The Tree of Life – Meaning, Mysticism & Symbolism

The Tree of Life Meaning

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell…” – Carl Jung

 

IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS A SEED

It all began five billion years ago.

The cradle of our civilization came into cosmic existence. An accretion of space rocks – remnants of a long lost supernova – came together, bound by gravity. Now, this gravity being the strangest of all fundamental forces, pulls and pulls endlessly. And that’s exactly what it did. Soon the internal friction caused this rocky lump to heat up. To the point that everything melted. From core to the crust, the world turned into a thick viscous boiling liquid.

The long lost supernova was the event where the world was forged. But this liquefaction of accreted rocks was perhaps the principal turning point in the history of Creation; when the machinery to support organic life, as we know it, was firmly cast into its current functional mould. A random lump of space rock slowly turned into the planet Earth.

The heavier metals, iron and nickel, along with an incredible amount of Rare-Earth Elements, sank to the bottom fusing together into a central metallic core: A planetary alloy, a powerful permanent magnet, the NiFe. The Earth had a protective magnetosphere now. The lighter elements rose to the surface, and over time, hardened into a puffy, stable crust.

The Earth was born. A planet with the right surface minerals and an electrically charged atmosphere. A dynamic environment. And it came with its very own personal protection from the deadly cosmic rays, in the form of the newly created Magnetic Shield. A feature exclusive to planets that have undergone at least one cycle of liquefaction. It may have been a stroke of luck, for when so many forces are working together, anything could have gone wrong.

We are fortunate that it didn’t. The land was now primed for the coming of the proverbial Tree of Life.

LIFE TAKES ROOT

“If you don’t like where you are, move. you are not a tree!” – Anonymous.

As the planet cooled, oceans condensed from atmospheric steam and went on to cover the Earth. Land and liquid water became plentiful. Oxygen, not so much.

It was three billion years ago when the miracle happened. An obscure event that no scientists or theologians have been able to explain caused strands of proteins to somehow combine with other organic compounds. It gave rise to the first life, the Cyanobacteria. The infamous Blue-Green Algae. The microcosmic Tree of Life.

If a Cosmic Deity indeed created life: This was the moment when She did it. This algae was a living, but barely breathing bundle of protoplasm, enclosed by a well-defined cell wall. It was capable of replicating itself and preserving the genetic information across successive replications. That didn’t mean that the genetic information was immutable. Far from it. The prokaryotic tree updated its genetic code tirelessly. A labour for the future generations.

The Cyanobacteria lived and breathed. And branched out, spreading all over the Earth in a shimmering blue-green canopy. Like the leaves of a single tree, rooted somewhere within the depths of this planet.

THE FLOURISH OF THE TREE

“If you stand for a reason, be prepared to stand like a tree. If you fall onto the ground, fall like a seed that grows back to fight again.” – Gautama Buddha

During those days, the Cyanobacteria assimilated Carbon Dioxide and Nitrogen, the simple inorganic compounds. It soaked in the light of the Sun, channelling this energy to build complex organic compounds from its humble building blocks. It breathed in Nitrogen. Fixing this abundant atmospheric gas into ammonia and nitrates, enriching the soil. Paving the fields, for other beings to come.

This humble ancestor of all life, had learnt to tap and trap the energy of our stellar powerhouse, the Sun. In the process, it tirelessly spewed out Oxygen. A gas that was poisonous to itself. The blue-green canopy that covered the Earth dwindled. It was like an overpopulated species that polluted the Earth so much as to bring about its own destruction. However, in the changing climate, genetic accidents and further mutations gave rise to other kinds of life distinct from the parent blue-green algae.

Life has a tendency to find a way. In that respect it’s like flowing water. Soon the Cyanobacteria figured out how to breathe oxygen. It was only in the dead of the night the cyanobacteria really respired, slowly oxidizing its organic store into Carbon Dioxide and water.

THE BRANCHES OF THE TREE – DIVERSIFICATION

Time passed. The Earth became Oxygen-rich. Within the vast oceans, a diverse multicellular flora and fauna arose from the common root of that single-celled Microcosmic Tree.

