Some thoughts about trees in the context of the philosophy of Krishna consciousness.
By Satyaraja Dasa
Everything is connected to Krishna, and therefore even trees, notably some special ones, play an important role in Krishna consciousness.

Trees are indispensable: they give us oxygen, store carbon, brace the soil, offer us wood and food, and thus provide life to all living things. Additionally, they provide materials for tools and shelter, give us shade and, of course, beautify the earth. We simply cannot exist without them. One could argue that more than any other living being – barring only God Himself and the demigods – trees are central to our welfare and overall sustenance.

Although these things are all pragmatic and necessary, they might seem indirect in terms of our Krishna conscious tradition. But in fact, trees play a major role in direct Krishna consciousness too.

The Greening of Krishna

Krishna self-identifies as a certain kind of tree in the Bhagavad-gita (10.26), in the section where He claims Himself the first and foremost in all categories – e.g., “of letters I am the letter ‘A’ . . . Among compounds I am the dual word . . . I am also inexhaustible time, and of creators I am Brahma,” and so on. “Of all trees I am the ashvattha” (ashvatthah sarva-vrikshanam), for the banyan (ashvattha) is one of the tallest and most beautiful of all trees.1 To this day, many people in India worship it as part of their daily morning rituals.

Elsewhere in Vaishnava texts, Krishna in Vrindavan favors a special bhandira tree, near which He often sports with His young friends. He once magically teleported them there after swallowing a forest fire (Bhagavatam 10.19). Bhandira is a kind of vata (banyan), identified in Rupa Goswami’s Padyavali (379) as the Lord’s favorite. It is said that Krishna’s love for trees even rivals His feelings for cows, the creatures He is known to love with all His heart:

gavam keva katha krishna
te te ’pi bhavatah priyah
mriga vihanga bhandira-
kadambadyash cha padapah

“Why speak only about the cows, dear Krishna? All the animals in Vraja are Your beloved friends, and equally beloved are the birds, and the trees like the bhandira and the kadamba.” (Brihad-bhagavatamrita 1.6.116)

And let us not forget tulasi. Two verses in the Skanda Purana praise the tulasi tree, dearest to Lord Krishna: “Let me offer my respectful obeisances unto the tulasi tree, which can immediately vanquish volumes of sinful activities. Simply by seeing or touching this tree one can become relieved from all distresses and diseases. Simply by offering obeisances to and pouring water on the tulasi tree, one can become freed from the fear of being sent to the court of Yamaraja [the king of death, who punishes the sinful]. If someone sows a tulasi tree somewhere, certainly he becomes devoted to Lord Krishna. And when the tulasi leaves are offered in devotion at the lotus feet of Krishna, there is the full development of love of Godhead.”

This tree is so dear to the Lord that any association with her will result in extreme good fortune: “Tulasi is auspicious in all respects. Simply by seeing, simply by touching, simply by remembering, simply by praying to, simply by bowing before, simply by hearing about, or simply by sowing this tree, there is always auspiciousness. Anyone who comes in touch with the tulasi tree in the above-mentioned ways lives eternally in the Vaikuntha world.”

Tree imagery is ubiquitous in the Vaishnava tradition. In addition to tulasi, we often hear of trees such as the tamala and the neem, their beauty and natural wonder permeating the Vedic tradition.

The Tree of Bhakti

The Chaitanya-charitamrita (Adi, chapter 9) even apprises us of a metaphorical bhakti plant, wherein Chaitanya Mahaprabhu – Krishna in the guise of His own devotee – is envisioned as the gardener as well as the trunk and the plant itself. He enjoys the flowers of its garden and distributes them to others. The seed of the plant was first sown in Navadvipa, the text tells us, the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The plant is then brought to Jagannatha Puri and Vrindavan. We are thus to understand that bhakti is first and foremost in these transcendental places, even as it exists in the heart of the pure devotee.

The seed sprouts and the plant bears fruit when cared for by the founding fathers of the lineage. All the devotees who follow – then, now, and in the future – will spread the roots of this plant far and wide. The tree surrounds the world, and its fruits are to be distributed everywhere. Clearly, the Chaitanya-charitamrita’s vision includes an expansive “tree” that goes well beyond India:

From these two trunks grew many branches and subbranches that covered the entire world. (Cc., Adi 9.22)

Thus the disciples and the granddisciples and their admirers spread throughout the entire world, and it is not possible to enumerate them all. (9.24)

“All the parts of this tree are spiritually cognizant, and thus as they grow they spread all over the world.” (9.33)

“Distribute this Krishna consciousness movement all over the world. Let people eat these fruits and ultimately become free from old age and death.” (9.39)

“If the fruits are distributed all over the world, My [Lord Chaitanya’s] reputation as a pious man will be known everywhere, and thus all people will glorify My name with great pleasure.” (9.40)

These verses use Bengali words like jagat (“world,” “universe”), sabe sakala bhuvana (“all parts of the world”), and jagat vyapiya (“spreading all over the world”). At the time these verses were written, this tree had not spread its branches beyond India. Thus the Chaitanya-charitamrita, a seventeenth-century text, engages in prophesy, suggesting that its teachings would one day engulf the world.

For one who knows the tradition, this prophesy can only point to the work of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and Prabhupada says this himself in his purport to verse 9.40, quoted above:

This prediction of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s is now actually coming to pass. The Krishna consciousness movement is being distributed all over the world through the chanting of the holy name of the Lord, the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, and people who were leading confused, chaotic lives are now feeling transcendental happiness. They are finding peace in sankirtana, and therefore they are acknowledging the supreme benefit of this movement. This is the blessing of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. His prediction is now factually being fulfilled, and those who are sober and conscientious are appreciating the value of this great movement.

Prabhupada at the (H)elm

In the modern era, the tree of bhakti manifested as an old elm tree in the center of New York City’s Tompkins Square Park, in the heart of the East Village, thousands of miles from the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya.

Stationed strategically near a semicircle of old benches, between Seventh and Tenth Streets and Avenues A and B, Prabhupada chanted for the pleasure of Lord Krishna – under this very tree – and thereby attracted numerous sincere souls to his side. It was October 9, 1966, soon after the founding of his International Society of Krishna Consciousness. It can be said that his movement began under that tree.

Years later, on November 18, 2001, a plaque was placed in Tompkins Square Park to honor that first kirtana in the Western world, which served as the springboard for every kirtana to come. The inscription on the plaque describes the context:

One of Tompkins Square Park’s most prominent features is its collection of venerable American elm (ulmus americana) trees. One elm in particular, located next to the semicircular arrangement of benches in the park’s center, is important to adherents of the Hare Krishna religion. After coming to the United States in September, 1965, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977), the Indian spiritual leader, founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York. He worked from a storefront on nearby Second Avenue that he used as the Society’s American headquarters. Prabhupada and his disciples gathered in Tompkins Square Park in the fall of 1966 to introduce the East Village to the group’s distinctive 16-word mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

On October 9, 1966, Prabhupada and his followers sat beneath this tree and held the first outdoor chanting session outside of India. Participants chanted for two hours as they danced and played cymbals, tambourines, and other percussive instruments; the event is recognized as the founding of the Hare Krishna religion in the United States. Prabhupada’s diverse group that day included Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997). Krishna adherents continue to return to the tree to acknowledge its significance.

– October 2001, City of New York, Parks and Recreation,

Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor; Henry J. Stern, Commissioner

Tree Consciousness

According to Vedic texts, plants account for 2,000,000 of the 8,400,000 species of life. They are conscious beings, animated by a living soul. In terms of the real entity within, they are the same as human beings and all other species. It is only the body that differs. “The evolutionary process of different types of bodies is something like that of a fructifying flower,” writes Srila Prabhupada. “Just as there are different stages in the growth of a flower – the bud stage, the blooming stage, and the full-fledged, fully grown stage of aroma and beauty – there are 8,400,000 species of bodies in gradual evolution, and there is systematic progress from the lower species of life to the higher.” (Bhagavatam 3.31.19, Purport)

