Why Banyan Tree is so important for Hindus

For the first time in history, on July 12, 2007, a Hindu hymn was used to mark the opening session of the US Senate. A handful of conservatives condemned the occasion, saying the prayer flies in the face of the American motto of "One Nation Under God." "In Hindu, you have not one God, but many, many, many, many, many gods," said David Barton, a religious, right-wing historian. "[This] is not a religion that has produced great things in the world." Soon his supporters joined the chorus of religion bashing by describing the Hindu faith as "wicked," "pagan," and "evil."For Hindus around the world, the political impact of the statement was equivalent to a category five hurricane.

Sorry Dave, you have been drinking. The religion is called Hinduism, not Hindu.But that's okay. When the mind is befuddled, it is hard to re­ member people, especially a man by the name of Gandhi, one of the greatest exponents of peace in modern times. Yet thousands of years before you uttered those very words, Hinduism had always claimed the existence of only one God. When you wake up to the realization of a world outside the United States, please come by and have a look at the Great Banyan, the mother of all banyan trees and a living spectacle for tourists at the botanical gardens on the outskirts of Calcutta, India.

From a distance, the Great Banyan appears to be a forest of trees, but in reality it is a single tree with many individual trunks bigger than the size of an average living room. New shoots grow upward for ordinary trees, but the banyan sends them downward from its branches.These aerial shoots then turn into new trunks as they reach the ground. The Great Banyan has about three thousands of them.

With a canopy that extends more than the size of three soccer fields, the Great Banyan is one of the widest trees in the world. A true survivor, it has withstood the onslaught of the weather and disease for over 200 years.Among the banyans, it is the oldest in the land. It is ironic that the revered banyan produces a lot of red fruit that is utterly useless. No one wants to eat them, al­ though they are prized by the nearby monkeys.

For the Hindus, the banyan is sacred, but I believe it's more than that. The tree is a true embodiment of the religion. Just as thousands of trunks support the banyan, many age-old traditions and beliefs, often in conflict with one another, sustain the world's oldest living religion. You will be surprised to learn that while most Hindu traditions promote peace, others sacrifice animals to appease gods.When sections of the society are pure vegetarians, some regions are famed for their meat-based cuisines.

Banyan is also associated with Yama, the God of death. This is why it is planted outside of villages near crematoriums. This tree does not let even a blade of grass grow under it. That is why it is not used for any fertility ceremonies like childbirth and marriage, as it does not allow renewal or rebirth. The Hindu religion considers two types of sacredness, temporary material reality, and permanent material reality. Trees like the coconut and banana fit in the first category as they represent the flesh, constantly dying and renewing itself, while the Banyan represents the latter, it is like the soul, neither dying nor renewing. The Banyan represents one’s spiritual aspirations. It is said to be immortal or Akshaya, and can even survive Pralaya or the destruction of the world. The banana tree is considered an equivalent to the householder, while the Banyan is considered and equivalent to the hermit.

Just as a hermit cannot raise a family or support a household and only has spiritual aspirations. The same way, the banyan tree represents the spiritual aspirations; free from materialism. Under the banyan tree are usually seen hermits who have left the materials aspects of their lives. They reject the flesh in search of the soul alone. The greatest of hermits, Shiva is represented as a stone called Lingam under the shade of the banyan tree. Shiva was never part of the village, he didn’t fear ghosts or spirits, and used to stay comfortably in the shade of this immortal tree.

The banyan tree also has medicinal properties and is used extensively in Ayurveda. The bark of the tree and its leaves can be used to stop excessive bleeding from wounds. The latex of the plant is used to cure piles, rheumatism, pain, and lumbago. Over the years, Hinduism has been attacked, both from inside and outside. It has gone through periods of decay and disarray. Yet like the banyan, it has continued to adapt, survive, and thrive.

Centuries-old customs like Sati or bride burning have been outlawed. The caste system, a permanent blot on the religion, is in decline. Older gods like Indra and Mitra were driven to obscurity, and gods like Vishnu and Ganesha have gained prominence. Despite the multiplicity of gods, Hinduism has always stated that Krishna and Shiva and Lakshmi and Saraswati are merely different names for the one and only absolute reality called Brahman.

For an outsider trying to understand Hin­duism, the religion is utterly confusing. Some describe Hinduism as an all-absorbent sponge, while others liken it to an impenetrable jungle. Most outsiders, like Dave, are too wrapped up in their own religion and can only see as far as the forest, and then make sweeping generalizations. They shoul understand that Hindu Sanatan Dharma is greatest among all.

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