Plants were the first to colonize the newly formed continent in the middle of the vast planetary water-world while the animals exclusively thrived in the sea. An endless forest of trees covered the land as the first amphibians crawled out of the water and upon the Terra Firma. To these fledgeling terrestrials, the trees provided shelter, and food. These animals were our true ancestors. No wonder symbolism of trees has such a deeply buried genetic imprint within the recesses of our lives.

Meanwhile, within the oceans and now out on the land, the biomolecules kept complexing with each other in wildly different ways and so it happened that finally the human species raised its head in the thick of things.

TREE OF LIFE – A SYMBOL

“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth.” Charles Darwin

Various religious and scientific endeavours have come up with their own concepts of the Tree of Life. Why does it appear again and again in the symbols of cultures so geographically and ideologically far apart? What’s so fundamental about it? What gives the proverbial tree its true power?

The answer lies in the breadth of conceptual imagery that can be shown using the tree metaphor. In its rise from the seeds, through its life under the sun, and ultimately in its eventual death, a tree symbolizes a complete creation-destruction cycle. But it’s not a simple cycle. A tree drops many seeds during its lifetime. Each seed is fully capable of starting its own cycle. This web of interconnectedness stretches all the way to infinity.

A tree represents growth and nourishment. The radiant power of the sun being soaked up and converted into complex organic compounds through the workings of a relentless biological engine. The virtues of persistence in a timeless display. A tree lives every moment of its life in constant motion. A tree standing still on a small hillock may appear stationary but there are hundreds of biological processes running in full flow within that stoic silent trunk. You know it. If you care to look closely enough.

THE PHYLOGENETIC TREE OF LIFE

“The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise”– Proverbs 11:30

Ernst Haeckel, was a German zoologist, philosopher, physician and a marine biologist, who worked on creating and maintaining comprehensive genealogical databases rooted at the Last Universal Common Ancestor of life on Earth. This is closely tied with the Tree of Life concept. This database tries to compile and annotate the evolutionary relationships of species through the geological eras of the Earth.

In scientific circles, such a representation of genealogical data, is termed phylogeny. The tree representation itself is called The Phylogenetic Tree.

LAST UNIVERSAL COMMON ANCESTOR

Life exists on this Earth in a wide array of species and genus that we can see roaming around us. Rest assured there are countless others that we don’t. Charles Darwin said, we are all interconnected branches in this Tree of Life. But what is it that really connects us?

We are connected through our blood. Or scientifically speaking, through our DNA. We all trace our lineage back to a common root, a common ancestor. The most recent ancestor of all existing life on the planet. The ancestor from whom we all share a common descent. The last universal common ancestor is mostly studied through genome comparisons as there just aren’t any fossils that still remain intact.

Up until the latest estimates of 2016, 355 genes have been identified as likely candidates for the LUCA. On the basis of genes itself, it’s possible to reconstruct certain traits of this organism. It was a complex life form with transcription and translation mechanisms to convert information from DNA to RNA and finally to proteins. But further studies have indicated that this common ancestor may have lived in very ancient times. Some of the estimates put it as far back as 3.5 to 3.8 billion years back.

The theory of Universal Common Descent of all existing life fits the tree analogy better than Darwin himself could have imagined. He proposed this theory of evolutionary process in his epic treatise On the Origin of Species, 1859.

THE TREE OF PORPHYRY

“Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this Earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.” – Charles Darwin, in On the Origin of Species.

The Tree of Porphyry, also called scala praedicamentalis, is a classic device, first suggested by the ancient Greek Neoplatonist mathematician Porphyry. It is used for illustrating what is called a “scale of being”.

Porphyry’s presentation of Aristotle’s classification of categories was later adapted into a tree-ish pictorial representation of two-way divisions. It’s from here that arose the system of defining a species by a genus and a differentia. This process of logically connecting the various related life-forms until the lowest species in the classification structure is reached.

It’s from this Tree of Porphyry concept, given in 3rd century CE, that the modern system of naming the species and genus is derived from.

THE TREE OF THREE BRANCHES

Many modern researchers, late into the 20th century, postulated that there is not a single tree of descent, but there are three. Carl Woese, Otto Kandler and Mark Wheelis suggested the three branches as bacteria, archaea, and Eukaryota.

