The Yogic Tree of Life
Most people are used to seeing trees that grow from the ground up, but yogis talk about a tree that grows upside down. “There is an eternal tree called the Ashvattha, which has its roots above and its branches below,” says the Katha Upanishad, a yogic text which unveils the secrets of death. The yoga masters, the shamans of Siberia, the Persian priests, the ancient Celts, and even the Vikings knew this tree well.
Most people are used to seeing trees that grow from the ground up, but yogis talk about a tree that grows upside down.
Growing up in Norway I heard about this amazing tree, which my grandparents called Yggdrasil, that grew down from the sky. Gods like Odin and Thor lived on one branch; we lived on another. Over in Britain wise men and women of olden times actually called themselves Druids, “knowers of the tree.” But it wasn’t till I started studying yoga that I learned what this inverted tree really is.
The oldest reference to the Ashvattha I can find appears in the Rig Veda, a text composed in India over 5,000 years ago: “What is that tree, what kind of wood is it made from, from which the Earth and Heaven are fashioned?” India’s ancient sages literally placed the tree in the sky. Go out at night and look up at Scorpio, near where the ecliptic (the path of the sun and planets) crosses the Milky Way. There you’ll find a small constellation in the tail of the celestial scorpion which the yogis call Mula, “the root.” This is the root in heaven out of which the World Tree grows. It happens to also mark the Galactic Center, a rather surprising coincidence if you believe in coincidences!
If you follow the spray of stars backward through the zodiac you’ll see the Ashvattha’s trunk growing through Scorpio, its limbs branching out in Libra (the Indian constellation Vishakha here means “forked branches”), and fruit growing on its branches in Leo and Virgo (the Indian constellation here called Phalguni means “fruit of the tree”). The ancient sages placed a young woman here named Kanya (our Virgo). With one hand (our constellation Corvus is called Hasta, “hand,” in India) she’s reaching for the fruit. And there entwined in the tree next to her is a long snake we call the constellation Hydra, which the ancient Indians called Ashlesha, “king of the serpents.” According to Indian legend, no one is allowed to eat the fruit of this tree except the yogis—only they can handle its awesome power.
Now here’s a surprise. The ancient Indo-Iranians claimed there isn’t just one tree in the sky: there are two. One tree has golden fruit, the other silver. Do these remind you of the biblical Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, from which the snake tempted Eve to eat? We know from drawings on clay tablets discovered in Mohenjo-Daro (an archeological site in Pakistan) that the Ashvattha tree was revered in India more than a thousand years before the oldest parts of the Bible were composed. The ancient Assyrians have also left us images of the goddess Ishtar (Virgo) standing on a lion (Leo) beside the World Tree. Myths about these constellations were probably the original source of the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Eve reaches for the yellow fruit of the tree that lies along the ecliptic. In India the ecliptic, marked by twelve signs of the zodiac called the Adityas in yogic literature, represents samsara, the wheel of death and rebirth on which Adam and Eve become caught when they eat of the fruit.
In the yoga tradition we learn to stop grasping after the fruits of our actions, which only creates more entangling karma.
In the Norse myths I grew up with there are three gardeners who look after the tree. The first is an elderly woman named Urd who knows the past, the second a young woman named Verdandi who knows the present, and the last a little girl named Skuld who knows the future. These three figures were known in India too. There Skuld is called Rohini, an innocent young girl associated with the star Aldebaran in Taurus. Verdandi, the young woman, is called Chitra in India, though she’s known to Western astronomers as the star Spica in Virgo. Urd, the terrifying old woman whom the Vikings believed controls our destiny, is Antares in Scorpio, a brilliant red star the Indians call Jyeshtha. These three stars, positioned nearly equal distances from each other, are traditional markers for three of the four quarters of the sky.
From a point of complete stillness, our inner Spirit observes everything going on around us, just like a motionless axle in a spinning wheel.
In the most important of all ancient Indian rituals, the Horse Sacrifice, three women representing these very stars lay their hands on the horse at the climax of the rite. The connection with the horse ritual is especially interesting because Ashvattha, the yogis’ name for the World Tree, actually means “where the horse is stationed.” The horse in the sky is of course the constellation Pegasus, called Dadhikras in Sanskrit, that marks the fourth quarter of the sky. Pegasus eternally gallops around the North Celestial Pole. The Pole is the one point in the northern sky that never moves. Everything else in heaven revolves around it. It represents the Spirit, which lies outside time and change. From a point of complete stillness, our inner Spirit observes everything going on around us, just like a motionless axle in a spinning wheel.
The North Celestial Pole is the second tree, standing at a right angle to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which circles the ecliptic. The silver fruit of this northern tree is the source of soma, the famous yogic nectar of immortality. This is the Tree of Life, of which Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat. The Katha Upanishad hints at this plainly enough: “There is an eternal tree called the Ashvattha, which has its roots above and its branches below. Its luminous root is called Brahman, the Supreme Reality, and it alone is beyond death. Everything that exists is rooted in that point. There is nothing else beyond it.” The Upanishad encourages us to find the still point—the luminous root of the Ashvattha tree—in ourselves. But how exactly do we do that?
In yoga, the horse symbolizes prana, the breath of life. The breath is yoked to our mind the way Pegasus is yoked to the North Star. In most of us the breath cycles around and around, like Pegasus endlessly circling the sky. But yogis know how to slow and finally stop the breath, merging their awareness in the unmoving center of their being. This is the state of samadhi, the deepest level of meditation.
In deep meditation you can begin to climb the tree. The Ashvattha inside you is your spine. We call the muladhara chakra at the bottom of the spine the root chakra, but the mystical root is actually at the top of your head in the sahasrara chakra, the center where divine consciousness resides. It is awakened when we stop reaching for the fruit outside ourselves and turn our attention within. Then the serpent of kundalini, the power of consciousness, begins to move up subtle circuits, corresponding to the spine, toward the top of the head. Legends about the World Tree from India to Scandinavia agree there’s an eagle near the top of the tree that the snake is trying to reach. The eagle is the ajña chakra, the center of consciousness behind the midpoint of the eyebrows. When the snake passes the eagle and reaches the very top of the tree of our psychic nervous system, enlightenment can occur.
In deep meditation you can begin to climb the tree. The Ashvattha inside you is your spine.
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna, the greatest of yogis, says that of all trees, divine awareness is most fully present in the Ashvattha. Another sacred text, the Bhagavata Purana, relates that at the time of his death Krishna withdrew his awareness into his inner being and contemplated the Ashvattha tree. We will have achieved something extraordinary in our yoga practice if as we die we also turn our full attention to the heavenly root of the Asvattha inside us.
By the way, there really is an Ashvattha tree. Botanists call it Ficus religiosa; in India today it’s called the Bodhi tree. Sitting under it, Buddha became enlightened. It’s a type of banyan which first grows up from the ground, but then sends more roots downward from its branches. When these aerial shoots reach the earth they re-root themselves and form a new tree. In this way one Ashvattha can become an entire forest of Ashvattha trees. If you then ask yourself, “Which is the original tree?” you’ll realize that, in a sense, every tree in the forest actually is the first tree. Though it looks like there are many trees, there is really just one. The ancient yogis chose the Ashvattha to symbolize their world because it perfectly represents that, although everything in the universe appears to be separate, in reality all things share the same eternal source.
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.