellac and dye.
Shellac is an important ingredient in French polish. Shellac is produced by lac insects which parasitise banyan trees.
Banyan – Traditional Medicine
Various parts of the banyan tree are used in traditional forms of South Asian medicine. The sap is frequently used. it is applied externally to treat inflamed skin and bruising. Infusions of the plant are also prepared to treat a variety of conditions. Research is now being conducted to find out if there is any scientific evidence to support its traditional use.
Banyan as a Remedy
Reports show that the whole leaf is applied to the external parts of the body that are red and inflamed. In Ayurvedic, Unani and Siddha medicine, the milky latex from the stems and leaves of the banyan tree is applied to bruises and to parts of the body that are causing pain. The feet are frequently treated to decrease pain.
Infusions of the bark and seeds are used in Ayurvedic medicine as a tonic and to cool the body, whereas infusions of the bark have been traditionally used to treat patients with diabetes.
Skin ulcers are treated with a paste made from mixing water with ground plant material from the aerial roots of the tree. Healers make a dilute drink from the latex to treat children suffering from dysentery.
Many parts of the tree are used in caring for teeth. For example, the latex is applied to the gums to treat toothache and twigs are sold as toothpicks in markets in parts of India and Pakistan. These twigs can be used to physically clean the teeth and they are chewed to help keep the teeth clean and also to prevent gum diseases. Companies in India now make extracts from the twigs and bark of the banyan tree to make toothpaste and tooth powders.
Banyan – Western Medicine
Despite the significance of this plant in the culture of India very little is known about the chemical composition of the latex and the active compounds in the different parts of the plant. Scientists are now starting to investigate its potential.
Researchers in India and Pakistan have been collaborating with scientists in other parts of the world to study the plant so that they can explore the science behind the traditional uses.
The main focus for research has been on the use of the banyan tree for the treatment of diabetes. So far, some compounds called leucocyanids have been isolated from the tree and these compounds could be associated with the anti-diabetic activity of the plant. However, more research needs to be completed to understand the medicinal properties of this symbolic tree.
The plant is not reported as being used medicinally in Europe and there are no documented cases in the literature of toxicity from its use in Britain.