Community lessons from the plant kingdom
An Indus Valley Civilisation seal from Mohenjodaro depicting a peepal tree and unicorns (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
paropakārāya phalanti vṛksāḥ paropakārāya vahanti nadyaḥ /
paropakārāya duhanti gāvaḥ paropakārārtham idaṃ śarīram //
Trees bear fruit, and cows offer milk
for the welfare of all beings,
just as rivers flow in constant service
to all things beyond themselves.
And like them, the purpose of our bodies
is to serve others.
— Sanskrit proverb
THE NOTION OF selfless action is fundamental to all Indian philosophical traditions, be they Hindu, Buddhist or Jain. This is because the self (atman) and action (karma) are the two most discussed and debated concepts in the 2,000-plus-year-old history of Indian speculation into the nature of the universe and our unique place within it. The ancients were deeply rooted in their natural surroundings. They understood seasonal cycles, tracked the movement of the sun and moon, propitiated the spirits of Nature for a good harvest and honoured trees with songs and dance. There was a mutual respect between humans and Nature; and it was born of a visceral, lived understanding of our codependent interconnectedness.
In Harappan times, some 4,000 plus years ago, we find clear evidence that the ancient people of the Indian subcontinent respected Nature in multiple ways. One Harappan clay seal depicts a majestic peepal tree with heart-shaped leaves and widespreading branches. As Sir John Marshall, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928, asserted: ‘The plant… has been identified as the pipal tree, which in India is the Tree of Creation. The arrangement is very conventional and from the lower part of its stem spring two heads similar to those of the so-called unicorn’ (Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilisation, Volume II, 1931, p 390). This fascinating image of a peepal tree seems to grow in tandem with the heads of two horselike creatures. Without straying into the thorny debates surrounding the indigeneity of the horse in India (see ‘The Horse and the Aryan Debate’ by Michel Danino in Journal of Indian History and Culture, 2006 and ‘Stallions of the Indian Ocean’ by Srinivas Reddy in Exploring Materiality and Connectivity in Anthropology and Beyond edited by Philipp Schorch, Martin Saxer and Marlen Elders, 2020), suffice it to say that the Harappans recognised, appreciated and honoured the fact that humans, animals and plants were all joined in one holistic ecosystem.
In later Vedic literature, almost all the authorless hymns to the gods invoke an element of the natural world. Each deity, or ‘luminous one’ (deva), is an aspect of this biodiversity. Agni (fire), Indra (rain), Vayu (wind), Usha (dawn) and Soma (moon) are just a few of the examples of how the Vedic people sublimated themselves to Nature’s awesome power, not as fearful and passive savages, but as intelligent and creative people in a natureloving society. Arguably the most famous Vedic hymn today is the Gayatri Mantra which is a praise poem to Savitur, the sun. Of course, we do not readily think of it that way today and often recite it as an auspicious poem that inspires clear thinking (dhimahi dhiyoyona. pracodayat). As Sri Aurobindo eloquently writes: ‘The Rishis adopted the phenomena of physical Nature as just symbols for those functionings of the inner life… It was their difficult task to indicate in the concrete language of a sacred poetry that must at the same time serve for the external worship of the Gods as powers of the visible universe. The solar energy is the physical form of Surya, Lord of Light and Truth’ (The Secret of the Veda, p 289). This holistic interpretation of the Vedic corpus allows us to understand how a ‘purely naturalistic’ system evolved into ‘an increasingly ethical and psychological view of Nature’ (The Secret of the Veda, p 92). In other words, Sri Aurobindo is describing a very logical connection between Vedic natureworship and Upanishadic metaphysics.
The peepal tree, this ancient Indian tree of life, is one element of Indian culture that has persisted for millennia. Granted our personal relationships with the tree has changed over time, but then again, nothing in this life is stable; and every old tree on this planet is a living guru of that primordial truth
The Upanishads are deep philosophical reflections into the nature of reality as presented by countless wise sages. These spiritual teachers often taught in secluded forests (aranyas), hence the texts known as the Aranyakas or Forest Books. More generally the Upanishads are so named because they were teachings imparted under the cooling shade of a tree. The guru would sit under a tree of wide girth and students would gather to ‘sit down around’ (‘upa’ + ‘ni’ + root ‘sad’) and absorb the teachings.
