Krishna uses a striking metaphor for reality: an upside-down tree.
Sages speak of the immutable ashvattha tree, with its taproot above and its branches below. …Nourished by the gunas, the limbs of this tree spread above and below. Sense objects grow on the limbs as buds; the roots hanging down bind us to action in this world. (BG 15:1, 2)
This is not just any tree. It is the “sacred fig,” or bodhi tree, the same kind of tree the Buddha meditated underneath when he received enlightenment.
The notion here is that we can see all of reality as such a tree, with its roots “upward,” in the heavens, and its branches “below,” manifesting as the created world. In truth, there is no up or down, but the image is intended to show us how the created world of sensible, changeable things grows out of timeless, eternal, ultimate reality. It’s a visual metaphor for how all of existence is “rooted” in God and grows out of God’s being. The taproot grows from Being Itself. All we tiny buds of sense-experience, with our thoughts and feelings about the changeable world, draw consciousness like nutrients from the root. Existence is not some static, dead thing. God does not merely exist, but lives, and we live because God lives.
Christians will likely hear two resonances in this description of reality: The Tree of Life and Jesus’ description of the vine and branches.
In the Garden of Eden, there are actually two trees, one of Life and one of Knowledge. Adam and Eve choose one and forego the other. They opt for an experiential understanding of opposites, “good and bad,” instead of intimate life with God. Christians have generally interpreted this decision as “the wrong choice,” or the doctrine of the Fall, but it isn’t clear from the text that the author understands it that way. The story makes no value judgment on their disobedience. They get what they want: intimate knowledge of shame and alienation. It’s only a “bad” decision from this side of the story, from the perspective of already knowing the difference between good and bad. Before that? It’s like asking what existed “before” time or the laws of causality. In a way, we’re still living that story, making choices about which tree we want to live by: the tree that offers a world of “pairs-of-opposites” or one that offers us transcendence and connection to God. In Hinduism, they are the same tree.
Jesus tells his disciples that they are the branches, and he is the vine. Abiding in him is a choice, something one has to will to do. Abiding is an act that connects us to what he calls “abundant life.” And when we get to Revelation, we see the Tree of Life again. This time its leaves are for “the healing of the nations.”
The interdimensional tree makes appearances in other faith traditions. In Norse mythology, it is Yggdrasil, and connects different worlds to each other. We can call it an archetype, if you believe in such things. Perhaps it is rooted in our collective unconscious, or perhaps it is a natural and handy symbol that different cultures attached significance to independently. Trees, after all, are mysterious to us. They are simultaneously familiar and alien to us. They typically outlive us, and many go through cycles of life and death (or hibernation) through the seasons.
I find the upside-down tree image particularly compelling, though, as a representation of multidimensional reality. We living consciousnesses are so much more complex than we know. There is more to us than meets the eye, more than meat held together in a skin-sack, running back and forth in a state of worry and lust to preserve a handful of microscopic genes. The world of sense-objects is held together by something vast, organic, and alive. We are part of it.
Those who attain enlightenment recognize that we are not locked in the isolated prison of our own subjective experience. We are connected, like limbs of an enormous tree, and we grow from the same Ultimate Reality.
Great One, you are so much more than animal, vegetable, or mineral can understand.