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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2583

The World’s Most Respected Tree

By PLN de Silva

"A young wife is poison to an old husband," says a Sanskrit proverb. King Asoka overlooked the gravity of this saying. Chinese records say that Tisyaraksita, the young queen of King Asoka, was proud of her undoubted beauty. However, she wasn’t a disciplined woman.

King Asoka had a son by a senior wife. The son was about 25 years old and possessed a pair of attractive eyes like those of a Kunala bird. Therefore this prince was called Kunala. One day the beautiful young queen Tisyaraksita met Kunala alone in the palace and being infatuated, embraced him. Prince Kunala was shocked and escaped from her embrace and rejecting outright her advances said "You are my father’s wife. Are you not ashamed to behave in this manner?" The young queen threatened him saying "as long as you don’t desire me, you will soon cease to exist, you fool!" Thereafter, she waited for an opportunity to take revenge on the prince for rejecting her...

There was another aspect to Tisyaraksita’s character. She is perhaps the only woman in recorded history that was jealous of a tree because of her husband’s adoration for that tree.

When King Asoka returned from a pilgrimage, with Thera Upagupta, he donated a hundred thousand cash to each of the most important four sacred places connected with the life of the Buddha - The place of his birth, place of his enlightenment, the place of his first sermon and the place where the Buddha attained parinirvana. Then whatever the jewels of special quality he had, he sent to the Bodhi Tree. Divyadana says, “This thought occurred to the queen. The king enjoys sensual pleasure with me but sends jewels of special quality to the Bodhi Tree.”

Young queen Tisyaraksita took action. She conspired with a woman who had been outcast and made the Bodhi tree withers, a sign that the tree would die. She must have used some poison. The Sri Lankan records say that she got the tree cut. When King Asoka heard of the destruction of his beloved Bodhi Tree, he fainted and later cried. The young queen had told him "Don’t cry. If the Bodhi Tree is not there, I will give you sensual pleasure." The King had retorted "That is not a woman. It is the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment."

Subsequently, a sapling must have been planted in that place because it is unlikely that the King would have kept that place without a Bodhi Tree. It is clear that in India, the original Bodhi Tree was lost forever. The existing Bodhi Tree at Buddhagaya is there because of the compassionate intelligence of the 19th century British Archaeologist, Dr. Marshall.

Fortunately for Buddhists, 18 years after the consecration of King Asoka, theri Sanagamitta, King Asoka’s daughter came to Sri Lanka with a southern branch of the original Bodhi tree at Buddhagaya. Theri Sangamitta and the southern branch of the original Bodhi Tree were received with great veneration by the Royal court in Anuradhapura. There are unbroken records of royal patronage given to protect the Bodhi Tree established in Anuradhapura. Further, there are many books both in Pali and Sinhalese literature written on the history of the Bodhi Tree in Sri Lanka. The descendants of the original custodians are living even today.

According to the history of the Bodhi Tree, real danger to its existence occurred only when the terrorist Prabhakaran sent his men to attack the sacred city of Anuradhapura and the worshippers at the Bodhi Tree in 1985. The terrorists shot at the worshippers but they could not destroy the tree. However, Prabhakaran’s men were able to kill some innocent devotees (old women). Minister Athulathmudali declared a few months later that every member of the terrorist group that shot at the Bodhi Tree was destroyed by the army.

It is said that the Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura is the oldest and the most documented and respected tree in the world. In time the Bodhi Tree became a symbol of political power for the Sinhalese kings. This position remained till the arrival of the Tooth Relic which became the symbol of kingship in Sri Lanka. This fact has been exhaustively documented throughout our history till the British times.

The Bodhi Tree at Buddhagaya was destroyed by the young queen Tisyaraksita in the 34th year after the consecration of King Asoka. I.e. 3 years before old king Asoka died.

