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In the great Indian epic, the Ramayana, when Laksmana, the brother of the hero Rama is lying unconscious on the battlefield and all seems lost, their loyal friend, the divine monkey, Hanuman, flies through the air all the way from Sri Lanka to the Himalayas to bring life-saving herbs back to the herbal doctor who can use them to heal Laksmana. In fact, it turns out that Hanuman has to bring back the entire mountain on which the herbs are growing because when he arrives in the Himalayas, he realizes that he doesn’t know the difference between one herbal plant and the next, so he can’t just pick out the right ones. All ends well, fortunately, and when Hanuman returns to Sri Lanka, the herbal doctor is able to use the right herbs from the transported mountain to revive Laksmana from the brink of death and restore him to good health once again.

The world of plants

The world of plants is central to the Ramayana, and though this long poem of several books was written thousands of years ago, the trees and plants depicted in this amazing epic, are geographically accurate, and even today, the plants that are described are found growing in the exact locations all over India where Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, has placed them. It is all geographically and botanically correct.

Mr. M. Amerthalingam, botanist with the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, Chennai, presented the paper, “Plant Diversity in the Valmiki Ramayana” at the February 2013 Conference on The Ramayana in Literature, Society, and the Arts. The proceedings have recently been published.

He highlights the extraordinary range of the plant life of India at the time and notes the precise descriptions each of the 182 different plants mentioned in the Ramayana.

The Ramayana as historical reality

Fewer and fewer people these days see the Ramayana, one of the two great epics of India, as a work of mythology or fiction. Indeed, it has never been viewed as anything other than history in India. Only western scholars have had difficulty accepting the basic historical reality of Rama, Sita, and the events of their lives. It is true enough that there are poetic aspects to the story – and whether or not Hanuman really flew through the air or not may be questionable, but that Rama and Sita did really live and that the major events of their lives are true is accepted as fact.

The dates when they lived are the subject of much scholarly speculation, but possibly they lived around 3,000 BCE, or maybe earlier, or maybe later.

Mr. Amerthalingam has compiled a list of all the plants described in the Ramayana. In his travels to rescue his wife Sita, who had been abducted, the hero Rama traveled from Ayodhya in the north of India to Lanka (Sri Lanka) in the south. On his way, Rama journeyed through numerous forests, each was unique, and remarkably, each account is true to the actual plant life which is native to that forest.

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In the beginning of the epic, in Chitrakoot forest where Rama and Sita spent time in exile, there were many beautiful flowering trees; mango and jackfruit; there were neem and bamboo, and a host of other trees, all of which are found in that area today and which are described very precisely.

In the Dandakaranya forest, there were tall trees and trees bearing fruit.

The Panchavati forest, from where Sita was abducted, lies on the banks of the River Godavari.

In Sri Lanka, there were evergreen forests – these are not the kind of evergreens one might think of in the west, like spruce, pine, and fir trees – they were the evergreens in India and Sri Lanka which remained green year round, like the ashoka tree, a rain forest tree with lovely red flowers.

In what is today the Bellary district of the state of Karnataka, Rama met Hanuman and Sugriva, two leaders of the monkey people who, throughout the epic poem, provided invaluable assistance to Rama in his search for the lost Sita. Without Hanuman’s help, it is hard to see how Rama could have rescued Sita.

They spent some time there in the forest, near the Pampa sarovar (lake) among a great wealth of trees and plants – both moist and dry deciduous plants. There were rose-apples, banyan trees, jackfruit, peepal, and mango trees, sandalwood, ashoka, and kadamba. There were lotuses, lilies, wild cherries, and jasmine, and around thirty more species, all mentioned by name.

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Medicinal herbs in the Ramayana

In the story mentioned above, during a huge battle that took place between the forces of Rama and the demon king Ravana, when Rama’s brother, Lakshmana, was lying unconscious on the battlefield, the doctor Sushena asked Hanuman to fly to the Himalayas. Hanuman set off, flying through the air over the snow-covered terrain until he reached the Dronagiri Mountain. After Hanuman had picked up the entire mountain and flown back with it, Sushena was able to identify the four herbs that were required; Mrita sanjeevani (which brings the dead back to life), Vishalyakarani (which cures all wounds caused by weapons), Suvarnakarani which restores the body), and Sandhani (which joins severed limbs and fractured bones). Thanks to the herbal knowledge of Sushena and the strength and heroism of Hanuman, Lakshmana sprang back to life and was ready to fight again.

The entire Ramayana is filled with beautiful and very accurate accounts of plants. On the island of Lanka, it was forbidden to cut down trees. Although the demon king Ravana was a criminal, guilty of abducting Sita, he did always show a sincere appreciation for trees. In his country, planting trees was considered a very praiseworthy activity. It was believed that a wood cutter and his family would suffer death and destruction as a karmic consequence of harming trees. Trees were worshipped in Lanka and throughout India, as they still are today.

It is clear from the detailed and abundant descriptions of the 182 plants that the Ramayana could only have been written in India, and that the author, Valmiki, was writing botanically correct information. He was also absolutely familiar with the medical uses of the plants.

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Listening to the natural world

Keenly aware of plants, Valmiki knew them exceptionally well. Today so many of us are unaware of plants; we brush them aside into the background, not listening to what they have to say and unaware of the souls of the living world around us. Only by once again revering the world of trees and plants can we reawaken our consciousness to the natural world, so that the earth may be restored and renewed.

Thanks to Mr. M. Amerthalingam for his amazing knowledge of these trees and plants and for bringing them to life for us.

The Proceedings of the Conference on The Ramayana in Literature, Society, and the Arts, February 1-2, 2013 has been published by C.P.R. Publications, C.P.R. Institute of Indological Research Chennai. To visit their website, click here.

To find the book, Sacred Plants of India by Nanditha Krishna and M. Amerthalingam, on Amazon, click here.

Top photo: Photographer: Eric Guinther / permission: GNU / Wikimedia Commons / “Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2…” / Leaves of the peepal tree.

Second photo: Photographer: J.M. Garg / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.” / Leaves of the neem tree.

Third photo: Author: ProjectManhattan / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / The jackfruit tree.

Fourth photo: Original uploader was Indiancorrector at en.wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons / “This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Indiancorrector at the wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.” / Kishkindha, the kingdom of the monkey people in the Ramayana, view from atop Aanjaneya Parvat, near Hampi, in Karnataka.

© 2014, Sharon St Joan