Kalpavrksha: Rooted In Human Desire

Aravindan Neelakandan

Jul 04, 2019, 11:13 AM | Updated Jun 29, 2019, 05:44 PM IST

A tree carved out on a temple wall. Wikimedia Commons.
A tree carved out on a temple wall. Wikimedia Commons.
  • Often, the gods themselves reside in the trees and hear out the wishes of the devotees. The tree of fulfillment of the physical and sensual, is one such, and celebrates the abundance of life.
  • There is a mythical tree that fulfills all the wishes of those who sit under it, and that is how we know it. In the famous fable of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, the fool sitting under the Kalpavrksha, without realising its worth, first started wishing in an idyllic fashion. As he sees his wishes materalising, he thinks, what if the beautiful maiden (a boon granted by the tree), was actually a demon who would eat him. And lo!

    So, the fable proves every wish-fulfilling power — from technology or a mental faculty to even divine assistance — ultimately is dependent on how prudently it is used. The wish-fulfilling tree connects the celestial and the terrestrial, the magical and the ordinary, the sacred and the secular. The fable thus stands for more than the mere stupidity of a simpleton wishing foolishly seated under the sacred tree.

    The one who accidentally stumbles upon this wish-fulfilling tree, the axis mundi (the cosmic axis that runs through the centre of the world, connecting the celestial and the terrestrial) of the inner universe, but abuses it for the mundane power through sacred authority, ultimately brings destruction upon himself.

    In Hindu ithihasas, puranas and literary works, we come across the Kalpavrksha or the wish-fulfilling trees quite frequently.

    In Ramayana, Sugriva the vanara king, tells the group heading for the north in search of Sita of these trees in Uttarakuru. These trees have flowers of gold. Ever in bloom and spreading a heavenly fragrance, these trees produce exquisite garments and valuable radiant gems. They also produce beautiful beds adorned with flowers, feasts of food and drinks and maidens who serve them. Such trees, Sugriva says, exist in Uttarakuru. In Mahabharata, in Bhishmaparva, Vyasa also speaks of Uttarakuru as home to trees which fulfil all desires. So, the humans inhabiting the place are happy and contented like the devas. Uttarakuru is located in the northern direction adjacent to mount Meru.

    Professor Vasudeva Agrawala, former head of the Department of Art and Architecture at Banaras Hindu University, identifies a sculptural depiction that is strikingly similar to the description of the wish-fulfilling trees described in Mahabharata and Ramayana in the western face of the western pillar of the southern gates of the Great Stupa of Sanchi. He says:

    This representation is so close to the literary tradition portrayed in the epics that it appears to suggest a conscious treatment by the artist of a theme which literary tradition had made popular. The sculptors of Sanchi and Bharhut have carved time and again the lotus creepers as producing ornaments (muktavaiduryachitrani bhushanani). Kalidasa in the Kumarasambhava VIII 68, refers to necklaces (harayasti) hanging from the top of the Kalpavrksha tree. In the Meghaduta he mentions Kalpavrksha as the one complete source of all objects of adornment and toiletry used by the women in Alaka. For example, beautiful fabrics, intoxicating love glances, flowers and tender leaves, a variety of ornaments and lac dye for painting the feet are the Kalpavrksha products used for making female beauty make-up (abala-mandana).

    What are the real roots of such a mythical tree that seems to pervade the Indian religious landscape? How deep do they go back in time? Agrawala hints at another subtle connection and also the rich interconnections the imagery of the wish-fulfilling tree has, which, perhaps, dates back to the very beginning of Hindu culture itself.

    The phrase 'kamadugha' is frequently used in the vedas and is applied variously to speech (vak), Sarasvati the goddess of learning, Aditi, the mother of gods, and Prithivi the great mother personified (maha-mata). The wishing tree also is called kamadugha as it grants all desires and fulfills all wishes. So long as a man is under its shade, whatever he conceives, he realises. Wealth, women and all kinds of enjoyments issue forth from its fructifying boughs.

    The mind is the Kalpavrksha or the wishing tree which gives us everything at the mere thought of it. In a very real sense, the mind is the most powerful creator, the perennial source of all our enjoyments, and the inexhaustible fountain from which pleasure (rasa) constantly oozes out. Thought (sankalpa) is the nature and power of the mind which makes life teem with innumerable blessings. The artists made full use of a rich connection like this and employed the Kalpavrksha as one of the symbols which adorned art both in respect of beauty of form and depth of meaning.

    According to the puranas, the Kalpavrksha came during the great churning of the Ocean of Milk. This is a primal event connected with the precession of equinoxes. According to archaeologist and linguist Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Hindus chose to symbolise precession through “mythologizing the churn (in the Ocean of Milk) and fire-drill (pramantha)” as “the appropriate mythical analogue for precession”.

