Jain & kapoor: divine botany

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Divine botany-universal and useful but under explored traditions

SK Jain1* & SL Kapoor

1A-26, Mall Avenue Colony, Lucknow 226 001,
Uttar Pradesh; C-166, Nirala Nagar, Lucknow 226 020, Uttar Pradesh

Received 17 August 2006; revised 21 February 2007

The study of all relationships between man and plant based on faith, belief and tradition concerning gods, goddesses, saints & other such powers can be called Divine botany. There are three aspects; the knowledge and information contained in the ancient religious books and epics of various faiths; the beliefs and practices as presently observed or performed among various ethnic group, and the future prospects and possibility in this area of botany. The paper has a brief account of faith related to plant in epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat, in religious scriptures like Bible and Quran & plants associated with planets, stars, Vastu-shastra, practices relating to plants in worship and decoration of deities, taboos and plants in various ceremonies, festivals and rites from birth to death. It is discussed that such a faith belief and practice have scientific basis and is helpful for good health and preservation of biodiversity. It is also suggested that the subject is not static but due to changes in biodiversity, human attitude to tradition and introduction of many exotics in various parts of the world, there is dynamism in this relationship. The future prospects and immense possibilities of the subject are indicated.

Keywords: Divine botany, Sacred plants, Scriptures, Constellations, Nakshatras

IPC Int. Cl.8: A61K36/00, A61P25/00


*Corresponding author

Human relationships with plant kingdom are very intense, vast and multifarious. They can be put in two very broad categories, the material and the cultural. The material relationships include plants for food, fodder, drugs, fuel, fibres, dyes, gums, house building, tools, numerous articles of daily life that is all economic plants and also the environmental concerns. This is usually common knowledge. The cultural relationships include plants associated with faith and tradition and also plants in fine arts and literature like painting, music, songs, legends, proverbs, poetry, sculptures and body ornamentation. This aspect of our relationships with plant kingdom is less familiar and under explored. The subject is very vast; presently only a glimpse is being provided with special reference to the Indian scenario. The study of plants, plant products and plant formations (such as forests and groves) associated with faith and tradition forms the discipline of Divine botany. The origin of such divine or spiritual relationship between man and plants will probably date back to the origin of human race. Some evidences of those early or ancient relationships are available even today in scriptures of all faiths, and in carvings. Excavations carried out at Mehragarh (Pakistan) pinpoint the beginnings of civilization in India and have shown that the worshipping of trees, putting of swastika symbol at the entrance and similar other practices were common feature of the civilization. Some studies have been done on this aspect in India and also other regions of the world1-5.

Work has also been published on plants of Ramayana, other epics and Jain scriptures. Buddhist literature suggests that Lord Buddha spent 4 weeks in meditation under Pipal (Ficus religosa L.), Banyan (Ficus bengalensis L.), Chironji (Buchanania lanzan) and Ingar (Barringtonia acutangula Gaertn.) trees. Also, that he covered his body with the grass Munj (Saccharum bengalense Retz.) so as to protect from evil effects of unholy persons. Munj was also the grass from which sacred thread of Lord Hanuman was made. In Hindu faith, a curse by Parvati turned Vishnu, Shankara and Brahma into Pipal, banyan, Palash [Butea monosperma (Lamk.) Taub.], and these trees became abodes of these Lords. Two species of Ficus growing along with Pakar are also called Harishankari. Lord Rama along with Sita spent many years of their life in forest under the shade of trees, called Panchvati. The word is interpreted in various ways, eg. grove of 5 banyan trees, trees of banyan, pipal, bel [Aegle marmelos (L.) Corr.], aonla (Phyllanthus emblica L.) and ashoka [Saraca asoca (Roxb.) De Willd.]. The position of trees in four direction North, South, East and West are specified for larger Panchwati. Ashok tree is associated with Lord Rama's consort, Sita, during her stay in Sri Lanka. Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) is considered as seat of many god and goddesses in Hindu faith.

