The Fig Tree

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


        Wherefore he went
With measured pace, steadfast, majestical,
Unto the Tree of Wisdom. Oh, ye Worlds!
Rejoice! our Lord wended unto the Tree!


 Gone were the elements, lost in space, and the senses dissolved along with the gods. A fathomless ocean engulfed the world with no surface or encircling shore. No eye to see its darkness, and yet an unwitnessed stirring moved in its depths and a shape emerged from the shadows. A banyan leaf floated and upon its curve rested Vishnu as an infant sucking his toe. Like a newborn serpent swallowing its tail, the Lord floated upon the ark of life, and from his navel a lotus sprang as the throne of Brahmā, his petalled seat from which all creation blooms. Its fragrant stem, like the babe itself, peacefully glided along the edge of the soon to be manifest world.

 The leaf appears and demarcates a surface but it stems from the invisible Tree of Life. The Tzite tree of the Popul-Vuh, Yggdrasil, Gogard, Lampun, or the Sephirothal Tree, are said to have enclosed the prototypes of the human races and to have grown under the arching protection of the mighty macrocosmic Tree. This ancestral Tree of Knowledge is the androgynous prototype of the sacred banyan, the Bodhi or peepal trees that symbolized life, peace and prosperity for vast masses of people in the Old World. Just as Indra is depicted at Ellora seated on an elephant under a banyan, so the emblem of Rome bore the figures of Romulus and Remus overshadowed by a great Ficus of another variety. The Greeks saw the fig tree as sacred to Dionysus, whose popular worship encouraged an emphasis upon fertility and the efflorescence of the vital force. On a mystical level this indicates the embrace of absolute Unity, the intimate experiencing of the Heart that beats in every atom in nature as the germ of the Tree of Knowledge whose fruit yields eternal life. It is this vital force which quickens the seed and helps it to germinate, making the branches bend downward their boughs like the sacred Ashwatha tree.

 A conspicuous aspect of the celebration of Eternal Life is the ecstasy which so often engulfs worshippers. The joyous lila of its ambrosial flow through limbs and branches is accompanied by singing and dancing in circles, with vine leaves trailing mad patterns upon the ground. A species of the fig in India is called the Krishnavat because its leaves are doubled near their base, and hence cup-shaped. The story goes that when the youthful Krishna was accustomed to play his flute in the jungle, the gopis were enchanted by his tune. They would carry butter and thick curds to him, hoping to feast together upon the leaves of the arching fig tree under which he played. Trembling before the Lord of Love, the leaves curled around at their stem so that he and his companions might drink and the milk may be sweetened by their own delicate nectar.

 In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, "Amongst trees I am the Peepal", which is also known as the Bodhi or Ashwatha tree. As a symbol of the highest and most archetypal order, the Ashwatha is a tree which does not grow in this world but has roots which are generated in the highest heaven out of the Rootless Root of All-Being. The Secret Doctrine suggests how "its trunk grew and developed, crossing the planes of Pleroma, it shot out crossways its luxuriant branches, first on the plane of hardly differentiated matter, and then downward until they touched the terrestrial plane. Thus, the Asvattha, tree of Life and Being, whose destruction alone leads to immortality, is said in the Bhagavatgita to grow with its roots above and its branches below." The trunk of this mighty tree is like the caduceus descending from the two dark wings of Hansa. Its boughs are the Hiranyagarbha, the highest Dhyan Chohans, and its branches are "the great egoism", ahankara, which leads to every error. In the branchlets are the senses, of which the occult elements are the flowers of the five tanmatras, whilst the gross elements are borne in the twigs. Fluttering in the wind and onto the earthly plane are the leaves, which are the Vedas, the sublime spiritual teaching of ancient humanity.

 The banyan canopy over Lord Indra depicted at Ellora connotes the sacrificial showering of spiritual food. Seated upon an elephant, Indra is the lightning god who releases its vital substance and enables it to flow into the world through the Bodhi-elephant, whose essential nature is compassionate. Such a banyan symbolizes the supreme sacrificial nature of the Ever-Living Human Banyan, who is the Root-Base of the Hierarchy of Arhats that lies beyond the seventh stage of initiation of the highest Arhan of our terrestrial chain. The wondrous Being descended to manifest as the Sons of Will and Yoga, in whom incarnated the highest Dhyanis who remain apart from the rest of mankind. This Being is the TREE from whom all sages have branched and he holds sway over Adepts throughout the world. He is the Great Sacrifice, who sits by the fountain of Wisdom but will not drink. He is the Maha Guru under whose influence all divine Teachers instruct mankind.

