The Sacred Banyan Tree

From a tiny seed in a fig grows the giant banyan tree. For the Balinese, this majestic tree, with its enormous trunk, far reaching branches and its voluminous thick roots running deep into the earth, the banyan is a symbol of humanity’s potential for perfection. Humans are like trees: We walk up right with our feet grounded on the earth simultaneously rising towards the sky, towards heaven and enlightenment.  Like the tree, we must be fully grounded, fully rooted with the energy of the earth, if we are to stand as the light of divine perfection that is our natural birthright. Humans, like trees, are mediators between heaven and earth. What an amazing Being we are, for inside of every one of us, just like the tree, is the entire Cosmos.

The banyan is an integral part of the Pura Dalem, temple for the dead, in every Balinese village. Pura Dalem includes the cemetery. The banyan tree represents the eternal cycle of death and rebirth and protects the spirits after death. The leaves of a Banyan tree are large, leathery, glossy, green and elliptical in shape. They are used in cremation ceremonies.  It is said that after Krishna devoured the universe (destroying it) he turned himself into a tiny child, wrapped himself up in the leaf of a Banyan and rested. Riding in this leaf, the banyan tree floated in the Empty Radiant Void until Krishna chose to re-create the Universe.  In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says: “Of all trees I am the banyan tree.”

It is also believed that the Spiritual Father of Bali, Javanese Yogi Sage Sri Markandeya met Vishnu,   the God of the waters and the preserver of life, disguised as a child lying on a golden bed sitting in the limbs of a banyan tree:

When the earth was in the midst of a great destruction, it was   enveloped in pitch darkness. The sun and moon did not exist.  Meteors showered the planet. The entire earth was aflame. The gods and demons vanished. The only being alive was the great sage Markandeya.

Markandeya sat in meditation as the earth was burning.  The flames did not touch him, yet he was  afraid  the  raging inferno would engulf him.    As the only sentient creature he suffered from thirst and hunger. Overwhelmed he forgot about the sustaining, protective and enlightening power of meditation.  Markandeya’s lips and throat became parched with fear.   In his delusional wanderings he came upon a lone banyan tree, untouched by the flames.   He retired to the shade of the banyan tree and started to pray to Vishnu.

As Markandeya prayed the meteor showers stopped. Clouds began forming in the sky. They were thick, dark clouds spreading all over the earth. Rain poured from the clouds extinguishing the fire. The earth became water as it rained for 12 years. Markandeya did not know what to do. There was water everywhere and he floated on the Great Flow as he continued to pray to Vishnu.

Markandeya stopped praying as he heard a voice:  “Do not be frightened, Markandeya. You are devoted to me and I shall protect you.” It was Vishnu, yet in his delusional state Markandeya did not realize the voice was Vishnu.  Markandeya began swimming around in circles, wondering where the voice was coming from.  Suddenly he saw the banyan tree that protected him from the fire, floating on the water. A golden bed was spread on the branches of the tree and on the bed there slept a small boy. Markandeya was dumbstruck to see the small boy floating along with the deluge. He was so confused that he did not realize   that this boy was none other than Vishnu.

The boy lovingly, with great comfort spoke to Markandeya. “You are tired and seeking refuge. I invite you to enter my body and rest.” And the boy opened his mouth for Markandeya to enter.

Inside the boy’s stomach Markandeya discovered the Cosmos. Astounded, Markandeya began to pray to Vishnu. The moment he began to pray he was expelled out of the boy’s body. Vishnu appeared, blessing him.   The Sage spent a thousand years with Vishnu. Vishnu wished to grant Markandeya a boon: “What is your desire?”

Markandeya replied:   “I want to build a temple to Shiva in Purushaottama Kshetra. This will prove to everyone that Vishnu and Shiva are really one and the same.”

Vishnu granted the boon and Markandeya built a temple to Shiva known as Bhuvaneshvara (Lord of the World).

After driving through a banyan tree at Cupuan, Bali one can imagine   this giant fig tree floating on an ocean with Vishnu lying on a golden bed.  The Balinese wrap the banyan tree in gold or white and black checkered sarongs, recognizing it as a reflection of a human being. These sarongs acknowledge the infinite wisdom of this sacred tree of  perfection. The mighty banyan tree reminds us that we are divine beings living in a material world. It’s fruit shares the sweetness of life.  It’s leaves wrap us in love.  Its roots anchor us into the core of Mother Gaia where we receive the continual flow of her unconditional nurturing. It’s  trunk channels the infinite, radiant Spirit that weaves itself throughout every particle of matter.  It’s branches remind us that we are One yet many. It’s thick trunk reflects our own strength when we stand firm in faith. It provides soothing shade when we simply want to sit down, take a rest from our jalan jalan and   contemplate the cycle of death and rebirth in our lives.

Om Swastyatu

another article by Tara Khandro:

(Story rewritten from
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this article was published in Ubud Community magazine (printed edition) November 2011



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