The World Tree – Axis Mundi & Attaining the Supreme
V. Susan Ferguson
Thanks to Bruce McCloskey for his Sri Yantra!
This is That eternal Asvattha Tree with its roots above and branches below. That root, indeed, is called the Bright That is Brahman, and That alone is the Immortal. In That all worlds are contained, and none can pass beyond. This verily is That.
– Katha Upanishad II.iii.1
In the beginning verses of Book XV, Krishna teaches his friend Arjuna the understanding of the Tree of the Universe or the Tree of Samsara. Samsara is this relative universe with its endless cycles of births and deaths. This tree is upside down (XV.1). Its roots are above (urdhva) and its branches below (adhas).
… the Asvattha, …
Which hath its boughs beneath, its roots above, –
The ever-holy tree.
– Ganguli XV.1
Asvattha is the Sanskrit name for the Peepal (fiscus religious) fig tree and is familiar to all Indians. It has heart-shaped leaves and its fruit is purple when ripe. The Peepal tree was first depicted on a seal discovered at Mohenjodaro, a city of the Indus civilization (3000 BC – 1700 BC). Its leaves are applied to wounds after being heated in ghee. It sends its branches down to the earth below, and is the Buddha’s Bodhi tree
Yea! for its leaves
Are green and waving hymns which whisper Truth!
Who knows the Asvatta, knows Vedas, and all.
Krishna says that the leaves of this metaphorical tree are the sacred hymns of Vedas. Its branches are nourished by the three gunas (guna-pravrddha) and its twigs (pravalas), which sprout branches are said to be the objects of the five senses (visaya). In Samkhya, the things of this world are never separate from the senses, through which they are perceived. It is the ‘operation’ of the five senses on ‘their’ objects that makes the temporal illusory hologram perceptible to our human consciousness.
The roots of the upside-down Tree of Samsara stretch downward from above as our desire-based actions bind (karma-anubandhini) us to this earth, the human world (manusyaloke). The upside-down tree is also a metaphor for the mirror image of the unreal which is only a reflection of the Real.
The trunk is formed by ‘the various subtle bodies of living beings’
This Tree of the Universe (Samsara) is said to be noisy ‘constantly reverberating with the tumultuous’ sounds that arise from the cacophony of all human activity. Its trunk is formed by ‘the various subtle bodies of living beings.’ Its growth is fed by desire and its fruits are the Lokas, the worlds of the afterlife.
Thus the longing for results, the fruits of our acts, engenders the roots which reach down into the earth plane and further bind human consciousness in the temporal illusory hologram.
Its branches shoot to heaven and sink to earth,
Even as the deeds of men, which take their birth
From qualities [gunas]: …
… As actions wrought amid this world of men
Bind them by ever-tightening bonds again.
– Ganguli XV.2
The form of the Tree of the Universe cannot be known by living beings here on earth (XV.3). It has no beginning (adih) and no end (antah), nor can its continual existence be perceived. This Tree forms the link between the transcendental worlds and the phenomenal ones.
The Sharp Axe of Detachment
The Tree of Samsara is an illusion, the projection of the Immutable Immeasurable Imperishable Oneness. When Souls are weary of enjoying the experiences provided by transmigration through a myriad of births and deaths, they must learn to discern the Real from the effects of guna-maya and cut down this Tree. The only way to cut this upside-down Tree is with the Axe of Non-attachment (asange-sastrena).
The Sanskrit word asange means that which is opposed to desire, and sastrena is an axe or knife like weapon. Dispassion and renunciation of the signals which transmit the perceptions of the five senses to the brain, become a mighty (drdhena) weapon (sastra) because they detach human consciousness from the world of desire, attachment and aversion, likes and dislikes, pleasure and pain (Gambhirananda).
An eagerness for Knowledge of the Supreme Self makes this Axe strong and the repeated practice of Discriminations between the eternal Real and the temporal unreal, produced by Prakriti’s guna-maya, sharpens the weapon that cuts down our attachment which binds us in the temporal illusory hologram (ibid.).
