India is a strange country where people worship anything from stones, trees, rivers, stars, planets or even snakes. The ancient principle that the divine pervades all, is perhaps put into practice quite literally here. At other times, I feel just the opposite takes place. I lived in the small town of Ambala, located in North India, for over 20 years. Life here is slow, as compared to metros and other big cities, but it has its own charisma. I remember going to the temple near my house on Monday mornings, and Tuesday evenings. There was a big Peepal tree (Ficus religiosa) outside the temple. Sari-clad, women devotees lit lamps, burned camphor and incense sticks, tied threads around its trunk and bowed to the tree in reverence. More often than not, a few crows would sit on top of it and caw through the whole process, as if chanting a mantra. As a child I thought, why so much for a tree? It’s a tree after all! I thought that trees did not have a life, as they seemed so much like the so called life-less things around.
The stone idols inside the temple were bathed sometimes with milk! Fed the most delicious sweets in town, and dressed in attractive dresses, and well matched accessories. While the tramp outside the temple wore torn clothes and seldom got more than the meagre prasaad to eat through the day. Sometimes one could feel it was better to be a life-less stone within a temple than a living tramp on the road. However, everyone seemed to be at peace with the whole process. It was accepted in total by the entire community. No objections raised, no arguments, no questions asked. Watching the rituals brought me a pleasant feeling though I hardly understood what they meant.
Years later when I got married and came to stay in Nabha, a very small town in the state of Punjab, there was a huge Peepal tree facing the house where we stayed. Hundreds of birds had their nests in the tree. Each morning I would wake to the chirping of birds. The owner of the house would fill a bowl of water for the birds to drink. He had planted many trees and had a small farm near the house. He made it a daily practice to place water and grains for the birds, and light incense for the trees. It was a joy to watch the birds eat the grain and sip water from the bowl. Sometimes even bathe in it! The owner and his wife were simple people, who loved and respected nature as a way of life. It was here that I learned that one could love Nature without conducting campaigns. In fact those who conduct campaigns hardly have time to love Nature the way she deserves to be respected and loved.
All was going well, when one day I heard a noise outside the house. It seemed to be the sound of heavy chains. I went over to have a look, and was sad to see that the Peepal tree was being pulled down. A contractor had bought the land and wanted it to be cleared, to make place for an upcoming building. The birds were flying all around, crying in distress. The whole scene was so upsetting. It was hard to stand there and watch. The grand Peepal, who had been house to so many lives, shade to innumerable travellers, for so many years, was being pulled down, and we could do nothing about it. It was hard to believe that the next day we wouldn’t see it any more. It took two days and heavy earth moving machinery to pull out the dear Peepal. Who knows it must have cried for help, but their voices are not in the human audible range. It was during this incident that I remembered the Peepal outside the temple in Ambala, and now understood why people worshipped it.
Trees are great. They spend an entire lifetime moving towards light, taking an entire multitude of cells housed in their bodies from darkness to light, they house insects who bore holes into their very trunks (and I had thought that compassion and forgiveness was something that could only be related to humans). They offer a safe abode to thousands of birds, whose droppings they effortlessly absorb as fertilizers. They even don’t mind snakes residing in the hollows of their trunks, or squirrels hopping about. Like a huge father figure, a tree supports the huge family of creatures that thrive on it. They themselves eat the dirt of the soil, turning it to fruits, to serve as food for other creatures. No one can ignore their noble service of inhaling the toxic fumes, and transforming them into life giving oxygen. Even a dead tree serves mankind, providing wood for hearths and homes. Such selfless service is yet to be human.
And above all they offer such valuable life-lessons, in their own silent ways…Simply by being themselves.
It was so ignorant of me to have thought ‘why so much for a tree’ regarding the worship of a tree. In fact, they deserve much more. That is the least we as humans can do.
~ Om Vrikshaya Namah ~
Author: Jyoti Prateek