Trees from Druid and Hindu Perspective
by Amanda Knopp
Since beginning to study Druidry, I have naturally been drawn into a deeper understanding of trees. As I'm also very interested in Hinduism, I couldn't help but start to compare and contrast the two belief systems, especially in relation to their respective attitudes to trees. I thought I would try and put some of my thoughts down on paper – provided, of course, by our leafy friends.
The first thing that struck me when opening my mind to Druidry, was how central trees are to the tradition, both physically and metaphorically. However, I was soon to discover that trees play a part in almost every religion/spiritual system the world over. They are certainly a unifying factor between very different beliefs, just as they are a unifying factor between the planet we have as our home, and the infinite space above it. Along with mountains they enjoy both an earthy, rooted home and an airy, aspirational one. They symbolise the fact that with a firm foundation we can be free to reach for the stars – which is the basis of spiritual development of us human beings. We are urged to balance and unite our earthly and spiritual impulses so that ultimately we can live a worthwhile and satisfying life, with spirits that are liberated. I think that Druids and Hindus would both agree that earthly love leads naturally to spiritual aspiration and vice versa; the two are inextricably linked. It seems that trees are the ideal representation for the macrocosm, and they also describe the place of humans and their energy systems within life as we experience it. The tree therefore symbolises how the universe reflects in the Self, and also how the Self is reflected in the universe. This explains in simple terms the Druid and Hindu ideas of God in everything and everything in God.
For millennia wo/man has benefited from the trees, which are nature's quiet but great givers to humanity. They cleanse the air and soil, defend against flooding, provide shelter from the elements and homes for a huge variety of life. They are also the source of eco-friendly fuel and are favourite places for children to play and for adults to relax. We have long wondered at their majesty, beauty and steadfastness, and we have enjoyed their parts in scriptures, myth and legend, from the biblical Tree of Knowledge; the Hindu Asvattha and the Druid Tree of Life, to the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter.
Within Druidry (and to any nature-lover) trees are held in high esteem not only for their beauty and longevity, but also for their ability to heal and promote health via use of actual parts of the tree in medicines, or via their energetic contribution. Many of us would bear witness to the healing effect of simply sitting under a tree, back leaning against its trunk; or even a simple walk in the woods. It is also well-known that the bark of the willow contains salicylic acid, the base for aspirin (although the drug companies now prefer to manufacture it themselves). For Druids, the Ogham is the most obvious sign of how central trees are to Druidic thought, and it takes us deep into tree-lore. By using trees as the inspiration for an alphabet, they are securely placed in a position of importance, and in using them in divination it is clear that the whole of human experience can be described in terms of the trees and their associations.
Hinduism, like Druidry, has a great respect for nature. Ayurveda the natural health system derived from the Vedas (scriptures) uses an extensive number of plant remedies, not only for physical complaints, but emotional and spiritual problems too. The sages and ascetics are said to retreat to either mountain caves or forests to perform their sadhana or spiritual practices, which would indicate that these locations are held in high regard.
The World Tree or Yggdrasill of Norse mythology seems to be an explanation of how the worlds (anything from three to nine) are linked. It is not specific about the location of them, but suggests that they are connected, similar to how spiritual development in people might unfold. It describes how the worlds, seen and unseen relate to each other. Sometimes the Tree of Life and World Tree are taken to be the same thing, sometimes they are seen in slightly different lights. The Tree of Life can be taken to be a resemblance of the interconnectedness of life, whereas the World Tree is more about describing the connection between the various worlds themselves. In a sense, they show a path to ‘gain access’ to different levels of awareness, dependent upon spiritual intent and progress along a chosen path. Looking at it from a three-worlds perspective, it is a mythical picture of the paths between these three stages, and how energy and consciousness might interact between them.
If we link the idea of the three worlds or stages with that of the Druid three cauldrons (energy centres) of the human body, we can see how the World Tree symbolism applies to us, physically. Before we do that, it would be useful to look at the Hindu take on trees.
We might sometimes think of India as polluting the environment as it races towards industrialisation and economic development, and this is indeed true. However, religious practices such as offering non-biodegradable items into rivers, especially the Ganges, are now gradually being seen as unfavourable activities, and initiatives have been begun to educate the people and help them to adapt the old traditions to ones which support the environment.
