The tree of life

C L Kaloo
The Bhagavat Gita enlightens us in Adhaya 15th Shloka 1st (15:1 B.G) that there is an imperishable “ashvattha” (banyan) tree that has its roots upwards and its branches down and whose leaves are the Vedic hymns. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas. It is explained in this Adhaya that the purpose of Vedic study is to understand the Divinity of the Lord. The Lord disclosed that the purpose of Vedas is to cut down the material reflected tree; and attain the real tree of the spiritual world. However, the entanglement of this material world is compared here to a banyan tree. A living entity wonders from one branch to another and to another. The tree of this material world has no end, and for one who is attached to this tree, there is no possibility of liberation (freedom from cycle of birth and death). The Vedic hymns meant for elevating oneself are called the leaves of this tree. The roots of this tree grow upward because they begin from where Brahma is located- the top most planet of this universe. If one can understand the indestructible tree of illusion, then one can get out of it.
This process of extrication has been explained in the Bhagavat Gita as how to get out of the material entanglement. In fact, the root of this material existence grows upwards. This indicates that it begins from the total material substance, from the top most planet of the universe. From there, the whole universe is expanded with so many branches, representing the various planetary systems. The fruits represent the result of the living entities’ activities, namely, religion, economic development, sense gratification and liberation. We generally see that the trees on the bank reflect upon the water with their branches down and roots up. In other words, the tree of this material world is only a reflection of the real tree of the spiritual world. This reflection of the spiritual world is situated on desire, just as a tree’s reflection is situated on water. Desire is the cause of things being situated in this reflected material light. One who wants to get out of this material existence must know this tree thoroughly through analytical study. Then one can cut off his relationship with it. It may be clarified here that a reflection is temporary, for it is sometimes seen and sometimes not seen. But the origin from where the reflection is reflected is eternal. Thus, the purpose of the Vedas, as discussed by the Lord Himself, is to cut down this reflected tree and attain the real tree of the spiritual world. This description of the banyan tree is further explained in this Adhaya- Shloka 2 (15:2 B.G) as quoted hereunder:
“Adhas cordhvam prasrtas tasya sakha;
Guna pravarddha visaya-pravalah;
Adhas ca mulany anusantatam;
Karmanubandhi ni manusya-loke”
Means: The branches of this tree extend downwards and upwards, nourished by the three modes of material nature. This tree also has roots going down and those are bound to the fruitive actions of human society.  The Lord explained in this shloka while referring to the rooting of the “ashvattha” tree symbolizing past desires that contribute to the nurture and continuity of the tree of life, causing its physical manifestation as the nervous system to sprout forth again and again, in each new physical form in successive incarnations-“binding man to life and death through the power of his desires.”
This Enduring “tree of life” mentioned in the scriptures of the world, including the Bible- is in reality the human body and human mind. In the human body, the physical tree of nerves is a gross manifestation of the astral tree of life- energy within. The two trees of nerves and life force are condensed out of the tree of human consciousness, the elemental ideas in the casual body, which in turn emanate from cosmic consciousness.
In conclusion, it may be stated that the life and consciousness flowing through its branches spread either “above” or “below”, are nurtured by the “gunas”, i.e. “Satva”, “Rajas” and “Tamas” according to the ego’s response to their good, activating and evil influence. Although the principle root of the tree lies above in cosmic consciousness, there are secondary roots beneath, embedded in the sub consciousness and super consciousness in the brain. It is the desire- seeds (vasanas) that extend downward into the nervous system and senses, and compels man to good or bad actions according to the desires of the past lives (past habits and “samaskaars”). God is the originator of all, but it is man who perpetuates his own existence. Man self created “samaskaars” and “vasanas” form past lives, and his new desires in the present life, impel him to take a innumerable re-births to fulfill his longings and as already mentioned, he contributes to the nurture of the tree of life, causing its physical manifestation as the nervous system to sprout-forth again and again, in each new physical form in successive incarnations.
In this way, human beings are bound to life and death through the power of their desires. Because of this, the “ashvattha” tree is referred to as representing the worldly illusion (samsara) which is the entrapping cause of the cyclic wheel of reincarnation. Of course, a man of self-realization can see this mysterious tree of nerves, life force and thought issuing out of cosmic consciousness, he thus, becomes omniscient – “a knower of the Vedas.” That is, of all knowledge.