The Asvattha in the Upanisads and the Bhagavad-Gita

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In one important aspect, however, the Bhagavad-Gita takes a position antagonistic to the position advanced in the Upanisads.

In the Katha Upanisad, there is the description of ‘the eternal Asvattha tree with its root upwards and branches downwards, which is the pure immortal Brahman, in which all these worlds are situated, and beyond which there is nothing else (II.6.1). According to this passage, the Asvattha tree is the Brahman itself, and that it is imperishable.

On the other hand, the Bhagavad-Gita (XV) states that ‘the Asvattha tree has its root upwards and branches downwards. Its leaves are the Vedas. It sends out its branches both downwards and upwards, which are nourished by the Gunas. The sensual objects are its foliage. Yet again, its infinite roots spread downwards in the form of action in the human world.

It is not possible to have a glimpse of that Tree here in this fashion. It has neither end, nor beginning, nor stationary-ness whatsoever. After cutting off this Asvattha tree, which has very strong roots, by the forceful weapon of nonattachment, we should then seek after that celestial abode from which there is no return, and reach the primeval Person, from whom all existence has sprung of old' (XV.1-4).

The issue here does not relate to the merits or demerits of the description of the Asvattha tree in the Bhagavad-Gita. Nor does it concern with the contradictions introduced therein. The issue is to find how far the description in the Bhagavad-Gita corresponds to the description in the Katha Upanisad.

First, there is an agreement between the Upanisad and the Bhagavad-Gita so far as the Asvattha tree is regarded as having its root upwards and its branches downwards. Secondly, while the Upanisad states that the Asvattha tree is real and identical with the Brahman and is, therefore, impossible of being cut off, the Bhagavad-Gita states that the Asvattha tree must be regarded as unreal, and identical with existence. It further states that it is necessary to cut off this tree of existence by the potent weapon of nonattachment.

The two descriptions thus seem to be opposed to each other. It may be of interest to know that the descriptions of the Asvattha tree in the Upanisad and the Bhagavad-Gita have an analogue in the description of the tree Igdrasil in the Scandinavian mythology.

It is relevant to note that the description of the Igdrasil agrees with that of the Upanisad in making the Tree identical with Reality, and, therefore, having a real concrete existence. On the other hand, it agrees with the Bhagavad-Gita in making the actions, the motives, and the histories of mankind the boughs and branches of this Tree of Existence. In the words of Carlyle, ‘.... 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'.

 

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