Cubeer Burr, the Great Banyan Tree, and the Gymnosophists





 (painting of Cubeer Burr The Great Banyan Tree by James Phillips)

A famed Banyan tree called in India "Cubeer Burr" was found on an island in the river Nerbedda, "ten miles from the city of Baroach, in the province of Guzzurat, a flourishing settlement formerly in possession of the East India Company, but ceded by the government of Bengal at the treaty of peace concluded with the Mahrattas in 1783, to Mahadjee, a Mahratta chief.
 
_Cubeer Burr_ is famed throughout Hindostan for its prodigious extent,
antiquity and great beauty. The Indian armies often encamp around it; and,
at certain seasons, solemn Jattras or Hindoo festivals are held here, to
which thousands of votaries repair from various parts of the Mogul empire.
Seven thousand persons, it is said, may easily repose under its shade.
There is a tradition among the natives, that this tree is three thousand
years old; and there is great reason to believe it, and that it is this
amazing tree that Arrian describes when speaking of the gymosophists in
his book of Indian affairs. These people, he says, in summer wear no
clothing. In winter they enjoy the benefit of the sun's rays in the open
air; and in summer, when the heat becomes excessive, they pass their time
in moist and marshy places under large trees, which according to Nearchus,
cover a circumference of five acres, and extend their branches so far that
ten thousand men may easily find shelter under them" 
(from Cultus Arborum by Anonymous published privately in 1890, sourced from Project Gutenberg 

http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=2214966&pageno=14

The Banyan as Temple to the Gymnosophists
1825. — “Near this village was the finest banyan-tree which I had ever seen, literally a grove rising from a single primary stem, whose massive secondary trunks, with their straightness, orderly arrangement, and evident connexion with the parent stock, gave the general effect of a vast vegetable organ. The first impression which I felt on coming under its shade was, ‘What a noble place of worship!’” — Heber, ii. 93 (ed. 1844).
Kristen Szumyn in her article “The Barbarian wisdom of the ‘theoi andres’ : a study of the relationship between spatial marginality and social alterity” writes (after Clement of Alexandria): “Herodotus associates the possession of ‘wisdom’ (sophias) and ‘knowledge’ (philosopheon) with one who has extensively ‘travelled’ (planes) to foreign lands. Such a person is counted amongst the saphistai, the wise men or teachers. The Greek philosopher’s visit to foreign countries was a doxographical and biographical topos specifically associated with the attainment of wisdom. The philosophical and religious wisdom attained by such travellers was essentially ‘barbarian’. As Diogenes Laertius noted, the later Neoplatonic tradition held that ‘the study of philosophy had its beginning among the barbarians… the Persians have their Magi, the Babylonians or Assyrians their Chaldeans, and the Indians their Gymosophists; and among the Celts and Gauls there are the people called Druids or Holy Ones. These marginalised religious teachers and transmitters of spiritual wisdom are associated with the geographical and social periphery of society. This geographical marginality of the wise man is particularly evident in the Neoplatonic tradition of late antiquity; however this notion of the association between the sage and oriental or barbarian wisdom was a concept well established even in early Greek thought.”
Gymnosophists is the name (meaning “naked philosophers”) given by the Greeks to certain ancient Indian philosophers who pursued asceticism to the point of regarding food and clothing as detrimental to purity of thought (sadhus or yogis). 

The Digambar Jain monks in India even now remain unclothed; they have been identified as the gymnosophists by several researchers,.Xuanzang mentions having come across Digambar Jain monks in Taxila during his 7th century CE visit to India in the same Punjab region where Alexander encountered the gymnosophists.” (from wiki)
Plutartch wrote of Alexander’s meeting in the First Century with 10 Gymnosophists in the Punjab:

“He (Alexander) captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer, and then the rest, in an order determined in like manner; and he commanded one of them, the oldest, to be the judge in the contest. The first one, accordingly, being asked which, in his opinion, were more numerous, the living or the dead, said that the living were, since the dead no longer existed. The second, being asked whether the earth or the sea produced larger animals, said the earth did, since the sea was but a part of the earth. The third, being asked what animal was the most cunning, said: “That which up to this time man has not discovered.” The fourth, when asked why he had induced Sabbas to revolt, replied: “Because I wished him either to live nobly or to die nobly.” The fifth, being asked which, in his opinion, was older, day or night, replied: “Day, by one day”; and he added, upon the king expressing amazement, that hard questions must have hard answers. Passing on, then, to the sixth, Alexander asked how a man could be most loved; “If,” said the philosopher, “he is most powerful, and yet does not inspire fear.” Of the three remaining, he who was asked how one might become a god instead of man, replied: “By doing something which a man cannot do”; the one who was asked which was the stronger, life or death, answered: “Life, since it supports so many ills.” And the last, asked how long it were well for a man to live, answered: “Until he does not regard death as better than life.” So, then, turning to the judge, Alexander bade him give his opinion. The judge declared that they had answered one worse than another. “Well, then,” said Alexander, “thou shalt die first for giving such a verdict.” “That cannot be, O King,” said the judge, “unless thou falsely saidst that thou wouldst put to death first him who answered worst.” —Plutarch, Life of Alexander, “The parallel lives,” 64.,