The Southern branch of the Bodhi Tree was brought to Sri Lanka by the theri Sangamitta in the 18th year after the consecration of King Asoka. Therefore the original tree was destroyed about 15 years after theri Sangamitta brought the southern Branch of the Bodhi Tree to Sri Lanka. Hence it is clear that the Anuradhapura Bodhi Tree is the only genuine Bodhi Tree existing in the world because according to the above facts the Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura was brought to Sri Lanka long before the original Bodhi Tree was destroyed forever.

Historians say that a few hundred years after the death of King Asoka the Great, Indians forgot completely that one of the greatest kings who ever lived ruled India. There is nothing in their records regarding King Asoka. After centuries of neglect the jungle overtook the complex of buildings constructed by King Asoka for the Bodhi Tree. The full story of Great King Asoka was reconstructed by historians with the help of Sri Lankan Records.

However in recent years the Indian Government has restored as much as possible of the full complex of historical buildings associated with the life of the Buddha. Today, the Archaeological Department of India has taken comprehensive action to conserve places sacred to the Buddhists. The Indian Government has identified almost all places connected with the life of the Buddha, a service for which the Buddhists of the world should be grateful.

Action to discover the sacred places of the Buddhists was initiated by Prof. Marshall who was the Commissioner of Archaeology in India. After assuming his duties as commissioner, he was interested in discovering the place where the Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment.

He felt that the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment should be made available to the Buddhists of the world. He tried his best to find the place and failed because no one in India knew where it was. However, in the course of time, he was able to discover the site of the Bodhi Tree with the assistance of the records left by the famous Chinese traveller Fa-Hsien. Fa-Hsien had left a perfect description of the buildings at the Bodhi Tree he had seen. He had even given the exact distance from one building to another at the site. The Chinese records helped Dr Marshall immensely to identify all the buildings at the Sri Maha Bodhi site.

Having restored the buildings he could not find any trace of the Bodhi Tree. Prof.Marshall was a considerate man. He decided to give a Bodhi Tree at the Buddhagaya to the Buddhists of the world who would come there for worship and also would be disappointed if they could not see a Bodhi Tree there. He knew the history of the Bodhi Tree and realised that the original Bodhi Tree flourished as a clone extension at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. He knew that the southern section of the original Bodhi Tree was brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC and that it had been preserved by the highest authorities in Sri Lanka throughout history. Therefore he came to Sri Lanka and obtained a Bo-sapling from the Sri Maha Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura and he planted this Bo- sapling at the same site of the original tree at Buddhagaya. That sapling is today a huge Bodhi Tree.

This fascinating story of the Bodhi Tree is not generally known by many people. It is not known as to how the Commissioner of Archaeology, a British Officer, was able to foresee that millions of Buddhists would visit Buddhagaya in the future. He took action the best possible way to provide for all Buddhists an authentic Bodhi Tree at Buddhagaya. The Bodhi Tree was protected and venerated during the time of King Asoka. In fact it suffered from excessive veneration during this time. That affection for the Bodhi Tree in the mind and heart of King Asoka created jealousy in the heart and mind of his young wife to such an extent that she got the Bodhi Tree destroyed. Nowhere in history do we come across a similar incident where a wife becomes jealous because of her husband’s affection for a tree.

A few years after the destruction of the Bodhi Tree, the young queen who was responsible for it was found guilty of blinding the son of King Asoka named Kunala. She was condemned to death for this crime. The vicious young queen of King Asoka finally received her punishment for the heinous crime of destroying the sacred Bodhi tree as well.

Sri Lankans from all over Sri Lanka visit Anuradhapura to make vows at the foot of the Bodhi Tree. The writer of this article has met hundreds of people who had come to Anuradhapura to fulfill their vows with the belief that their requests had been granted. That is the power that the Bodhi Tree exercises over the Sri Lankan Buddhists, even today.

References:

1. Asoka, a definitive Biography by Dr. A. W. P. Guruge
2. Translation of Mahavamsa by Dr. W. Geiger
3. Reports by Dr. Marshall
4. Unpublished lecture by Dr. H.S.S. Nissanka

PLN de Silva - The writer is a retired senior civil servant

- Asian Tribune -

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