    Even today, in India, the term ‘churning’ is also used to describe meetings — particularly brain-storming sessions. In the churning of the Ocean of Milk again, we have a puranic symbolism evolving out of an ancient astronomical event. The churn was executed by Mount Meru — the cosmic axis, and out of it emanated, among other things, the wish-fulfilling tree. This offers, perhaps, a clue to the origin of the Kalpavrksha itself. After all, cosmic axis is also the cosmic tree.

    The imagery of a tree — a cosmic tree — is seen in all ancient cultures. In Mesopotamian culture, there is the famous tree of life. The mystic tree of life is also present at the centre of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystic tradition. For ancient religions, the cosmic tree and its terrestrial incarnations form the central imagery — the very core of reality at all levels of existence. The recognition of this common core imagery proclaims the unity of the spiritual experience of humanity even in one of its most pervasive expressions. Finnish Assyriologist Simo Parpola considers not only the Sefirotic Tree of Life of Kabbalah, but monotheism and even Greek philosophy to have been considerably influenced by the ‘tree of life’ developed during the Assyrian period of Mesopotamia.

    However, it was in India that the cosmic tree or the tree of life or the wish-fulfilling tree — each morphing into the other, effortlessly and spontaneously, found the highest enrichment both as spiritual and psychological metaphor and in the rich representation of art. Anthropologist of religion, Edwin Oliver James, in his archeological quest for the ‘tree of life’ states that “it was however in India that the cosmic tree was the most conspicuous feature in cosmological speculation and imagery”.

    Discounting the then necessary viewing of history through the incoming Aryan and the indigenous Indus Valley binary prism, he states how the tree worship initially centred around the worship of yakshas and yakshis, on the authority of Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy, the noted Indic scholar of Hindu history and art. In his exhaustive study of Indian art, one of India’s foremost social scientist, Professor Radhakamal Mukherjee, also considers a Harappan depiction of a human figure standing by the branches of a peepal tree “to be the prototype of the later tree-spirit Yaksha or Yakshi, Gandharva or Vriksaka”.

    More importantly, he adds that the peepal tree (ficus religiosa) depiction in Harappan seals as prefiguring the later developments: “It is likely that the Indus people conceived the pipal as the Tree of Life (anticipating the celestial Tree of Wisdom of the post-Vedic age) with the devata inside embodying the power of fecundity”.

    In the vedic ritual, the yupa stumba or the pole of the sacrificial altar is considered as the cosmic tree. It is, in fact, addressed as vanaspathaye — the master tree of the forest. In Rig Veda, we encounter the cosmic tree in a place that is rich with symbolic and spiritual significance — after the king who had promised to give Varuna his son, decides to provide a surrogate. Sunashepa, a boy unwanted by his mother and father, was given to the king to be the surrogate sacrifice and he was bound to the stake. Bestowed with spiritual vision by Vishwamitra, the boy beseeches the deity for protection. So, Varuna answers the boy through a verse which speaks of the tree that unites the inverted tree whose roots are above and with clues or keys concealed within (Rig Veda 1.24.7).

    Dr Albertina Nugteren from Tilburg University, who has studied the “rituals around sacred trees in India”, sees in this verse the “process of turning within to find one's own roots placed in light … connected with Varuna's laying out the path of the sun” and that it may be seen as “an isolated anticipation of what was later to be developed as full-fledged yoga”.

    One of the earliest depictions of the sacred tree after the Harappan period belongs to the third century BCE. Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy identifies it as the Kalpavrksha now — in the Indian Museum, Kolkata. It looks physically identical to the banyan tree. According to Dr Coomaraswamy, it was part of the apex portion of the dhvajastambha of a temple of Kubera. At the root of the tree are pots, bags of money, a lotus and a conch exuding coins. Here, the wish-fulfilling tree is the tree that fulfills the worldly desires.

    The cosmic tree is also the tree of apparent existence. Mahabharata explains this cosmic tree:

    The great tree of Brahman is timeless, having come from the undefined (avyaktam), it has buddhi as its trunk, the great ego as its branches, the sense as its sprouts, the great elements as its sub-branches, and the sense-objects as its side-branches. It is always covered with foliage, and always bearing flowers. It produces flowers that are both dharma-adharma. It is the source of life for all beings. This is the Brahman-wood and of this Brahman-tree. That is real. (Aswamedhikaparvan of Mahabharata : Nugteren)

    We meet this tree again in Bhagavat Gita 15:1-4. However, this tree has to be cut with the weapon of true knowledge. Dr Coomaraswamy explains this process vividly:

    The felling of the Tree, or taking flight from its summit, involves, in other words, the usual substitution of the via remotionis for the via affirmativa; the great transition involves a passing over from the Taught (saiksa) to the Untaught Way (asaiksa marga), the Spoken to the Unspoken Word. The Brahma tree (brahma vrksa), the Brahman in a likeness, as samsara vrksa, is an indispensable means to the knowledge of Brahman, but of no more use than any other means once the end of the road has been reached; it is a Tree to be used and also to be felled, because whoever clings to any means as if they were the end can never hope to reach the end. The way of affirmation and denial applies then to the cosmic theophany, just as it applies to scripture.