 The two branches of the fig tree embodied in these lofty symbols extend into the beautiful myths surrounding the Ficus trees associated with cosmic sacrifice and eternal life. Whilst the banyan (Ficus benghalenis) is famous for its protective canopy offered to mankind, the Ashwatha or Bodhi (Ficus religiosa) is equally well known for its longevity and its association with the enlightenment of the Buddha. Commonly known as the peepal, the Bodhi tree is unrivalled throughout the world for its antiquity and veneration. In the course of his wanderings and searchings for Truth, the Buddha reached a place called Gaya in the kingdom of Magadha. There he sat for many days in meditation under the branches of a peepal tree. Under this tree he resisted the enticements of Mara and the attacks of all the parasitic entities of ignorance, oblivion and death in order to emerge victorious and radiant with the pure essence of Buddhi flowing freely throughout his sevenfold nature.

 The place of his enlightenment became known as Bodh-Gaya, and a direct descendant of the original peepal tree still flourishes at the spot. Many saplings of the tree have been planted in Buddhist countries, such as that carried to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitra, the daughter of Asoka. It was planted there in 288 B.C. and still lives, having itself produced many cuttings, one of which displays its graceful crown beside the ancient Buddhist stupa at Sarnath in India. Though cuttings can be easily made, the peepal is not parasitic nor does it drop down aerial roots as does the banyan tree. Its foliage is less thick and in its old age the heart-shaped leaves appear sparse upon the silvery gray branches and twigs. But the new tender leaves are coppery red, smooth and glistening. On moonlit nights they reflect the moonlight and appear like thousands of small lamps dipping and rustling in the breeze.

 Of the banyan tree it is said: "Under the protecting foliage of this king of the forests, the Gurus teach their pupils their first lessons on immortality and initiate them into the mysteries of life and death." This links up with the mysteries represented by the Ashwatha tree, which suggest that when it touched the earth it became soiled and the Serpent of Eternity (the Logos) was degraded. The likening of the trunk of the Ashwatha to the caduceus reminds one that the two serpents of spirit and matter (life and death) descend along its trunk, and their tails joining below produce the maya of worldly existence. This is all very suggestive and ancestral to the fragmented symbolism illustrated by the tree and the serpent in the Book of Genesis. All the more does this rendition of the ancient myth seem distorted and diminished when one compares it to the arcane teaching that "those who dwell in the microcosmic tree are the Serpents of manifest Wisdom". In fact, man is this tree and the serpents represent his higher Manas, the link between heaven and earth.

 But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Genesis 2:17

 This is the decree given to Adam and Eve as they lived in innocence and peace in the heavenly Garden of Eden. At its centre stood the fig tree of life, and though they were allowed to eat all the other fruit of the garden, they were forbidden to touch its fruit. But the serpent appeared to Eve and said: "For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." So contrary is the teaching of the serpent to what they had been instructed that Eve is bewildered and cannot discriminate between them. Indeed, given the possible occult symbolism of this episode, one cannot be sure which of two serpents is speaking and whether a Promethean act is being suggested or a diabolic temptation associated with the serpent of matter and death. But the fruit of the fig was eaten and, though it is often likened to an apple, the results were productive of sexual awareness and shame: "And the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons."

 The leaf of the fig is sometimes the shape of the female yoni, as in the case of the ark-shaped banyan leaf. It may, however, resemble the heart, like those that rustle in the Bodhi tree, but the fig tree combines both feminine and masculine traits and its fruit is commonly associated with the fertility of the mother, whereas its leaf is connected with the masculine lingam. Plutarch believed that the leaf looked like the male organ and linked this up with debased forms of Dionysian rituals, drinking and lustful expression. It is this sort of downward interpretation that seems to be echoed in the Biblical story, one which it is, perhaps, wise to balance with the notion of 'the tree of many breasts', or 'the place of peace'. Like the Vital Force flowing through the World Tree, the white milk of the fig flows into its fruit and swells their sweetness with life-giving juices.

 There are and have been in the ancient past whole villages settled beneath the canopy of a banyan tree. A place of peace is indeed to be found under the shade of the umbrella of a gigantic Moreton Bay fig or even a Mediterranean variety such as that hoary giant at Knight's Ferry in Stanislaus County, California, which stood sixty feet high and cast a shade seventy feet in diameter. But the great arboreal canopies are provided by the banyans of South Asia which, like one at Gopepur in Bihar, are sometimes so densely set in leaves that people standing under them in the heaviest rain will not get wet. A giant at Sibpur Botanical Gardens near Calcutta spreads over seven acres and one in Andhra Pradesh had a circumference of six hundred metres, was supported by three thousand aerial roots, and could provide shade for as many as twenty thousand people sitting beneath it.

