From Gangtok I scampered down to Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha's Enlightenment, and immediately headed for the Bodhi Tree. Even today many people seem to be under the impression that the Bodhi Tree (a specimen of the pipal tree, Ficus religiosa) found today behind the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya is the very same Bodhi Tree under which Buddha achieved Enlightenment.
Mahabodhi Temple in BodhgayaWhether it is possible or not for the same tree to have existed for some 2500 years is not considered. But it may be that the current Bodhi Tree is a distant relative of the original Bodhi Tree, if indeed trees can be thought of as having relatives. The Venerable S. Dhammika, after examining the subject, has opined in his definitive pilgrim’s guide Middle Land, Middle Way, that the current Bodhi Tree “is probably a descendant of the original Bodhi Tree.”
Let's take a closer look at this famous exemplar of Ficus religiosa. If we are to believe a document called the Kalingabodhi Jataka, the Bodhi Tree was well-known as a local landmark even before the Buddha’s time Probably already in his lifetime and certainly immediately therefore the tree became an important pilgrimage site. There are two versions of how the original Bodhi Tree perished. One legends relates that in the 360s B.C., a hundred and sixty years or so after the Buddha’s Enlightenment, Ashoka, king of the Mauryan Empire (321-104 b.c.), not yet been converted to Buddhism and apparently piqued at the attention the tree was attracting, had it cut down. The Asokavadana, a chronicle detailing his reign, relates, however, that after Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism he became so enamored of the tree that his wife the Queen became jealous (if indeed one can be jealous of a tree), and that it was she who ordered that it be it cut down. According to this version the heart-broken Ashoka poured milk on the roots of the tree and soon it re-sprouted. This new tree flourished under Ashoka’s protection and eventually grew to a high of 120 feet. To further safeguard this tree Ashoka had built around it a stone wall some ten feet high.
The Bodhi Tree today at the back of the Mahabodhi Temple
On somewhat firmer historical ground, the Mahavamsa (“Great Chronicle of Ceylon”, a fairly reliable historical source), relates that Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitta, who had became a nun, took a cutting from the Bodhi Tree to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, where his son Mahinda, who had become a monk, had established a monastery. It is not quite clear whether this cutting came from the first Bodhi Tree or from the one which re-sprouted from the first one’s roots. Anyhow, the tree that grew from this cutting still exists today and is said to be the oldest—according to some accounts, the second oldest—tree in the world whose age can be historically documented.The second generation Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya survived until about 600 a. d., when a Hindu King from Bengal named Sananka had it chopped down in a fit of anti-Buddhist iconoclasm. Sananka soon died a ghastly death, his very flesh rotting away from his bones, whether or not in karmic retribution for cutting down the Bodhi Tree we are not told.
In 637 the Peripatetic Chinese Pilgrim Xuanzang on a sixteen year sojourn from his native China arrived in Bodhgaya and recounts the then current story:
Recently King Sananka of the kingdom of Karnasuvara cut the tree, dug it up to the water springs but still he could not destroy the bottom of the roots. He then burnt and sprinkled the juice of sugar cane on it wishing to destroy the bottom of the root completely. A few months afterwards King Pu-la-na-fa-mo [Purnavarma] who was said to be a descendant of King Ashoka, on hearing that the tree had been cut, cast his body on the ground, invited the monks and for seven days make offerings to the tree and poured milk of several thousand cows in the large pit. When he had done it for six day and nights the tree grew a little more than 10 feet. Fearing that it might be cut again afterwards, he surrounded it with a stone wall 24 feet high.
The current Bodhi Tree
Historian Charles Allen, however, has dismissed this account as a “pious fiction.” The Mahavamsa, he points out, unequivocally states that a cutting from the tree at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka was brought to Bodhgaya after Sananka’s desecration and that the next Bodhi tree grew from this. As mentioned above, the tree at Anuradhapura had grown from a cutting from the original Bodhi Tree taken there by Ashoka’s daughter a few centuries earlier.
In any case, Xuanzang relates that thousands of pilgrims each year came to the Bodhi Tree and made offerings of milk, scented water, and flowers. He himself paid his respects: “The moment he had been waiting for came,” wrote Huili, Xuanzang’s biographer, and who had also worked with him as a translator.
