Studies from an eastern home
The Indian Ash:
or tree of healing
How full of a mystic antiquity are the names of the lotus, the olive, and the ash! Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Scandinavia spring to our minds as the words are heard. The syllables seem haunted to this day by the dryads that the Greek mind saw in every tree. They carry us back to the age of the nymphs who made their home in pools and seas. There was a time when nature seemed to man but as the garment of some large sweet presence that lived and breathed within it. Alas, that age is gone. Irish elder and quicken still point to the neighbourhood of the Neolithic doorsill, but no longer are they held to guard the village with their mysterious benedictions. The olive yields, as of old, the sacred berries and the oil, but Athene has fled from the hearts where she made her home. Only in India the ancient thought lives on. Here, still, the women hush their voices and bow their heads as they pass before the tree of healing called the neem. Here, still, the earth at its foot forms a rude altar, and a
protruding fragment of pointed stone, unchiselled, stands as the symbol of that great mother of all, whose golden-green home is the sunny spot beneath the boughs.
If we take as our standard, not the rigid classifications that appeal to the botanist, but those visible affinities that stir popular recognition, we shall probably feel that the neem--with its fern-like leaves, its feathery branches of small golden-green fruits, its wide-spreading roots, and gnarled and slender growth--is but the tropical equivalent for the ash of Northern Europe, or the olive of the Mediterranean. Some of us may have been puzzled to account for the prominence of the ash in Celtic, and still more in Norse, mythology. Why should the Scandinavian Yggdrasil, tree of eternity, have been an ash, with its roots in the past, its stem in the present, and its crown of leafage in the future? Why should the first man, Askr, have been born of it? The ash is not so plentiful as to account for this. It forms no forests in the lands where it is sacred, like the beech or oak. Just as we know that the men who taught to their children the dream of Asgard had come to the north along the old trade-routes from the beautiful cities of Asia, Nineveh, and Babylon, with all their wealth, luxury, and refinement, so also we cannot resist the conclusion that the ash derived its importance
from their recognition of it as a tree with which, elsewhere, they had been familiar. This argument cannot, of course, be complete until some intermediate tree is discovered in Persia, and its folk-lore noted and studied. For the ash was especially associated in Europe with the Age of Bronze, bringing in the horse and his sacrifice, and the key to this as a state ceremonial can only be sought in Mesopotamia--with the crossings of the highways that made Nineveh and Babylon--and in neighbouring districts of Persia and Asia Minor. If Mohammedanism in those countries is anything like what it is in India, or if its action has been at all like that of Buddhism in the farther East, it must have preserved a great deal amongst the lower orders of society that could never claim recognition from the higher; and much still remains to be discovered regarding the connection between the worship of the sun, to whom the horse was always sacrificed, and some particular sacred tree. A trace of this connection lingers still amongst the Kayasths of Bengal, who will not gather the leaves or twigs of the neem on Sunday, because it and the cow, they say, had their birth on the sun's day; and there are people who, though they worship the great Mother, do not associate her presence particularly with the neem except in her specialised form of Sitola Devi.
Wonderful properties of nourishment and healing
belong to this, the Indian ash. Its leaves are used for medicine and for food. A man may actually live on a handful of them eaten daily, and with milk they make an abundant and satisfying diet. The acrid berries, like tiny olives, provide lamp-oil and unguents for the very poor. Even the winds that blow through it are laden with soothing and with health, so that an old custom in Calcutta plants a neem tree on the east of the house, that the fever-breeze may be robbed of its poison ere it reaches the homestead and touches the beloved. And on both sides of the old Mahratta Ditch that once enclosed the city, the Circular Road as it is now, we may still trace an old avenue of neem trees--for is not the city the home of its children? And last of all, when the tree of healing grows old there sometimes breaks from its heart, it is said, the silver-white stream of the neem milk. This gushes out, intermittently, for months together, and people flock from all over the countryside to see the sight. Every drop of the precious fluid is gathered up and preserved for the healing of disease, and whole generations after talk of the miraculous spring.
