From the Jacket:
Trees and plants play an important part in the myths and customs of India. Many are considered holy, often for reasons that are lost in the mists of antiquity - they are associated and identified with gods, planets, months, etc. - certain plants are used as protection against witchcraft and the evil eye - some plants bring luck and are offered in the temples - and others play an important part in other religious rites. These tradition and myths form an important aspect of the Indian's mental background and Dr. Gupta, has performed a most useful service in bringing together all those are known on these subjects from the older Indian Literature to modern research.
The author discusses the forty-five most important trees and plants and describes the myths and customs connected with each. Specimens of Indian sculpture illustrating the various myths are reproduced on numerous plates.
About the Author:
Dr. Gupta is an established writer on Hindu mythology. She has published a large number of books, Vishnu and His Incarnations; Legends around Shiva; Surya the Sun God; Karttikeya, the Son of Shiva; From Daityas to Devatas in Hindu Mythology; and a comprehensive volume on Festivals , Fairs and Fasts of India. Her most recent book Plants in Indian Temple Arts is a survey of Plants sculptured on Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina temples. A Botanist by profession Dr. Gupta did her Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Delhi and another Ph.D. from the Faculty of Oriental Archaeology, Martin Luther University, Wittenberg, Halle, Germany.
In India trees and plants have been adored not only with devotion but have been affectionately fondled and almost treated as members of a family. Kalidasa mentions kindly spirits like vanadevatas, who had been companions of Sakuntala in the forest, almost shedding tears when she left her sylvan home for her residence in the palace of her husband, the king, and hastened to give her presents of silken garments and jewels worthy of a princess. When Sita was abandoned by Lakshmana in the forest at the command of Rama, Sita's sorrow stirred the trees and plants, and along with animals and birds, they too expressed their grief by shedding flowers like large drops of tears. Parvati makes no difference between her fond son Kumara and a Devadaru sapling almost chosen as her pet offspring, and she lovingly reared it by watering it with pitchers of water as with her own breast milk. When Aja laments for Indumati, the prince cannot refrain from mentioning with a pang the yet unfulfilled marriage of the two trees that the queen had brought up so lovingly in the hope of getting them married. This idea of getting trees paired in marriage bespeaks the almost human way in which they were treated. The creeper entwining the tree, spoken of by poets as the beloved clinging to her lord, is a poetic expression of this sympathy for plants, treated almost in human form. In the Vishnusahasranama, Vishnu is mentioned as the very embodiment of imposing trees like Udumabara, Aswattha, Asoka and Nyagrodha. Siva is himself conceived as a yupa post fashioned in Khadira or Sami wood. Sami has fire inside it. Rudra is also the embodiment of fire. Poets love to use the word Sthanu for Siva and Aparna (lit. leafless) for Parvati to suggest that even the dry tree trunk (sthanu) bears shoots in association with Aparna (saparna). Oshadhis or medicinal plants respond to the light of the moon as effectively as the humans in their joy for moonlight. In the Vedic hymns the oshadhis have been conceived as sentient and in the Puranas the vanadevatas are described as lovable sylvan deities. The simple faith of the Cheta in the Mrichchhakatika assumes that the (watchful) eye of the vanadevata is as effective as that of the sun and moon that are witnesses of the good and bad deeds of people on earth. This is a primitive belief that accounts for a true and honest life in the simple and unsophisticated folk of nearly 2000 years ago.
Dr. (Mrs.) Shakti M. Gupta has to be thanked for writing a delightful book on plant myths and traditions in India, describing individual plants with their scientific nomenclature and the myths and stories associated with each one of them as well as usage and traditions peculiar to them. This is a book of immense interest and I am sure it will be welcomed by all those who desire to know the Indian outlook on life in general and on the vegetable kingdom in particular, as an exceedingly important group among sentient objects that won the hearts of their human neighbours. The Dohada, the Vriksharopa, the Pratishta of the Pipal tree, the worship of the Chaityavriksha and other similar beliefs make it essential that the psychological approach towards plants in India should be studied in books like this. I am glad that Dr. Gupta has prepared a very interesting study in the true Indian spirit of affection towards plant life.
Man has been fascinated by nature since he evolved from his primitive ancestors, the apes. No doubt to start with, he hunted for food mainly by killing the wild animals, but if there was anything on which he could depend with any confidence towards its availability, it was the plant. Not only the fact that a large number of plants provided him with food but also the fact that they provided him with curative medicine and shelter, were perhaps the reasons why he worshipped them more than the animals which also gave him food.
The reason for a large number of plants not having any commercial use and still associated with myths and traditions are difficult to under- stand. The only explanation for their association with religious beliefs can be that these plants, perhaps because of their resemblance to the emblem of a particular deity or the name of a sage associated with them, made the plants sacred. For this reason alone a large number of plants are considered sacred in India, and are called the Bodhi trees as certain sages received enlightenment under them. For instance Aswattha is the Bodhi tree of Sakya Muni or Buddha; Nyagrodha of Kasyapa; Udumbara of Kanak Muni; Sirisa of Krakuchhanda; Asoka of Vipaswi; Pundarika of Sikhi.
