Discover legends, myths and folklore of the Banyan tree in India and its use in traditional Indian culture. As Kalpavriksha or Banyan tree is sacred in Hindu and Jain cosmology and Buddhism, known as the Tree of Life or World Tree.

In this Article

FICUS BENGHALENSIS

Sanskrit: Nyagrodha, Kalpavriksha, Vat-vriksha, Bahupada,
Hindi: Vata, vad, Bargad, Ber
English: Banyan Tree or Sacred Fig

The Banyan tree is one of the most venerated trees in India. It has the ability to survive and grow for centuries and is often compared to the shelter given by God to his devotees.

Indians knew the Banyan tree as the Vatvriksha.

When the British came to India, they noticed that members of the trading community or Bania used to gather under a large shady fig tree, and named it Banyan.

Other names are: Ficus banyana, Indian Banyan, East Indian Fig Tree, Ara Banyan and Bayan.

Ficus benghalensis.Bangalore India.

Kalpavriksha कल्पवृक्ष

In Hindu mythology, the tree is called Kalpavriksha, the tree that provides fulfillment of wishes and other material gains.

The birth of the kalpavriksha happened during the samudra manthan or churning of the ocean as per Hindu mythology.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Kalpavriksha on the left and Kamenhedu next to Lakshmi on the right.

Along with Kalpavriksha, the wish fulfilling tree, the wish fulfilling cow kamadhenu was also born. Lord Indra is supposed to have taken them to heaven, devaloka, along with him and planted it there.

Krishna and Indra on Airavata and the Parijita tree in Halebidu, Karnataka, India.

As per mythology there are several kalpavrikshas; mandana, parijata, santana, kalpavrikhsa and harichandana. All these are believed to grant different wishes to the devas or gods and out of jealousy the asuras or demons waged wars with them.

The Shaiva myth of Aranyani ties very closely to Kalpavrisksha

[dropcap style=”no-background”] O [/dropcap]ne day, the goddess Parvati was standing with her husband Shiva at the foot of a Kalpavriksha tree. Parvati was enraptured with the beauty of the tree and wanted to know why this one was more special than the others. Shiva told her to offer a wish to the tree. Parvati meditated for a few moments before praying, “Oh Divine Mother! You, who is present everywhere, you who is the embodiment of power and Energy! Please bless us with a most beautiful girl with nine divine gifts of peace, purity, knowledge, energy, patience, respect, prosperity, success and happiness.” With a touch of breath from Shiva, Parvati’s wish was at once fulfilled as the most beautiful young girl emerged from the Kalpavriksha tree. Parvati named her Aranyani.

Dashavatara Temple is an early 6th century Vishnu Hindu temple located at Deogarh, Uttar Pradesh

According to the epics, kalpavriksha or kalpadruma was gifted to Aranyani, a daughter of Shiva and Parvati. The chief aim was to protect the tree, so we often see it being guarded by kinnaras, apsaras, and animals, such as lions, peacocks, etc.

Another daughter Ashokasundari was created from a Kalpavriksha to be a companion to Parvati during period of loneliness.

Aranya means “forest” in Sanskrit. While most people fear wild places, goddess Aranyani is fearless, dwelling in the jungle amongst the fiercest of beasts and the most dangerous of terrains.

Idols of Aranya Devi Temple, Bihar.

In Arrah, a city in the Bhojpur district in the state of Bihar, India, there is a temple known as the Aranya Devi Temple which is dedicated to the goddess Aranyani. Aranyani is a goddess of the forests and all the animals within them. Worshipped in India as the chief expression of life and fertility, one of the most descriptive hymns in the Rigveda was dedicated to Aranyani. In the hymn, the supplicant entreats her to explain how Aranyani can wander so far from civilization without becoming afraid or lonely. Aranyani seems to be a peaceful and happy goddess who loves to dance. Although she is seldom seen, she wears anklets with bells, and her steps can be heard by the tinkling of her anklets.

Aranya Devi Temple located at Arrah in Bihar, which is an incarnation of Devi Parvathi.

There are many legends regarding the temple:

Krishna and The legend Of Aranya Devi Temple

Once Lord Krishna disguised as a hermit and Arjun as a lion went to King Mordhwaj at Arrah, who was renowned for his generosity. The hermit demanded human flesh for his lion saying that the lion did not eat animal flesh. The hermit (Lord Krishna) asked for the flesh of the kings son. The king was puzzled and asked for the consent of his wife. His wife agreed. The hermit asked them to dissect the body of the boy with an arra (saw). This was done jointly by the king and the queen. The hermit demanded that the flesh be cooked by them. The king and the queen obeyed him at once. Now they were asked to eat the cooked flesh together with the hermit and the lion. This was also obeyed. The hermit asked the king to call the boy and partake of the meal. The king said that the boy was killed and cooked. The hermit said, “No, call the boys. The king called out the name of the boy. To their sheer amazement and joy, the boy appeared before them in a playful manner. Then Lord Krishna and Arjun gave revealed their identity and threw away the arra (saw) which was used in dissecting the body of the boy. The temple is said to have been erected by King Mordhwaj at the place where the saw fell.

Ganga and The legend Of Aranya Devi Temple

The area was covered with forest and the Ganga river was flowing near by and the people built a temple there which was called the temple of Aranya Devi, i.e., goddess of the forest.

King Mordhwaj and The legend Of Aranya Devi Temple

Like Harischandra, King Mordhwaj was also a great benefactor and charitable-minded. He was a very kind-hearted man noble, gentle, loving, faithful, honest and simple. His name and fame spread all over India. The fort of King Mordhwaj was a very big and spacious one covering the present Chowdhariana Mohalla, Jain School area and Devi Asthan sector. But in spite of so much prosperity and gaiety, the king and the queen were not happy at all because they had no son. And so with intense devotion they began praying to the goddess Durga to bless them with a son. Finally the divine blessing did dawn upon them. The goddess appeared before the king in his dream and gave her blessing, and nine months after a son was born. The royal boy was a prodigy and provided all the earthly pleasures to his parents. And so the years rolled away. One night King Mordhwaj was in his dream goddess Durga asking him to sacrifice his son before her altar. In the dream the divine mandate was that the imperial boy should be made to stand before the altar and the king and the queen, standing on either side of him, were to ply the saw from the boys head downwards till his body was cut into two halves, with the blood falling before the altar and with no tears trickling down their eyes. The king took the dream seriously, conveyed it to his royal consort and both agreed to execute the mandate. And the royal prince also did not demur and was happy about the fulfilment of the divine wish. So the trial came. The king and queen applied the saw (arra) on the head of the prince and, just as they were starting to ply the saw, the divine mother appeared physically before the scene of sacrifice, blessed the couple and the prince for their devotion to her and disappeared in the blue. It was in this way that the place which was the scene of the sacrifice came to be known as ARRAH, meaning a saw. It is also believed that the king installed a temple at Arrah which was called Aranya Devi temple.

Nyagrodha

Kalpavriksha, the Wish fulfilling tree, Indian Museum, Kolkata. Sandstone. 172.5 cm. height.

Worship of the Nyagrodha tree as a form of non-human worship is depicted in a Buddhist sculpture at Besnagar, Madhya Pradesh. The sculpture, also known as Vidisa (Bhilsa), is dated to third century BC. The sculpture, possibly the capital of a pillar, represents a banyan tree, enclosed by a railing at the base and higher up by a bamboo fence in the shape of a network. The branches of the tree bear coin purse, a conch shell, a lotus and a vase overflowing with coins.

Ancient texts, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, frequently mention a term, Chaitya-vriksha. Interestingly both chaitya-vriksha and kalpavriksha are similar in concept. Chaitya-vrikshas are tree shrines with dense leaves and fruits that provide shelter and food for all living beings. These are open air shrines with railing or fence like structures that cover the tree trunks, or sometimes the tree is placed on a pedestal. Various tree spirits known as yakshas and yakshis, and sometimes even the nagas, are believed to live in these trees.

The trees are worshipped as protectors of both human beings and gods alike. It is interesting how women and men acknowledged the importance of trees in our lives and venerated them in various ways.

In India, the sacred kalpavriksha refers to both the ficus varieties (religiosa and bengalensis), that is, both the Pipal and Banyan.

Kalpavriksha is also identified with many other trees such as:

  • Parijata – Erythrina variegata,
  • Coconut palm – Cocos nucifera,
  • Mahua or Mowra Butter Tree – Madhuca longifolia,
  • Mimosa cineraria – Prosopis cineraria,
  • Indian butter tree – Bassia or Diploknema butyracea,
  • Banana – Musa, not a tree, but a berry and
  • mulberry tree – Morus nigra tree.

All these trees are known to have medicinal properties, besides other uses in daily lives.

The Jain Kalpavriksha

In Jain cosmology, there are 10 Kalpavrikshas which grant 10 distinct wishes. It is said that in the three aras (periods) of humanity, Kalpavrikshas provided all that was needed, but towards the end of the third ara, the yield from them diminished.

We where standing under this fine carving of the wish fulfilling tree at the entrance of the Jain temple at Ranakpur, near Udaipur Rajasthan. Of course we would wish for …

15th century carving Jain temple at Ranakpur in Aravalli range near Udaipur Rajasthan India

Brahama

The Banyan tree is mentioned in many scriptures as a Tree of Immortality, Tree of life or World Tree. Its aerial roots grow down into the soil forming additional trunks and is therefore called Bahupada बहुपाद, the one with several feet.

It symbolizes longevity and represents the divine creator, Brahma. The rustling of the leaves of the tree is attributed to the deities residing on it. It grows on Pushkara dvipa, a special abode of Brahma.

The great banyan tree.
The great banyan tree.

Vishnu

In Vishnu Parana, the tree is compared to Vishnu.

“As the wide spreading Nyagrodha tree is compressed in a small seed, so at the time of dissolution, the whole universe is comprehended in thee as its germ. As the Nyagrodha germinates from the seed and becomes first a shoot and then rises into loftiness, so the created world proceeds from thee and expands into magnitude”.

Nyagrodha planted in front of temples is tenanted by either Krishna or Shiva.
The tree planted in public places like cross-roads, village squares are tenanted by lesser divinities such as Yakshas, Kinnaras, Gandharvas etc.

Yama

The Banyan is associated with Yama the god of death and the tree is often planted near crematoria. The Banyan does not let a blade of grass grow under it. Thus it does not stand for rebirth and renewal. That is why it is not part of fertility ceremonies like marriage and childbirth.

There are tree shrines as idols consecrated below the Banyan, and even today women go around these trees longing for eternity of their marriages in the memory of Savitri who lost Satyavan under a Banyan and later regained his soul from Yama.

Vata Savitri Poornima

Vat poornima, also known as Vata Savitri Poornima is a festival of women, celebrated especially in Maharashtra in the month of Jeyshta (May-June). On this day women pray for long life of their husbands and children. Women observe a fast and tie threads around a banyan tree and pray for the same husband in every birth. The celebration derived from the story of Savitri and Satyavan.

It has been foretold that Satyavan won’t live long. Resting on the lap of Savitri, Satyavan was waiting for death under a banyan tree, when the day of death came. The messenger of Yama, the God of death came to take Satyavan. But Savitri refused to give her beloved husband. Messenger after messenger tried to take Satyavan away, but in vain. Finally, Yama himself appeared in front of Savitri and insisted to give over her husband. Since, she was still reluctant, he offered her a boon.

She asked for the well being of her extended family. He granted it to her. She then followed him as he took Satyavan’s body away. He offered her another boon. She now asked for the well being of her parents. This boon, too, was granted. But she was relentless, and continued to follow him. As they approached Yama’s abode, he offered her a final boon.

She asked for a son. He granted it. She then asked him how it would be possible for her to beget sons without her husband. Yama was trapped and had to return her husband. Following the legend married women pray to the banyan tree for the long life of their husbands and children. A fast is observed the whole night till the next morning.

Shiva

Shiva, Universal Guru, Dakshinamurti at Dharmasthala, Karnataka.

Yoga Dakshinamurti is an aspect of Shiva as a guru (teacher) of yoga, music, and wisdom:

In iconography, Lord Shiva is visualized as Dakshinamurti (Giver of true knowledge), he who faces the south, that being the direction of death and change.

He is shown as sitting under a banyan tree. His one leg rests on the ground, crushing ignorance – as represented by the mythical apasmara under the feet of the deity. The foot lies folded on his lap. His four arms are shown in different ways. He carries a rosary or mala in his upper right hand; the upper left hand is shown as carrying fire; the lower right hand is depicted in abhayamudra ; and the lower left hand is holding the Shastras?. A genre of Sanskrit texts on law and conduct, and refers to the treatises (śāstras) on Dharma.

Below his seat an apasmara is crushed under the feet a cobra is around his arm and looks towards him.

The Abhaya Mudra, a gesture with the hand lifted above thigh with palm facing out, fingers pointing, is interpreted as his grace upon his students. The rosary or the snake signifies tantric knowledge. The fire represents illumination, removing the darkness of ignorance. He sits under the Banyan tree, the botanical embodiment of the universal soul, facing the terror of death and change,– stoically, unafraid – because of his profound understanding of the world.

According to another school of thought Dakshinya means Karuna in Sanskrit or kindness (benevolence). So this manifestation of Shiva is a benevolent teacher who accords wisdom to seekers of salvation.

Dakshinamurti (Shiva) under a Banyan Tree with his students (Kumaras)

At the Tiruvannamalai Temple, India, four sages, sit around Shiva and under the Banyan, they are :

  • Sanatkumara (always a youth),
  • Sanaka (ancient),
  • Sanatana (eternal),
  • Sanandana (having joy).

They are born from the mind of Brahma and live eternally as Brahmacaris, Kumaras, students or disciples.

Taboo of the Oriyan tribes

To some Oriyan tribes, the tree is the Sadru-shrine of the gods and it is a sacrilege to cut it. The taboo against felling it is so great that if anyone cuts it in ignorance, he has to sacrifice a goat to the gods living on the tree.

Some Indians consider the tree as mother, for according to a legend, two orphan children were left under the tree and they were nourished by the milk or the latex that dripped from the tree and were thus saved from starvation.

Bodhi tree in Buddhism

Buddhists consider the tree sacred as Prince Siddhartha sat in meditation under this tree and found enlightenment. The tree since then is known as the Bo or the Bodhi tree. After attaining enlightenment under a Bodhi Tree Lord Buddha is believed to have sat under a Banyan Tree for seven days, absorbed in the extent of his new understanding.

Tree worship in Sanchi. Pipal tree temple of Bodh Gaya depicted in Sanchi Stupa 1 Eastern Gateway. Biswarup Ganguly CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh, India has many depictions of the bodhi tree which is shown as being worshipped for its association with Lord Buddha. The bodhi tree is an akshaya vata, eternal, life giving tree. Originally commissioned by King Ashoka in 3rd century B.C many structures were added to the stupa complex by other dynasties. Scenes from Lord Buddha’s life are sculpted on the toranas (gateways) and other structures in and around the stupa.

Legend of the Pardhans

The Pardhans people worship the Banyan tree because of the following legend:

When Guru Jalranda of the Pardhans died, his body was buried by his sons under a tree of Palasa (Butca frondosa). The sons used to light a fire on the grave daily to keep away the wild animals from desecrating the grave. One day they found a Nyagrodha tree growing out of the grave. The eldest son saw his father in a dream that night who asked him to serve the tree as it had grown out of their father’s bones and brains.

According to the Pardhan’s, the adventitious, hanging roots of the tree are the long and matted hair of the guru.

Sikhism: Parjat – wish-fulfilling Elysian Tree.​

In Sikhism, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib’s scriptures have various references to the tree, more commonly referring to it as Parjat, which translates to “Elysian Tree”. From Sanskrit paarijaat (the coral tree Erythrina indica) – Pali paarijaat (the coral tree).

ਬਿਰਖੁ ਜਮਿਓ ਹੈ ਪਾਰਜਾਤ॥ ਫੂਲ ਲਗੇ ਫਲ ਰਤਨ ਭਾਂਤਿ॥
birakh jamio hai paarjaat. phool lage phal ratan bhaaṅt.
A wish-fulfilling tree, which bears flowers and fruits precious like jewels, has sprouted (within my mind).

Guru Arjan Sahib, Guru Granth Sahib, 1180.

In the verse above, Guru Arjan Sahib uses this tree as an illustration to help us visualize what can grow in our minds when we make a connection with the Divine.

The paarjat, a night flowering jasmine, is another wish-fulfilling tree mentioned in Hindu mythology.

Ethnobotany: The use of the Sacred Fig in history and heritage of traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda and daily life

All parts of the Banyan Tree have been used as a medicine for their cooling and healing properties, as part of the Ayurvedic healing system.

* The bark and leaf buds – are useful in arresting secretion or bleeding.

* The fruit – exercises a soothing effect on the skin and mucous membranes, alleviates swelling and pain, and serves as a mild purgative. It is also nutritious.

* The leaf buds – are beneficial in the treatment of chronic diarrhea and dysentery. The latex is also useful in the treatment of diarrhea and dysentery.

* latex (sap)– of the banyan tree mixed in milk and taken daily helps cure bleeding piles.

– rheumatism, pain and lumbago.

* Tender roots – are considered beneficial in the treatment of female sterility.

* A regular douching of the genital tract with a decoction of the bark of the Banyan tree and the fig tree is helpful in leucorrhoea.

* –medicine for diabetes.

* Cleaning the teeth with the aerial roots of the Banyan is beneficial in preventing teeth and gum disorders. As one chews the stick and brushes, the astringent secretion from the root-stick cleanses and strengthens the teeth and gums.

Great Banyan tree. Kolkatta, India.

* A hot poultice of the leaves can be applied with beneficial results to abscesses to promote suppuration and to hasten their breaking.

*The milky juice from the fresh green leaves is useful in destroying warts.

The latex is commonly used locally for sores, ulcers and bruises.

*The tender ends of the aerial roots can be taken to stop vomiting.

Next time when you see a Banyan, take a moment off to remember that you are looking at a tree that has been venerated right from the beginning of Indus civilization.

A long journey that is continuing in the form of little shrines that are still extant under roadside ficus trees.

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