In Jain faith, 24 plants are associated with salvation of 24 Jain Tirthankaras (Table 1). In Buddhism, Lord Buddha spent long periods in sal (Shorea robusta Gaertn.f.) forest. He attained salvation under pipal, but then spent time under banyan trees, seventh week under khirni [Manilkara hexandra (Roxb.) Dubard] tree. His first samadhi was made under jamun [Syzygium cumini (L.) Skeels] tree. He preached under pakar trees. Some Buddha groves exist where trees of mango, palms, pine and bamboos grow. Pagoda tree (Plumeria acutifolia Poir.) flowers are offered in Buddhist temples. In Guru-Granth Saheb, trees are said to be gods and this universe as branches of trees. Certain trees have become inseparably associated with many sacred places, like pipal of Nanakmata, soap nut (Sapindus emerginatus Vahl) of Haldwani, shisham of Santokhsar and jujub (Ber) of Harminder Saheb near Sialkot. In Islamic faith, date-palm, (Phoenix dactylifera L.) Olive (Olea europea L.), grapes (Vitis vinifera L.), pomegranate, henna (Lawsonia alba L.), jujub (Ziziphus mauritiana Lam.), pilu (Salvadhra oleoides Decne.), kikar, jhau (Tamarix ericoides Rottl.) and mann (Alhagi maurorum Desv.) figure significantly in Quran. The main plants referred frequently in bible are date palm, fig (Ficus carica L.), pomegranate, Poplar (Populas spp.), pilu, grapes, henna, Nal (Arundo donax L.), elephant grass (Typha angustata Bory & Chamb), ghritkumari (Aloe vera Tourn.ex L.), castor (Ricinus communis L.), mulberry (Morus nigra L.), and jhau.

Plants in literature, like in devotional songs, legends relating to gods, goddesses, deities and saints have also been studied. The notable carvings and paintings at places of worship, temples, churches, mosques and monasteries as also rich carvings like in Ajanta-Ellora have been studied6. Certain seeds, such as of Rudraksha (Elaeocarpus ganitrus Roxb.), and wood of sandal wood tree (Santalum album L.) & sacred basil (Ocimum sanctum L.) are used for making beads for sacred garlands and rosaries.

Study of divine plants

Table 1Plants associated with salvation of 24 Jain Tirthankars

Name of Tirthankara











Priyangu (Calicarpa macrophyya Vahl.)


Priyangu (Calicarpa macrophyya Vahl.)


Siris (Albizia lebbek Benth.)




Bahera (Terminalia bellirica Roxb.)




Tendu (Diospyros peregrina (Gaertn.) Gurke)










Tuna (Cedrella toona Roxb.)














Deodar (Cedrus deodara (Roxb.) Loud.)



