TREE METAPHORS in Tamil and Sanskrit Literature (Post No.3650)

Research Article Written by London swaminathan


Date: 19 FEBRUARY 2017


Time uploaded in London:- 18–45


Post No. 3650



Pictures are taken from various sources; thanks.






Trees are used as similes and metaphors in Tamil and Sanskrit literature from very ancient times. The upside down Peepal Tree (Ficus  religiosa) is the most famous metaphor in the Bhagavad Gita (15-1)


Uurdhvamuulam adhahsaakham………………… (15-1)


“They speak of the imperishable asvattam (peepal tree) as having its root above and branches below. Its leaves are the Vedas and he who knows this is a knower of the Vedas (Bhagavad Gita 15-1)


The origin of this metaphor is in the Rig Veda (RV 1-24-7 and 1-164-20). Since Rig Veda is the oldest book in the world dated between 6000 BCE and 1500 BCE), Hindus are the first to use trees in literature. This is a highly philosophical verse. Later Katha Upanishad (With roots above and branches below, this world tree is eternal 2-3-1) and Bhagavad Gita repeated it.


It is SAMSAARA VRKSA, the cosmic tree. Mahabharata compares the cosmic process of a tree which can be cut off by the mighty sword of knowledge (Asvamedhaparva 47-12,15). Vedas (leaves) mean knowledge. Incidentally a section of Veda is called Saakhaa (branch).


I am the originator of world tree, says Tattriya Upanishad (1-10)


The Petelia Orphic tablet suggests that our body comes from the earth and our soul from heaven “ I am a child of the Earth and of Starry Heaven; but my race is of Heaven alone”. (Quoted by S Radhakrisnan in his Gita commentary)

Swami Chinmayananda says in his commentary on Gita:

“Ashwattha is botanically known as Ficus religiosa, popularly called the peepal tree, which according to some gathers its name because horses (Asva) used to stand under its shade (Ashwattha). According to Adi Shankara, this tree has been chosen to represent the entire cosmos because of its derivative meaning: ‘Shwa’ means tomorrow; ‘Stha’ means that which remains; therefore, ‘ashwattha’ means that which will NOT remain in the same till tomorrow. In short, the word indicates the ephemeral, the ever changing, world of the phenomena.


According to Anandagiri, samsara is represented as a tree (Vriksha) because of the etymological meaning of the Sanskrit term Vriksha, that which can be cut down. The tree of multiplicity that has seemingly sprung forth from the Infinite Consciousness Divine, can be cut down by shifting our attention from the tree to Divine.

Luckily, we who are educated in modern universities, have a similar use of the term ‘tree’ in our text books. The ‘Family Tree’ of kings and dynasties are, without any exception, shown as branching down from their ancestral source. Similarly, the tree of Samsara, has its roots UP in the Divine Consciousness. A tree holds itself up and gets nourished by its roots; similarly, the experience of change, and the experiencer of them, are all established in the infinite and draw their sustenance from it alone”.


The universe is described as an upside down tree 6-37-1

These metaphors suggest hugeness and extensiveness as the probable general imagery.


As Emeaneau has shown, the picture in the asvattha metaphor is based on an epiphyte stage of the tree. It is rooted above, on another tree, and hence lets root down to the ground. Its branches grow on all directions from its place on the host tree, both up and down.


It is in Kathopanishad 6-1 and Taittriya Aranyaka 1-11-5



Another tree imagery that is popular is the uprooted tree by the floods. This is used in negative contexts. We find it in Tamil and Sanskrit.


Kaliadsa and Tamil poets used the same similes which shows that the culture is one and the same from land’s one end to the other. This explodes the myth of Aryan-Dravidian races.



Kalidasa’s references:

Perish the sinful thought

Why are you out to sully your family’s honour

and to make me fall; you are like a river

that crumbles its banks to muddy its crystal stream

and uproots the tree growing by its edge

Sakuntalam 5-22 (King Dushyanta to Sakuntala)



Understand that the bow of Shiva which you have broken had been divested of its strength by the power of Vishnu; understand further that even a light wind lays low a tree situated on the bank of a river which is already uprooted by the gush of the river. [11-76]


In this way when his subjects are being filled with compassion day after day for him, he though recently enthroned was undisturbed like a firm-rooted tree. [17-44]

Raghuvamsam 11-76, 17-44



Sangam Tamil Literature References:


Our lives, however dear

follow their own course

like the rafts drifting

in the rapids of a great river –Puram 192,Kaniyan Punkundran



Horse did not come, Horse did not come

All other horses came back!

My husband’s horse didn’t come

He was caught like a tree in between

two great rivers meeting point

torn and fell!

Puram 273 (Erumai Veliyanar)



I am shaking like the leaves of a mango tree

that fell down, when its roots were washed by the floods

in a wild stream ( a woman who is separated from her lover)

Natrinai 381 (Avvaiyaar)



we shook like the plantain tree that was washed by the floods

with foam (Kurinjippaattu lines 178/9 by Kapilar)


Poetess Nachellaiyar compared a  creeper that was struggling in the water uprooted by the floods to the lotus stalks in the river.

Pathitrupathu 52-21,

Palai padiya Perum Katungo compares the dried and withered trees to the people of a country where tyrants rule (Kalitokai 10)


In the Mahabharata



The significance of trees in similes, however, is different in different contexts.

Thus a tree broken by a thunderbolt or wind etc is a symbol of death. Bismarck sighing on the ground like a tree broken by the wind.6-14-13


The hunter, coveting Damayanti fell down on the ground like a tree burnt by fire.

Jayadrathas soldier,with his chest broken , vomiitting blood from his mouth, fell down in front of Arjuna like a tree severed from its root:

Sa bhinnahrdayo viiro vaktraac chonitam udvaman

Papaataa bhimukhah paartham chinnamuula Iva drumah 3-255-14, 3-17-20 etc
A tree fallen from the bank into the river current is a figure of dependence and subordination. Thus a man is at his own command, even for a while, like a tree fallen from the bank approaching the middle of the stream.


naa tmaadhiino manusyo yam kaalam bhavati kam cana

srotaso madhyam aapannah kuulaad vrksa iva eyutah

–Mahabharata 3-31-26


Duryodhana is described as a great tree of anger

Duryodhano manyumayo mahadrumah 1-1-65

Source Books

Bhagavad Gita commentary by Swami Chinmayananda

Bhagavad Gita commentary by Dr S Radhakrishnan (President of India)

Sangam Tamil Literature

Kalidasa’s Works

Elements of Poetry in the  Mahabharata