Socio-cultural, Ecological and Religious Importance of Plants as Mentioned in the Scriptures (Part-1)

By –  BALRAM (09-07-2019)

Plants and Trees occupy a prime place in ancient Indian scriptures. The ancient works such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Epics, the Puranas, the treatises of Charaka and Susruta, the lexicon of Amara and such other works containing materials convey that botanical science developed in ancient India through the knowledge of plants and trees. There are references that the science of medicine, the science of agriculture, horticulture etc. was highly developed in ancient India. The science of Botany was known as Vrksayurveda. The significant works on botany dealing with plants and their treatment include Vrksayurveda by Sage Varahamihira who belonged to 100 B.C, the Vrksayurveda of Surapala of 11th century A.D. and the Vrksayurveda section of the Agnipurana of 9th century A.D. In the Vrksayurveda section of the Agnipurana, the method of propagation, nourishment and treatment of plants are described. A significant and in-depth knowledge of plants are revealed in this work.

The Vedic literature contains references of the vast treasure of plants and trees. It is mentioned in the Rgveda that the plant world is the first creation of the creator. According to the Rgveda [ya osadhlh purva jata devebhyastriyugam pura / RV.X.97.1], in order of creation, plants preceded the creatures. In the Upanishads also [TU.,11.1], it is stated that plants originated before all other creatures. This concept is also reflected in the Bhagavata purana. In the Visnu purana, plants are considered to have divine origin. According to this Purana, the herbs, fruits, roots etc. originated from the hairs of Brahma. Besides, the study of the Puranas brings out the fact that the tradition, belief and life style of the people revolved around plants and trees.

According to Kurma Purana, Brahma has created trees (Vrksa) and herbs (Virudha), and monocarpus plants (Osadhi) have originated from the dermal pores of Brahma. There are categorized references to the names of sacred plants in this Purana having sacred origin like Iksu (Saccharum officinarum), Dhanya (Oryza sativa), Nispava (Pulses), Kumkuma (Carthamus tinctorius or Crocus sativus), Kusumbha (Schleichera trijuga) Ajaji (Carum carvi) Goksira and Vikara.

Agni Purana gives the names of plants and plant material to be used in some religious rituals. It states that the following flowers have universal usage in worship mallika (Jasminum sombac), Ashoka (Saraca asoca), Kamala (Nelumbium speciosum), Kumda

(Jasminum pubescens), Tagara (Tabernaemonatana coronaria), Vuna kumkuma (Carthamus tinctorius or Crocus sativus) and Sindhuvara. Brahma Purana considers that one who circumoustulates a Vata tree (Ficus benghalensis) can get Rid of one’s all sins as the God Hari rests on this tree. It also lists a number of plants and plant parts used in religious ceremonies like Sradha. In Vamana purana the origin of plants and plant groups are traced to different Gods.

The Puranas have the references indicating that the territories of various tribes which led the foundation of the respective janapadas, were either broad flood plain or great rivers or the thick forests. Plants and tree world played a significant role in moulding the society in its cultural, social, agricultural, economical, religious and aesthetic development since the dawn of civilization. The socio-cultural importance of the plants has been acknowledged by the Agni purana, the Matsya purana and the Brahmavaivarta purana in particular. In the Puranas, references are made of the trees and plants, vegetables, pulses, grasses etc. that were included in the diet chart of all sections of people of that era. Plants also supplied the clothing materials to the people. Different types of plant based products like grasses or barks or cotton met the demands of clothing. As regards shelter, it is mentioned in the Puranas that wood, bamboo etc. were the materials to be used by common people.  Not only houses but construction of any type was mainly done with different plant materials. Besides, utensils of different varieties are also mentioned in the Puranas.

Apart from these, there are ample references of plants & trees in connection with religious performances. Religious gifts of different kinds of plants and crops are mentioned in the Puranas.  For example, kalpapadapadana, a kind of religious gift making ceremony, used to be performed in  those days. It was considered highly meritorious. In that religious rite, the performer had to donate kalpa tree. People believed that the performer of the kalpapadapadana acquired the same religious merit as one gets after performing the asvamedha sacrifice. In the Agni purana and the Matsya purana, the kalpapadapadana is enlisted in the sixteen mahadanas.  Moreover, donation of crops and plants such as dhanya, godhuma, kalama (a sort of rice), chandana, tambula etc, are acclaimed to lead the devotee to the path of enjoyment, heaven and liberation.

There are several trees and plants [Peepal, Tulsi (basil), Kadamba, Parijat, Bilva and many others to name a few] which were and still are considered to be highly sacred for various reasons.

Asvattha tree [commonly known as peepal tree] was worshipped as God during that ear and the tradition is still continued. In the Brahmavaivarta purana, the asvattha is mentioned as an important tree for religious purpose and consecration of asvattha tree was performed to acquire a great religious merit [i.e. punya]. In the Agni purana also, it is mentioned that asvattha tree was worshipped and venerated as a holy tree.

Parijata is also another important religious tree. It is referred in the Brahmavaivarta purana that Parasurama received the kalpatarumantra from Mahadeva (Siva) during his stay in a hermitage surrounded by the parijata forest.

In addition to the above, plants and trees offered help to the yatis (mendicants) and vanaprasthins in the third stage of their lives. The vanaprasthins after their retirement from the worldly duties and affairs took shelter in the forests (vana). The forest being undisturbed from the crowd remained favourable for the learners and the teachers as well.

From the above, it becomes evident that the ancient society had been grown, shaped and nourished in and around plants and trees and their importance has not been diminished so far.

{NB: The article is in Four parts. This is first part.}

To be continued in part-2