There are several possible approaches to the study of divine plants. One is to study and understand plants in faith and belief from birth to death of human beings, which is possibly the anthropological approach. This is to study plants from supernatural and spiritual level down to worldly or mundane level associated from birth to death. Associating plants with spiritual or supernatural phenomena is not only Indian or oriental thought7. Spiritual or mystic aspects of divine botany will include the following kinds of faith and beliefs relating to plants: plants believed to establish communication with spirits eg. Datura (Datura spp.), cannabis (Cannabis sativa L.), opium, Soma (Amanita muscaria) and many other psychoactive plants. Most Shamanic practices, which are recorded from many so-called underdeveloped or undeveloped regions of the world, revolve round such plants8-9. Some plants are believed to have originated from part of body or tears of gods; for instance Pipal from body of Vishnu, Palash from body of Brahma, and Aonla from tears of Brahma. Plants are believed to be abodes of spirits and souls of the dead, eg. Saptparni tree (Alstonia scholaris R.Br.). Lodhas in West Bengal plant this tree on burial/cremation grounds so that souls of their dead ancestors may rest on it. Aonla, marking nut tree (Semecarpus anacardium L.f.), kikar (Acacia nilotica L.), apamarg (Achyranthes aspera L.), and harmal (Peganum harmala L.) are believed to keep evil spirits away. Tantra is a special, rather mysterious process practiced by some hermits10. It is believed that certain plants possess special energies. Through practice, concentration and/ or meditation some claim to succeed in acquiring special energy or powers. The procedures for these involve study of stars and planets of a particular person at the time of birth, collection of plant at particular time and season and other associated rites. Some orchids such as Salib mishree (Dactylorhiza hatagirea (Don) Soo) are associated with such processes. Vanda (Vanda tesselata Loud.) growing on specific trees is associated for particular purposes like on pipal for wealth, on mahua [Madhuca longifolia (Koen.) Mc. Br.] for body vigour, on mango tree for love in family and to keep evil spirits away.
Next is an important group of divine plants under the category celestial plants. These plants are believed to be associated with constellations (Nakshatras) and planets (Graha). Sun, stars and planets also emit energy, which influence not only human beings but also plants. Certain plants draw more energy than others from these celestial bodies, and so are associated with them. The Zodiac (Saur Mandal) has been divided into 27 constellations. A plant Represents each planet and each constellation (Tables 2,3)11.


All people are born in one or the other constellation. It is believed that the particular plant of one's constellation should be planted, watered cared for and conserved by him. Any product from that species should not be used in medicine or for any other purpose. There have been some studies on trees preferred for planting in religious places. Pipal (Bodhi) tree is well known for Buddhist temples. There are references regarding particular woods for use in building places of worship. Many plants are associated with worship, offering or decoration on or ornamentation of statues of various gods, goddesses and saints. Some notable examples for use in worship are coconut (Cocos nucifera L.), rice (akshat) (Oriyza sativa L.), cloves (Lavang) (Syzygium aromaticum L.), almonds (Prunus amygdalus Bat.), betel nut, betel leaf (Piper betle L.) and several fruits and flowers. There are several specific preferences for flowers to particular deities. In Vedic culture, an elaborate system of rituals was devised to propitiate the gods so that the next birth be full of happiness and peace or even to attain salvation. In many rituals, various plant or plant parts play a very significant role as symbol of gods or as being devoted or addressed to gods.

Plants associated with deities as pancha-deva

A detailed account of these is available in various Indian treatises12. Lord Ganesh is worshipped first in every Hindu religious ceremony, religious homage, or performance of rites associated with adoration and reverence to the divine or even in auspicious social activities. If idol of Ganesh is not available, then a swastika symbol is drawn if possible by saffron or kesar (Crocus sativus L.) or by a red paste on a betel-nut or supari (Areca catechu L.), and that seated on a small heap of rice sometimes placed on a betel-leaf, serves as a symbol of the deity. Ganesh is worshipped with Doob grass; for this purpose the stem top with 3 or 5 leaves is taken. Besides, white flowers are also offered, however sacred basil (leaves and inflorescence both) is prohibited. The goddess especially loves Apamarg. Besides, all fragrant white flowers like Bela and Chameli (Jasminum spp.) and all red flowers are used for worshipping. The prohibited ones are Doob, Tilak (Wendlandia exserta DC.), sacred basil, tej-pat (Cinnamomum tamala Nees & Eberm.). Lord Vishnu loves the sacred basil most; upper leaves with inflorescence (manjari) are offered. Being the most sacred plant it is planted in every Hindu home. Flowers and fruits of lotus, Maulsiri (Mimusops elengi L.), Ashok, Harsingar (Nycthanthes arbor-tristis L.), Tagar (Valeriana hardwickii Wall.), Bel, Kadamb [Anthocephalus chinensis (Lamk.) Rich. ex Walp.], Champa (Michelia champaca L.), clove and Katki are also offered to lord Vishnu, while flowers of Madar, Datura, Kachnar (Bauhinia variegata L.), banyan, Gular, Pakar (Ficus lacor Buch. -Ham.), and Kaner (Nerium indicum Mill.) are prohibited. All flowers, which are offered to Vishnu except Katki, are recommended for worshipping the deity. Aak (Calotropis procera Br.), datura that are prohibited in case of Vishnu are offered to lord Shiva. Bela, Kush, Patla (Ptereospermum suaveolens DC.), Kaner, Ashok, Tilak, Lodh, lotus, Maulsiri, Palash are offered to the deity, while Gunja (Abrus precatorius L.), Datura, Aparajita (Clitoria ternatea L.) and Tagar are prohibited. It may be appreciated that all flowers and other parts may not be available at all times.