The World Tree – Axis Mundi
Krishna’s Asvattha Tree, the Tree of the Universe or Samsara, is none other than the World Tree, the Axis Mundi known in every metaphysical understanding through the ages around the planet. The brilliant metaphysical writer Rene Guenon says that Krishna’s upside-down Ashvattha tree refers to the primordial traditions symbolized by the sacred oak for the Celts, the lime tree for Germans, and the ash for Scandinavians (Man & His Becoming According to Vedanta).
Guenon explains the upside-down position of the tree as ‘analogy, here as everywhere else, [that] must be applied in an inverse sense.’ Like the Hanged Man card in the Tarot, what is true for the inner spiritual reality is inverse to the external material one. Guenon says that the roots are above because they stand for ‘the Principle’ and the branches spread out below to ‘represent the deploying of manifestation’ (ibid.).
The Symbol of the Cross
The Tree as World Axis is the true meaning of the symbol of the cross. The vertical line represents the axis and the horizontal ‘forms its branches’ (R.Guenon; The Symbolism of the Cross). The Hebrew Kabbalah has their Sephirothic Tree of Life.
Guenon states that this tree ‘stands at the center of the world, or rather a world.’ Wherever a ‘state of existence, such as the human state, is developed’ (ibid.) you will find the Tree as the Axis of that state, that world.
Perhaps it is useful to think of fractals, or dimensions within dimensions all existing simultaneously, or the traditional concepts macrocosm and microcosm. The Tree is the Axis of the Matrix that is the structural womb of the temporal illusory hologram. Every piece of the hologram contains the entire hologram; thus the Tree also exists within you, and is there to be seen with the Inner Eye.
The Tree of the Universe is the metaphysical reality on which all the myriad existences are formed. The total lack of knowledge of this Truth is the source of all that has gone wrong in science and in our modern world. Ignorance of the World Axis is itself a symptom of the Kali Yuga and what Rene Guenon with precise insight calls the Reign of Quantity.
Ink drawing (above) by V. Susan Ferguson around 1970.
Go beyond the Tree
The state of being (padam – place or footing) that is beyond this illusory Tree of Samsara is to be sought.
Those who attain, who have gone to (gatas) this abode beyond the Tree, they do not again return (nirvartanti) to the world (XV.4).
ततः पदं तत्परिमार्गितव्यं
यस्मिन्गता न निवर्तन्ति भूयः .
तमेव चाद्यं पुरुषं प्रपद्ये .
यतः प्रवृत्तिः प्रसृता पुराणी .. १५- ४..
tataḥ padaṃ tat parimārgitavyaṃ
yasmin gatā na nivartanti bhūyaḥ
tameva cādyaṃ puruṣaṃ prapadye
yataḥ pravṛttiḥ prasṛtā purāṇī 15.4
Those who seek release from the endless rounds of birth and death take refuge (prapadye) in the Primordial (adyam) Being (Purusha) – ‘Who made the mystery of old Creation’ (Ganguli XV.4) – from which have flowed like streams, the ancient (purani) currents, the frequency waveforms of creation.
No longer grow at mercy of what breeze
Of summer pleasure stirs the sleeping trees,
What blast of tempest tears them, bough and stem:
To the eternal world pass such as these!
– Ganguli XV.5
The wise ones who have cast off the veils of delusion (amudhah), go the imperishable (avyayam) abode (padam). They have become free from pride and arrogance (nirmana). They have conquered attachment (sanga).
The Kashmir Shaivite saint and scholar, Abhinavagupta states that it is the ‘deep-grown roots’ of the Tree of Samsara that must be cut, the roots which have been produced by ‘both good and bad action’ by limited human consciousness. Such cutting symbolizes the liberation from all attachment (B.Marjanovic).
The wise who have attained liberation from attachment dwell eternally in the Supreme Self (adhyatma) beyond the dualities produced by desire, beyond happiness and misery (XV.5) – sukhaduhkha is often written as one word!
Another Sun gleams there! another Moon!
Another Light, – not Dusk, nor Dawn, nor Noon –
Which they who once behold return no more;
Verse six can be interpreted in two ways. One is simply that the Supreme Abode or Home (paramam dhama) of the Lord is not lit by the Sun (suryah) or the Moon (shashanko), or even fire because these are the products of time and space.
The abode of the Supreme Being is beyond both.
