Thoughts Beyond the Novel CoCC.10–The Tree of Life as the Pipal Tree

For those of us who find Gautama Buddha (aka Siddhartha Gautama; Shakyamuni) a compelling historical figure, he was an extraordinary figure before he became ordinary (i.e., knowing reality from illusion, for those who are extraordinary are living under the spell of illusion/delusion). To this day, the Gautama Buddha (“one who is awakened to reality”) still evokes gripping interests, because, in his awakening, he had developed a web of systems of consciousnesses (the Abhidharma) that points to how the mind can transcend suffering. The Abhidharma has stood the test of time to be a psycho-philosophically exact language for modern psychology. And yet, why did Gautama Buddha sit under the Ashvattha (Sanskrit), otherwise known as the Pipal, Peepal, or Ficus Religiosa for seven weeks? Let us reconstruct.

The Pipal tree is referred to as the mythological Tree of Life or Sacred Fig or Bodhi (Tree of Enlightenment). Biologically, it is a big semi-evergreen with a thick, broad trunk that can reach a height of 98 feet with smooth, light grey bark that peels in patches. The leaves are long, heart-shaped, and taper at the tips. The fruits resemble small, purple balls.. From a scientific standpoint, the tree releases a lot of oxygen, considering its magnificent size. It is not to be confused with the Banyan tree (Ficus Benghalensis), which later subsumed the Pipal tree as the most sacred tree to this day in Hinduism.

IVC pottery with Ficus Leaf motif

In a psycho-philosophical context, the symbols were instruments of phenomenal understanding; and the Pipal tree was clearly associated with meditation. More specifically, it also became the symbol of Vishnu who was born under it.  

In the Upanishads, the fruit of the tree was used to explain the “difference between the body (external phenomena) and the soul/spirit (internal phenomena).” As an example, the body of the six senses and the soul, represented by the seed, the consciousness that witnesses things. As Shiva, this deity was portrayed in the several ancient Pashupati seals of the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3300-1300 BCE) the horned, three-faced male deity seated in a yogic posture, surrounded by a rhino and a buffalo on the right, and an elephant and a tiger on the left. Some seals are primitive and others stylized over time. He became Lord Shiva was originally the protector of the Beasts (Pashupati) and the male principle of creation, perhaps as the phallic lingam.

U.S. Federal CIA

The top two seals (from Mohenjo-daro (atomic dates of 2500-1700 BCE) are the early renditions of the Pepal tree sprouting over the head of Vishnu; the third seal is a later stylized version of the Pepal leaves depicted as energy flow at the thousand-petaled crown chakra (Sahasrara in Sanskrit).

What is currently interpreted as bangles on the arms are actually serpents as attested in an earlier mythology regarding Pashupati. It reads, as follows, in part—

When the earth awoke, so did all the plants and beasts…In the hoary and horned lord of three faces arose from the heart of Ma…Skin of fur and barks, sinews of vines and mighty branches…He opened his eyes..and howled, forth the voice of every wild animal for so he was. And all the beasts..began to come to him…Birds and furry creatures soon hopped amidst the vines and tangled hair that covered his head and body. Serpents wrapped about his limbs; deers and elephants touched his shoulderes…for he was of them and they of him and they were one.

The Pipal, moreover, represents the Trimurti in Hinduism—the roots as Brahma, the trunk as Vishnu, and the leaves as Shiva—where council was held and thus associated with spiritual understanding.. Perhaps this is why Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree in seeking enlightenment.

An educated and princely member of the (Saka) Shakya Gautama clan, he knew his early history and sought to put certain beliefs to the test.

Centuries make a difference when it comes to the rise and fall of cultural influences in and on a civilization. The dates of Siddhartha Gautama’s birth and death are debated. Within the older Eastern Buddhist tradition of China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, the traditional date for the death of the Buddha was 949 BCE. According to the Ka-tan system of time calculation in the Kalachakra tradition, Buddha is believed to have died about 833 BCE. If he died in 949 BCE, his date of birth was 1029 BCE. If he died in 833 BCE, he was born in 949 BCE. Though it is held he was born in Lumbini, Shakya Republic, Kosala kingdom located in the Terai plains of modern southern Nepal, it is customary to claim that he was born in 623 BCE in accordance with an inscription on the pillar erected by the Mauryan Emperor Asoka in 249 BCE. Most of his early life was in Kapilavastu.

The take away is that Siddhartha Gautama was a cultural product of the Vedic period (1500-500 BCE), which was the period of the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age. The Vedic period was a product of the ancient religion of the “Indic Aryan peoples” (Proto-Indo-Iranians (likely adherents of precursor of Zoroastianism, which adopted the Sanskrit word for “purity” (Arya) into their cultural and religious way of life at the exclusion of others)) who entered northwestern India from Persia c. 2000–1200 BCE. It was the precursor of Hinduism, and its beliefs and practices are contained in the Vedas. The split between the Indo-Iranians and Indic people (Indo-Aryans) happened around 1800 BCE.

For example, he knew the Vedas literatures (c. 1300-900 BCE), which were composed in the northern Indian subcontinent, a vicinity of the Shakyas. The Shakyas were an ancient eastern sub-Himalayan ethnicity and clan of north-eastern region of the Indian subcontinent. Their existence was during the Iron Age. They were organized into an  aristocratic oligarchic republic known as the Shakya Republic and were on the periphery, both geographically and culturally, of the eastern Gangetic plain in the Greater Magadha cultural region.

The Vedic Period began to dwindle after 1000 BCE, which instilled for centuries, a Varna (caste) system. Siddhartha Gautama was born into the Kskatriya varna comprised of warriors, kings, rulers of territories, administrators, and the like. He chose not to remain loyal to his varna duty and may have adopted varna duties of a Brahmin (priests, gurus, and the like) in protest. There was a lot of backlash to Vedic ways during his lifespan.

There was another kind of migration: The Pipal tree appeared in other archeological finds outside of the Indus Valley Civilization. Here are a few:

Images above, respectively, (1) IVC Shiva, (2) Sumerian Enlil; (3) Sumerian Enki, (4) Sumerian Enki, (5) Sumerian/Akkadian Shamash-Uti, (6) IVC Proto-Trimurti’s Pipal tree

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