During this period of intellectual ferment, two other traditions evolved in South Asia: Buddhism and Jainism. Although these two new faiths shared many terms, concepts and metaphysical underpinnings with Hinduism, both Buddhists and Jains were different in that they rejected Vedic authority, promoted vegetarianism (ahimsa) and preached that personal striving (srama), not ritual action (yajña), leads to liberation. The codependence of Nature and humanity is a central concept in both these so-called ‘heterodox’ schools; and it derives directly from a deep philosophical understanding that all beings are interconnected and dependent upon each other. This holistic view of human life is a natural extension of Buddhist/Jain discourse on the nature of reality. In Buddhism the concept is known as pratityasamutpada or dependent co-origination, while in Jainism it is summarised by a famous aphorism from the Tattvartha Sutra of Umasvati: ‘parasparopagrahojivanam [all beings are mutually connected]’. At a ceremony commemorating the 2,500th anniversary of Mahavira’s attainment of complete knowledge (kevala-jñana), this sutra was adopted by all sects of Jainism as the central message of Mahavira’s philosophy.
Without moving into later developments like the Puranas (around 200 BCE and after), Hinduism writ large, in conversation with Buddhism, Jainism and other schools of thought, developed multiple ways of living that harmonised human development with a respect for Nature. If we look at this ancient period of human history from the trees’ perspective, we begin to see how rapidly human existence on this planet has shaped and transformed them—and most often for the worse. Harappans were city dwellers, longdistance traders and innovators, but by all accounts, they maintained a cooperative relationship with their natural environment. The Vedic people were thought to have been nomadic, they didn’t even have fixed settlements or permanent structures, both clear stepping stones in the relentless march of human civilisation. But this ostensible human progress is concomitant with a distancing of humanity from Nature; a separation which makes it all the easier for humans to extract and exploit natural resources. Seeing our interconnectedness and interdependence with Nature engenders respect and admiration, while seeing Nature as ‘Other’ promotes feelings of arrogance, power and condescension.
Post-Harappan settlements in the Yamuna-Ganga doab promoted agriculture, trade and city building. In this phase, humans slowly started to use and abuse natural resources, taking from Nature at will, as if it were a god-given right, and rarely giving anything back in return. The ensuing centuries, leading up to the present, witnessed great advancements in human creativity and ingenuity, but our overinflated sense of progress wrought incalculable damage upon our Mother Earth. We have forgotten that we are not separate from Nature, we are not her master; if anything, she is ours. The current Covid-19 pandemic is but one small example of how the earth is reminding us to slow down, take a breath and relish in the joy of Nature’s sublime intelligence. One reason why we continue to abuse the planet is that we no longer see her as a person, as a living entity; but that is what the earth is: a tiny blue-green sphere in space teeming with billions of lifeforms. When we remember that trees are living, feeling beings, it becomes easy to treat them with respect. Would any one of us ever strike our mothers or pollute her in any way?
Of course not! She is our mother and we respect her. But Nature is our Great Mother. Should we not afford that same kindness and high regard to her?
RECENT SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH is slowly convincing a science-obsessed society that trees are people too. Certainly, the peepal tree is! This ancient Indian Tree of Life is one element of Indian culture that has persisted for millennia. Granted our personal relationships with the trees has changed over time, but then again, nothing in this life is stable; and every old tree on this planet is a living guru of that primordial truth. Chapter XV of the Bhagavad Gita, known as ‘Purushottama Yoga’ (the Yoga of the Supreme Self), begins with a description of a giant peepal tree with it roots above (urdhvamulam) and branches below (adhahsakham). This tree is known as the Asvattha Tree and its etymology sheds light not only on the essence of the venerable tree, but also on the nature of Indian thought, namely, an Indian epistemology rooted in an underlying principle of the unity of all life. As Swami Chidbhavananda explains, ‘The tree is both a symbol and an entity revealing life. It aids the study of life in all its aspects…’ (the Bhagavad Gita with translation and commentary, p 750).