Most of the common life comes under Eukaryota, including us. Earliest branches of the Eukaryotic tree are believed to have had two subgroups. However this being a relatively new area of research, the experts are mostly at loggerheads, with many popular interpretations suggesting there were four branches, instead of two.

THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE VS THE TREE OF LIFE

“He who has ears let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the Tree OF Life, which is in the paradise of God”– Revelation 2:7 NIV

Christianity has some very interesting tree symbolism contained within its mythological texts. It’s said that when God created Adam from mud, He put him in a lavish garden with plenty of food and fun. This was the garden of Eden that contained many kinds of trees. One of them being the Tree of Life, a personification of the God himself.

Adam would run around the garden of Eden, in its everlasting day, eating and doing whatever he felt like. However, He, God, had given Adam one condition. A restriction. Under no condition, was Adam to eat from a particular tree. The Tree of Knowledge.

But then something happened. Eve entered Eden.

Adam was delighted for the company. Eve was the first and the most beautiful of women.

They both lived happily in Eden.

For a time.

And then, as in all good stories, a turning point happened. Lucifer Morningstar, disguised as a snake, offered Eve an apple from the forbidden tree. He spun fanciful lies about what eating the fruit would do to them.

Swayed by the honeyed tongue of the snake, Eve took a bite.

Adam knew he shouldn’t do the same. But there are things men cannot resist. Few things are eternal. But human stupidity may be one such rarity. Adam ate the fruit against the explicit instructions of the Lord and God of all things.

God cast Adam and Eve out from Eden.

They were no longer welcome to the Tree of Life. Because they had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. In that instant, they knew sin. They knew shame, and they knew guilt. And when

they saw the fury of God, they knew fear. With this kind of knowledge. they lost their innocence, and their access to God, and the Tree of Life.

The symbolism of this story, mentioned in the Book of Genesis and the Book of Proverbs, has been interpreted in many ways over its two-thousand-year-old history. So we will spare you the analysis and leave you to your own devices in this case.

One consideration however deserves merit here: Are God and Knowledge, really lie at opposite poles? Is self-determination a damning act? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps, it depends on what’s the kind of knowledge we are really talking about.

Another interesting mention of the Tree of Life in Christianity is in the Book of Revelation, where Jesus promises the Tree of Life, which bears twelve different types of fruits based on, one each for a month of the year. This promise will be fulfilled in the mythological city of New Jerusalem, to all those who have braved and overcome the tribulations and rigours of the Last Days.

TREE OF LIFE IN ISLAM

“In Paradise, there is a tree under the shadow of which a rider can travel for a thousand years.” – Sahih Muslim 2826 a.

Islam traces its root to Christianity. The base mythology is fundamentally the same. The Quran mentions the Tree of Immortality, interpreted to be the analogue of the Christian Tree of Life.

There are subtle ways in which the Islamic Tree differs from its parent source. The most significant deviation is in the number of trees. The Quran mentions only one Tree in Allah’s garden of Eden. This is the Tree of Immortality, or the Tree of Life. However, there is no opposite. No evil Tree of Knowledge here.

So there is a single tree which is both good and evil.

Satan, a version of Lucifer, the devil in Islam, told Adam and Eve that if they ate from the Tree of Immortality, they wuld become angels. And God didn’t want them to become angels. Needless to say, Adam and Eve of Islam proved no better than their predecessors and fell to the wily charms of the Satanic forces.

Rest is history. Or mythology, should we say!

URDHVA-MULAM – THE UPSIDE DOWN TREE OF THE UNIVERSE

Srimad Bhagavad Gita, the ancient sacred text of Hinduism, speaks of Asvattha Tree, with roots above and branches below. It’s a symbolic description of the Universe. The root lies

high in the heavens and is a representation of the Brahman, the ultimate truth, while the leaves are the Vedas themselves.

The popular representation of this Urdhva-Mulam tree is through a metaphorical Peepal Tree of a Fig Tree. He who knows this tree gains the knowledge of the Vedas.