This metaphysical understanding of trees is now being confirmed by modern science. Although they are reluctant to speak in terms of “soul” or “consciousness,” researchers now know that plants have “preferences,” such as roots moving toward water and branches moving away from possible harm. They also have “memories” and can “learn from experience.” In one famous 2014 experiment, for example, potted plants (in this case, a species called Mimosa pudicas) were dropped from a window at a short distance, just to see how they would react. At first, they curled their leaves in an attempt at self-defense or self-protection. But when it became clear that no real harm would come to them, they stopped trying to protect themselves.2

A pronounced understanding of “tree consciousness” is eloquently expressed in Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees. Although some hardline scientists criticize him for anthropomorphizing trees, not one of them has been able to refute his insights and findings, for he draws on first-rate scientific studies, and more have supported him than doubted him. Wohlleben teaches that plants process information just as animals and humans do, even if they do so much more slowly. Plant life is central to life on earth, he argues, and while undeveloped in certain ways, they are far more evolved than most people think they are, with feelings and emotions buried deep within their earthy frame.

Many scientists are confirming Wohlleben’s work, building on his findings and perceptions, all of which are originally based on the early-twentieth-century experiments of Jagadish Chandra Bose, biologist and physicist extraordinaire. Accordingly, tree consciousness has again become a viable theme and subject of scientific research. Looking at a recent series of experiments, for example, The New York Times sums up the field in a recent breakthrough article, noting that trees’ response to anesthetics suggests that plants are conscious and intelligent. It can no longer be argued otherwise.3

Of course, all of this had already been affirmed by Vedic texts, as previously stated. It is a part of Vaishnava teaching: Again, plants are conscious beings, with a soul. In this regard, Prabhupada repeatedly lauded the work of Jagadish Chandra Bose: “Even in plants’ life you will find. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, one of the greatest scientists of the world, he has proved by machine that when you cut the trees or the leaves, they feel sensation, pain, and that is recorded by machine. So everyone has got soul.”4

Symbol of Tolerance

There is much to learn from trees, and Lord Chaitanya Himself was clear about this:

trinad api sunichena
taror iva sahishnuna
amanina manadena
kirtaniyah sada harih

“He who is humbler than a blade of grass, more forbearing than a tree, giving due honor to others without requiring it for himself – such a person is ever worthy of chanting the holy name and can do so without limit.” (Shikshashtakam 3)

A tree is blown mercilessly by the wind, endures the elements, allows all to eat of its fruit, is abused by animals and children, and withstands being pruned or even cut down. Yet, would that it could, it never complains. We are advised to be similarly flexible and strong, forbearing, and supremely tolerant. Such tolerance comes from seeing oneself in perspective, as a tiny soul in a very large universe.

It is through a genuine sense of humility, says Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, that one becomes eligible to chant the holy name. The humble devotee knows that Krishna is the ultimate truth and we are meant to humbly serve Him. Moreover, the devotee recognizes that, because all living beings exist as parts of Krishna, we are meant to serve them as well.

Thus the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 22.78–80) lists twenty-six qualities that are essential for serious practitioners of bhakti-yoga. Amani, meaning “humble” or “free from false prestige,” is one of them – and among the most important. Indeed, the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Antya 20.26) tells us: “If one chants the holy name of Lord Krishna in this mindset, he will certainly awaken his dormant love for Krishna.”

NOTES

  1. Sometimes ashvattha is translated as “fig tree.” This is because banyan trees are one of the species sometimes called “strangler figs.” Other common names for this plant include Bengal fig and Indian fig.
  2. See Ephrat Livni, “A debate over plant consciousness is forcing us to confront the limitations of the human mind,” https://qz.com/1294941/a-debate-over-plant-consciousness-is-forcing-us-to-confront-the-limitations-of-the-human-mind/
  3. JoAnna Klein, “Sedate a Plant, and It Seems to Lose Consciousness. Is It Conscious?” The New York Times, February 2, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/02/science/plants-consciousness-anesthesia.html
  4. http://vanisource.org/wiki/Lecture_on_BG_7.1-3_–_Stockholm,_September_10,_1973?hl=Sir%20Jagadish

Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written more than thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.