The Bhagavad Gita

Ashvattha Tree Symbol Analysis

Ashvattha Tree Symbol Icon

In the Bhagavad Gita, the ashvattha fig tree symbolizes both the eternal self and the embodied self. Ashvattha trees continue to serve an important religious function in Buddhism and Hinduism, in which they are sometimes associated with the eternal being of Brahman, in part because they tend to grow outward in all directions and can accordingly survive for many centuries—this may explain why Krishna states that the tree’s form and lifespan are unknowable in this world. In addition, the indistinguishability of its roots and branches may explain why he first declares that the tree is inverted, its roots growing upwards and its branches into the ground, before claiming that the branches grow “below and above” while “the roots are stretched below.” In this passage from the Gita, the tree is a symbol of this-worldly human life. This is why Krishna thinks that people should sever the tree’s roots with “the strong axe / of non-clinging;” the tree’s branches grow in the gunas and human actions grow from its roots. This suggests that severing its roots means relinquishing human action and even the visible human self for the sake of the imperishable eternal self that lies behind worldly appearances.

Yet, when he enumerates his divine forms in the tenth discourse, Krishna declares himself the ashvattha among all trees, which associates it with the eternal rather than the embodied self. Perhaps these competing interpretations of the ashvattha tree are reconcilable: if the self is truly identical with Brahman (but is unaware of this identity), then one must sever the apparent self in order to recognize the eternal self; alternatively, Krishna may simply be the ashvattha among trees because of its particularly holy nature, and not because it directly stands for Brahman. 

Ashvattha Tree Quotes in The Bhagavad Gita

The The Bhagavad Gita quotes below all refer to the symbol of Ashvattha Tree. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Detachment and Dharma Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of The Bhagavad Gita published in 2008.
Discourse 15 Quotes

The form of the ashvattha
is not to be discerned here,
neither its end,
nor beginning,
nor ongoing life.
When its fully grown roots
are cut by the strong axe
of non-clinging,

then that place must be sought
where, once they have gone,
they will not turn back again,
and they think,
‘I take refuge
in the first spirit
where activity flowed forth
in ancient times.’

Related Characters: Krishna (speaker), Arjuna
Related Symbols: Ashvattha Tree
Page Number: 163-4
Explanation and Analysis:
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Ashvattha Tree Symbol Timeline in The Bhagavad Gita

The timeline below shows where the symbol Ashvattha Tree appears in The Bhagavad Gita. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Discourse 10
Krishna, the Absolute, and Human Knowledge Theme Icon
...the ocean. He is the greatest of sages and the syllable “Om” among utterances, the ashvattha tree among trees, and so on—he continues through sages and chiefs, animals and the forces of... (full context)
Discourse 15
Reincarnation and the Self Theme Icon
Forms of Worship Theme Icon
Krishna describes the “imperishable” ashvattha tree , whose roots extend into the air and branches burrow underground; its leaves are the... (full context)