The Why of Flora of Shiva-worship

Salutation to Shiva! Whose glory Is immeasurable, who resembles sky In clearness, to whom are attributed The phenomena of all creation, The preservation and dissolution Of the universe! May the devotion, The burning devotion of this my life Attach itself to Him, to Shiva, who, While being Lord of all, transcends Himself. -‘A Hymn to Shiva’ by Swami Vivekananda (CW,IV,502)   In Hinduism plants are both worshiped and used in worship. The flora associated with the worship of Shiva synchronizes with the qualities attributed to him. As compared to other deities, his worship does not evolve complicated rituals ( karma kanda) He accepts leaves, flowers or fruit of plants which are normally eschewed, and are easily available in the open or on roadside. One need not always go to market or garden to procure them. His flora represents the eerie, the wild, the weird and the poisonous in life, and is devoid of romantic implications. Says Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa: ‘Shiva requires few articles for worship. White flowers and bel-leaves and a little Ganges water offered with devotion are enough to satisfy the benign Deity and win from Him the boon of liberation.’ (Gospel, 9) Each plant associated with Siva is transformative, as it opens up the heart centre -Anahata Chakra –in the subtle human system, if it is perceived with divine feeling. This is despite the fact that Shiva has no special fascination for red flowers while the colour represented by Anahat Chakra is red. White and blue are Shiva’s favourite – the former signifies the Lord’s purity and all-absorbing nature; the latter represents the spiritual flame radiating from His Being. Shiva begets, sustains and disintegrates the five primordial elements as per His own volition – personifying them all at the same time. Being the expositor of Tantra, some plants dear to Him, like Akka(Calotropis gigantea) and Apamarga (Achyranthes aspera) are used for divination or magical purposes. Ashoka (Saraca indica) is sacred to Shiva because Parvati meditated under it aspiring for union with him. The tall, evergreen Deodar(Polylathia longifolia) is considered to be the Lord’s son as per a popular legend. The Vata or banyan tree ( Ficus benghalensis) traditionally believed to be the abode of Nagas has been the seat of Shiva-yogis. Sal( Shorea robusta) dear to Vishnu, is said to be the abode of Shiva’s kinetic power, Shakti.

Bilva: Shiva has an ascetic disposition; so is Bilva, also called, Bael, Shriphal or Wood Apple tree (Aegle marmelos), which grows naturally in forests. Yogis who live in solitary places can survive on Bael-fruit and preserve it for months as it does not get stale. The three aspects of Sada-shiva – the Eternal Lord - responsible for creation, preservation and destruction of the world, are represented by the trifoliate leaves of Bilva used in His worship. Bilva-leaves also represent the three eyes of Shiva – right, left and in the centre of forehead – and his three weapons. Shiva forgives the sins of three births if one earnestly strives for his grace. The form of Bilva-fruit resembles Shivalinga, sacred mark of the Lord, and is worshipped as such. Another reason why Shiva is associated with Bilva is that he destroyed Kama, god of love and passion. The fruit epitomizes purity and self control. In Ayurvedic texts, Bilva is called kama-shamak - that which dilutes lustful feelings. Gazing at Bilva-fruit during worship has a soothing effect on the mind. Bilva- ashtkam or eight hymns to Bilva, are recited on appropriate occasions in the worship - rites of Shiva. The Lord’s presence is felt when two parties take a pledge over a Bilva-leaf. So sacred is Bilva that it is planted in north or north-west direction, like Shivalinga, in temples. According to the Shiva Purana ( Rudrasamhita, 14:33), if a hundred thousand leaves of Bilva are used in worship, it fulfils all desires. Unmarried girls use Bilva fruit in worship to evoke chaste feelings, or embrace the tree symbolically, before entering the Grihastha Ashrama hoping to acquire the virtues necessary for leading a fruitful family life. Conjugal union becomes worship and leads to immortality, if it is propelled by a higher objective, says the Rigveda (VIII. 31.5-9).

Both men and women feed the Bilva tree with water to compensate for the leaves they pour on the Shivalinga especially in the Hindu months of Shravan (July-August), Bhadrapada(August-September) and Ashwin (September-October ) . A number of myths and legends have come to be associated with Bilva from time to time in different parts of India.