Finally Xuanzang kneels down before the sacred tree. He thinks of the time the Buddha, in the first watch of the night, meditated on all worlds, the rising and falling of things, the ascending and descending rhythm of existence; how in the second watch, from 10 to 2 a.m., the Buddha reviewed his own life, and the third watch, for 2 to 6 a.m., he meditated on human suffering and arrived at the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Salvation. What an awakening! His mind was liberated, ignorance vanished, knowledge was acquired, darkness melted away, light sprang out.With the most sincere devotion, Xuanzang casts himself face down on the ground. Filled with grief, he sighs and says, “At the time when the Buddha perfected himself in wisdom, I know not in what condition I was in the troublous whirl of life and death.” To him it is inescapably clear his evil deeds mean that is condemned to live in this lesser age, when Buddhism is in decline, instead of the golden age of the Buddha’s life on earth. His eyes overflow with tears.
Worshippers at the current Bodhi Tree
One wonders, however, if the Bodhi Tree was cut down around 600 a.d. just how big its replacement—either a re-sprouted version or one grown from a cutting of the Anuradhapura tree—could have been in 637, when Xuanzang paid his respects to it. Xuanzang makes no mention of the tree’s size, but as we shall we it is possible that a young adult tree existed by that time.
Here we lose track of the Bodhi Tree for several centuries, so we don’t know if the tree described some 600 years later by the Tibetan pilgrim Dharmasvamin in the 1230s was the same one seen by Xuanzang. Given the longevity demonstrated by the Anuradhapura tree it is certainly possible that the same tree existed this long. The Bodhi Tree next pops up the account of Dr. Francis Buchanan, an employee of the East India Company who visited Bodhgaya in 1811 while on a five-year mission to catalogue the resources and antiquities of what is now the state of Bihar: “It is a fine tree in full vigour and in all probability cannot exceed 100 in age, and has probably sprung from the ruins [of the Mahabodhi Temple] after they had been deserted. A similar tree must have existed here when the temple was entire . . . ” If Buchanan was correct in his estimation of the tree’s age this then cannot be the tree seen by Dharmasvamin almost six centuries earlier, and it would thus constitute yet another generation. But what then are we to make of the description by Alexander Cunningham, head of the Archeological Survey of India, who visited here just fifty-one years later:
In December 1862 I found this tree very much decayed; one large stem to the westward, with three branches, was still green, but the other branches were barkless and rotten. I next saw the tree in 1871, and again in 1875, when it had become completely decayed, and shortly afterwards in 1876, the only remaining portion of the tree fell over the west wall during a storm, and the Old Pipal Tree was gone. Many seeds, however, had been collected, and young scions of the present tree were already in existence to take its place.Either the tree seen earlier by Buchanan had aged very rapidly, or it had succumb to disease or an injury. In any case, one of these scions of this tree soon shouldered the others aside and was apparently a sizable tree just twenty-three years later in 1899, which would seem to vindicate Xuanzang’s assertion that he had worshipped an adult Bodhi Tree some thirty-seven years after it had been destroyed by the malevolent King Sasanka. It was on January 20, 1899 that the Japanese monk, scholar, pilgrim, and reluctant adventurer Ekai Kawaguchi arrived here while on his way to make an incognito journey to Tibet. Kawaguchi:
The night of that day I spent meditating on the ‘Diamond Seat’ under the Bodhi-tree—the very tree under which, and the very stone on which, about two thousand five hundred years ago, the holy Buddha sat and preached Buddhahood. The feeling that I then experienced is indescribable: all I can say is that I sat the night out in the most serene and peaceful ecstasy. I saw the tell-tale moon lodged, as it were, among the branches of the Bodhi-tree, shedding its pale light on the ‘Diamond Seat’, and the scene was superbly picturesque, and also hallowing, when I thought of the days and nights the Buddha spent in holy meditation on that very spot.
Of course, the tree Kawaguchi saw is not “the very tree” under which the Buddha sat (nor, for that matter, was the Outer Vajrasana he describes “the very stone” on which the Buddha sat; that’s probably the Inner Vajrasana within the temple itself), but for him, as for pilgrims right down to the present day, it didn’t really matter. The Bodhi Tree exists as a symbol, a reminder of what happened here in 528 b.c., when Siddhartha Gautama attained Enlightenment and Buddhism was born, and quibbles about the family tree of a tree are really beside the point, except of course to a few incorrigible antiquarians like myself.
More worshippers at the Bodhi Tree
It is the adult “scion” described by Cunningham that thousands of pilgrims file past and worship in front of each year, and with the temple’s recent recognition as a World Heritage site and easier access to Bodhgaya via international flights the amount of visitors paying homage can only increase. The malevolent King Sananka’s fleshless bones must be turning in their grave.
The Outer Vajrasana at the Bodhi Tree
Flower offerings along the wall in front of the Bodhi Tree