 Lateral extension and a tendency to grow towards the ground is dramatically illustrated by the banyan, but it is a characteristic of the Ficus genus in general, a very large group of the mulberry family. Ficus, or figs, possess latex which flows throughout the tree, and they have a smooth bark interrupted by branchlets and twigs that are marked with ring-like scars at each node. Their leaves are arranged spirally and flowers are set inside the fruit so that the trees do not appear to flower at all. The latex of the Ficus elastica can be used to erase pencil marks, and many parts of the banyan, pakar, gular or Bodhi tree are of medicinal value and have been widely used in Ayurvedic practices. In the case of the Bodhi tree, it is said that every one of its parts has a medicinal use, and the leaves that fall from the one growing at Bodh-Gaya are carefully collected and kept as a physical and spiritual talisman by pilgrims who visit from all over the world.

 The fruits of the fig grow in pairs on the leaf axils and contain numerous tiny blossoms of both sexes as well as a host of small insects called 'fig insects' needed to produce the seed. Each species of fig has a species of wasps attached to it, and the only time they are free is when the females fly from ripening figs on one tree to young figs on another. Male wasps live only a few hours whilst the female moves from flower to flower until her stock of eggs is depleted. Then she too dies, exhausted, without having eaten any food since she was hatched. In her wanderings she carries the pollen from the male flowers that grew inside the fig in which she was hatched. This she brushes against the stigmas of the female flowers she visits, causing their fertilized ovules to ripen into seeds in three months. The next stage in this wonderful drama involves a monkey or a bat or a bird which, indulging itself with a sumptuous feast of ripe figs, quickens the germination of the seeds by lending the chemical facilities of its digestive system before dropping them in any number of conceivable places. Since this process goes on continually during the season of fruition, new sprouts appear each spring in abundance and may root on roof tops, in the cracks of walls and houses and in other trees.

 An English clergyman once wrote a satire in Urdu ridiculing Pandit Malaviya's demand for Home Rule: "We will have Home Rule, says Malaviya. This is but mid-summer madness: indeed it is like asking for the flower of the gular." The patriotic Hindu replied: "When Home Rule is achieved, India will produce scientists like Burbank. Then even the gular shall be made to flower." Of course, with the gular (wild fig) or any other member of the Ficus genus, the flower is actually inside the fig. The fruit is produced by the widening of the inflorescence-stalk and the arching over and contraction of the edge until a pear-like vase is formed which is lined with the petals of the flower. Thus the fig is the head of a flower turned inside out, or rather, a cluster of flowers within a vase. Borne together in pairs along the branches, trunk or even roots of the tree, each fig contains all three kinds of flowers. The females have a small yellowish seed, the males a stamen, and the gall flowers look like stalked balloons with a hole bitten on one side where the wasp came out.

 The entire process of fertilization, fruition and propagation of the fig involves a complex interaction of symbolic elements. The role of the wasp is particularly mysterious in that its most typical characteristic is irritability. Its life is obviously focussed upon one flight out of one fig into another and its short span is filled with a sort of monomaniacal intent. In forcing its way into the flowers of the new fig, the female will often rip and tear her own body before completing the laying of all her eggs. She exemplifies the lack of sensitivity to variables which are extraneous or peripheral to her job in a way that is typical of the irritability shown by many people when their concentration is interrupted. This total focus of intent plays a crucial part in the fertilization and subsequent fruition of figs. The monkey, bat or bird contributes to the symbolism of propagation in equally mysterious ways.

 Symbolizing the baser unconscious forces in life, monkeys delight in feasting upon ripened figs and in the springtime swing from tree to tree, engorging themselves on the tender, fleshy fruit. In the course of their arboreal peripatetics they enrich the environment with their seed-filled droppings, as do the birds and bats in their flight. Birds in myth are always intelligent collaborators with man and, in this instance, represent a conscious act of propagation, one that is in aid of spiritualization. The bat, on the other hand, symbolizes the hermaphroditic forces, and in its role of sower, complements the feminine aspect of the unconscious and the masculine aspect of the conscious. Feeding by night, it distributes the seed whilst the monkey and bird are asleep, and it may drop them both on the earth like the monkey usually does or in the branches of trees like the bird.

