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Ceremonial plants and what they represent


In all civilizations, plants and trees have been viewed as sacred. Generally, the tree is either a god’s habitat or the god itself and is worshipped. Such was the case, for example, in early Indian Buddhism. Trees may also be associated with the divine order because of some incident and subsequently venerated, as was the bodhi tree, under which the Buddha received his Enlightenment. Fences or even open-air temples, the form adopted for the early Bodh Gaya Buddhist temples, are built around such trees. Innumerable cases of sacred or divine trees and their painted or sculpted representations are found throughout written religious tradition and in the ethnological data. The branches of trees such as the palm, olive, and laurel are often associated with the gods; such branches may crown the god or be included among divine attributes. Many are used in worship, as are the branches of the bilva (wood-apple tree) among the adepts of Shiva, and the tulasi (basil), symbol of Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of prosperity and Vishnu’s wife) and sacred plant of the Vaishnavites.

As symbols of life and immortality, plants such as the vine of the Greco-Roman and the Christian world and the haoma (a trance-inducing or intoxicating plant) of pre-Islamic Iran are planted near tombs or represented on funerary stelae, tombstones, and sarcophagi. Two similar and related rites involving plants, the haoma, noted in the Avesta (ancient Zoroastrian scriptures), and the soma, noted in the Vedas (orthodox scriptures of Hinduism), pertain to the ritualproduction of exalted beverages presumed to confer immortality. The ritualistic objects for this ceremony included a stone-slab altar, a basin for water, a small pot and a larger one for pouring the water, a mortar and pestle for grinding the plants, a cup into which the juice drips and a filter or strainer for decanting it, and cups for consuming the beverage obtained. In many sacrifices, branches or leaves of sacred plants, such as the kusha plant (a sacred grass used as fodder) of the Vedic sacrifice and the Brahmanic puja (ritual), are used in rituals such as the Zoroastrian sprinkling (bareshnum), or great purification, rite, in which the notion of fertility and prosperity is combined with their sacred characters (see purification rite).

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