Firstly, apologies for breaking the flow of Attila's thought and beginning an already discussed chapter in the Geeta, but please allow me to defend my decision to do so: Ever since my childhood, the fifteenth adhyaaya of the Geeta was fed into my ears through the everyday chantings of my grandfather. Hence, my natural inclination is to begin any discussion about Geeta from the fifteenth chapter: "Purushottama Yoga". (edited by Attila) I feel that given our lives today, we need--
a) a sneek preview of how deep was our ancestors' philosophy,
b) to know how to interpret what was written thousands of years ago by our seers, and
c) to stimulate those sleeping cells in our minds responsible for higher thinking. A nation devoid of the knowledge of the ultimate truth cannot survive for long.
This is a learning process for myself as well, as I am new to this world of Srimad Bhagavad Geeta. So let us help each other out in this quest for knowledge and truth.
By its very definition, this chapter deals with qualities and attributes of Purushottama or the "supreme person" or the "best among the humans". This is a very important chapter and it reveals the nature of the ultimate truth. Since this is one of the smallest chapters of the Geeta, it is profitable to memorise both the chants and the meaning. Right now, I would like to discuss the symbolism of the imperishable "Ashvattha tree" (with the inputs and blessings from my Guruji) mentioned in the first three verses of this chapter:
ऊर्ध्वमूलम् अध:शाखम् अश्वत्थम् प्राहुरव्ययम्
छांदान्सि यस्य पर्णानि यस्तं वेद स वेदवित्
Meaning: With roots at the top (in heaven), branches below, and with chhandaas (meters of vedic hymns) as its leaves stands the imperishable (avyayah= a-vyayah, i.e., that which cannot be spent) Ashvattha tree (Peepal tree, Ficus religiosa). He who knows this is "vedavit", i.e., knower of the truth in the Vedas.
अधश्चोर्ध्वं प्रस्तुतातस्य शाखा गुणप्रवृद्धा विषयप्रवाला:
अधश्च मूलानि अनुसंततानि कर्माणु बन्धीनि मनुष्य लोके
Meaning: The branches of that tree spread upwards and downwards (Urdhva and adah) and its shoots of sensuality (vishaya) sprout according to the gunAs. The roots spread downwards into the world of humans thereby producing karmas and its reactions.
न रूपमस्येह ततोपलभ्यते नान्तो न चादिर्न च सम्प्रतिष्ठा
अश्वत्थमेनं सुविरूढमूलं असंगशस्त्रेण दृढेन छित्वा
Meaning: Within this world, that inverted form of the Ashvattha tree cannot be seen--Neither its end, nor its beginning, nor its foundations. (So), sever this tree, strongly rooted in attachment, with the sharp sword of detachment (to attain the blissful state from where there is no need to return to the cycle of birth and death).
To start the discussion, lets begin with the obvious things-- what we already know from the straight meaning of the verses:
We know that
1) there is an imperishable fig tree that has roots above and branches below with leaves being the vedic meters,
2) the branches of the tree spread upwards, sideways or downwards depending upon the gunas (satva, rajas, and tamas) of the individual,
3) the roots of the tree spread according to the karmas, or the actions (good or evil) of the individual,
4) we cant see it, and one who sees it as it is, is the knower of the vedic truth (sort of like Neo in The Matrix who can see the source code),
5) one needs to cut this tree (with the sharp axe of detachment), to attain salvation.
The Ashvattha Tree, or the Peepal tree grows only in south Asia and it belongs to the Ficus family of trees. It is considered the best of the trees with many medicinal and spiritual properties in the Sanatana Dharma and Sri Krishna himself declares "I am Ashvattha among the trees." The symbolism behind being inverted is that this tree is the cosmic tree of life, so it was born in the heaven, and is continuously growing downwards into the world of mortals. This kind of symbolism is one of the common traits in many religions, possibly a central seed of thought was carried many millennia ago to many civilisations.
So the Ashvattha tree is the way in which the samsaara, or the dream of the Supreme Being (according to Sri Adi Sankara's Advaita philosophy), called the "mundane life" manifests itself as. He who performs righteous deeds causes the branches to grow upwards, and he who performs evil ones is further entangled in the roots of his actions and has the branches moving downwards.
Now there is a problem here: since one needs to cut this tree, the obvious conclusion here is, this Ashvattha tree---certainly not good! But then, the very first verse calls the leaves of this tree to be "chhandaah" , the vedic meters (or the Vedas themselves). Hmm! So does this imply that the Geeta, or rather Sri Krishna, is against the Vedas?
This would be a nice riddle to meditate upon. I eagerly await the responses of the learned readers.