Out of the very night of time, from long before the dawn of history, come some of these most familiar associations of the Indian folk. There are two or three sacred trees, all of them undoubtedly
very ancient. Low-caste Mohammedan women make offerings to the spirit, of healing that dwells in the bo, or aswattha, the sacred tree of Buddhist times. This may be a remnant of long pre-Buddhist worship, or it may be only another exemplification of the universal law that Islam in India followed directly in the footsteps of Buddhism. In Orissa again, and Chota Nagpur, and some districts north of Benares, a like worship is paid by certain strictly aboriginal castes to the palash tree--Butea frondosa--with its scarlet plume-like flowers, borne on naked boughs. Under this tree, it is said, there used to be offered the dread agricultural rite of human sacrifice to Miri-Amma, the Earth-Mother. It gave its name, again, to the people who dwelt, in the days of Buddha, to the east of Pataliputra, against whom Ajatasatru built the fortress that was afterwards to become the seat of empire. The castes that still pay reverence to the palash, associating with it the name of Miri, represent doubtless this ancient people, the Palasii of Megasthenes.
Still vaster is the antiquity that stands revealed in the universal association of these trees with feminine divinities. It is true enough, as some have maintained, that the drama of nature is the subject-matter of all mythology, and that therefore, by tracing out the unity of myths, we ought to be
able to disentangle the great primitive spectacle fundamental to all. But into his interpretation of this drama man could not fail to import conceptions derived from the social forms about him and from the problems that seemed to him the most important. Hence, by studying the differentiation of myths we may hope to discover something of the periods and races in which they were evolved. When Egypt had scarcely begun to make bricks, and Babylon as yet was but a village, already, it may be, the Dravidian hamlets of the south of India had received their consecration from the neighbourhood of the chosen block of unhewn stone outside their boundary, that remains to this day as the altar-place of Amma, the Infinite Mother. And only a palæolithic age, one imagines, could have suggested, as the ideal symbol, the low sharp-pointed cone of unchiselled rock that is worshipped still beneath the neem. But if this is so, we have in that very fact some indication of the earliest of human sociological developments. In the present age we instinctively ascribe to deity the aspect of masculinity. This is because our society is patriarchal and man dominant. There was an age, however, when woman alone was the steadfast unit; when marriage was an affair of an hour, and the child belonged to his mother's village; when all the men of that village were her brothers, the mamas,
and natural defenders of her children; when marriage was only lawful between men and women of different villages; and when woman was the obvious head and governor of the whole. On such a society, raised to the highest point of organisation and efficiency, were based the origins of the ancient Egyptian monarchy, the government of Babylon, and the present royal family of Travancore in Southern India. In such a society, moreover, it was as natural to call God She, as it seems now to us to do the very opposite. Grey-haired women, full of strange lore about beasts and herbs, with deep wise eyes and gentle sovereignty of manners, were its ideal. Such were the Norns, the three grey Fates, who watered the ash-tree Yggdrasil night and morning with water drawn from the Ocean of Memory, turning all that it touched to snowy whiteness. Yet Yggdrasil was of a later age than the Indian neem, for one of its mighty roots was fixed in heaven, beneath the throne of Æsir, the Great God, where he and the Norns held court and judged the world. We have here the myth of a day when man has made himself king, and woman already stands subordinated.
The worship of the neem has its centre in Oude and Behar, the ancient Kosala and Magadha. From this it spreads north and south, to the deserts of Sind and the Dekkan. I have even seen it in
the extreme south, in a beautiful glen near Salem. There the tree stood, in a sacred enclosure, shut in by a massive wall of grey stone some five or six feet in height. Under it a pot was buried, bottom upwards, making a dome-shaped object, and here and there around the little court were tiny boat-shaped lamps for ceremonial lighting. In Sind they go to great trouble and expense, it is said, to obtain the blessed tree, and plant it beside some well in the desert country, there to become the nucleus of a small artificial oasis. Only in East Bengal can I find no trace of its worship except as the home of Sitola Devi. The aswattha there surpasses it in sanctity, and servants from that country have a notion that it is haunted; and to see the spirit that dwells in it they hold a sign of approaching death.
