THEOSOPHY, Vol. 39, No. 9, July, 1951
(Pages 418-421; Size: 13K)
(Number 21 of a 24-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 24 articles have the same name.]



"Truly, then, one should study Occult philosophy before one begins to verify and seek the mysteries of nature on its surface alone...." 

--The Secret Doctrine, I, 536
ALTHOUGH the Gita's fifteenth chapter involves a direct discussion of the Ashwattha tree only in its opening passages, it is important to note that the treatment of "Devotion Through Knowledge of the Supreme Spirit" begins in this fashion. For the Supreme Spirit, as Krishna lets it be known to Arjuna elsewhere, can only be discovered through its manifestations, and the Tree is the most universally known symbol for the totality of Living Nature.

Krishna's central theme throughout the Gita, as we have discovered, includes the truth that manifestation, and "individual existence," while productive of illusion, are nonetheless necessary. Yet the work of life and the final attainment of Seership involves the separation of the fruits of life, which we strive to possess, from the roots of life, which we always possess, even though knowing it not.

The "fruits" are bountiful or poor according to the season and the climate; in other words, they are directly modified by eternal forces; the leaves are not eternal -- even evergreens shed their needles. Yet the tree itself endures, despite these inconsistencies. For man, the Tree is his Individuality, connecting a vision of spiritual unity above with egotistic materiality below. Can one prune the foliage so that the life sap can grow another, stronger, and more complete tree? H. P. Blavatsky, in discussing a Brahmanic allegory concerning the Ashwattha tree, provides the intimation that this is precisely what may happen in the course of individual human evolution, for she writes that Buddhi, the seventh sense, "is transformed into the tree -- that tree whose fruit is emancipation -- which finally destroys the very roots of the Aswatta tree, the symbol of life and of its illusive joys and pleasures."

How many students of Theosophy have attempted to draw diagrams of the Ashwattha tree? Not an easy metaphysical representation to materialize, since it can be drawn in innumerable ways, and still none will fit all the descriptions in the ancient texts. One of the oldest and greatest of symbolic forms, this "inverted" tree will continue to evoke challenging and inspiring thought, for we can find analogues to the tree in all departments of human inquiry -- science, history, psychology and religion. The offshoots of cultures and races reproduce the process of synthesis (fruit) and discard (fallen leaves), which is also the story of religion and philosophy. Of all symbols, moreover, the tree is perhaps the most natural representation of Life in its organic wholeness. It is represented in many cultures as that particular tree with which the region felt an especial affinity -- it might be the fir, the sycamore, the pippala, or the Bo-Tree, under which Buddha received his final enlightenment and liberation. The Ashwatta, too, is connected through legend and allegory with the serpents who twine around a tree trunk, and with the Caduceus:

In the beginning of their joint existence as a glyph of Immortal Being, the tree and Serpent were divine imagery, truly. The tree was reversed, and its roots were generated in Heaven and grew out of the Rootless Root of all-being. 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 till 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 roots represent the Supreme Being, or First Cause, the LOGOS; but one has to go beyond those roots to unite oneself with Krishna... The Vedas are its leaves. He only who goes beyond the roots shall never return, i.e., shall reincarnate no more during this "age" of Brahma.
The image of the Ashwattha tree given us by the Gita is certainly puzzling. Yet the Ashwattha symbol could hardly be universal in its suggestiveness were it not marvelously complex and difficult. Easy to understand, of course, is the growing of the tree "from above." This clearly refers to the inauguration of each period of evolution on the spiritual plane, the psychological parallel of which is the initiation of all material effects by the "Higher" Self. And, as indicated, the evanescence of leaves, blossoms and fruit is a evident analogy for the transitory, purely personal pleasures.