A selection of references to the Banyan tree:
c. A.D. 70. — “First and foremost, there is a Fig — tree there (in India) which beareth very small and slender figges. The propertie of this Tree, is to plant and set it selfe without mans helpe. For it spreadeth out with mightie armes, and the lowest water-boughes underneath, do bend so downeward to the very earth, that they touch it againe, and lie upon it: whereby, within one years space they will take fast root in the ground, and put foorth a new Spring round about the Mother-tree: so as these braunches, thus growing, seeme like a traile or border of arbours most curiously and artificially made,” &c. — Plinies Nat. Historie, by Philemon Holland, i. 360.

1624.-
” … The goodly bole being got
To certain cubits’ height, from every side
The boughs decline, which, taking root afresh,
Spring up new boles, and these spring new, and newer,
Till the whole tree become a porticus,
Or arched arbour, able to receive
A numerous troop.”
Ben Jonson, Neptune’s Triumph.

c. 1650. — “Near to the City of Ormus was a Bannians tree, being the only tree that grew in the Island.” — Tavernier, Eng. Tr. i. 255.

1667.-
“The fig-tree, not that kind for fruit renown’d;
But such as at this day, to Indians known,
In Malabar or Decan spreads her arms
Branching so broad and long, that in the ground
The bended twigs take root, and daughters grow
About the mother-tree, a pillar’d shade
High over-arch’d, and echoing walks between. ” Paradise Lost, ix. 1101.

1691. — “About a (Dutch) mile from Gamron … stands a tree, heretofore described by Mandelslo and others… . Beside this tree is an idol temple where the Banyans do their worship.” — Valentijn, v. 267-8.

1717.-
“The fair descendants of thy sacred bed
Wide — branching o’er the Western World shall spread,
Like the fam’d Banian Tree, whose pliant shoot
To earth ward bending of itself takes root,
Till like their mother plant ten thousand stand
In verdant arches on the fertile land;
Beneath her shade the tawny Indians rove,
Or hunt at large through the wide-echoing grove.”
Tickell, Epistle from a Lady in England tò a Lady in Avignon.

1771. — “… being employed to con- struct a military work at the fort of Triplasore (afterwards called Marsden’s Bastion) it was necessary to cut down a banyan-tree which so incensed the brahmans of that place, that they found means to poison him” (i.e. Thomas Marsden of the Madras Engineers). — Mem. of W. Marsden, 7-8.

1810.-
“In the midst an aged Banian grew.
It was a goodly sight to see
That venerable tree,
For o’er the lawn, irregularly spread,
Fifty straight columns propt its lofty head;
And many a long depending shoot,
Seeking to strike its root,
Straight like a plummet grew towards the ground,
Some on the lower boughs which crost their way,
Fixing their bearded fibres, round and round,
With many a ring and wild contortion wound;
Some to the passing wind at times, with sway
Of gentle motion swung;
Others of younger growth, unmoved, were hung
Like stone-drops from the cavern’s fretted height.”
Southey, Curse of Kehama, xiii. 51. [Southey takes his account from Williamson, Orient. Field Sports, ii. 113.]

1834. — “Cast forth thy word into the everliving, everworking universe; it is a seed — grain that cannot die; unnoticed today, it will be found flourishing as a banyangrove — (perhaps alas! as a hemlock forest) after a thousand years.” — Sartor Resartus.

1856.-
“… its pendant branches, rooting in the air,
Yearn to the parent earth and grappling fast,
Grow up huge stems again, which shooting forth
In massy branches, these again despatch
Their drooping heralds, till a labyrinth
Of root and stem and branch commingling, forms
A great cathedral, aisled and choired in wood.”
The Banyan Tree, a Poem.

New Lamps for Old

%d bloggers like this: