The holy banyan tree gives and gives, and like the sun and the rain, it is not partial to any, dedicating its life for the welfare of all living beings, including the very atmosphere, writes Sharon Bath
The dharma of the banyan tree is to give shelter; it provides oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide and gives protection and generous, cool shade to many living beings. In Ayurveda, the tree provides fruit, flowers, roots, bark and latex for medicines, plus we use its wood for fuel, furniture and religious fires. The tree gives and gives, and like the sun and rain, it is not partial to any. The tree dedicates its life for the welfare of all living beings, including the very atmosphere. No wonder the humble, yet mighty tree, is compared to a saintly gentleman or to the Lord Himself.
It may surprise you to know there are many types of banyan trees throughout the world, but we will focus primarily on the national tree of India, the Bengal fig (Ficus Bengalensis).
The banyan tree is part of a large group of trees that usually begin life as an epiphyte, which means they grow on another tree (host plant) or on rock, and in the end they consume their host. For that reason they are called strangler figs. There’s sometimes confusion between the banyan and peepal tree, and both trees are sacred figs. If you understand the growing habit of the banyan tree you will never make the mistake. The banyan tree’s habit is to keep expanding outward. The banyan tree grows aerial roots into the ground which form new trunks; these trunks have the potential to cover many acres of land. It is like the tree that has many feet that start walking away from the central trunk.
The holy banyan tree is a sacred tree and a symbol of immortality, associated with Lord Shiva. The banyan tree is compared to the Adi Guru who offers his shelter to seekers of Truth. Shri Dakshinamurti is a form of Lord Shiva who meditates under the banyan tree, facing southward. There’s a legend that says Shri Dakshinamurti taught the four Kumara brothers while keeping perfectly silent. Shri Dakshinamurti made the chinmudra – the index finger touching the thumb, reminding spiritual seekers of the ultimate goal of life: union of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul.
Savitri and Lord Yama’s boon
Lord Yama (the Lord of Death) also has associations with the banyan tree, and the tree is often planted near cemeteries; spirits are said to live in close proximity to the tree. Many cultures associate the banyan tree as being a house for spirits. There’s a legend about a chaste wife called Savitri who saved her husband from death, due to her piety, devotion to her husband, determination and sheer wit. Married women still honour Savitri each year with a festival; she is considered a role model and symbol of the virtuous wife.
The reason the banyan tree features so strongly at festival time is that Lord Yama took Savitri’s husband’s soul while he lay under the banyan tree and after three days of following Lord Yama and receiving several boons, Savitri finally received the boon from Lord Yama which allowed her husband to come back to life. Savitri’s husband regained consciousness under the shelter of the banyan tree. During this often elaborate festival known as ‘Vat Savitri’, married women diligently fast, and the banyan tree is offered gifts of flowers and incense and is tenderly wrapped in white or coloured threads for the long life of the husband in this life and following lives and for the happiness of the family.
Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Sarada Devi
Many saints have had a connection with banyan trees. They have meditated and found enlightenment within their shelter and they themselves have given talks under their shady umbrella. They have also used banyan trees in parables as well as metaphors in their discourses and in simple conversation with devotees. The language of the saint is very much connected to nature, so that we ordinary people can understand great truths more easily. In addition, the saint will ask us to look for God in every living being, including the tree.
Ramakrishna Paramhansa had many visions under the magnificent canopy of the banyan tree, which is one of the five sacred trees that make up the Panchavati. The Panchavati is a grove of trees — banyan, peepal, ashoka, amla and bel, and these five were planted under Shri Ramakrishna’s supervision in the grounds at Dakshineswar Kali Temple in West Bengal. The banyan tree was planted at the centre of the Panchavati. Paramhansa Ramakrishna knew the growing habit of the banyan tree intimately, as he said: “The ego is like the root of a banyan tree, you think that you have removed it all then one fine morning you see a sprout flourishing again.” The wife of Shri Ramakrishna, mother Sarada Devi, also made a comparison to the banyan tree when she warned us about worldly desires: “Desire may be compared to a minute seed. It is like a big banyan tree growing out of a seed, which is no bigger than a dot.”
The Chandogya Upanishad also gives us a teaching which involves the banyan tree. In order to instruct his young son about Supreme Reality, an illumined father teaches his son in a very practical way. The setting takes place in the shadow of a majestic banyan tree. The father tells his son to pick up a banyan fruit and break it open and see what it contains. The son does so and replies that the seeds inside are exceedingly small. The father then tells his son to break open the tiny speck of a seed within the fruit and then asks him what he sees. The son replies that he sees nothing at all. The father then explains that the subtle essence which is invisible to the eye—from that very essence the great banyan tree arises.
“Believe me, my son, an invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is Reality. That is Atman. Thou are that.” –Chandogna Upanishad
(The Upanishads, Penguin Books, 1965; p.117)
Where to see a banyan tree in Queensland
We are spoiled for choice in sunny Queensland as there are so many banyan trees located here. In fact, the best Indian banyan tree in the whole of Australia (A National Trust tree) is found at the Botanical Gardens in Brisbane CBD. It is absolutely awe-inspiring, to say the least. Planted in the 1870’s, it is located adjacent to the Gardens Point, University of Technology, inside the south western fence of the gardens, not too far from the cafe. It makes me happy to imagine that the tree at the Botanical Gardens was planted as a sapling in Shri Ramakrishna’s lifetime. There’s a natural association – both are noble giants from Bengal.
There’s more than one banyan tree planted in the city’s Botanical Gardens. You will also find a very impressive native banyan tree right next to the Indian banyan. This native banyan (Ficus Microcarpa), commonly known as the Chinese banyan or curtain fig, has a wide area of distribution in Asia, as well as the coasts of Queensland and New South Wales.
There’s also a grove of Indian banyan trees (Ficus Bengalensis) at Roma Street Parklands (In Brisbane CBD) and also at South Bank Parklands, which are both well worth a visit. At Roma Street Parklands, there’s one free musical event each month in 2019 on Banyan Lawn.
There are additional mighty banyan trees to be found at Botanical Gardens at Mt. Coot-tha. If you have never been there, you really must. It is an amazing place to visit; there are many areas for picnics on the waterlily-filled lake and its surrounds.
Furthermore, there is a magnificent grove of Australian banyan trees, known as Moreton Bay figs, at Wellington Point where children can play under their canopy. The Australian banyan (Ficus Macrophylla) is found at coastal areas in Queensland and New South Wales. Another similar fig tree playground is situated at New Farm Park where children can really enjoy these mighty trees up close on the boardwalk and in the tree house.
We are extremely privileged in Queensland to have spectacular, pristine rainforest on our doorstep. It is an unimaginably beautiful experience to be in close proximity of banyan-style trees in a rainforest setting. The birds, bats and other small creatures that visit the tree and make it their home are a joy to see and hear. Truly, the banyan is the Lord of the forest. In Brisbane, the Bengal fig is also the Lord of the CBD at Brisbane City Botanical Gardens on the Brisbane River. It’s a beautiful place to visit on a hot summer’s day, and the river always offers a cool breeze.
Where to buy a banyan tree
The banyan tree is not a suitable tree for the home garden. It is no use collecting the seed yourself either; all the seed of the Indian banyan in Australia is sterile because we do not have the right wasp for the job of pollinating the little tiny flowers which are found inside the fruit. However, you can buy the fertile seed of Ficus Bengalensis online at www.seedvine.com and try your luck if you have the space.