The availability of a plant can be another reason for its traditional use. Yet there again reasons defy explanation. Rice for instance is a fertility symbol. Its use at religious and marriage ceremonies can be understood in areas where rice is available in plenty. But what defies understanding is the fact that rice is used for the same reason and purpose even in areas where it is not cultivated. The only explanation for such a cult can be that when the migration of the human race from one corner of the earth to another took place, men took their traditions with them even when those plants were not easily available and often had to be procured from great distance.
The conservation of plants by worshipping them was very likely an important factor in making them sacred.
There are a large number of plants which are used by people all over India to get rid of the curse of witchcraft or to remove the effect of the evil eye but the reasons for faith and belief in them is lost in antiquity. For instance a plant called Dodheri by the Santhals of India is highly valued as its root is given in sickness attributed to witchcraft or the evil eye. Similarly, the nomadic tribes of Rajasthan tie, the leaves of Bilati- sij to the neck of small children as an amulet to ward off the evil eye.
Among the Oriyan tribe Saoras, an amulet made of bits of the bark of Pindara is used as protection against Danunkisum, and a necklace made out of its bark, to protect the nursing mother. Similarly the plant Tridhara is supposed to possess power of warding off lightning strokes. Amalaka is a tree sacred to the Hindus and credited with magical pro- perties by the tribesmen. Seeds of Harmala are burnt to drive away evil spirits or to avert the evil eye. The smoke emanating from the burning seeds cleanses the atmosphere of mosquitoes and germs. Prisniparni is used as a protection against sorcerers indulging in bringing about abortion. These like Bhela, Tendu and Nirgundi are believed to have magical potency and the branches of these trees are used by the Oroan tribes of India to avert the evil eye, repel evil spirits and other evil influences from standing crops. Aparmarga is used in witchcraft against Kshatriyas and for medical purposes. In the Atharvaveda it is described as revertive because it wards off a spell by causing it to recoil on its user.
Though generally speaking the identity of plants with the deities belonged to the tradition of Aryan migration, such as the association of the Soma plant with the moon, a large number of plants that are asso- ciated with the deities belong to the traditional flora of India such as the association of Tulasi and Amalaka with Vishnu; Bilva with Siva and Sri- Lakshmi with the lotus. In such cases the association of the plant with the deities would be pre-Aryan.
The utility of trees in a hot country was recognised by people from very early times. The merit of planting trees is given in many ancient texts. In Matsya Purana' a legend mentions that Parvati planted a sapling of Asoka and the gods asked her the merit of planting trees. To this Parvati replied: "A Vapi is equal in fruit to 10 wells, a pond to 10 Vapis, a son to 10 ponds and a tree is equal in merit to 10 sons." The merit for the performance of rite of consecration of trees and orchards is also mentioned in Agni Purana.
To the Hindus all plants having the trifoliate arrangement of their leaves like Varuna, are associated with the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and its leaves are offered to all the three gods. Leaves of Bilva and Mandara also have trifoliate leaf arrangement but are offered to Siva only, the leaves being associated with the trident.
Apart from the above associations, a large number of other plants are also considered auspicious and their flowers are offered at temples or their wood used for the sacred fire ceremony homa. Below are given the names of a few such plants. The flowers of Aparajit are used in religious ceremonies. Flowers for offering to Kali and Hanuman are japa. Inciden- tally this flower is also a favourite one for incantations in evil designs. The wood of Arka is used in homa and its flowers are offered to Siva and Hanuman. Siva is also offered flowers of Dhatura. Flowers of Sehund or Sij are sacred for Manasa, the snake goddess and offered at her temples by the tribal and hill people where snake worship is prevalent, particularly in Bengal and South India. The leaves of the Neem tree are used in the feast connected with the last rites of death by certain tribes of Orissa. The inflorescence of Khadira is used in ceremonies on auspicious occasions like marriages in South India and Gujarat. Kusa ghas is held sacred by the Hindus all over India. The odorous roots of Dhup is used as incense and its flowers are offered at shrines and temples. The sweet scented flowers of Daphne bholua as well as of Guma are offered at temples. The scented wood of Chandana or sandalwood is extensively used in religious ceremonies. The paste made from the wood has a cooling effect and it is believed to remove sins, miseries and sorrows and also to augument riches.
In ancient India, an elaborate ritual was laid for each sacred ceremony and plants formed an important niche in the ceremony. At the coronation of Yudhishthira after the battle of Kurukshetra;' "there were golden jars full to the brim with water, also jars made of silver, copper and earth, flowers, fried paddy, Kusa ghas, cow's milk, sacrificial fuel consisting of the woods of Sami, Pipala, Palasa, honey, clarified butter and sacrificial ladles made of Udumbara and conches adorned with gold." Garuda Purana mentions the ritual use of plants. Twigs of sacrificial plants such as Arka, Palasa, Khadira, Aparmarga, Pipala, Udumbara, Sami, blades of Durba and Kusa ghas soaked with curd, honey, clarified butter should be repeatedly cast into the sacrificial fire, in the homa ceremonies which are celebrated for the propitiation of the planets such as the Sun.
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