Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tree Worship

The correct term for tree worship is dendrolatry. In ancient India it was widely believed that sprits or gods inhabited trees, particularly large, old and gnarled ones, and tree worship was an important part of popular religion as it still is in India. The Greeks had similar beliefs and called tree spirits dryads. In the Tipitaka they are called rukkhadevata, vanadevata, or aramadevata, (A.III,369; M.I,307; S.IV,302). Some trees, called wishing trees (rucarukkha), were believed to answer prayers or more correctly, the gods in such trees did this. Likewise the healing power of certain herbs were believed to be due to the gods that inhabited them. There is no place in the Tipitaka where the Buddha endorsed the worshiping of trees the way he occasionally did for the gods. In the Dhammapada he said ‘Gripped by fear people go to sacred, hills, woods, groves, trees and shrines. But these are not a safe refuge, not the best refuge. Not by going there is one freed from all suffering.’ (Dhp.188-9). Several Jataka stories poke fun at tree worship.
I found these two ancient depictions of tree spirits. The first is from Bharhut and dates from about the 2nd-1st century. I photographed this second one in the Victoria and Albert Museum during a recent visit. On the top right hand corner of this sculpture we see the spirit in a sal tree weeping and wiping her tears with a handkerchief.


Richard Harrold said...

Very interesting. Is this why "spirit houses" are ubiquitous especially in Thailand? Someone told me that businesses often put up spirit houses on their property to appease the spirits in the forest that was cleared to build the business. The spirit house is supposed to give the spirits a new place to live. Is that how it works?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Richard,
I’m not that familiar with SE Asian superstitions and animism but broadly it’s probably the same as the Indian while having its own unique details. And while on the subject, if you ask a well-educated Asian Buddhist about attitudes to Bodhi trees they will tell you that people only ‘revere’ them because such a tree gave the Buddha shelter on the occasion of his enlightenment.In reality traditional Asian Buddhists ‘worship’ Bodhi trees in the belief they will answer their prayers. It’s a case of animism being grafter onto Dhamma.

Ken and Visakha said...

In the Jatakas, the Bodhisatta is sometimes reborn as a tree spirit, from which perspective he observes and comments on kammic happenings. What a happier, greener, more diversified, less polluted world we would have if tree worship/respect were more widely practiced!

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ken & Visakha,
Indeed it would. However, research has shown that tree worship rarely translates into a consciousness of the importance of preserving trees, any more Ganesh worship translates into a concern for the declining elephant population. Such beliefs can be used to launch an environmental awareness and concern but in themselves they seen to have little effect.

Ken and Visakha said...

I'd be interested in that research, having known of the distress of Burmese, who had shared the water of donation with the devas of particular trees, when the authorities ordered those trees felled. I think our acquaintances would maintain they hadn't worshipped the trees per se, but they had shared merit with those particular deities as a family and felt a bond.

Amritha Menon said...

Hi. I live in Bangalore. I went for a walk today, early morning, and saw two trees garlanded and smeared with sandal wood paste. It is so sweetly surprising and beautiful. I would have imagined that these rituals and beliefs are limited to the villages or hills. How little I know of my country :)
So, I just stumbled into your blog while googling for tree worship, and felt like speaking. Nice reading. :) Have a nice day..