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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Beltalāy - under the Bilva tree......

This is a picture of the Bael or Bilva-tree under which Sādhu Bābā delivered his powerful sermons in his ashram in Prāchīn Māyāpur, Navadwip, and with whose leaves and flowers he cured his followers' ailments. Lord Shiva lives under a Bilva- or Bael tree too.

The following description of Bilva is from

Bilva – Lord Shiva’s Tree
Swami Vibhooti Saraswati
lakṣmyāś ca stana utpannam 
mahādeva sadā priyam,
bilva vṛkṣam prayacchāmi 
eka bilvaṁ śivārpanam

darśanaṁ bilva vṛkṣasya
sparśanaṁ pāpa-nāśanam
aghora pāpa saṁhāram 
eka bilvaṁ śivārpanam.

"Born from the breasts of Goddess Lakshmi, the Bilva tree is ever dear to Mahadeva. So I ask this tree to offer a Bilva leaf to Lord Shiva. To have darshan of the Bilva tree, and to touch it, frees one from sin. The most terrible karma is destroyed when a Bilva leaf is offered to Lord Shiva." - Śrī Bilvāṣṭakam (v. 6–7)

Indians believe that the knowledge of medicinal plants is older than history itself, that it was gifted hundreds of thousands of years ago to the original inhabitants by Brahma, the divine creator himself. Thus when the sages of the Ayurveda sought to heal human suffering, they were able to draw on knowledge that had already been evolving for millennia in the forests of India. One tree about which they had a very deep knowledge was the Bilva tree. The science of Ayurveda values the Bilva highly for the medicinal properties contained in its root, fruit and leaves. According to Swami Sivananda, it is a healing tree which cures all diseases caused by vata (wind) and gives strength to the body.

About the Bilva tree
The Bilva tree grows in almost all parts of India, irrespective of the nature of the soil, and is bitter, astringent and dry by nature. Tall and austere, with a stern aspect, gnarled trunk and sharp thorns, the Bilva is undoubtedly Lord Shiva’s tree. Shiva is always worshipped with its leaves, and it is said that this tree is much loved by him. It is to be found in all Shiva temples throughout India. The Bilva is also found in Devi temples, where it is worshipped. At midnight, on the evening before Durga and Kali pooja (worship), a tantric ritual called Bel Varan is performed with the appropriate mantras. A particular energy is taken from the tree and placed in a kalash (pot). This energy is then transferred to the statue of Durga or Kali to charge or empower it for the coming pooja. The process is called prana pratishtha, the establishing of the life force in the statue. When the pooja is over, the energy is released, a process called visarjan. The English name for Bilva is Bael, also called ‘stone apple’ as its rather large fruit is like pale yellow suns when ripe. The Hindi appellation is Bel or Bael Sripal. In Sanskrit it is also called Bilva or Sriphal. The botanical name for this tree is Aegle Marmelops, and it belongs to the Rutaceae family. In the Atharva Veda it is described as being so sacred that its wood may not be burned for fuel. It is still worshipped today as a totemic deity by the Santhal tribes in India.

Medicinal properties
The fruit has a hard wood-like rind, which is pale green when unripe, turning pale yellow to brown as it ripens. Its pale tawny flesh is sweet and astringent, containing tannin, which acts as an astringent to the bowels. It has a pleasant, agreeable and aromatic flavour, and provides an excellent dietary supplement. This fruit contains gums, vegetable acid and a very small quantity of sugar. It also contains white seeds and a tenacious transparent gel. The pulp of the dried Bilva fruit, powdered and mixed with arrowroot, is called ‘dietetic Bel’. It is both a sustaining food and a curative medicine, and is traditionally called by Indians ‘the fruit of plenty’. Puranic legend calls it ‘the breasts of the goddess of plenty’. The unripe fruit is roasted with a covering of mud, and the softened pulp mixed with water and sugar or buttermilk. It is more medicinal than the ripe fruit, particularly if dried in the sun. According to Swami Sivananda, “This is highly beneficial in sub-acute and chronic dysentery or diarrhoea, and is particularly useful in irregularity of bowels in children, because it acts as a mild stimulant to the intestinal mucus membrane and therefore stops diarrhoea, acting as a laxative when there is constipation. The unripe fruit cures excess vata and kapha, indigestion, stomach ache and dyspepsia.” A confection is made out of the pulp with amrita and honey, which stops vomiting. The half-ripe fruit is astringent, digestive and anti-diarrhoeal; it binds the bowels. The ripe fruit acts as a laxative, and is aromatic and cooling. The juice is an appetiser and blood purifier.

The leaves.
The dark trifoliate leaves symbolize the three eyes of Lord Shiva, and contain a small percentage of Shiva’s alchemical substance – mercury. These leaves have a very pleasant aroma, are used in the worship of both Shiva and Devi, and form an essential ingredient in tantric rituals. It is said that offerings of water sprinkled on these leaves at any shrine will always remain fresh. Sri Bilvāṣṭakam (v. 5) states, ‘

dāntī koṭi sahasrāni 
aśvamedhaṣṭāni ca
koṭi kanyā mahā-dānam 
eka bilvaṁ śivārpanam’

“Donating a thousand elephants, and horses, and giving daan (offering) of crores of kanyas (virgin girls) is equivalent to offering one Bilva leaf to Lord Shiva.”

