The Bodhi Tree was a huge and antique variety of the peepal tree (scientific name ficus religiosa), located at the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya
(about 100 km from Patna in the Indian state of Bihar). Under this tree, Shakyamuni Buddha
(then known as Siddhartha Gautama), the religious teacher and founder of Buddhism achieved enlightenment about 2500 years ago. The tree is also known as the Bo or the Ashwattha tree and is worshipped by the Hindus, Jains as well as the Buddhists. One unique feature of the tree is its large and conspicuous heart shaped leaves.
Gautama had strictly practised asceticism for six years in the vicinity of the Niranjana river near Bodh Gaya. But when he realized that this asceticism was not leading to true consciousness, he stopped spending his life as an ascetic. When he came to the adjoining village of Senani (now also known as Sujata), he was served milk rice by a Brahmin
girl named Sujata.
Reinforced by this food, he took some kusha grass and used it as a mat to sit underneath the Pipal Tree (now called the Bodhi Tree) facing the east direction. He was resolute not to leave the place before gaining enlightenment in the true sense of the term. As he sat in profound contemplation, Maya
, the Lord of Illusion, representing the illusions that lie beneath every person`s mind, continuously endeavoured to distract him from reaching his goal. Gautama then took recourse to the earth, calling it to bear testimony to the innumerable good values that led him to this place of enlightenment. The earth trembled to authenticate the genuineness of his words. Although Maya let loose his army of devils on Gautama to divert and entice him from his purpose, he conquered the inner barriers and emerged a winner by transforming the demons` weapons into flowers by the power of his compassion. In the process his mind became entirely subdued. Even after the passage of seven days after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha continued with his meditation
without getting up. For two weeks more, the Buddha`s contemplation went on.
The term "Bodhi Tree" is also commonly used for presently existing trees, particularly the sacred Fig growing at the Mahabodhi Temple, which is probably a direct progeny of the initial variety. This tree is very often visited by pilgrims, and is the most important of the four consecrated sites of the Buddhists. Other hallowed Bodhi trees, which have a great importance in the history of Buddhism, are the Anandabodhi tree in Sravasti and the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura. While the Buddha was still alive, in order that the people might make their offerings in the name of the Buddha when he was away on pilgrimage, he certified the planting of a seed from the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya in front of the gateway of Jetavana Monastery near Sravasti. With this intention Moggallana took a fruit from the tree as it dropped from its stalk, before it arrived at the ground. Anathapindika placed it in a golden jar with great splendor and ceremony. A sap instantaneously sprouted forth, fifty cubits high, and in order to sanctify it the Buddha spent one night under it, rapt in contemplation. This tree, because it was planted under the supervision of Ananda, came to be recognized as the Ananda Bodhi. The current Bodhi Tree still carry out a very significant job for Buddhists of all traditions, being a reminder and an inspiration, an emblem of peace, of Buddhas` enlightenment and of the eventual prospective that lies within us all.
The tree finds mention in the `Kalingabodhi Jataka`, which gives a vivid narrative of the tree and the adjoining area before the enlightenment, and the `Asokavadana`, which relates the story of King Asoka`s (3rd century B.C) switch to Buddhism. His consequent worship under the revered tree angered his queen so much that she ordered the tree to be cut down. Ashoka then heaped up earth around the base and poured milk on its roots. The tree astonishingly rejuvenated and grew to a height of 37 metres. He then enclosed the tree within a three-meter high stone wall for its safety. In 600 AD, King Sesanka, an enthusiastic Shivaite, again destroyed the tree. But King Purnavarma planted another sapling in 620AD. At this time, during the yearly celebrations of Vaisakha, thousands of people from all over India would come to this place to smear the roots of the sanctified Bodhi Tree with fragrant water and perfumed milk, and to offer flowers and music. Hiuen T`sang, a traveller who recorded all the events wrote: "The tree stands inside a fort like structure surrounded on the south, west and north by a brick wall. It has pointed leaves of a bright green colour. Having opened a door, one could see a large trench in the shape of a basin. Devotees worship with curd, milk and perfumes such as sandalwood, camphor and so on." Long after this, the English archeologist Cunningham records, "In 1862 I found this tree very much decayed; one large stem to the westward with three branches was still green, but the other branches were barkless and rotten. I next saw the tree in 1871 and again in 1875, when it had become completely decayed, and shortly afterwards in 1876 the only remaining portion of the tree fell over the west wall during a storm, and the old pipal tree was gone. Many seeds, however, had been collected and the young scion of the parent tree were already in existence to take its place."