Popular traditions / rites

During the fieldwork spread over 4 decades, numerous instances of faith and belief related to plants were observed and recorded. In most of Hindu homes one or more of the following rites can be easily witnessed: planting sacred basil in courtyard, applying sandalwood paste on forehead, applying turmeric paste and rice as a tilak or bindi on forehead, offering coconut to relatives at the time of departure, tying twigs of mango in a string and placing it at the main door of the house, placing new leaves of barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) on the ear during Dusshera, burning of incense (like guggul) before deities, breaking of coconut before the deities, offering betel leaves and nuts to visitors, and placing sacred basil leaf in the mouth of the dead.
Plants associated with festivals and social activities

Table 2Association of planets and plants



Surya (Sun)

Madar (Calotropis gigantea (L.) Br. ex Ait)

Chandrama (Moon)


Mangal (Mars)

Khair (Acacia catechu Willd.)

Budh (Mercury)


Brahaspati (Jupiter)


Shukra (Venus)

Gular (Ficus racemosa L.)

Shani (Saturn)

Shami (Prosopis cineraria L.) Druce.)

Rahu (Dragon's head)

Dub (Durva) (Cynodon dactylon Pers.)

Ketu (Dragon's Tail)

Kush (Desmostachya bipinnata (Stapf) Beauv.)

Table 3Plants associated with 27 constellations



Ashwani (Beta Arietis)

Kuchela ( Strychnos nux-vomica L.)

Bharani (41 Arietus)


Kratika (Etatauri Alcyone-2)


Rohini (Aldebaran)


Mrig-shira (Lambda orionis)


Ardra (Gamma)

Shesham (Dalbergia sisoo Roxb.)

Punarvasu (Beta Geminorium pollux)

Bamboo (Various spp.)


(Delta Cancri) Peepal

Ashlesha (Zeta Hydare)

Nagkesar (Mesua nagassarium (Burm.f.) Kost.)

Magha (Regulus/Roleonis)


Poorva Phalguni (Delta Leonis)


Uttar Phallguni (Denebala)


Hast (Delta Corvi)

Soap nut

Chitra (Virginis spica)


Swati (Alpha Bootis/Arcturus)


Vishakha (Alpha Librae)

Katai (Bilangra(Flacourtia ramontchi L'Herit)

Anuradha (Delta Scorpii)


Jyeshtha (Antares)

Cheer (Pinus roxbughiii Sarg.)

Mula (Lambada Scorpi)


Purvashadha (Delta sagittarii)

Jalmala (Salix tetrasperma Roxb.)

Uttarashadha (Sigma sagittavivi)

Kathal (Artocarpus heterophyllus Lamk.)

Shravana (Alpho Aquila/Altair)


Ghanishtha (Beta Dalphini)


Shatabhisha (Lambada Aquarii)


Poorva Bhadrapada(Beta pegasi/Markab)


Uttara Bhadrapada (Gamma Pegasi/Algenib)

Neem (Azadirachta indica Juss.)

