There is a tree. It has its roots above and its branches below. It is an as’wattha (banyan, ficus religiosa) tree. Its leaves are the Veda Mantras. (lit. chandamsi) It is unchanging. The one who knows that is a knower of the Vedas.
This is the first s’loka of the 15th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita.
In 15.2, it is stated that its branches are spread above and below. They are made to flourish by the Gunas.
What are Gunas?
Here the word guNAs do not mean “good qualities” as it does in modern Indian Languages. It refers to the tri-gunas Sat, Rajas and Tamas. Philosophers translate this as goodness, passion and lethargy.
I translate it as Existence (matter), Light and Darkness.
Nature is said to express itself through these gunas to create the manifest, differentiated universe that we see around us.
What are ViSayAs?
The twigs/fresh branches are the vishayas. In modern Indian Languages vishaya means “subject/point of discussion”. Philosophers explain it as sense-objects. That means that “thing” that is created in your mind when your senses interact with the nature around you.
So at the tips of the branches made out of the gunas of this tree you will find these Vishayas.
Then the roots are said to be found extended below too, in the world of people. These extended roots are bound to karma.
What is karma?
- Vedic karma refers to the Vedic rites that people must perform if they want all the benefits of material living.
- In India today, karma refers to the consequences of one’s actions more – the good kind is punyam and the bad kind is papam.
- In western culture as represented by tv shows, karma is a muddled concept.
Let us take the Vedic meaning. The roots of this as’vattha tree that are above the world of people (in divinity), descend below into the world of people (worldliness) in the form of karma (Vedic Rites).
15.3 : The form (of that tree) is not available here (in this perceivable world). Neither its end, nor beginning nor its foundation (are visible). This strongly rooted tree must be cut down with a weapon called detachment. Then one must search for that place or state, from which no one returns once they go there.
15.4 : Reach for that primordial puruSa, from where the ancient beginnings spread out.
15.5 : Without illusions of honour, the clear-minded people, having overcome the faults due to attachment and desires, free from dualities named happiness and sorrow, steady in spirituality reach that final unchanging state/place.
Wise people tell us that this as’wattha tree represents all worldliness which we must get rid off if we are to experience divinity. Some of them tell us that its upside down nature indicates a reflection in the waters and implies the illusory nature of much of what we perceive and experience.
15.2, 15.3 and 15.5 are for some reason longer than the rest of the slokas in this chapter.
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