A further interpretation rests in the experiential inner visions of the Light that is self-effulgent. There is no reflected light beyond the polarity based earth plane. There are many realms which also do not appear as reflected light and possess a visual quality as if lit from within, somewhat like an animated cartoon. Their translucence and density vary relative to the frequency of consciousness they emit. Some resemble the strange ‘plastic’ quality of light in computer animation.
The Self-Effulgent Illuminator of All!
However only the Lord is self-effulgent, self-luminous. For it is That Light which is the Illuminator of all others. Every universe and all creations arise from the Surpeme Bliss of the One.
The Sun does not shine there, nor the Moon and the stars, nor do these flashes of lightning shine – nor this fire. He shining, everything shines after Him [Brahman as IS-ness]. By His Light all this is variously illumined.
– Katha Upanishad II.ii.15; Gambhirananda translation
Krishna assures Arjuna that those who go to the Supreme Home (paramam dhama) of the Lord do not return (XV.6).
Once you have found your way Home and have Realized your real identity as the Supreme Self (Paramatman), merging your consciousness fully with That which is imperishable, self-effulgent Bliss, you do not return to the wheel of transmigration, birth and death through the endless Cycles of Time.
DEVANAGRI and Transliteration XV:
atha pañcadaśodhyāyaḥ. (puruṣottamayogaḥ)
छन्दांसि यस्य पर्णानि यस्तं वेद स वेदवित्।।15.1।।
ūrdhvamūlam adhaḥśākham aśvatthaṃ prāhur avyam
chandāṃsi yasya parṇāni yas taṃ veda sa vedavit 15.1
अधश्चोर्ध्वं प्रसृतास्तस्य शाखा
adhaś cordhvaṃ prasṛtāstasya śākhā
adhaś ca mūlāny anusaṃtatāni
karmānubandhīni manuṣyaloke 15.2
न रूपमस्येह तथोपलभ्यते
नान्तो न चादिर्न च संप्रतिष्ठा।
मसङ्गशस्त्रेण दृढेन छित्त्वा।।15.3।।
na rūpam asyeha tathopalabhyate
nānto na cādir na ca saṃpratiṣṭhā
aśvattham enaṃ suvirūḍhamūlaṃ
asaṅgaśastreṇa dṛḍhena chittvā 15.3
ततः पदं तत्परिमार्गितव्य
यस्मिन्गता न निवर्तन्ति भूयः।
तमेव चाद्यं पुरुषं प्रपद्ये
यतः प्रवृत्तिः प्रसृता पुराणी।।15.4।।
tataḥ padaṃ tatparimārgitavyaṃ
yasmin gatā na nivartanti bhūyaḥ
tameva cādyaṃ puruṣaṃ prapadye
yataḥ pravṛttiḥ prasṛtā purāṇī 15.4
र्गच्छन्त्यमूढाः पदमव्ययं तत्।।15.5।।
dvandvair vimuktāḥ sukhaduḥkhasaṃjñaiḥ
gacchhanty amūḍhāḥ padam avyayaṃ tat 15.5
न तद्भासयते सूर्यो न शशाङ्को न पावकः।
यद्गत्वा न निवर्तन्ते तद्धाम परमं मम।।15.6।।
na tad bhāsayate sūryo na śaśāṅko na pāvakaḥ
yad gatvā na nivartante tad dhāma paramaṃ mama
ममैवांशो जीवलोके जीवभूतः सनातनः।
