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Concepts of Botany in Vedic India

~ Arpit Das

दशकूपसमा वापी दशवापीसमो ह्रदः ।

दशह्रदसमः पुत्रो दशपुत्रसमो द्रुमः ॥

Building a pond is equal to building ten wells, building a reservoir equal to building ten ponds,Having a son equal to having the resources of ten ponds, but having a tree is equal to ten sons! Matsya Purana 154:512

Importance of Plants in Rituals and Vedas

With the advancement of plant sciences in the modern era along with its ancillary subjects, a curious mind must have thought it at least once – What was the scenario of Botanical research and development in the bygone era of India? Since India was among the most industrialized nations, were there scientists who explored, investigated and penned down crucial aspects of their study for further elaboration as well as the welfare and development of the world?

The Mehrgarh and Sindhu-Sarasvati civilization are the oldest orders of traceable acculturation that happened on this land nearly 9000 years before the advent of Christ. [Coppa, 2006] In those cultures, agriculture was the central aspect of development and people cropped many vital plants like wheat (Triticum aestivum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), millets (Pennisetum glaucum), dates (Phoenix dactylafera), melon (Cucumis melo) and cotton (Gossypium arboreum). They also knew the medicinal, cosmetic and commercial value of some plants like Bel (Aegle marmelos), Devdar (Cedrus deodara), Poppy (Papaver somniferum), Neem (Azadirachta indica), Gooseberry (Emblica officinalis), etc. [Patkar, 2008].

However, the intricate advancement of plant sciences started in the successive Vedic period in India which began at around 3000 BC. We find mention of many trees in the Rigveda like the Soma Vanraj (Sarcostemma acidum) used primarily for religious and meditational purposes, Asvattha (Ficus religiosa) used for carving out utensils and barked clothes, Sami (Prosopis cineraria) which was used to make Arani or fire-kindling equipment, Arka (Calotropis procera) which was used to make household materials, etc. Details of other trees and their usages find their mention in the Atharvaveda, Medinighantu, Amarkosh, Charak Samhita, Bela Samhita and many more, however, the officially accepted father of Vedic Botany is said to be Parashara muni (around 3050 BC) who composed the encyclopedic work ‘Vriksha Ayurveda’ which was penned down later around 400 BC by Salihotra. [Ramcharan, 1984].

What are 4 Vedas of Hinduism?

Vriksha Ayurveda is a giant work consisting of twelve chapters namely: Bhumi nirupana (Classification of Soil and its tillage), Bijoptivithi (Grading and preservation of seeds), Padapavivaksa (Physiology of Trees), Ropana vidhana (Methodologies of planting including cutting and grafting), Nishacanavidhi (Irrigation), Posana vidhi (Plant nutrition and fertilization), Drumaraksa (Ecology and forest conservation), Taru Cikitsa (Plant pathology), Upavanakriya (Management), Nivasasanna taru Subhasubha Laksana (Directional science), Taru Mahima (Glorification) and Citrikarana (Anatomy and Morphological manipulations). A comparison between the modern techniques and the ones mentioned in Vriksha Ayurveda stuns scientists to this very day. Apart from this, many medicinal and agricultural aspects of plants are found to be written down in various supplements like the Agni Puran, Brhad Samhita, Udarkargalam, Krishisangrah, etc.

Theophrastus (372-287 BC) tours plant morphology including leaves, flowers, catkins, fruits, seeds, roots and wood in his Historia Plantarum which is comparable to the work of Parashara, wherein he extensively speaks about the various parts of a plant namely – Patra (leaf), puspa (flowers), Phala (fruits), Mula (root), Tvak (bark), Kanda (stem), Sara (heart-wood), Svarasa (sap), Niryasa (exudation), Kantaka (spines),  Vija (seed), and Praroha (shoot) [cf. Vishnu Puran Ch.7].

Parashara also mentions about various types of roots, venation of leaves, types of cotyledons and many more related concepts. Apart from this, the Atharva Veda classifies eight types of growth habits of trees which include: Visakha (spreading branches), Manjari (leaves with long clusters), Sthambini (bushy plants), Prastanavati (which expands), Ekasrnga (those with monopodial growth), Pratanavati (creeping plants), Amsumati (with many stalks), Kandini (plants with knotty joints). Later Manu (1250 BC) classified plants into Aushadhis (Annuals), Vanaspatis (Gymnosperms), Vrikshas (Angiosperms), Guccha (Shrubs), Gulma (Succulents), Trina (Grasses), Pratnas (Creepers) and Vallari (Climbers). This taxonomical work was further taken care of by the contemporaries and disciples of Sushruta (300 BC – 7 CE). There are some other Sanskrit words for modern botanical terms like Prashava bandhan for pedicel, Puspacchada jalaka (calyx), Puspadala (corolla), Kesara (androecium), Paraga (pollen) and Varataka (pistil) which indicate us of some anatomical studies going on around the period. Some examples about inflorescences are also present in ancient texts like Manjari (racemose inflorescences), Guccaka (cymose inflorescences), Srihastini (helicoid cyme), Chatra (umbellate), etc.