Dhatura: Shiva remains in divine intoxication, hence the association of intoxicating plants with him. He consumes that which others abhor, that which is toxic and harmful to the human body. He drank the deadly poison halahal which came out during the mythical churning of ocean (samudra manthana). Leaves of Dhatura or thorn-apple, which are offered to Shiva, has poisonous alkaloids. Its round fruit covered with pointed thorns represent Shiva in his furious (ugra) forms. Dhatura is called ‘Shiva Shekhar’or ‘Shiva Shikhar’ – the crown of Shiva- because it grows like a mendicant in the open and represents his qualities as Lakulish,the 28th and last incarnation of Shiva. Its leaves, flowers, fruit and seeds embody respectively his peaceful, boon-giving and terrific nature. According to Shiva Purana (Rudrasamhita, XIV, 26-27) a person desirous of male children shall worship him with dhatura flowers. Yogis inhale the smoke of its burning leaves to cure kapha-disorders, like bronchitis, asthma, and toothache, or eat its seeds for inducing deep sleep or curing bodily ailments like fever,fatigue and aortic disorders.

Bhang: Shiva, sometime called the Lord of Hemp, is said to have created Bhang (Cannibis sativa) out of his body to clean up the elixir which was received after the churning of ocean. The plants of Bhang grew wherever the elixir fell. Leaves of Bhang are offered to Shiva on special days. The beverage (thandai) made up of the leaves of Bhang and other ingredients like soaked poppy seeds, almonds, sugar etc., is traditionally used by Shiva’s devotees on Mahashivaratri, the great night of Shiva, which falls on Phalguna Krishna Chaturdashi, fourteenth day of the dark half of the Hindu month, Phalguna. Thandai is also consumed as a part of celebrations of the festival of Holi. Sometime, people smoke hemp flower or Ganja in Shiva’s name but there is no scriptural sanction. Those worshipping Shiva mentally (manasa-puja) do not indulge in such practices. But others who view the Linga as personal god try to please him with the objects, traditionally associated with the Lord. Akka and Kaner

Leaves and flowers of Akka(Arka, Swallow Wart) known for their intoxicating properties and caustic action, are also offered to Shiva because of the evergreen nature and palliative aspects of the plant. According to a myth Parvati, Shiva’s consort, sought refuge in the flower bud of Akka when followed by the demon Andhaka, who was subsequently killed by Shiva. Akka-fruit, which has a fish-like shape, and is pearly-white within, reveals the complexity of Shiva’s existence. The dried leaves of Akka are sometime smoked by wandering Shaiva ascetics for intoxication or for therapeutic use. Mixed with the seeds of dhatura, they are said to relieve pain and swelling. Sadhus of Nirmala denomination among the Sikhs use the root, bark, milk, flowers and fruit of Akka to cure diseases of the respiratory , digestive and nervous systems of the human body. Wandering ascetics apply the juice of its leaves to remove thorns, place green leaves of Akka under the soles of feet to control vomiting , put its milk on the nails of feet to cure inflammation of the eye , and eat its root for warmth during winter.

Kaner (Karvira, Oleander, Nerium indicum), a tree widely known among tribals for its use in leucoderma, fever, bronchitis, ulcers and eye-disorders, is also associated with Shiva due to its poisonous nature. Its funnel-shaped red flowers are offered to Shiva and Ganesha, and to the Sun god, especially in the Hindu month of Bhadrapada v(August-Septrember)and Kartika (October-November). The plantation of Kaner is considered to be auspicious as it wards off evil spirits. Rudraksha Shiva wears the berries of Ultrasum Bead tree(Elaeocarpus ganitrus) popularly known as Rudraksha, highly praised in Atharva Veda, Puranas, Rudraksha-Jabala Upanishad, Tantric and Ayurvedic texts. According to Shiva Purana (Vidyeshvara Samhita,XXV,5-7) Rudraksha represent the tears of Rudra(Shiva) which he shed in flutter, ‘from a desire of helping the worlds’, soon after he awoke from his meditative state.. Later, the trees of Rudraksha were raised by him in Gaud(Bengal),Mathura, Kashi and Ayudhya (all In Uttar Pradesh), Malaya and Sahya mountain ranges, Sri Lanka and other places ( Shiva Purana, XXV,9-11)