Revati (Zeta piscium)


A large number of plants are associated with religious festivals like Durga Puja, Ganesh Chaturthi, Christmas, Ramzan, Yagyas and Havans13. Festivals of all faiths, various tribal or other ethnic groups provide abundant material for understanding the basis and criteria for using specific plants, and their impact on conservation. Associated with religious festivals is the social dimension of such activities, such as community dances, feasting, fasting and fairs. Plants used for wearing on body in headgear, or hairdo and in body ornamentation too have acquired the status of sacred. A few examples are, Jasminum spp, turmeric (Curcuma longa L.), sandalwood tree, orchid (Rhynchostylis retusa Blume), Crossandra [Crossandra infundibuliformis (L.) Nees.], mango (Mangifera indica L.), marigold (Tagetus erecta L.). Among Gonds, a twig of Apamarg kept on the roof of the dwelling facilitates birth. Bach (Acorus calamus L.) root is an essential ingredient of paste put on the tongue of the newborn, in many parts of India. Several dozen plants are associated with Hindu marriage, e.g. mango twigs, plantain, betel-leaf, sacred basil, munj stems, coconut, doob, turmeric, betel nut, rice and barley. Among different ethnic groups, cremation rites have been associated with specific plants. These are in addition to ingredients used for Havan or other rites. In many tribal societies, names of clans are based on some ancestral association with certain plants. The folk of the clan worship and protect that species as one of their elders14.

Divine medicinal plants

The large category of divine plants is based on the faith that ancient wise sages had discovered special curative properties bestowed by the creator to some plants for welfare of mankind, and several known medicinal applications are due to these gifts of God. Harar (Terminalia chebula Retz.) is medicinal; doob, kaitha and Jamun associated with Lord Ganesh are antidiabetic; sada-bahar (Catharanthus roseus (L.) Don.), planted around religious places is effective in leukaemia. Many such plants are seen in places of worship.
Plants in Vastu shastra

Certain plants associated with Vastu Shastra, are believed to be auspicious or inauspicious near dwellings or in particular locations. Banyan is considered lucky if planted in east of the house but unlucky if planted in the west; gular is auspicious in South of the house and inauspicious in North; pipal is auspicious in West of the house but inauspicious in East. Arjun (Terminalia arjuna Wight & Arn.) and maulshri are considered to be inauspicious if growing near dwellings, while neem is believed to keep ill luck away, so it is planted near dwellings.

Magico-religious beliefs

Certain beliefs of the people have been given religious touch to make them easily acceptable and popular. These beliefs relate to luck, health, prosperity, good harvest, easy childbirth and such other facts of human life. Some plants are believed to possess energies to enable people to profess or forecast events. A tilak on forehead or application in eyes as eye salve, e.g. Ud-salap (Paeonia emodi Wall. Ex Royle) and malkangni (Celastrus paniculatus Willd.) gives such power. Chewing Apamarg roots for 12 yrs gives power that anything spoken comes true. Among Gonds, Tikhur (Curcuma angustifolia Roxb.) is eaten on days of fast while Ramdana (Amaranthus caudatus L.), makhana (Euryale ferox Salisb.), kutu (Fagopyrum esculantum Moench.), and water chestnut (Trapa natans L.) are eaten in rural and urban places.