One of the most significant discoveries of Parashara is his rough yet brilliant description of the cell structure given millennia before Robert Hook. He writes that the internal structure of the plant cell has multiple compartments, and a significant portion being covered in sap. He names this structure as Rasashraya or ‘Sap storehouse’, which we now know as the vacoule. He describes the prominent cell wall as Kalavestana and the cytoplasm as Kalaladupajayate. As per the knowledge of his times, he describes the structure as having five elemental principles along with a coloring principle called Ranjakayukta, guessed by modern botanists as a reference to plastids. In his quest for anatomical knowledge, Parashara describes the xylem and phloem as Syandana and Sirajala, and asserts correctly of their role in carrying Jal from Bhumi to the upper parts and redistribution of Ras from leaves to the rest of the plant respectively. Some anatomical references are also found in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad which describes the five regions present in a plant: Tvak (skin or bark), Mamsa (soft tissues); Asthi (phloem), Majja (pith), and Snayu (xylem and sclerenchyma).

From Mehrgarh till the late Vedic civilization, plant pathology has been a field of uninterrupted study. Although Agni Puran and Vrikshayurveda give a lot of information, the work of Varahmira (505 CE) named Brhat Samhita stands out. Varahmira enlists many signs of the diseased conditions of plants which include chlorosis of leaves (Panduri patra), stunted growth of buds and/or branches (Pravalanam), necrosis (Shakhasosha), sap exudation (Rasasruti), fruitlessness (Phalavrodh), etc. Many associated reasons are also provided like low temperature (shita), dryness, excessive heat (grishm), intermingling with parasitic plants, salination and low nutrient soil. The treatment has to done by application of manures such as Kunapajala which was made up of gooseberry, rice, milk, cow-urine, cow dung, and carcasses of goats, fish, and swine, rooting out of weeds and parasitic plants, spraying decoctions of neem and turmeric, etc.

Various Ancient books related to Botany

The author also mentions the treatment of seeds with Panchgavya before sowingand tells us that the treatment of seeds with cow-urine has shown early germination. Surprisingly, the treatment not only has some significant effect in early seed germination but also results in the maximization of leaf area in the seedlings! [Beaulah, 2001; Vanangamudi, 2003]. Some research on plant heredity was also done by him.

Since the sages of this land realized and believed in the unified consciousness of the universe much before David Bohm and Pim van Lommel, they considered plants to be a part of the energy-matter continuum and therefore possessing consciousness. Mahabharat Shanti Parva deals extensively on the behavior of plants like osmosis, transpiration, and photosynthesis, and attributes the sense of touch, hear, etc. to them [184.13-18].

Physiologist Gunaratna, in his Saddarsana-samuccaya, enumerates different characteristics of life in plants: (1) the plant passes through three stages of infancy, youth and age; (2) they have regular growth; (3) their various kinds of movement are conditioned by sleep, walking, response to touch or need for support; (4) plants deal with wounds and laceration sustained by their organs and make use of drugs to overcome wounds as well as diseases; (5) assimilation of food from the soil is determined by requirements of plans for growth; (6) recovery from wounds and diseases by the application of drugs; (7) dryness or the opposite due to sap; and (8) special food favorable for impregnation. Charak says, “The consciousness in the trees can be understood by observing that they orient themselves according to the movement of the sun” to which Manu adds, “Trees are rendered immobile given to their nature of birth yet they are conscious and experience joys & sorrows.” It is indeed incredible that in 1901, Indian biophysicist Dr. J.C. Bose gave some great evidence to back up this fact, and the current scientists are favorably disposed towards this viewpoint.

The extent to which our scientific ancestors researched into the mysteries of nature is beyond the scope of this article but its precis illuminates us of their philomathic nature – even in the field of Botany. Far away from ignorant superstitions, we observe their industriousness towards practical utility and the meaningful embellishment of life.

Their mental attitude and sattvic consciousness urge us to take up three important life lessons – (1) The pursuit of spirituality is not independent of the pursuit of scientific learning, but rather is intertwined. (2) Analysis of nature should be holistic and sustainable instead of dominantly anthropogenic. (3) Inputs from the past have to be expanded further with more experimentation for a better understanding of life. With these points in their minds, our rishis burgeoned on both the material and the spiritual fronts, paving the path for us to do the same and inspire others!

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