Banyan Tree

By: Cheenar Shah

Mukherjee, Aritro. 2022. “The Great Banyan.” Wikipedia. March 9, 2022, via Wikipedia

Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky. We fell them down and turn them into paper, that we may record our emptiness.

Kahlil Gibran

Nature and Academia -entities of a disparate purpose- where one is striving to achieve an immaculate sense of order, the other condones a perception of disarray. I ponder over this statement, in the hope that the constant contemplation may yet give me an understanding of how to communicate the ramblings of my mind. We seem to be approaching nature with the intent of defining its intricacies through the lens of academia, hoping that we may make sense of the apparent chaos rampant around us. But what then? What do we do once we’ve deciphered this apparent chaos? How do we incorporate that into our systems of being? What do we take away from it? Where do we even start?

Ficus Benghalensis -commonly known as the Banyan- is a species of fig trees native to the Indian Subcontinent, generally growing as tall as a hundred feet and are known to have a canopy with an indefinite capacity of lateral growth. These behemoths are deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of the Subcontinent, with a high seat in the natural pantheon of several large belief systems; Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. This grand entity is known as the ‘Kalpavriksha’ in Sanskrit, a name literally translating to ‘The Tree of Imagination’, a title entrusted to it, due to its evident propensity for facilitating natural sciences and philosophy under the vast protection of its canopy. 

To the common person though, the Banyan has competing titles and meanings, often arising from generational observations of the unique ecosystem that the tree comes to define. The Banyan’s tendency for near limitless lateral growth means that it draws on incredible amounts of nutrients, minerals and water from the soil, preventing anything from growing under its shade, even grass. Decay is, often, the only organic growth that sprouts within its canopy. This dichotomy, between the aggressive growth patterns of the tree and its denial of essentials to other floral species in its vicinity has resulted in communities associating a significantly greater meaning than just its literal translation and not all positive. It is known as the ‘World Tree’, for its expansive physical and faunal ecosystem. It is called ‘The Tree of Creation’ and ‘The Tree of Wishes’, for the cultural association of countless holy men and women attaining self-realization and enlightenment under its canopy. It is ‘The Tree of Life’, because of its longevity and even the medical benefits derived from the use of its parts. It is titled ‘The Tree of Death’ for its penchant for draining the soil of all elements essential for the growth of life.  

The very size of the Banyan tree makes it an essential ecosystem. It is a space of indiscriminate opportunity, for both animals and humans. To us, it is a space for interactions, for play, for meetings, ceremonies and most importantly for collaboration. As Tony Patrick said, “Everything collaborates in nature. If our cells do not work together on a cellular level, we’re done. They have to collaborate to live”.[1] The Banyan provides the perfect space for such collaboration, for the exchange of knowledge both formal and informal beneath the quiet requite of its shade. A significant part of traditional education sprouted from under the vigil of the Banyan. An apt space, to learn and communicate alongside one of nature’s most ardent observers and recorders. A free space for formal intellectual development. A playground pulsing with lessons of harmony and coexistence. You would not just sit under a tree, you would push against the unrelenting bark, tease the genteel swaying leaf, revel in the aroma of sap and soil, they connect with the space on a primal level. A true spectacle of sensory interaction and collaboration. 

You might notice an interesting parallel between the Banyan and our own systems of existence. Both humanity and the Banyan deny peaceful coexistence to competing species, both have a tendency for limitless lateral spread, both are incredibly valuable to the natural order of things. Yet only one collaborates so indiscriminately. Interdisciplinary learning and growth happens through community building, harmony with all forms of life, a change of space and sharing of all ideas big and small. As the science journalist Jim Robbins writes, “Trees are giant organic recording devices that contain information about past climate, civilizations, ecosystems and even galactic events”.[2] “Many momentous decisions have been made under the shelter of trees; trees have witnessed and even seeded the germination, hybridization, invasion, and, on occasion, destruction of peoples and nations. But that’s not all; traditional healing, collective memory, indigenous stewardship, subterranean communication networks: these are forms of arboreal agency and sylvan intelligence that can lead us to ways of “thinking with trees” that are more complex and nuanced, grounded, open-ended, messier and humbler than our own systems of academia” as the professor of anthropology Shannon Mattern puts it.[3]

Today we are entangled in this incoherent, hybrid system of information dissemination. Formal education is constrained in its worldview and with each passing moment, with each eclipsing day, it is only growing more evident that the act of gaining knowledge was never about the formalities of a classroom. In its truest sense, it was always about indiscriminate collaboration. About the genuine interactions of people from diverse creeds of life. It was about the exchange of feelings and emotions. To know that we are not alone. Not alone in our pursuit of understanding something greater than us. Not alone in our willingness to dive into that rabbit hole. It never mattered that we were all pursuing different rabbits. It never mattered what we sacrificed, only that we were all willing to do so. Education goes beyond the rigid hierarchy of our institutions. The innate desire to understand, to learn, to appreciate the obscure beauty of our universe, to fixate on its ineffable intricacies and render them effable, if not for us than for those who come after. An act of love, our shared desire for knowledge, it is an act of a species desperate to connect with what’s around us. How can we enable a system of anything less? How can we not design a space that is open and inclusive and accessible and equitable? When we know what it is that we need to achieve change, when we have such detailed examples of natural collaboration that we can equate into our own systems, why do we not? If there is only one thing we can take away from natural systems, let it be the inclination of the great Banyan tree to facilitate an environment for positive interaction and collaboration of all forms of life.

“The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”

Rabindranath Tagore

1. Patrick, Tony. 2022. On Why Nothing Exists Without Collaboration Interview by Daniel Sharp. The Creative Independent.

2. Hough, Mark. 2013. “Champion Trees and Urban Forests.” Places Journal, no. 2013 (September).

3. Mattern, Shannon. 2021. “Tree Thinking.” Places Journal, no. 2021 (September).