मनःषष्ठानीन्द्रियाणि प्रकृतिस्थानि कर्षति।।15.7।।
mamaivāṃśo jīvaloke jīvabhūtaḥ sanātanaḥ
manaḥṣaṣṭhānīndriyāṇi prakṛtisthāni karṣati 15.7
शरीरं यदवाप्नोति यच्चाप्युत्क्रामतीश्वरः।
गृहीत्वैतानि संयाति वायुर्गन्धानिवाशयात्।।15.8।।
śarīraṃ yad avāpnoti yac cāpy utkrāmatīśvaraḥ
gṛhitvaitāni saṃyāti vāyur gandhān ivāśayāt 15.8
श्रोत्रं चक्षुः स्पर्शनं च रसनं घ्राणमेव च।
अधिष्ठाय मनश्चायं विषयानुपसेवते।।15.9।।
śrotraṃ cakṣuḥ sparśanaṃ ca rasanaṃ ghrāṇam eva ca
adhiṣṭhāya manaś cāyaṃ viṣayān upasevate 15.9
उत्क्रामन्तं स्थितं वापि भुञ्जानं वा गुणान्वितम्।
विमूढा नानुपश्यन्ति पश्यन्ति ज्ञानचक्षुषः।।15.10।।
utkrāmantaṃ sthitaṃ vāpi bhuñjānaṃ vā guṇānvitam
vimūḍhā nānupaśyanti paśyanti jñānacakṣuṣaḥ 15.10
यतन्तो योगिनश्चैनं पश्यन्त्यात्मन्यवस्थितम्।
यतन्तोऽप्यकृतात्मानो नैनं पश्यन्त्यचेतसः।।15.11।।
yatanto yoginaś cainaṃ paśyanty ātmany avasthitam
yatantopy akṛtātmāno nainaṃ paśyanty acetasaḥ 15.11
यदादित्यगतं तेजो जगद्भासयतेऽखिलम्।
यच्चन्द्रमसि यच्चाग्नौ तत्तेजो विद्धि मामकम्।।15.12।।
yad ādityagataṃ tejo jagad bhāsayatekhilam
yac candramasi yac cāgnau tat tejo viddhi māmakam
गामाविश्य च भूतानि धारयाम्यहमोजसा।
पुष्णामि चौषधीः सर्वाः सोमो भूत्वा रसात्मकः।।15.13।।
gām āviśya ca bhūtāni dhārayāmy aham ojasā
puṣṇāmi cauṣadhīḥ sarvāḥ somo bhūtvā rasātmakaḥ
अहं वैश्वानरो भूत्वा प्राणिनां देहमाश्रितः।
प्राणापानसमायुक्तः पचाम्यन्नं चतुर्विधम्।।15.14।।
ahaṃ vaiśvānaro bhūtvā prāṇināṃ deham āśritaḥ
prāṇāpānasamāyuktaḥ pacāmy annaṃ caturvidham
सर्वस्य चाहं हृदि सन्निविष्टो
मत्तः स्मृतिर्ज्ञानमपोहनं च।
वेदैश्च सर्वैरहमेव वेद्यो
sarvasya cāhaṃ hṛdi saṃniviṣṭo
mattaḥ smṛtir jñānam apohanaṃ ca
vedaiś ca sarvair aham eva vedyo
vedāntakṛd vedavid eva cāham 15.15
द्वाविमौ पुरुषौ लोके क्षरश्चाक्षर एव च।
क्षरः सर्वाणि भूतानि कूटस्थोऽक्षर उच्यते।।15.16।।
dvāv imau puruṣau loke kṣaraś cākṣara eva ca
kṣaraḥ sarvāṇi bhūtāni kūṭasthokṣara ucyate 15.16
उत्तमः पुरुषस्त्वन्यः परमात्मेत्युदाहृतः।
यो लोकत्रयमाविश्य बिभर्त्यव्यय ईश्वरः।।15.17।।
uttamaḥ puruṣas tv anyaḥ paramātmety udāhṛtaḥ
yo lokatrayam āviśya bibharty avyaya īśvaraḥ 15.17
अतोऽस्मि लोके वेदे च प्रथितः पुरुषोत्तमः।।15.18।।
yasmāt kṣaram atītoham akṣarād api cottamaḥ
atosmi loke vede ca prathitaḥ puruṣottamaḥ 15.18
यो मामेवमसम्मूढो जानाति पुरुषोत्तमम्।
स सर्वविद्भजति मां सर्वभावेन भारत।।15.19।।
yo mām evam asaṃmūḍho jānāti puruṣottamam
sa sarvavid bhajati māṃ sarvabhāvena bhārata 15.19
इति गुह्यतमं शास्त्रमिदमुक्तं मयाऽनघ।
एतद्बुद्ध्वा बुद्धिमान्स्यात्कृतकृत्यश्च भारत।।15.20।।
iti guhyatamaṃ śāstram idam uktaṃ mayānagha
etat buddhvā buddhimān syāt kṛtakṛtyaś ca bhārata