Hindus make offerings to trees and some are considered especially sacred, due to them being mentioned in the Vedas. These are:- banyan, pippal (sacred fig), udumbara (a type of parasitic fig), palasha (type of Butea or ‘Flame of the Forest’, one of the pea family) and mango.
Mythologically though, the most well-known reference to a tree is in a part of the epic Mahabharata called the Bhagavad Gita. In chapter 15 verse 1 the cosmic tree or Asvattha tree is described and used to explain the nature of creation, its interconnectedness and its relation to spirit. This Asvattha tree is described as imperishable, and has its roots in the heavens and its branches reaching to the earth. Having the roots in the heavens makes the point that the tree gains its nourishment from a spiritual source (called Ishwara, or the agent through which the source has manifested itself). So as the trunk carries this nourishment down towards the earth, it produces branches which represent creation as it manifests itself in an increasingly material or earthy way. The branches furthest from the trunk are seen as being most caught up in the material world. Some say the Asvattha tree is a Peepul (a type of Banyan), because the branches of the Banyan reach for and anchor themselves to the earth.
This is interesting because Hinduism is very much about remembering that we are spirit incarnate, and a lot of the beliefs and traditions serve to turn the mind back to the divine, and away from earthly life. In some ways this could be seen as lessening the importance of our actions here on earth – except for the fact that karma (in short, ‘you get what you give’) and the belief in reincarnation, encourages the practitioner to do as well as possible, so that s/he won't be born again in an earthly body. Hindus are mostly interested in breaking the source of rebirth – they wish to progress spiritually so that they eventually become one with the source. Earthly life well-lived is the key to eventual liberation from the cycle of birth-death-reincarnation. Druidry, being more earthy in its foundations, sees things more from the point of view of enjoying this earthly incarnation, and more commonly fears death because of having to leave it, whereas Hindus may fear death in case they have to come back and live yet another earthly life. This could possibly be a reason for the trees being opposite ways up? The tree of life could even be seen as the mirror reflection of the Asvattha tree, as it settles itself in its earthly home. Maybe the trees could be combined like this:
SPIRIT REFLECTS ITSELF ON EARTH AS ASVATTHA TREE
WORLD TREE REPRESTENTS SPIRIT MANIFEST IN EARTHLY REALITY
The leaves of the Asvattha tree are said to be the hymns of the Vedas, representing knowledge of the highest quality. The hymns describe life in all its marvellous variety. Swami Chidbhavananda states in his translation of the Bhagavad Gita:-
He alone is a Vedavit (knower of the Vedas) who truly sees into the marvellous working of nature. (page 749).
While Hinduism uses the tree metaphor to explain how life on earth connects to its source, it continues the metaphor to show how our human contribution can augment this life through spiritual pursuits. We can see that by pruning, tending and nurturing the tree of our own lives, we can help it to flourish. It suggests that by having a spiritual intent, the pursuit is worthy and auspicious, whatever it might be. Intention is of primary importance along with not being attached to the fruits of our work (and therefore only working to increase the ego). It emphasises our connection to source, however aware of it the individual might be. The actual word ‘Asvattha’ has in its meaning the root of ‘change’ or that which does not stay the same tomorrow, gifting humanity with the hope that things can always be improved and there is room for us to make things as good as we possibly can through our own efforts. From the Hindu perspective, the Asvattha tree is the mirror reflection of the spiritual tree growing above – the manifestation of spirit on earth. This makes for an interesting link with the Pagan saying, ‘As above, so below’.
Now we have looked at those trees, I would like to consider the World Tree in relation to the Hindu/yogic chakra system (as seen in some traditions).
When looking at the World Tree, with its central trunk, and three cauldrons placed at the roots, centre and top of the tree, I was reminded of the yogic chakra system, which describes the workings of the energy body in relation to spiritual development.