Rudraksha is ‘highly sanctifying’ and is said to destroy sins. It is as dear to Shiva as Tulsi - holy Basil - to Vishnu, and red-coloured hibiscus to Ganesha. Its importance is seen from the number of faces or slits it has – varying from 1 to 24. Each type has its symbolic value and mythology, and can be charged with namah-shivaya and other mantras. Wearing of Rudraksha beads as necklace or armlet or adorning it on other parts of body is considered auspicious, and remains the identifiable mark of Shaivites. Says the Shiva Purana (Vidyeshwar Samhita,46), ‘ O Uma, Rudraksha is an auspicious compliment to my phallic image.’ The five-syllable –Panchakshara - mantra, ‘Om namah Shivaya’ is sometime chanted counting the beads of Rudraksha.

Henna: Henna (Lawsonia inermis) is associated with Shiva because his consort, Parvati, applied the paste of its leaves on her body. During social and religious ceremonies of Hindus, like marriage, or other festivities like Karvachauth vrata (sacred vow for the long life of husband), Henna is used as an adornment by girls and women on various parts of body. Traditionally, Mondays falling in the Hindu Shravana month – rainy season- are considered to be the best for applying Henna. Due its cooling effect men and women apply it on the soles of feet, or paint tattoos or intricate designs on their body. Henna-flowers, which are small, white or pinkish help in curing skin disorders, sore throat, and burning sensation, are also used in Shiva worship in some parts of India.

Apamarga: Just as durva-grass and leaves of Shami are offered to Ganesha, Apamarga, a common weed called prickly chaff flower, is offered to Shiva, who, in mythological lore, remains wrapped with serpents all over his body. The Atharvaveda ( III.27 : 1-6) refers to six serpents – Asitah (black), Tirashchiraji ( serpent with transverse streaks), Pradaku(viper), Svaja ( self born), Kalmashagriva ( spotty-necked), and Shvitra ( white serpent). The Atharvaveda ( V.13 : 1-11) deals with treatment of snake poisons.

Shiva is associated with Apamarga, because the plant is traditionally regarded as an antidote to snake poison. There are hymns in the Atharvaveda (IV.17.1-8) which speak of the divine virtues of Apamarga, both for known and unknown ailments.‘Apamarga is surely the only sovereign of all the plants. With that we wipe away your chronic disease. Now you may move about free from affliction.(IV.17.8)

Shiva and Flowers Shiva has a fascination for flowers as they are chaste and epitomize the beauty of nature. According to Shiva Purana (Rudra Samhita,XIV.36), ‘Excepting the Campaka (Michelia champaka) and the Ketaka s(Pandenus fascicularis) there is no flower which does not appeal to Shiva. All other flowers can be used for worshipping him.’ Shiva is associated with the night-flowering, Nishigandha (Aka tuberose), one of the ten sacred flowers of Hindus, because he remains awake at night for meditation.

According to the Shiva Purana (Rudrasamhita, XIV. 25-35) worshipping Shiva with different plants and flowers results in different benefits – use of darbha-grass gives liberation and long life, of Dhatura flowers gives sons, of Agastya flowers, gives fame, of Tulasi gives worldly pleasures and salvation, of Akka gives valour, of Japa flowers(China rose) annihilates enemies, of Karavira drives away ailments, of Bandhuka flowers gives ornaments of Jati flowers gives good vehicles,of Atasi flowers wins favour of Vishnu, of Shami leaves, bestows salvation, of Mallika flowers fascinates auspicious woman, of Yuthikaa flowers, provides safety in house, of Karnikara flowers, secures plenty of garments, of Nirgundi flowers purifies the mind. And so on. Worshipping Shiva with garlands is said to increase happiness and wealth while seasonal flowers of wild variety give liberation. Flowers without smell, of bad smell, the broken or stale ones, are eschewed in religious rites. The flora used in Shiva-worship creates a spiritual milieu within a devotee helping him to invoke the Lord effortlessly. Shiva is bhola, simple, and Phakkar, free and without tension, and so are the plants associated with him.

The author, an Ex-British Council Scholar specializes in Vivekananda Studies and in aspects of Indian history, culture and tradition. He is presently Registrar, DAV University, Jalandhar City.

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