The Banyan Tree: Asia’s Mascot by Navin Doshi (June 29, 2009)

The Economist’s first Asia-centered column titled “Banyan” was initiated on April 11th, 2009, comparable to columns “Lexington” for America and “Bagehot” for England. It continues the discourse about Asian issues, with an explanation of their concentration in spirituality and entrepreneurialism. Though the awareness that will be brought to readers is laudable, why is the spread of Asian values so important only now? Their answer is simple; this century is expected to be the Asian Century.  The last intellectual push for pan Asianism was promoted nearly a century ago by Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel laureate. He was well- received on tours to China and Japan, where he urged people to counter Western imperialism with an Asian spiritualism. However, he did not succeed then. There is no doubt about the perception among Western intellectuals like Carl Jung, among others, that  spiritualism is strongly associated with the East, particularly with India. The international head quarters of the Theosophical Society (an organization to unite world traditions) were transferred from New York to Adyar, Chennai, in the late 1870’s because Adyar had one of the largest forests of banyan trees. Later, under the leadership of Annie Besant, they discovered in Adyar a Christ like young boy named Krishnamurti with, an aura of selflessness.

For centuries, western countries have relied on and built upon the inventions and discoveries of the East. Some will argue that technology has been enhanced by innovation from Asia, such as rocketry.  But this first article in “Banyan: In the shade of the banyan tree” focuses on the romanticism of Western ideals by countries such as Japan, and says that the Asian spotlight on technology is more “imitation” than representation of “Asian identity”. The article claims, and many of us will agree, that even more important are the spirituality and traditions of Asia, uncontaminated by the reliance on the West.

The article brings to attention the increase of Asia’s exports within and to the West. This is a positive not only because of the growth of Asia’s economic integration, but also because this supports the new concept that the “simultaneous rise of two continent-sized big powers is peaceful.”  The magazine advocates friendly and constructive competition in place of destructive, as has occurred in the west.  Very rarely do we consider multiple big powers a sign of anything but war and discontent, but it does not have to be so. For years the world has lived with its countries in discord and at each other’s throats for survival and affluence. How many years will it take to see that this way of dealing with other cultures and peoples hasn’t been and is still not working? It is about time that we try something else. Every growing power has a breaking point, and until we find mediation, balance, harmony and complementarity, those powers will forever fail, as I have argued in my previous writings.

So why is the banyan tree the mascot for the Asian economy, culture and traditions? The tree is found both physically and spiritually in nearly all Asian countries. The tree is sacred in Hindu theology; for instance, we often see the God Shiva meditating under the shade of such a tree. It is often called “The Tree of Life” or “The Tree of Knowledge.” It is simple to understand the former, its symbolism of eternal life, when considering the visual appearance of unending expansion. Vishnu is also said to have taught beneath a banyan, bringing knowledge of philosophy and science to the people. The Bodhi Tree, under which Buddha attained enlightenment, was a banyan by another name. A British magazine, by naming the column “Banyan”, may be recognizing that India is at the roots of all Asian, perhaps of all the world civilizations as many scholars of genetic research have hypothesized.

Not only is the banyan tree sprinkled throughout the various countries’ mythology, religion, and daily life, but the science of the tree itself is representative of the perpetual growth and vastness of Asia’s branches. After the dispersal of the seeds from the banyan fruit, the roots erupt from the soil and spread laterally. Asia contains more than half the world’s population based upon the latest census. The people themselves span world-wide in respect to geographical location, political power, and cultural influence. Like the roots of the banyan, the massive Asian population grows strong and comes to resemble the core trunk from which they originated. The population, also like the roots, extends to all corners of the earth�much farther than one initially imagines it could. The roots simultaneously lengthen and simultaneously cling to the host trunk and remain attached for all its life-span, continually adding to the trunk, the core, the ancient tradition, and creating new life elsewhere.

The picture associated with the article features a giant tree erupting from and spreading over a large portion of the earth. This tree’s roots are not the only things to spread far over the land, for the branches  are just as far-reaching. Even the parts of the world that are not home to the Asian people themselves are still “in the shade of the banyan tree,” being affected by the continent and its inhabitants, however indirectly. The shade is immense, but through the leaves, here and there, the sky still shines through–its shade does not smother or trap one in darkness.

It is interesting to note that the name “Banyan” came from the writer’s caste “Bania” derived from Gujarati name “Va(ha)nias” meaning boat- businessmen travelling as far as Java and Sumatra. Among Gujaraties, banya or vanias implies they are grocers or merchants by profession. The Portuguese picked up the word to refer specifically to Hindu merchants and passed it along to the English as early as 1599 with the same meaning. By 1634, English writers began to tell of the banyan tree, a tree under which Hindu merchants would conduct their business. The tree provided a shaded place for a village meeting or for merchants to sell their goods. Eventually banyan came to mean the tree itself. Even today children are schooled under the banyan tree in some tribal areas. The Times of India, one of the largest news papers in India, also has a column on spiritualism under the heading, “Under the Banyan Tree.”

Navin Doshi (June 29, 2009)
(Mr. Doshi is a writer, trader, and philanthropist.)

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