What does the Gita’s inverted tree metaphor signify?

by Chaitanya Charan dasAugust 26, 2014

Answer Podcast

Transcribed by: Argha Maji

Question: What does the Gita’s inverted tree metaphor signify?

Answer: Firstly it conveys that there is something illusory about this world. Secondly it conveys that there is a reality of which this world is a reflection. Thirdly it gives us pointers about how we can go from illusion towards the reality. Let’s understand this one by one. So this metaphor comes in 15.1 in the Bhagavad Gita

ūrdhva-mūlam adhah-śākham

aśvattham prāhur avyayam

chandāmsi yasya parnāni

yas tam veda sa veda-vit ( 15.1 BG)

And actually this metaphor goes on till the fourth verse. The fifth verse is a conclusive call for action where the metaphor itself is not mentioned. But the process for surrender and liberation is mentioned. So in this first verse what is talked about is the upside down banyan tree, ūrdhva-mūlam adhah-śākham that the roots are upwards and branches are downwards. aśvattham prāhur avyayam And this is an eternal banyan tree. chandāmsi yasya parnāni It is quite an elaborate metaphor where the leaves are like the Vedas.

yas tam veda sa veda-vit. One who understands this tree is the knower of the Vedas. Later in 15.19 Krishna says that one who knows Him is the knower of everything.

yo mām evam asammūdho

jānāti purushottamam

sa sarva-vid bhajati mām

sarva-bhāvena bhārata

So one who knows the tree is veda-vit and one who knows me is sarva-vid. So Krishna has also earlier said that

trai-gunya-vishayā vedā

nistrai-gunyo bhavārjuna ( BG 2.45)

nistrai-gunyo, go beyond the Vedas. Because the Vedas primarily talk about the karma kanda, that’s why at one level we see, it is said that the Vedic hymns in themselves are just one part of the leaves. And Krishna doesn’t say that one who knows the leaves, knows the Vedas. Krishna says that one who knows the full tree, knows the Vedas. Because just knowing the Vedic hymns will make one think that one has to go to heavens and enjoy life over there. But understanding the whole Vedic picture and the progression which ultimately goes beyond the material world, that means one understands the whole tree. So there is karma kanda, which is the leaves and understanding the whole tree, knowing that one has to be detached from it, that is understanding the jnana kanda section also. So the jnana kanda is also part of the Vedas, that is Upanishads, And ultimately the Vedas point towards Krishna as told in 15.15 in Bhagavad Gita, vedaiś ca sarvair aham eva vedyo, so He is the ultimate goal of the Vedas, that’s why one who knows him is sarva vit.

Now the next verse also continues the same metaphor,

adhaś cordhvam prasritās tasya śākhā

guna-pravriddhā vishaya-pravālāh

adhaś ca mūlāny anusantatāni

karmānubandhīni manushya-loke (15.2 BG)

adhaś cordhvam, that some of the branches go up also, some come down also.

guna-pravriddhā vishaya-pravālāh, so what nourishes the tree is the three modes. vishaya, the sense objects are the twigs of the trees.

adhaś ca mūlāny anusantatāni, some roots go down also.

karmānubandhīni manushya-loke, manushya-loke can refer to the human species or the martya-loka, where human beings live. That here people get bound by karma.

So now , firstly the upside down indicates that there is something unnatural about this. Prabhupada said that this world is an uncomfortable place. Just like if somebody is hung upside down, then he would feel uncomfortable. So world is not a place where we can be comfortable and happy. There is something wrong about this world. And the wrongness is a that instead of being cooperators with Krishna, we have become competitors of Krishna. And this has made everything upside down. The point that some branches go up and some go down and some roots go down also, that means that the living entity keeps moving up and down in this world. The expansion of the tree because of the modes indicate that it is the action under the modes that causes the tree to grow.

