The Inverted Tree
In the fifteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, empirical life is likened to an inverted tree, its roots above and its branches spreading out below. From the context it is clear that the tree is not being used here simply as an example of a living thing, but is meant to represent the way in which experience comes to us. The trunk of the tree is the mind (buddhi) which is pictured as sending out its branches into the world of the senses, bringing to the individual soul the blossoms of good and evil action and the fruits of pleasure and pain. It is a curiously apt image, and still more so when it is remembered that the nervous system, which is its physical counterpart, is very like an inverted tree.
Like the tree growing from the seed, the physical body grows from a single cell and, as it grows, the nerves grow out from the inverted trunk of the spinal cord, each branching out to ramify all over the body in smaller and yet smaller filaments. It is through these nerves, sensory and motor, that we make contact with sense-objects and enter the world of action. This is true not only of those senses, like touch, temperature-sense and taste, which tell us of the things in contact with parts of our own body surface, but also of the other senses, like hearing, vision and smell, which bring us information of things at a distance from the body.
According to Shri Shankara’s Commentary, the roots of this tree are the latent impressions or Vasanas which appear as desires and aversions in our mind and lead us to action. Through eating the fruits of this tree, the sense-impressions, the soul experiences pleasure and pain and comes to know good and evil. This may be a poetic image, figurative and not literal, but poetry is the art of evoking significant associations by means of words. Its method of conveying truth is by awakening us to the profound harmony of design in nature and what the philosopher, A N Whitehead, called ‘the inner-relatedness of things’, which, as he says, can never be safely ignored.
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This article is from the Spring 2021 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.