The Ashwattha Tree in the Gita

The setting of the Bhagavad-Gita in the great epic, the Mahabharata, of which it forms a part, is precise. The Gita is the concentrated essence of an entire universal Philosophy, and its setting leads up naturally to the important position it occupies. That which develops in the grand epic, in effect, centres round this core. Therefore, not only should each chapter in the Gita be studied for its practical ethics and morality, but also other detais within it ought to be carefully considered.

Looking, for instance, at Chapter XV, we see that it may be divided into three parts: verses 1 to 6 give a universal setting, or basis; verses 7 to 15 place man in his environment, internal and external; and, finally, verses 16 to 20 deal with the exercise of will through the process of self-determined progress by individual men, who, working together for the universal good, unite for collaborative effort. This results in the victory of the perfected man: Purshottama vijaya.

From the universal viewpoint, the Ashwattha, the sacred tree, is an emblem of the "Tree of Life," the symbol of the never-ending universe. Here we have an instance of progress from universals to particulars. This tree has (1) "its roots above," (2) "its branches below," (3) "the lesser shoots," (4) "the leaves," and (5) "those roots which ramify below." Commencing in the unknown, the universal, the beginningless and endless, the Rootless Root of all-being, the Tree is thus reversed. The "roots above," generated in Heaven, represent the "First Cause," the Logos, that links manifestation to Purusha-Spirit-SELF. In The Secret Doctrine (I, 406) H. P. Blavatsky writes: "One has to go beyond those roots to unite oneself with Krishna, who, says Arjuna (XI), is 'greater than Brahman, and First Cause...the indestructible, that which is, that which is not, and what is beyond them.'" As the tree extends into the world, its branches are said to go "downwards." This is Nature or Prakriti—invisible in essence, but visible objectively.

Nourished by the three gunas or qualities of which all phenomena are made, the branches spread both upwards and downwards, for the actions which are the result of past deeds throw down rootlets which issue again in actions—representing the ceaseless cycle of birth and death and birth again. The "lesser shoots" are the ensnaring objects of sense. This multi-branched expanse is "below," inasmuch as it belongs to the plane of manifestation.

Prof. Ranade, in his Constructive Survey of Upanishadic Philosophy, compares the Ashwattha with the tree Igdrasil in Scandinavian mythology, described in Carlyle's picturesque language in his "Heroes":

Its boughs with their buddings and disleafings—events, things suffered, things done, catastrophes—stretch through all lands and times. Is not every leaf of it a biography, every fibre there an act or word? Its boughs are histories of nations. The rustle of it is the noise of human existence, onwards from of old. It grows there, the breath of human passion rustling through it....It is Igdrasil, the Tree of Existence. It is the past, the present and the future; what was done, what is doing, what will be done: the infinite conjugation of the verb to do.

The conjugation of the verb to do is the eternal bondage of Karma or ever-recurring death, if man will not open his eyes to the imperishable Root above which is deathlessness.

The leaves of the Ashwattha are said to be the Vedic hymns, representing the sacred scriptures of all times, which are but reformulations by men of portions of the eternal verities. These formulations are properly symbolized by "leaves," for they perpetually renew themselves.

This Ashwattha tree with its deeply-embedded roots has to be hewn down with the strong axe of detachment-dispassion from sense-objects. He who has freed himself from the mire of sense-life can hope to win that haven from which there is no return to compulsory rebirth, for he has found refuge in the Primeval Spirit "from which floweth the never-ending stream of conditioned existence"—a graphic underlying statement of fact. It is "never-ending," it is a "stream" of emanations, or "rays," covering every type of "conditioned existence."

Man alone, freeing himself by aspiration, study and will from the "pairs of opposites" and from the influence of the three "gates of hell" (desire, anger and covetousness), can realize the state of Krishna—the Higher Self—as unconditioned, called the "highest place," or state. There, neither the light of the sun (the human Monad, Atma-Buddhi) nor the "fire" (the human Mind-Manas), nor the "moon" (the fourfold human personality) is to be found. The goal of universal evolution is displayed to us—man, the microcosm, widening and becoming Man, the Macrocosm.

In verses 7 to 15, the disciple's relation, as an Individual, with other forms and kingdoms, through the skandhas, is traced; the individual gain, and the sharing of experience, as consciousness and as perception, is shown. The "deluded" can change themselves, through discrimination and effort, into those who have the "eye of wisdom." Man should transmute his lower, personal self, involved in the world of sense-objects, into a being of refined, transmuted matter, fit for use by his Higher Self—the "Krishna" within. The inner astral senses and organs and their relation with the outer physical ones, and with all beings, is implicit in this second section of the Chapter. This the "Hall of Learning" of The Voice of the Silence.

In the third division, we may consider three factors: first, the "divisible" or perishable—beings made up of sentient "lives"; and, second, Kutasha, the unaffected, the indivisible, the Spiritual Being. In the psychology of the human microcosm, they are known, respectively, as the personality (made up of divisible, mortal principles—body, astral body, prana-jiva, kama), and the individuality, the Atma-Buddhi-Manas, three-in-one, the human Monad, who is called in the chapter "he who standeth on high unaffected." Above the divisible and the undivisible is, of course, Krishna, the transcendent, who says: "therefore am I known as the Supreme Spirit." This original Macrocosmic Man is Purushottama—the Uttama Purusha—the Superior, Perfected Man. That which is the Supreme Spirit, Paramatma, becomes Purushottama, the Superior Man, the Universal Man. This is the aim end of human evolution.

When we, as seekers, cut through the veils of matter, of sense, of form, of limited and limiting desire, and learn to know the Krishna within us in His aspect of Purushottama, then we are able to perceive the deific aspect of LIFE "under every form and condition," and thus are able to attune ourselves to its laws and purposes.

No new philosophy is set up in the The Secret Doctrine, only the hidden meaning of some of the religious allegories of antiquity is given, light being thrown on these by the esoteric sciences, and the common source is pointed out, whence all the world-religions and philosophies have sprung. Its chief attempt is to show, that however divergent the respective doctrines and systems of old may seem on their external or objective side, the agreement between all becomes perfect, so soon as the esoteric or inner side of these beliefs and their symbology is examined and a careful comparison made. It is also maintained that its doctrines and sciences, which form an integral cycle of universal cosmic facts and metaphysical axioms and truths, represent a complete and unbroken system; and that he who is brave and persevering enough, ready to crush the animal in himself, and forgetting the human self, sacrifices it to his Higher Ego, can always find his way to become initiated into these mysteries. This is all the Secret Doctrine claims. Are not a few facts and self-evident truths, found in these volumes, truths already proved practically to some, better than the most ingenious "working" hypotheses, liable to be upset any day, than the unexplainable mysteries of religious dogmas, or the most seemingly profound philosophical speculations?... No "philosopher" who views the spiritual realm as a mere figment of superstition, and regards man's mental perceptions as simply the result of the organization of the brain, can ever be worthy of that name.

—H. P. Blavatsky

to return to the table of contents