    In ancient Tamil Nadu, the kadamba tree was worshipped — it is associated with both Muruga and Vishnu. In Skanda Purana, Muruga or Skanda, destroys the Soor, the ego-demon, who becomes a tree. The tree is destroyed by Muruga’s spear — the weapon that denotes divine wisdom. The demon in the form of a tree splits into two halves — one becomes a peacock, the mount of Muruga, and the other a rooster that is present in his flag.

    Muruga later goes in pursuit of Valli, the adopted daughter of a tribal chieftain. Here, Valli symbolises the individual soul which had lost itself in maya. Here, Muruga takes the form of a kadamba tree (anthocephalus cadamba) when the tribal chieftain visits Valli, even as Muruga was courting her. This is a puranic way of representing the tree of samsara, which has to be transformed, so that the tree of life becomes the tree divine.

    This transformation of the material desire into spirituality is a functional archetype in Hinduism. Here, it can be recalled how Agrawala connected the great goddess and the Kalpavrksha through the term 'kamadugha'. Indeed, it was she who revived the deity of desire — Kama —after he was burnt by the gaze of Lord Shiva immersed in Yoga. It is one of her thousand names that she became the life-saving healer of burnt Kama, reviving him. Commentators point out that this is the sublimation of worldly desires and transformation of that into the spiritual quest.

    In Hindu culture, vedas and vedic rituals represent the process of the material universe. They bestow upon the doer all the benefits he seeks. Vedas are themselves called Kalpavrksha.

    Abirarama Bhattar, an eighteenth century Tamil mystic, in his very popular and enigmatic Abirami Anthaathi, brings out this connection of the goddess with the vedic tree. He describes her as the trunk, tender sprouting leaves and as the roots of the shrutis — vedas and then goes onto describe her in the same verse as having the flower arrows and the sugarcane bow — as the stimulator of the primal desire that results in creation. The same poet-seer in yet another verse depicts her as the one who stands above the vedas placing her feet on the head of the vedas. So, here, we have a very clear representation of the goddess as both the wish-fulfilling tree and the one who transcends the form of the very tree as a mere wish-fulfilling one.

    So the tree, when sacred, becomes the wish-fulfilling tree, as well as the cosmic tree and ultimately, it is the divine tree. The divine tree is the tree that comes to us from Atharva Veda as Skambha — the cosmic axis or the axis mundi. Atharva Veda speaks of Skambha as having the other deities abide by him as the branches of tree are bound to the tree trunk. Indologist Stella Kramrisch, who belonged to the Coomraswamy-Tagore school of Indology, points out that the vedic imagery is employed in the inscriptions of the twelfth century temple Pradymnesavara. The temple is likened to the trunk of the tree with all the cardinal regions as directions. Kramrisch explains:

    This world tree is the tree of life. Its trunk passes through the centre of all life, of every state of being; from it they ramify; at the top of this tree is the sun, its fruit. In this tree, all the birds make their nest as man did when he syill near the age of truth, the perfect age, the Satya or Krta Yuga, when the tree witnesses his gradual estrangements and still supports him as tree of knowledge.

    The temple itself is seen as the cosmic tree. For the devotees, the temple also becomes the place where their wishes are fulfilled. Thus, one can say that the cosmic tree also becomes a wish-fulfilling tree. If the temple itself is the cosmic tree, then the sthala-vrksha or the tree special to the temple also becomes a wish-fulfilling tree. Often, various species of the tree — in the particular spatial confines of the temple — become the terrestrial representation of the wish-fulfilling tree.

    In south India, the wishes are written down in small pieces of paper, which are rolled and tied to the sthala-vrksha. Childless couples tie small wooden cradles to the stala-vrksha. Thus the temple vimana forms the cosmic tree and the temple flag-post represents the kundalini path — also pictured as a tree. The sthala-vrksha is the explicit Kalpavrksha. Often the gods themselves reside in the trees and fulfil the desires of the devotees. In Suchindrum, a temple village at the southernmost end of the Indian mainland, the original shrine consisted of an old dried tree in which Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were enshrined.

    Thus, here we have a tree, a mythological tree — but it is derived from a basic archetype of universal human spiritual aspiration; a tree of fulfillment of the physical and sensual in a magical way; the tree of life and the cosmic axis. The fulfillment of desires needs to go beyond — to self-actualisation and end in self-realisation. Hindu culture and spirituality does not negate life, but celebrates the abundance of life. But it asserts the human ability to go beyond appearances and the pleasures offered by appearances. It is then that the wish-fulfilling tree itself becomes the inverted tree.

    Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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