Conservation aspects

Many such beliefs lead to regulated exploitation and promote conservation. Tubers of Turhur (Dioscorea glabra Roxb.) are believed to be the food of rain Gods and digging them till the end of rains is a taboo among the Andamanese. Lodhas of West Bengal believe Bhut raj [Lygodium flexuosum (L.) Sw.] to be abode of Gods. In Assam, only mature rhizomes of tree fern [Angiopteris evecta (Forst.) Hoffm.] are allowed to be dug for eating. Gonds in Central India use wood of only fallen branches of Chironji for making the violin like musical instrument called, Kikir. Felling a tree or cutting a branch is not allowed. For edible fruit bearing trees, plucking only ripe fruits is allowed among several ethnic groups, eg. plantain (Musa balbisiana Colla) in Assam, mango among Gonds in Central India. Santhals do not allow cutting of a sal tree except on a full moon day and plucking fruits of jujube before March/April, i.e. till full seed setting for dispersal and prospect of regeneration. They also do not uproot Sankhapushpi plant till seed setting. Lodhas do not dig whole tuber of Melothria heterophylla; a part is left in ground for regeneration. Santhals peel Anola bark by rotation from all sides, to allow healing. Among Mikhir of Assam, cutting or damaging trees of banyan and pipal is as sinful as killing a saint. It is believed that cutting of trees after sunset or burning pipal wood in yagna can bring wrath in the form of sickness of children or other ill luck to the family. Some cures through touch therapy like passing certain twigs over body in case of fever, or wearing a garland of pieces of Bhuiaonla (Phyllanthus fraternus Webst.) in jaundice are practiced. Shisham is considered auspicious and contact with its wood is considered to be good for health.

According to Hindu Shastras (treatises), the one who plants one each of the pipal, neem and banyan, 10 tamarinds, 3 each of kaitha (Limonia acidissima L.), aonla & bel and five mango plants, saves himself from being sent to hell. Cutting trees of mahua (Madhuca longifolia), indrajau (Wrightia tinctoria) and palash in cremation grounds is a taboo. Many beliefs relating to plants directly suggest the objective of conservation. A very significant aspect of this is preservation of certain forest patches called sacred forests, locally called as devban and Law-lyndoh15-18. The role of communities in proper restoration and preservation of these samples of remnants of pristine forest cover in these regions has been highlighted18. Conservation of individual species through faith has also played significant role in controlling exploitation. A banyan tree near Bangalore and another along Narmada in Gujarat, and those of baobab (Adansonia digitata L.) near Ajmer (mangaliawas), and at Barabanki have attained fame as kalpvriksh Kalpavriksha tree, which is believed to fulfill all needs and desires of the believers.
Divine botany of future

The first step in this is an appeal for more exploration both of scriptures and of existing practices and beliefs. Intensive observations and analysis should reveal scientific basis of many elements of faith and belief. Such research will need coordinated efforts of scholars in botany, theology and ancient languages like Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, as the case may be. Simultaneously, faith could be put to a very useful practical work on conservation of individual species and sacred forest. Such studies have immense potential in different parts of the world, particularly among indigenous societies who have always been sincere custodians of tradition and heritage. A very potential area is the study of temple gardens, temple trees and establishment of gardens of Divine botany of various kinds. Garden of different faiths could be called as Tirthankara Vatika for Jain faith, a Bodhi Vatica for plants in Buddhist faith, a Guru Vatika for plants for Sikh faith, and so on. Such gardens will serve several objectives. Apart from being educative like any other botanical garden in a general sense, they will propagate the principles of faith, and promote conservation. There are still many aspects, like sacred plants, etc. where further research work are needed19-21.

Dynamism in Divine botany

Dynamism is the other dimension in Divine botany of future. Divine botany is not static or stagnant. To some degree, evolution in the subject is evident. Abundant material is available in Jain, Buddhist and Brahmanical texts and that information may throw light on many aspects such as when, why and how an indigenous plant species was divinized; when, why and how the species got associated with Indian gods and goddesses. One sees several references to exotic species, some of which are of recent introduction in India. Fixing precise date or period of introduction into India is possible for it. Exotics to which mention is found include shoe flower (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis L.), kaner, pomegranate (Punica granatum L.), and marigold. More studies will help in fixing with precision the identity of plants referred to in scriptures. Comparative studies regarding faith and divine aspects of various common plants in different faiths can be other new areas of further studies.


Authors are grateful to scholars whose work has been consulted or cited in the paper. The senior author (SKJ) is grateful to Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi for partial financial support through award of an INSA Honorary Scientist position. Thanks are due to Ms Sumita Srivastava for computer composing of the manuscript, and to Ms Shambhavi Misra for reading through the script, and useful suggestions.


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