There are certain symbols that are common to many cultures, especially in their distant past. One such is the Cosmic Tree. Devotees of Wagner’s music will well remember the Welt-Atem, the World Ash, that grew through the center of the earth, and how in Die Walkure Sigmund draws out the great sword Nothung (Needful) that had been thrust into it by Wotan, his father.
India, too has this symbol:
The Holy Lord said: They speak of the eternal ashwattha tree with roots above and branches below, its leaves the Vedic hymns; he who knows it is a knower of the Vedas (15:1).
This has both a macrocosmic meaning and a microcosmic one.
The cosmos, physical, astral, and causal, is rooted above in the Supreme Consciousness, in Brahman. Everything has originated in Brahman, has Brahman for its essential Being. That which is “below” is a manifestation of Brahman.
It is usual to say that the leaves of the tree are the hymns of the Veda, but this verse conveys a vital point of the character of relative existence. The word chhandamsi means poetic meter or rhythm. The meaning is that every thing is simply a mode of vibration, an energy-pattern, a variation on the single note of Om, of Mulaprakriti, the Primal Energy. Om, the Shabda (Sound) Brahman, is the Root Sound of which creation is a series of permutations. Those who know this–which implies knowledge of Purusha and Prakriti and their relationship–are knowers of the true Knowledge, the eternal veda/vidya.
We are rooted in our own Self and in Brahman, the Self’s Self. All that we identify with as us are the modes of Prakriti, of Creative Energy–which is Brahman in extension. All things are “songs” of God, incarnations of Om, the Pranava.
Now we get more on the individual trees:
Below, above, its branches spread afar, nourished by the gunas. Its buds are the sense-objects; and in the world of men below its roots engender action (15:2).
The universal ashwattha tree, like the earthly banyan tree, puts down roots from its branches, making the one tree into many dependent trees–an apt symbol of Brahman and us. The three gunas are the elements which make up the universal and individual trees. The objects of the senses are the buds of the trees which, tending downward, make fresh roots in the world. These roots are karmas, both action and the results of action.
Its form is not perceptible here in the world, not its end, nor its beginning, nor its foundation [that which enables it to continue in existence]. Cutting this firm-rooted ashwattha tree with the strong axe of non-attachment, (15:3).
As long as our consciousness is centered in this world, in relative existence, in the experience of the body, mind, and senses, we cannot possibly comprehend the true nature and life of the world and our embodiment within it. Therefore we must transfer our consciousness to the Spirit-self which is eternally rooted in Brahman. Then here and now we will comprehend everything. Just as the kernel of a seed or nut when it ripens pulls away from the shell, in the same way as we ripen through the practice of meditation we shall become detached from all that is of the world. The resulting illumined consciousness (prajna) will be the axe by which we can cut through the subsidiary roots of the earthly ashwattha tree.
Writing of this, Dr. I. K. Taimni observed: “According to the yogic philosophy it is possible to rise completely above the illusions and miseries of life and to gain infinite knowledge, bliss, and power through enlightenment here and now while we are still living in the physical body.… No vague promise of an uncertain postmortem happiness this, but a definite scientific assertion of a fact verified by the experience of innumerable yogis, saints, and sages who have trodden the path of yoga throughout the ages.”
This being absolutely so, Krishna concludes:
Then that place is to be sought to which, having gone, they do not return again: “In that Primeval Purusha from which streamed forth the ancient Power, I take refuge” (15:4).
The second half of this verse should be our constant aspiration.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Freedom