Tree of life – meaning and history

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The Tree of Life and its Meaning

The tree of life is a spiritual symbol of cosmic order.

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The Tree of Life – the spiritual meaning

  • Revered as sacred, the tree is found in almost all cultures around the world.
  • As a symbol, the tree of life stands for growth, strength, health and the cycle of life.
  • In all cultures, the tree of life is surrounded or inhabited by mythical animals.
  • Birds are regarded as bearers of messages from or to the gods who live in heaven.

The Tree of Life in Hinduism

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says: Ashwattha Sarva Vrikshana. This translates as: Under all the trees, I am peepal (The fig tree).

The ashwattha tree (Ficus religiosa)

Hindus worship the fig tree as the residence of the gods, or as the deity himself. The most widespread belief is that Lord Krishna chose the fig tree as his earthly residence because he passed away under it.

Sadhus and Hindus sanctify the fig tree as the tree of life and make pilgrimages to selected temples to meditate under a fig tree.

In Goa, mighty fig trees can be found in front of all major Hindu temples. It is said that a descendant of the original ashwattha tree still stands in Bodhgaya. During a pradakshina (meditative walk) around the fig tree, people often call out: salutation to the king of trees .
Hindus call the tree of life ashvattha.
The ficus religiosa grows upwards and downwards. On contact with the ground, the branches form roots. For believers, this is a symbol of the immortality of the tree of life, which thus symbolises the universe and life itself.

The tree of life in Indian folklore

In India, the fig tree (ficus religiosa) is considered a tree of life and is a symbol of happiness, peace and vitality. It is called peepal, a Sanskrit word.
The fig tree is revered for its longevity and life-giving properties and is considered sacred. It is said to have various positive health effects, which is why the ficus religiosa was already known as the tree of life by the Vedas. Many Ayurvedic medicines are made from parts of the tree: boiled bark is given as a mouthwash against toothache, milk from the fig leaves is said to fight eye diseases and as a natural lotion it makes the skin soft and supple.
The Indian people attribute many positive qualities to the fig tree, such as strong oxygen production, nutritious flowers and fruits, shady branches and spreading roots that hold the land together. These life-enhancing qualities make the fig tree the tree of life. The belief that propagating and planting the tree of life is good for future generations runs throughout India. A beneficial impact on the environment, especially in the modern world, is considered imperative for improving the climate and air quality and should therefore be encouraged by every individual through planting peepal.
The fig tree plays a crucial role in the natural ecosystem: the fruits of the fig poplar are rich and contain vital proteins and minerals. In the wild, fig trees are therefore often inhabited by birds, monkeys and other herbivores, which are attracted by the sweet fruits and flowers. By eating them, these help to disperse the tree’s seeds and thus promote the cycle of life. The fig tree is very hardy and adaptable and can germinate and grow almost anywhere. The peepal tree is resistant to drought because photosynthesis takes place at night at cooler temperatures. Due to the strong oxygen production it is said to have, many of these mighty trees can be found in Indian cities. Especially in front of temples, schools and public buildings, there is usually a large, prominent fig tree. You can recognise it by the countless heart-shaped leaves and the constant rustling, even when there is no wind.
Many symbols from legends and stories that refer to the tree of life can still be found in traditional designs such as our Tree of Life tapestries. Here, the mighty tree of life is usually depicted as both flowering and bearing fruit, and is home to animals such as birds, monkeys and butterflies. They feed on the fruits, leaves and blossoms and spread the seeds on the ground and the surroundings.

The Bodhi Tree in Buddhism:

In Buddhism, the bodhi tree (fig tree) is equivalent to the tree of life and is regarded as a sign of awakening, unity and rebirth.
According to tradition, Siddharta Gautama achieved enlightenment (Sanskrit: Bodhi) under a fig tree . This gave the fig tree the name Bodhi tree.
Seedlings of the original Bodhi tree were grown and planted at important religious sites. Not every fig tree is a Bodhi tree. A Bodhi tree is only one that can trace its origin back to the original fig tree.
Devout Buddhists make pilgrimages to the sacred tree of life to meditate under it. Seeds of the fig tree are made into prayer beads. This direct proximity to the Bodhi tree is also said to bring enlightenment closer.
The leaves of the fig tree are heart-shaped. Believers interpret this as a sign of health and life.
In addition, the fig tree is almost immortal:
A branch forms roots on contact with the ground, from which a new tree then grows, which is nevertheless the same.
The oldest fig tree found was estimated to be over 3,000 years old. No wonder, that the fig tree is considered the tree of life.

Yggdrasil with Celts and Teutons

Comparable to the Indian and Hindu tree of life is the World Tree, which in Celtic cultures stands for fertility, growth, strength and immortality.
The world tree stands in the centre of the universe and symbolises the world axis at the centre of the earth.
There is no single tree of life, this depends from person to person on the date of birth.
The belief of the Celts is based on the idea of a tree circle consisting of different tree species: each tree stands for a turning point in the year. Accordingly, the oak stands for the beginning of spring, the birch for summer. The robust olive tree marks the start of autumn and the beech the winter. Together, the trees symbolise the cycle of the year in the form of a tree calendar. In addition to these four main species, up to 20 other subspecies in the tree circle serve as more precise time indications in the year.
At birth, the tree of life is determined and planted by means of a tree calendar. This tree stands as a lifelong spiritual companion and mental anchor.
In Celtic customs, each part in the tree has its own meaning: the roots stand for the deep connection to the earth and nature. The leaf canopy symbolises the spirit and stands for life, progress and growth. The branches of the tree of life show the connection and dependence of the individual parts on each other. The leaves of the world tree are evergreen. This symbolises fertility and long life.
Myths say that Yggdrasil, the world ash tree, is the support of the sky and holds the sky roof with its branches. Yggdrasil connects the sky with the worlds of Midgard, Utgard and Niflheim through its roots.
For some rituals, offerings were buried under trees so that they would reach the gods through the tree.

The Tree of Knowledge in Christianity

According to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, God created the Tree of Life as well as the Tree of Knowledge. Both are located in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Humans were forbidden to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
However, the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and they were banished from the Garden of Eden. In the New Testament, the serpent of paradise is equated with the devil.
According to the New Testament, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus defeated the devil and his demons, thus opening the way to paradise again.

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