In Part 1, we explored the qualities that help us stay healthy in summer, and how the traditional prasāda that is offered for this midsummer ritual is in fact a snapshot of these qualities.
We also began looking at why the big gift of the occasion is spending time doing spiritual practices under a vaṭavrkṣa, वटवृक्ष, a banyan tree. It’s more than breathing wonderfully oxygenated air and taking a break from hot kitchens, screen time, and overly stuffy or overly air-conditioned environments.
It’s an amazingly uplifting experience, a rejuvenation. In fact, it’s a form of sattvavajaya cikitsā, an elixir for winning over the mind, for developing inner harmony and spiritual awareness. It is medicine in itself.
Traditionally, the space under banyan trees has been valued as an ideal setting for the flow of sacred wisdom and the pursuit of spiritual practices.
There is a well known passage in the Chandogya Upaniṣada that takes place under a banyan tree. The sage Uddalaka asks his son to break open a banyan seed and explain what he sees inside. His son finds nothing there, and is amazed to realize that a huge banyan tree has come forth from the invisible essence within that tiny seed.
The sage then explains to his son that in the same way, this whole world has sprung forth from its unseen essence, the Ātman (आत्मन), the inner Self or Consciousness. Sitting under the banyan tree and reflecting on this teaching, his son enters a deep meditation where this truth becomes his experience.
One of the forms of Lord Śiva that I love to contemplate is Dakṣinamūrti, Lord Śiva as the Guru. He is depicted sitting under a banyan tree. The strands of his matted locks look so similar to the hanging roots of the banyan tree. With blissful fearlessness, Shrī Dakṣinamūrti always faces south, the direction associated with death. Sitting in silence under the banyan tree, his presence causes astonishing spiritual insights to arise in the students seated around him.
If you are fond of reading or reciting sacred texts, you may have come across verses that recommend chanting and studying these texts under a banyan tree. This is highlighted as a powerful way to connect with the subtle power and wisdom of these texts.
For millennia, spiritual seekers have been advised by sages that if they want to progress quickly, they should immerse themselves in japa, mantra repetition, and meditation in the sacred shelter of a banyan tree.
On this Vaṭa Sāvitrī full moon day, women gather under banyan trees to recite and listen to the story of Sāvitrī, understanding that they have come to a space of wisdom and immortality.
In case you are wondering if these are the same kind of tree that Buddha meditated under, well, they are closely related but not the same. That was a Peepal tree, whereas here we are looking at the banyan trees (botanically known as ficus bengalensis). They are both in the fig tree family.
Another Sanskrit name for the banyan tree is akṣaya (अक्षय), imperishable. Banyan trees are deeply associated with immortality, longevity and renewal. This is not only through their association with sages and immortal wisdom, and with the story of Sāvitrī. It is also because of the way they grow.
A banyan tree sends down aerial roots from its branches. They hang at first in tendrils that look like the matted locks of a forest yogi or of Lord Śiva. Slowly these delicate roots grow into thick new trunks that support the giant branches from which they descended.
Over time, a single tree can create a small forest radiating outward from the original trunk. It has the atmosphere of a timeless world. There are huge living banyan trees you can see today that are likely to be over 1,000 years old.
We find these physical aspects reflected in Sanskrit names for banyan trees: nyagrodha (न्यग्रोध), one who grows downward, vaṭa (वट), one who is surrounded, and bahupada (बहुपद), one who has many feet.
Banyan trees are also revered as kalpavrkṣa (कल्पवृक्ष), wish-fulfilling trees. As you can imagine, this plays an important part in Vaṭa Sāvitrī full moon practices.
Banyan trees are a protected species in India, so you find them growing not only in spacious rural settings and temple courtyards, but even in cramped inner city spaces, with walls and small shops built around them.
It is with the awareness of the many qualities the vaṭavrkṣa embodies – sacred power, a rarefied atmosphere for the transmission of wisdom, medicinal potency, and immortality – that women come to offer worship on this occasion.
Confident in the benevolent, wish-fulfilling nature of banyan trees, they pray in its shade for longevity for their beloved, along with the health and well-being of their family.
In preparation, women observe upavāsa, gentle, disciplined fasting. Some fast for a few hours, others for several days. This is often mistaken for a form of bargaining with the divine. It is actually to cultivate a state of inner peace, clarity and purity. So they arrive under the banyan tree in a spiritually receptive state of mind.
When you participate in this practice, the tradition invites you to make more than a quick formality of it. In the practice of pradakṣiṇa (प्रदक्षिण), walking reverently, mindfully, in circles around the center of the tree, there is time to soak up both the physical and subtle atmosphere. This is why the tradition recommends circling the vaṭavrkṣa for anywhere from 5 to 108 times.
It’s not just a custom but something deeply personal, and spiritually rejuvenating. You infuse each step with prayers and intentions inspired by the bonds of love. It is a communion with the divine through trees whose benevolent presence have witnessed vast spans of time, and the lives of many generations.
You continue this as you linger to offer fruits and pour water to nourish the tree, as you touch your head slowly to its ancient trunk. There is much more going on than completing a prescribed practice.
When you sit under the banyan tree and really listen to the story of Sāvitrī, the strength of her love and wisdom helps you connect with these qualities within yourself. You find your own courage in her fearless determination, you draw inner strength and confidence from her. Love fills your heart.
These are simple examples of sattvavajaya chikitsa, practices for winning over the mind. The approach of sattvavajaya chikitsa is always positive and uplifting. You can think of it as showering the mind with practices and thoughts, environments and company that drench your mind in peace and clarity, purity and empathy.
These are the sacred, mid-summer gifts of Vaṭa Sāvitrī practices. They connect us with both the practical, thirst quenching gifts of sweetness, coolness, lightness, and softness, and also with calmness and the experience of renewal, inspiration and inner strength. They are a natural map of summer health and wellbeing.
These practices also give us a glimpse of how medicine and ritual, health and spiritual practices, nature and wisdom are deeply interconnected. They invite us out of our built spaces to let nature bring this experience alive for us.
While sitting under the tree: