The Value of Trees in World Religions
Trees are prominent features in the tales and triumphs of religions all over the world. They’ve been seen throughout the ages as powerful symbols of prosperity and birth, often represented in the form of ‘trees of life’ or ‘gifts that keep on giving’.
The world today is far far away from simpler times– yet, despite the razing down of trees on a global scale, religions continue to hail them as sacred. In many countries, this is precisely what is keeping forests from being untouched by the reaches of industrialization.
The Value of Trees in Christianity
A study found that the Bible, the collection of sacred text followed by Christians, mentions trees no lesser than 525 times. The only other living being mentioned more is humans (1).
Four trees hold the most significant importance in the Bible– the Tree of Life in the Genesis, Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Life mentioned in the Revelations, and, finally, the Tree that made the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Cedars, date palms, fig-trees, oak trees, and olive trees are most frequently mentioned in the Bible, although other species also make an appearance.
According to Genesis 1 in the Old Testament of the Bible, God was said to have created all plant life on the third day. Humans were then created to enjoy the fruits of his labor. While some interpret this to be a pass to dominating nature, yet others look at it as instructions to protect the environment and take only what it gives, never more. Today, many devout Christians have taken it upon themselves to enhance, nurture and protect the natural world and trees feature predominantly in their plans.
The Value of Trees in Islam
Tree-planting is seen as a form of charity in Islam, as many others enjoy the products of the tree or its benefits across species. A saying of Prophet Mohammed that reportedly dates back to 14 centuries ago states that “If a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift for him” (2).
Yet another value propagated by Islam is that of respect towards trees and the gifts it bestows upon people. A paragraph in one of the holy scriptures narrates the tale of a young boy throwing stones at a date palm tree to gather fruits. The Prophet Mohammed was said to chastise the boy gently, telling him to ‘eat what falls’ without harming the tree. This same principle of trees has been extended many a time to nature in general.
According to anecdotes passed down through generations, Prophet Mohammed’s advice about trees and nature explored the connections between ethical activities during life and its effects in the afterlife. Devotees state that this was a fruitful incentive to invite Muslims to slow down, consume only what they need, and care for the planet they live on.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar during which devout Muslims fast from sunrise till sunset, is also a time of charity. It is believed that the power of good deeds is multiplied when performed during Ramadan than during any other time of the year (3). Trees are often involved. The spirit of Ramadan is often shared by non-Muslims, who take part in charitable events such as tree-planting, donating and sponsoring meals in solidarity with Muslim devotees.
The Value of Trees in Buddhism
The relationship between ecology and culture is a significant part of Buddhism. According to Buddhist authorities, nature has been regarded as a life-sustaining force from the time of the ancient sages. Scriptures say the Lord Buddha was born, enlightened, and reclaimed under the Bodhi Fig Tree, which is also referred to as the Tree of Awakening (4). During the time of the Buddha, many forests were revered, planted or protected; universities built in this period continue to boast of lush environments filled with massive trees planted decades ago.
Across various Buddhist texts, several species of trees, from the Asoka tree to the Banyan tree, are mentioned in different contexts. They feature primarily in descriptions of the Buddha’s surroundings or those of places where weary travelers chose to rest or meditate. The overarching positioning trees is being the giver of shade, respite, food, and enlightenment.
The Value of Trees in Hinduism
Just as in Buddhism, Hinduism has often positioned trees as the givers of knowledge and enlightenment. Trees are revered in Hinduism; the Rig Veda instructs not to cut down trees or uproot them as they provide protection to living beings.
Scriptures have also named certain trees as ‘sacred’ in order to protect them from being the spoils of man. The Ashoka is one such tree, as is the Peepal tree, which has been depicted in seals dating back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. The Banyan tree is said to represent life, growth and fertility; for many others, it is also representative of the Trimurti (holy triad) formed by Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma (5).
Yet other trees are respected and nurtured for the tangible value they bring to everyday life. The Banana tree, for example, is an integral part of Hindu rituals because it is said to promote the welfare of a family and most parts of the plant can be used.
The Final Word
Trees continue to play a significant role in religion even today. Many scholars tout the bringing back of certain ecocentric beliefs as beneficial for the preservation and propagation of trees.
The focus is not on baseless rituals or false claims, but on restoring ecological equilibrium, using only as much as we need and giving back what we take from nature. Regardless of the religion and the tales they tell, scriptures position trees as givers of life and worthy of respect and care. Devotees of many religions practise this across the world, by planting trees as individuals or corporates and participating in eco-friendly charitable activities.
As 2020 continues to unfurl and brings with it religious occasions, EcoMatcher would be delighted to help you plant trees and help further ecocentric values.