I am the Banyan Tree by Haroon Khalid

During the course of my research for this article, I approached Salman Rashid who had an interesting story for me from the epoch of Alexander. It was a letter to Aristotle by Alexander when the latter was with Porus in India. The letter tells that once two old Indian men came to Alexander during his stay here and told him that at some distance from this spot were two trees, which could talk. One of them was male, while the other female. After mocking the two old men, Alexander decided to visit the trees, and found them to be actually communicating.

I recently visited the famous Banyan tree, known as the Bodhi tree in local language, at the village Abal Muri, near Mid Ranjha, district Sargodha. It is a popular tourist spot, also manifested by the names of the visitors written on the stems of the tree. The tree has also been the focus of a number of research articles and documentaries.

What makes this tree so special is its huge size. It is a forest within itself occupying an area of three acres. In fact it is not just one tree anymore, but a number of trees sprouting from the mother trunk which, however, no longer stands. Branches emerge from within the ground, from other trees, connect to other branches, giving a forest like effect. Banyan trees roughly grow up to 2000 years and hardly above that. As the main trunk of the tree no longer exists, the age of the tree can easily be estimated to be above 2000 years. If the story about the talking tree is true, this could have been the tree the letter talks about.

Banyan trees have an interesting mechanism of expanding. From the branches of the trees rope like structures called boughs fall towards the ground and upon touching the ground they become a branch. This way the tree keeps expanding even long after the death of the original tree. That is what has happened to this tree.

Boughs of Banyan tree have earned a special place in Indian tradition. Myths pertaining to Banyan trees are commonly found in almost all of Indian religions. Seals dating back to Mohenjadaro also depict Banyan tree, leading researchers to conclude that the reverence of Banyan trees in Hinduism could have been borrowed from the indigenous religion of the Indus valley.

Elements of indigenous culture fuse with the layers of framework of religion. The same is the case with rivers and trees in Hinduism. During intense Indian summers, the mammoth size of the Banyan tree provides a dense shade. My elders inform me that during the summers the villagers had lunch under the Banyan tree of the village. In such an atmosphere, it was only inevitable that the Banyan tree became a part of the Bhagavad Gita: “of all trees I am the banyan tree, and of the sages among the demigods I am Narada.”

Banyan tree has a semi-divine status in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It is believed that spirits known as yaksas inhabit Banyan trees; people come and pray to the Banyan tree to get the blessings of the spirit. Also if someone cut a Banyan tree it is believed that the spirit would inhabit their residence. Even though the interpretation is given purely religious colours, the cultural element behind the thought was visible in many rural Pakistani Punjabi houses, at least during the early years. It is believed that even Muslims shouldn’t cut Banyan to respect its sanctity. Now however, the situation has changed and one hears a number of stories about people cutting Banyan trees at their villages and towns.

The Buddhists believe that it was under a Banyan tree that Buddha attained enlightenment and that is why they call it Bodhi tree meaning ‘tree of enlightenment.’ It is believed that during his meditation, when the demon Sujata came to corrupt him, it is the guardian spirit of the tree that came down for his protection. Therefore, falling leaves from the trees and sagging boughs become as symbols of the guardian spirit. Many Buddhist monks and Hindu priests meditate under a Banyan tree for days. In the earlier Buddhist tradition, a Banyan tree even became a symbol for Buddha himself.

A Muslim Banyan Tree:

By Haroon Khalid

 

During the course of research for this article I approached Salman Rashid who narrated to me an interesting story allegedly to be from the epoch of Alexander. It is a letter to Aristotle by Alexander when the latter was with Porus in India. In the letter he tells Aristotle that once two old Indian men came to Alexander, during his stay at Jhelum, and told him that at some distance from this particular spot are two talking trees. One of them is male, while the other its counterpart. After mocking the two old men he finally decided to visit the trees, and found them to be actually communicating.According to Salman Rashid this letter was not originally written by Alexander, but after his death.

 

Now if Alexander or his impostor can narrate about a talking tree, then I would also dare to tell a story about a Muslim tree. This is the famous Banyan tree, known as the Bodhi tree in local language, at the village Abal Muri, near Mid Ranjha, district Sargodha. It is a popular local tourist spot clearly manifested by the names of numerous visitors written on the stems of the tree. The tree has also been the focus of numerous research articles and documentaries. What makes this tree so special is its huge size. The tree is a forest within itself. Some years ago when the local land administrator measured the size of the spread of the tree it came to be around 3 acres. It is not just one tree anymore but a number of them sprouting from the mother trunk which, however, no longer stands. The various branches of the main tree are so numerous giving a forest like effect. It is a beautiful spectacle of nature’s aesthetic. It is reported that Banyan trees roughly grow up to 2000 years and hardly above that. As the main trunk of the tree no longer exists the age of the tree can easily be estimated to be above 2000 years. If the story about the talking tree were to be true this could have been one of the trees.

 

Banyan trees have an interesting mechanics of expanding. From the branches of the trees rope like structures called boughs fall towards the ground, and upon touching the ground they become a branch. In this method the tree keeps on expanding even long after the death of the original tree. This is what has happened in the context of this tree. Boughs of Banyan trees have over the years earned a special place in Indian tradition.

 

In the South Asian cultural imagination banyan trees have played an important from the beginning of civilization here, and that is why myths pertinent to Banyan trees are found commonly in almost all of the Indian religions. Seals dating back to Mohenjadaro depict Banyan trees leading some researchers to the conclusion that they were treated as sacred entities even back then. In the framework of any religion pragmatic requirements of the culture become fused with mythology. That is what has happened in the case of rivers and trees in Hinduism. In the intense summers of India the mammoth size of the Banyan tree provides a dense shade for people. My elders inform me that during the summers all of the villagers used to have lunch under the Banyan tree of the village. In such an atmosphere it was only inevitable that the Banyan tree became a part of the Bhagavad Gita. This is what it has to say about Banyan tree:

 

‘Of all trees I am the banyan tree, and of the sages among the demigods I am Narada.’

 

Banyan tree, in this manner, has taken over as a semi-divine status in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It is believed that spirits known as yaksas inhabit Banyan trees; therefore people come and pray to it to get the blessings of the spirit. Also people would never cut such a tree, because if they did, it is believed that the spirit would inhabit their residence. The cultural element behind the thought was visible in many rural Muslim Pakistani Punjabi houses, at least during the early years of the country, and to a certain extent even now. It is narrated that even the Muslims of Pakistan never used to cut these trees, because of its sanctity. Banyan trees also used to regularly accompany larger Hindu temples.

 

The Buddhist believe that it was under a Banyan tree that Buddha first received enlightenment and that is why they are called Bodhi trees, which means trees of enlightenment. It is said that during his mediation, when the demon Sujata came to district him, the guardian spirit of the tree that came down from the tree to protect Buddha. Falling leaves from the trees and sagging boughs, subsequently, became symbols of the guardian spirit, thus reverent. Many Buddhist monks and Hindu priests come and settle under a Banyan tree for meditation. The Banyan tree also served as an important pilgrimage spot for Buddhists and Hindus. In the earlier Buddhist tradition a Banyan tree became an emblem for Buddha.

 

After the partition of India, even though the Hindus migrated from this land, the culture and tradition, which is behind the formation of many religions, remain and now takes on a new face incorporating itself into Muslim tradition. It is for this reason that I call this tree a Muslim tree, primarily, because it is incumbent for us to have a Muslim history associated with this tree to still deem it to be special. According to folk tale a Muslim Syed Saint came and planted this tree. He is said to be buried under this tree, and as long as his grave remains under it nothing can happen to the tree. There are many more Muslim graves under that tree too, all of them with a story, trying desperately to link Islam with the indigenous culture and beliefs. It is not alright for the tree to be Hindu or Buddhist, it has to be ours, and it has to be Muslim.

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One response to “I am the Banyan Tree by Haroon Khalid

  1. very information result of hard work dedication to produce it blessings grateful dear

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