 Upon examination, other characteristics of the fig tree further magnify the complexity and subtlety of its symbolism. The phenomena of epiphytic and geocarpic growth are richly suggestive of symbolic interpretation. The English name for the banyan tree derives from the fact that in ancient times there were such trees in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf. Banias (or merchants) from India used to camp there when they visited and gave to these great arbours their name. There are many tales of ghosts and spirits associated with their often strange shapes and people tend to be afraid of them in the dark. But the most outstanding characteristic of the banyan is the fact that it frequently germinates in another tree and drops its roots down to the ground. A bird may drop a seed in the leaves of a palm or other forest tree, where it grows and sends down long rope-like roots that gradually thicken and embrace the host tree. This epiphytic pattern is looked upon by Hindus as a holy union but it marks the beginning of a long struggle between the so-called strangling fig and its host. From as high up as one hundred feet the roots grow around and band the trunk of the host until eventually, after many years or even decades, the host will die, leaving the banyan supported by roots that are often as large as great and sturdy trunks. Though not a parasite, the strangler figs flourish at the expense of other trees, the growth from above below overwhelming the more common heliocentric pattern.

 Whilst epiphytic growth is found only in certain figs like the banyan, the Indian rubber tree or the Indian fig, geocarpic growth is typical of all figs. This tendency to spread and droop and to transfer food materials downward represents an analogous growth parallel to that of the epiphyte. 'Geocarpic' literally means 'earth-fruit' and, indeed, fig trees often bear fruit upon their trunks and exposed roots as well as their branches and twigs. In certain varieties runners grow from the base of the tree into the earth, where bunches of fruit develop under the humus in a process of fruition which is not well understood by botanists. Such runners also send up shoots of new trees, echoing the archetypal pattern of the Ashwatha tree, whose vital force moves downward to take root and procreate the Breath of Life.

 The banyan and the Ashwatha tree combine the elements of cosmic sacrifice and eternal life or Wisdom. But the sacrifice of the banyan exacts the sacrifice of a host in order to spread and take root. One might imagine the host tree as man, whose spirit is reaching up towards the source of life. The Vital Force moves heavenward within him like the spiritual serpent entwining the caduceus and provides the seat in the brain where the seed of Wisdom can germinate. The conscious spirit of man, like the bird, flies up in willing sacrifice, knowing that its lower nature will eventually have to die. In this way man becomes a host of the earthbound Great Sacrifice which, once rooted, will provide a canopy of shade and shelter to multitudes of other struggling souls. Eventually, after the sacrificial tree or the wood of the earthy man is dead, there will be only the sacrifice left. That which was breathed down as the Great Breath has been inhaled and breathed forth by a human agent, and in this way the inspiration and expiration of the Vital Force binds together heaven and earth.

 In the Bodhi tree, sacrifice and wisdom merge in a perfect balance of the above and below, the expiration and inspiration, the masculine and feminine. The mysteries of life and death revealed themselves to the Buddha under its boughs in the darkness of night. Whilst the elements of the monkey and the bird merged in sleep, the androgynous nature took wings and began its mission of propagation in the world. Seated between the great roots of that tree, the Buddha penetrated the innermost recesses of his own dual nature. Like the wasp, he would not be distracted from his total absorption in a contemplation of Truth. The pairs of fruit, the dual powers within his sevenfold being, aligned themselves as the twin serpents along his spine, and over and over again the lotus petals within each fruit gave forth a seed of Immortality. Thus the Buddha became the androgynous tree whose roots draw from the earth and alchemize its essence in branches which cross the planes of Akasa in their growth towards the causal realm. The rustling leaves of the Bodhi tree then bear the whispers of human prayers, joining in their celebration with the compassionate boughs of the Ashwatha tree.

 In this way the particulars of the world unite with the Universal and Manas is absorbed into the Kshetragna, the soul's Spiritual Sun. At first the mind of man worshipped terrestrial wisdom and great sages who are but branches of the Ever-Living Human Banyan Tree. But when it merges with Buddhi, Manas is transformed into the tree whose fruit is emancipation, bringing the Enlightened One to the threshold of the very roots of the World Tree. He who turns back from this threshold becomes a human banyan tree, a Maha Guru to mankind. His spoken word will be as the milky sap of the Ashwatha and his teachings will contain the seed of Immortal Wisdom capable of propagation in the world.

If you make a sacrificial fire
With the wood of the fig tree,
You will light up Tretagni,
The root-flame of Truth.