The branches of this tree represent the Earth’s many life forms. These life forms are all driven by their Karmic constraints. These branches of life have self-determinism. They can choose to grow upwards, downwards, or choose to detach themselves from the tree itself by growing their awareness to the level of superconscious enlightenment. Enlightenment in this case is symbolized by felling and cutting away of the branch from the tree, representing freedom from the Maya, the illusion, of the materialistic world, the Samsara.

Another interesting tree symbolism in Hinduism is Kalpavriksha – the Tree of Wish-fulfilment. Legends about this tree abound in the popular lore. Some say that this tree was one of the outcomes of the Churning of the Cosmic Ocean of Milk. Other accounts trace the origin of this tree on the Earth itself. Lord Indra, the High King of Heavens, uprooted the tree and took it back with him to his heavenly abode, when humans below started misusing the magical powers of the tree.

OTHER RELIGIOUS AND CULTURAL REPRESENTATIONS OF THE TREE OF LIFE

“Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all” – Gautama Buddha

One of the most notable of such religious iconographies is the Jewish, Kabbalah Tree of Life. This is fundamentally a backtrace of the creation of the world. The Jewish mystics represent the tree of life in the form of ten interconnected nodes. These nodes, comprising the ten Sefirot powers in the divine realm, are the central symbol of the Kabbalah.

The top of the Jewish Kabbalah Tree, Etz Chaim, represents the creation of the universe from an empty void. The creation of Earth is represented further down the stem. All creative processes, in Jewish philosophy, whether it be the creation of the universe, or the creation of an idea in the mind, stem from the same creational patterns.

The Judaic Tree of Life is what sustains and nourishes all life in this world. This tree is believed to stand right in the centre of a plentiful garden planted by Yahweh.

Tree of Life, like the nazar boncugu, is an important motif commonly appearing in Turkish culture. It’s one of the most popular designs in the Turkish arts and is commonly seen in carpets and other handicrafts.

In African culture, there is this concept of Baobab Tree, or the bottle tree. This is considered the Tree of Life mainly because of its ability to store water and produce fruit even in the arid and harsh climates of Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the Baha’i faith, the Tree of Life appears either as the manifestations of God or as a symbolism for a great teacher who appears to lead humanity towards the light of knowledge, from time to time.

The ancient Egyptians spoke of the Ished Tree. This sacred Tree of Life was said to be located in the Sun Temple of Atum Ra at Heliopolis. The Ished Tree first arose when Ra Atum, the Sun God, first appeared at Heliopolis, the city of the Sun.

In the Celtic traditional lore also we find a unique version of the ubiquitous Tree of Life. In the Celtic stories, the roots of this tree represent the ‘other world’, or the ‘underworld’. The branches of the tree are heaven. The middle trunk represents the mortal world connecting the twin poles of heaven and hell.

And last but not the least, one of the most important and enduring tree symbolisms comes from none other than Buddhism.

Buddhist revere the Bodhi Tree, the tree under which an ascetic prince, Siddhartha Gautama, attained nirvana and became the Buddha. The Bodhi Tree symbolism is subtly different from most of the others that we have discussed so far in that this is not exactly the Tree of Life, but rather, a Tree of Knowledge.

The knowledge represented by the Bodhi Tree is distinct from the Tree of Knowledge in the Eden of Christian and Islamic myths, in the type of knowledge it talks about. Bodhi Tree is the Tree of Transcendental Knowledge, not intellectual or rational knowledge.

It’s the kind of knowledge that takes suffering away. That was basically what Buddha taught. Ignorance is the reason we are caught in an endless loop of suffering. What Buddha offered was a way into the light, into the knowledge, into an unconditional bliss. The life itself – uncontaminated, unsullied, pure and pristine.

CONCLUSION

A tree symbol is an affirmation of life’s wonders. But more importantly, it’s a symbol of connectedness. The continuity of life. The oneness amidst endless diversity. The shared ancient, perhaps mythical seed that sprouted the branches of life as we see it today. It’s a topic that has attracted its share of enthusiastic researchers, but there are many who sincerely feel that this whole concept is all messed up.

But then we say, so is life. And perhaps that’s exactly wherein lies its refreshing beauty.

“Fall like a seed in the ground

Get buried under the dirt,

Under the mess

Take the heat

Absorb those tears

And split asunder

Break apart

Grow”

 

Mariam Saigal

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