In Eastern/yogic philosophy, the energy body has been mapped as a system of energy channels, which allow energy to flow throughout the body and mind. Central to these are the chakras, or wheels which act as transponders for the prana/chi/Qi/lifeforce carried in the energy channels or ‘nadis’. They are responsible also for distributing energy to the physical body, and the main ones are roughly located along the spine in the vicinity of the endocrine glands. These glands in turn affect the whole of the body/mind system, and the chakras being there tends to emphasise the link between unseen energy and its effect on the physical body/mind. In a very simplistic way, it can be seen as the chakras in effect ‘slowing’ or altering the frequency of universal energy, which is available from the ‘source’ so that the body/mind can use it.
Going back to the tree analogy....the trunk is like the spine, which houses the Sushumna nadi. This is the main, central energy channel, running from the root chakra at the base of the spine/perineum/cervix (different traditions place it in slightly different locations) up to the pineal gland in the centre of the head, in line with the third eye centre just above and between the eyebrows. This area houses the first six chakras and the last is on the top of the head, serving as a gateway between individual and universal consciousness – our connection with the divine.
Looking at the world tree, the base cauldron or cauldron of devotion, with the serpent entwined around the roots is extremely reminiscent of the root chakra, which is said to be the seat of kundalini, or serpent energy. Spiritual development in yoga is seen as firstly being the awakening of the serpent, which then travels up the spine, piercing each chakra before reaching the top and the aspirant gaining enlightenment/samadhi/moksha/nirvana etc. Again, this journey is considerably more complex than a simple one-way trip. I would probably see the first cauldron as being like the first two chakras combined.
The next cauldron, or cauldron of motion, is like the solar plexus chakra, full of energy and power, the central chakra with the job of gathering in energy and sending it throughout the whole system. The third cauldron, or cauldron of wisdom, is like the third eye chakra and relating to spiritual wisdom and clear sight. Once all these energy centres are balanced and energised, the system can be seen as ‘firing on all cylinders’ and at its optimum for the individual, and of course all around him/her.
It would seem that both systems give the seeker a means to explain to him/herself their progression in a way that can be understood by the human brain. It allows for the possibility of an individual to pursue spiritual enlightenment, or any chosen path of development, if s/he so chooses. It enables an inward journey and helps by giving a ‘map’ that can be used in visualization and meditation. In this way it is invaluable to the inner journey of the sadhaka or spiritual aspirant. The Hindu/yogic approach is certainly more complex than any of the Druidic approaches I have yet come across, and may be a result of the traditions' slightly different ‘takes’ on method and where they place their emphasis for the practitioner. There is also the matter of the lost years of Druidic evolution, where much information may have been lost or misremembered.
With both approaches we can see that the form of the tree is revered in both physical and metaphorical senses. The Druid's World Tree grows up from its anchoring in the earth to ever more spiritual heights, as the Hindu's Asvattha tree reaches to earth from its lofty origins. They are reflections of each other, each highlighting the differences between them, as well as reminding us of the similarities. Druids appreciate a close relationship with the earth and so see the tree as primarily rooted there, but with a solid connection to spirit. Although many Druids see themselves as spirit housed in a body, the nature of the tradition emphasises connection to the natural world as of primary importance. This ‘earths’ the tradition and shifts the perspective to be more earthbound in its concerns. It also roots the tradition in the land where it is practised, and the difference geographically between west and east shines through in the way that divinity is perceived and revered in those respective places. The roots are the same, but the expressions have their differences. Hindus see their roots as being in the spiritual realms, with earthly matters a manifestation of the Divine. This would lead us to believe that for Druids, what we do while incarnated here on earth is of primary importance to the earthly realm; whereas to Hindus, whatever is done here is a result of the cosmic impulse and ultimately will determine their future karma.
It is interesting therefore to note that regarding death, Druids would maybe feel regret or fear in leaving this earthly life, perhaps not wanting to let go; whereas Hindus would see liberation as their main aim in life and therefore have more fear of being incarnated on earth again, as leaving the karmic wheel of life-death-rebirth is their dream. Druids seem happier about having the earth as their home, whereas perhaps Hindus would see their natural place in the liberation attained after death. It would seem appropriate then, that the two trees symbolic of each tradition should be reversed.
So I would like to conclude with the thought that trees are yet another way for us to be reminded of our roots being in the one source, with infinite opportunities for its expression in our earthly existence.