One stops here to note how aptly the leaves also symbolize the "Vedas" in the world of Doctrine. They, too, "come and go and are brief and changeable" against the background of eternity. Yet the tree, its roots and stable trunk, can also be the tree of all knowledge about manifested things. Proceeding from this plane we first contact the branches, closest to us as we stand with our own feet on earth. Like the giraffe with its food-tree, man nibbles on the leaves of the "Vedas," finally stretching his neck for further food of learning. But the eating of the Vedas is never fully satisfactory, and the being who feeds thus is never self-sufficient, but must be ceaselessly seeking provisions. Therefore, the whole of the theosophic philosophy indicates the possibility of reaching a stage where one is physically, psychically, mentally and morally able to exist without the ceaseless foraging we experience as "learning by chance" -- or grace. The true stature of Mahatmaship is said to be attained only when neither ordinary doctrines nor the most common foods are needed.

The image tends to elude us, though, when we try to envision, not only the roots which come from the "regions above," but also "those roots which ramify below in the regions of mankind." The tree appears to have both branches and roots, mingled, at the earth-level of material existence. What are these secondary roots? If they grow from the branches, they fasten the tree down securely, so securely that it can no longer respond with graceful motion to gentle breezes which might be favorable for evolutionary adaptation. These terrestrial roots probably represent the lowest and grossest of our material appetites, which, at death, become the kamarupa. This even the personality leaves behind in order to know the relative freedom of Devachan. These lowest, "Tamasic" roots may be thought of as the possessive fetishes of man -- his strange passions for jewels of fabulous price, for the retention of kingships or popular esteem, for the possessive imprisonment of wife, husband or child. These are "roots" indeed, hard to dislodge, which take from the human tree of life its native elasticity of temper. Such rigidity endangers the whole tree, from bottom to top, since, in cases of storm, insufficient pliancy is left for the trunk.

Then we come to what may be the greatest puzzle of the Ashwattha image. Why does one have to "hew down with the strong axe of dispassion this tree"? Let us look again at the mental image we have tried to create. The poor tree is fastened both ways, rigid, incapable of turning toward more light or away from prevailing winds. This, perhaps, is the Man himself, crucified by full incarnation -- Prometheus, bound. He has to learn to cut the fastenings, in order that some indigenous motion may be resumed. Thus Buddha spoke of "prison houses of sense."

The "breaking of bonds," the cutting of entangling alliances, is thus an inevitable part of Occult symbolism. We often mistake this for a recommendation that all ties be severed which connect us with the pulsating life around us, but it is actually only the trunk -- or, in this case, egotism --which needs to be severed. The trunk is what gives to all our experiences in life their static quality, defying progressive transition. The Personal Ego forever seeks to preserve the status quo -- a foolish effort, for resistance to change or new challenge leaves us susceptible to incessant suffering from those disappointments ordained for one who does not seek pliancy.

The branches of this Ashwattha tree, by the way, are not "evil things," but only, as the Gita says, what must be expected to grow, naturally, from the three qualities. These branches, at least, are pliable. They will sustain and regenerate leaves; also they have connection, however remote, with roots in the highest spheres of man's spiritual individuality. The "new" tree, which the Brahmanical allegory spoke of as replacing the "Ashwattha" of our present selves, must be imagined to retain pliancy. The new tree, it is said, allows Adepts and Sages to live in the world while yet not of it -- not imprisoned by rigidities of mind, ambition, or appetite.

Each student has the opportunity of weaving these complexes of imagery whenever the Ashwattha symbol is concerned. Three simple things may perhaps be pointed out in connection with it, however, on which all will agree. First, the most obvious implication of the Ashwattha is that the entire world is presently "upside down" from the standpoint of spiritual perception and evaluation. Secondly, our work is to study the inter-relationship of the various integral parts of the tree -- never to take a leaf for a branch, or a branch for the roots, as is the case when we adopt a fixed "religious" idea. Thirdly, for one whose interest directs him toward an evaluation of the many commentaries on the Gita extant, it will become clear that H. P. Blavatsky's explanations in the Secret Doctrine are more complete than those offered by the most learned of Hindu scholars and pundits. One may even infer that H.P.B.'s delineations and correlations have often been conveniently appropriated by later commentators. Thus we may see more evidence that the body of teachings Madame Blavatsky represented as the Secret Doctrine is indeed the "tree of wisdom" of all ages.

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