Another proof of the great age of the neem as a sacred tree lies in the manner of the worship that is offered by women. It is common, in later Hinduism, to perform the ceremony of pradakshina, or circumambulation, as an act of reverence, and this is what we might have expected to find in the worship of a tree. But it is not what happens. Before the neem stands its fragment of rude stone, and in parts of the country where this vividly suggests the presence of the All-Mother, high-caste women go in bands, on certain moonlight nights, to offer the lights and sandal-paste,
the sweetmeats and libations of milk, that constitute the necessary offerings. When this has been done they make themselves into a ring, and go round and round--not the stone, and not the tree, but--a handful of fire, on which incense is thrown, standing in front of the sacred stone. As they go they sing marriage-songs, mentally praying, probably, for the birth of children, and finally the party breaks into groups for the enjoyment of games, romping and singing. We have here a trace of those primitive seasonal dances that were the communal form of marriage. We have also a hint of how early the witness of the fire was invoked as essential to marriage. How far may we trust this suggestion as to the order of emergence of the great religious motives, such as fire, planets, earth, and the rest?
The neem may be worshipped at any time, by a woman who has first served the community to the extent of feeding ten beggars. But its greatest festivals occur on the moonlight nights of Sravan and Bhadra, August and September. The ceremony of Tij takes place on the third night of the new moon of Sravan, or August. On this day, it is considered extremely auspicious that young married women should receive gifts of clothes, jewels, or sweetmeats from their husband's mothers. When the presents arrive, the girl calls her friends and companions, and they go out into the moonlight,
to bathe, put on the new possessions, worship at the feet of the neem, and then spend hours in free and boisterous merriment. On these occasions it is strictly correct to be accompanied by the boys and young men of their own village, and to he joined by them in the games which follow. Nor is this difficult to understand, for the night represents a return to the old festivities of the communal wedding, when the men of a girl's own village were regarded as her brothers and the idea of marriage with one of them could not occur. Here we have the equivalent of the May-Day games of Europe, and even the idea, spread by the Church, that May is an unlucky month for marriage, stands accounted for in the desire to extinguish heathen rites.
It was, as Hewitt has pointed out, this same age that gave to the position of the mama, or mother's brother, the strength which it still holds in Hindu society. He is essential at weddings, and it is he who must give the baby its first rice when six months old, thus accepting it as lawfully born of his own kindred. But the millenniums that have rolled by since the communal marriages of the matriarchate are shown in the fact that to perform this ceremony the mother's brother must now come to the house of the child's father.
In the memory of communal marriages, then, before the tree of the Great Mother, may lie the
explanation of the Norse belief that Askr, the first man, was born of the ash. The choice of the months for these marriages was obviously dictated by the Indian climate, requiring that children should be born in the heat of the year, when the granaries would be full and the need of labour least. Even now, it is doubtless for the birth of sons that wives and mothers pray before the neem. For how many thousands of years have they sanctified their own brooding love in such spots, beneath the growing moon, ere the All-Mother has sent to the house a new man-child!
To the threshold of history we are carried back by this worship of the neem. It is night, the time that to primitive man was fraught with coolness and joy and formed the basis of all time-reckoning. About us sleep the southern forests. Long ago, if it was ever set there, the dim light has burned out before the stone at the foot of the sacred tree. Man is still a hunting animal, contending with hairier beasts for his simple home. A few rude stone implements, a little sun-dried pottery, and the struggling crops of half-wild rice, are all his possessions. Has he yet found fire? If so, for lamp-oil, as well as for medicine, he must still come to the sacred tree. Even his marriage is not yet his own: he knows only his sisters' children. Yet already here, in India, human society has been born. Already the lawful and
lawless have been distinguished. Already the thought of enfolding Power has emerged. Already the sweetness of motherhood has been named. Already, in the sanctification of boundaries, the civic thought is born. Already the stone before the holy tree indicates a Presence the touch of whose feet makes sanctuary. Ages will go by, and man will long dream that the world is unchanging, ere these great movements will begin--north, east, and west--by which in the future nations and civilisations are to be made. Strange, that even now thoughts should have been conceived and expressed which will never be forgotten so long as man endures. Athene with her olive, and the Norns of the ash tree Yggdrasil are even now predestined to their place in human history, already in the forests of the Dekkan, in this the Palæolithic Age
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.