Seeing our interconnectedness and interdependence with nature engenders respect and admiration, while seeing nature as ‘other’ promotes feelings of arrogance, power and condescension
According to the celebrated 9th century theologian Sankara, the word asvattha means ‘that which is not today as it was yesterday’. His derivation is (‘a’ + ‘svas’ + root ‘stha’), that is the negative particle ‘a’ with ‘svas’ (tomorrow) and root ‘stha’ (the standing, or that which remains). This reading illuminates the Asvattha’s mutability and dynamism. On the other hand, the term can also be derived thus: (‘a’ + root ‘svac’ + root ‘stha’), that is the negative particle ‘a’ with root ‘svac’ (moving) and root ‘stha’ (stable). And so, the Asvattha also represents rootedness and stability. This kind of multi-derivational logic is an important quality of the Indian episteme, namely that plurality of thought is essential to any human understanding. The Jaina philosophy of anekantavada, or the Doctrine of Multi-Perspectiveness, best summarises this fundamental epistemic axiom. Often this concept is expressed by the story in which several blind men grasp at different parts of a giant elephant and try to guess what it really is. One holds a leg and says it’s a tree; another grabs the trunk and says it’s a giant snake; a third rubs an ear only to think it’s an oversize fan; and so on. Like this, all of us modern humans are grasping blindly at the wide world around us, constantly assuming the part to be whole, forever placing ourselves above Nature and repeatedly arriving at false perceptions (mithyadrsti).
Much of modernity, based as it is on a very narrow scientific epistemology, has blinded us to our deep and multifaceted connections to Mother Earth. When we begin to remember that all the creatures of the planet are part of our extended family, we begin to change our outlook on life and our treatment of the environment. Now even modern science is slowly, slowly, coming around to shed light on these simple truths.
One of my all-time favorite books is The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World by German forester and author Peter Wohlleben. In simple, beautiful language Wohlleben takes us on an awesome adventure through ancient forests, sacred groves and fungal networks. He explains how recent research has demonstrated that trees have a sense of taste, smell and touch; they have feelings, they communicate with each other, and they protect each other. They have families like we do and they love each other in remarkably compassionate and innovative ways. I recommend this book to everyone: it changed my life by opening my mind to a beautiful new world that was always there, but that I had become numb and dumb to. Nature is omnipresent and omnipotent; and I began to realise how She is constantly nurturing me and looking after me. It was like finding a wise old Ammamma that I had neglected for decades.
In closing, I wanted to share an example from Wohlleben’s book that illustrates how plant behaviour can be an exemplar for human interactions. When a tree dies, the stump loses all ability to nourish itself, and slowly, it decays and gets absorbed into the forest floor. In some cases however, a stump remains alive; it stays green with lifegiving chlorophyll. But how can this be? Researchers have found that some stumps are kept alive for centuries by neighbouring trees. These special stumps are fed and cared for by local kin trees via their complex underground root structures and symbiotic fungal networks. Wohlleben explains that such a well-cared-for stump was probably the trunk of a particularly old or venerable member of the tree community. Perhaps it was the mother tree of that grove, surviving for centuries and continuing to be honoured with offerings of life by successive generations of trees. As new life grows in, on and all around her, she carries on with the support of her children and grandchildren.
Not all trees are the same, or in Orwellian terms ‘all trees are equal, but some trees are more equal than others’ and this is exactly what we find in the plant kingdom, albeit as an expression of compassion rather than hierarchy
In this example, it is clear that not all trees are the same, or in Orwellian terms, ‘All trees are equal, but some trees are more equal than others.’ And this is exactly what we find in the plant kingdom, albeit as an expression of compassion rather than hierarchy. Wohlleben asks: ‘Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies? It seems they do, though the idea of “class” doesn’t quite fit. It is rather the degree of connection—or maybe even affection—that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be’ (Hidden Life, pp 4-5). Trees love each other like humans, they have families and they nurture each other with empathy for their entire lives. They do not compete, they cooperate. Indeed the discovery of natural phenomena like this could be a remarkably fresh way to gain new perspectives, insights and solutions for some of human civilisation’s most pressing challenges, from water shortage and food security to climate change and caste.
Much, much more field research is required to study the open secret of tree societies. Indeed, we are just beginning to understand the mysterious and wondrous inner life of the plant kingdom. The ancients however seemed to have accessed this knowledge through experiential rather than analytic means. One great lesson they learnt from these trees was to care for all the creatures of your community. No one is high, no one is low. Like the roots of a mighty peepal tree, all things are spread out in a complex web of interrelationships. This is the same as the interconnectedness/codependence described by the Buddhists and Jains over two millennia ago. In closing, I quote again from Wohlleben’s exceptional book: ‘Every tree is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be other way around, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance’ (Hidden Life, p 4). What a beautiful way to live in peace and harmony. Let us hope that as a species we can be more like the trees, our ancient brothers and sisters. As the Katha Upanishad says: ‘Everything in this world, whatever it may be, comes from the life breath and is animated by it. The everlasting Tree of Life is pure and undying. All the worlds are contained in it, and there is nothing whatsoever beyond it. This is truly that’ (II.3.1-2).