And the idea that karma is what binds us. We become more and more attached to the tree and to fruits of the tree when we do karma. When we do a particular type of karma and get attached to it’s fruits and we become bound thereof. Now, the point of the metaphor is not to figure it out but to get out. That’s why in the next verse Krishna says,

na rūpam asyeha tathopalabhyate

nānto na cādir na ca sampratishthā

aśvattham enam su-virūdha-mūlam

asańga-śastrena dridhena chittvā

tatah padam tat parimārgitavyam

yasmin gatā na nivartanti bhūyah

tam eva cādyam purusham prapadye

yatah pravrittih prasritā purānī (15.3-4 BG)

So now it says, na rūpam asyeha tathopalabhyate, upalabhyate means to be understood. The form of this cannot be understood. And nānto na cādir na ca sampratishthā, where it is beginning, its foundation, very difficult to find out. aśvattham enam su-virūdha-mūlam

Very deep rooted. asańga-śastrena dridhena chittvā, with detachment one has to break it, with weapon of detachment.

This is a poetic metaphor. There is a lot which is concentrated in it. Rather than focusing on a technical analysis on each point, we need to understand the essential message which is being conveyed. Because poetry is often not subjected to technical analysis, although it can be done to some extent. But the meaning has to be more of relished or caught, than to be systematically analysed. So the important point is there is a whole tree of material existence and there is an individual attachment to this tree.

Now detachment is not something which can be cultivated in the whole world and get everyone to be detached. So Krishna is first giving the metaphor which applies to the whole world and then making a call for action to the individual. So when he is telling, dridhena chittvā, break the tree. So he is obviously not talking about breaking the whole tree of material existence. He is talking about cutting away our own attachment to material existence. And we can’t figure it out, Krishna says it clearly. So the point of that is that this is so vast and complex, the key thing to understand is this is a false world. Things are unnatural over here. Now, the Bhagavad Gita doesn’t say directly that this is a reflection of a spiritual reality. The word pratibimba or any related word like that, doesn’t come in the Gita. But the acaryas have explained it that way because that’s where in our normal experience we see upside down tree, when it is reflected on a river. A tree on river bank, reflected on the river will appear to be upside down. So by inference we can say that this world is a reflection and we have to get out of reflection. And Krishna also points about something beyond this material world and he says once you are detached,

asańga-śastrena dridhena chittvā

tatah padam tat parimārgitavyam

And when you have attained the abode from which one will not fall back,

yasmin gatā na nivartanti bhūyah

You come out of illusion but your journey is not yet over.

tam eva cādyam purusham prapadye

After you are liberated submit to that Supreme person,

yatah pravrittih prasritā purānī , from whom the whole world has come about. So in this way, what Krishna is telling is, surrender to him as a person is something which one has to do after one has become liberated. Of course, Krishna also says wherever you are Surrender unto me. sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekam śaranam vraja (18.66 BG)

I will protect you from sinful reactions.

So we can surrender from whatever situation we are also. But the important point is surrender doesn’t end in merger at liberation rather here it is said after liberation, after one has broken free, one finds the Supreme Lord and then surrenders. But this is basically not so much of a bhakti mood,it is more of a jnani mood, where jnani conceives this world as place of entanglement and becomes liberated, and Krishna emphasises that after liberation you have to surrender to me. And because the Supreme Lord is not known over there for the jnani, Krishna is talking from jnani perspective, he doesn’t talk about himself in the first person, he talks about himself in the third person.

And who the ultimate lord is, that will be talked about in 15.6, my Supreme abode and attaining me.

This metaphor conveys that this world is unnatural, illusory. And there is a reality beyond this world and we have to attain that reality. The idea of this metaphor is from an analytical perspective especially for jnanis. But of course, bhaktas can also use this framework for directing their thinking and recognising the need to think about Krishna. So, in this particular metaphor , the Supreme Lord is not given a direct role. So, this metaphor doesn’t include the concept of avatar. It is primarily talking about material nature, as something from which one has to be entangled. So, of course that Krishna is present in this world and he is sustaining us in this world will be talked about in the same 15th chapter later, from 15.12, how He is the splendour of sun and moon, how he is the digestive fire, he is the person who nourishes the vegetables through moonlight. So, there is no doubt that Krishna is present in this world also. But in this particular metaphor, starting section of this chapter focuses more on this world as an arena to be disentangled from. And for the jnanis who want to be disentangled, he gives a metaphor that this is unreal, get out of here. But then he concludes , after you are disentangled you have to surrender to a person.

This metaphor is a means by which the jnanis who love profound intellectual and conceptual gymnastics are attracted to Geetopanishad and then after doing all gymnastics , they are said that gymnastics culminate in surrender to Supreme Lord.

Thank you. Hare Krishna









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Chaitanya Charan das

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