The consumption of Bilva leaves alleviates diseases caused by excess vata and kapha (mucus). They are also useful in diabetes mellitus. For this a few leaves should be chewed daily and their fresh juice drunk. They are diaphoretic (producing more perspiration), thus reducing temperature and lowering fevers, and an aphrodisiac. A decoction of leaves is a favourite remedy for ailments that often occur during seasonal changes, such as fever, flu and fatigue. There are sadhus who sustain themselves on Bilva leaves alone. According to Swami Sivananda, “The fresh juice of the leaves is given with the addition of black pepper in cases of jaundice, and when diluted with water or honey, this is highly praised remedy in catarrh and feverishness.” The root is the most important part of the tree medicinally, after removing the outer skin. A preparation made from the root with ginger and toasted rice cures vomiting. For the treatment of piles, dysentery and diarrhoea, a preparation is made from the root mixed with the tuberous root of Padha. The oil extracted from the Bilva root, boiled with the juice of Bilva leaves and applied to the head is excellent for nasal catarrh and diseases of the ear. The confection Vilvadi Lehiam is also made from this root. The flowers cure diarrhoea, vomiting and thirst, while the gum of the inside pulp of the fruit is an aphrodisiac (kama-vardhani).

The Bilva tree in the Shiva Purana
According to the Shiva Purana the Bilva tree is the manifest form of Lord Shiva himself, while all the great tirthas (pilgrimage places) are said to reside at its base. One who worships the shivalingam while sitting under the Bilva, claims this great epic, attains the state of Shiva. Washing the head by this tree is said to be the equivalent of bathing in all the sacred rivers. One who performs Bilva pooja with flowers and incense achieves Shiva loka, the abode of pure consciousness, and has happiness and prosperity bestowed upon them. The lighting of the deepak (lamp) before this tree bestows knowledge and enables the devotee to merge in Lord Shiva. The Shiva Purana also claims that if the devotee removes the new leaves from one of the branches of that tree and worships the tree with them, they will be freed from vice, while one who feeds a devotee under the Bilva will grow in virtue.

The hunter and the Bilva tree
The Shiva Purana also relates the following story or myth. Once there was a cruel-hearted hunter by the name of Gurudruh who lived in the lonely forest. On the auspicious day of Maha Shivaratri he had to go out hunting because his family had nothing to eat. Maha Shivaratri (the great night of Shiva) is the most sacred time for fasts, prayers and offerings, when even the most involuntary acts, if pleasing to Lord Shiva, are made holy. By sunset Gurudruh had not been successful in the hunt. Coming to a lake, he climbed a tree and waited for some unsuspecting animal to come and drink. He did not notice that the tree he had climbed was the Bilva tree. Neither did he notice the shivalingam beneath it, nor the water pot hanging in the branch just above it. After some time a gentle deer came to quench her thirst, and Gurudruh prepared to shoot. As he drew his bow, he accidentally knocked the water pot hanging in the tree and some water fell down on the shivalingam beneath, along with a few Bilva leaves. Thus, unknowingly and unwittingly, Gurudruh had worshipped Shiva in the first quarter of the night. As a result his heart was a little purified by this act performed on such an auspicious night. Meanwhile the deer, startled by the movement in the tree, looked up and saw the hunter about to release his arrow. “Please do not kill me just yet,” pleaded the deer. “I must first take care of my children, and then I will return to be food for your family.” The hunter, whose heart had been softened a little by the accidental worship, on noticing the beauty of the deer, let her go on condition that she would return on the morrow to give her body as food for his family. Later that same night, the sister of the deer came looking for her. Once more the hunter took aim and once more, without his being aware, the water and the Bilva leaves fell down upon the shivalingam. Again, unknowingly, the hunter had worshipped Shiva in the second quarter of the night. The effect of this was that Gurudruh’s heart was further purified. His pranas softened a little more, and he allowed this animal to also go and tend to its young, provided it returned the next day to provide him and his family with food. In the third quarter of the night, the mate of the first deer came in search of her, and again the strange worship took place as the hunter took aim for the third time. But the hunter’s heart was beginning to melt due to the worship, and he let the deer’s mate go also for the same reason and under the same conditions. Later when the three deer met together, they discussed who should go and offer themselves for the hunter’s food. Even the children offered to give their lives. Finally the whole family decided to surrender to the hunter together, for none of them could bear to live without the others. Thus they set off towards the lake with heavy hearts. When they arrived at the Bilva tree, Gurudruh was very pleased and relieved to see them, and he immediately prepared for the kill. He took aim for the fourth time, but in the same accidental manner as before, worship in the fourth quarter of the night took place unknown to him. This final action of Gurudruh brought about a complete change of heart and, as he was about to release the first arrow, his heart overflowed with pity for the innocent deer. Tears filled his eyes at the thought of all the animals he had killed in the past, and slowly he lowered his bow. Greatly moved by the selfless action of these animals, he felt ashamed and allowed the whole family of deer to leave unharmed. Such is the purity and spiritual power of the Bilva tree that, even without his knowledge or conscious effort, the cruel-hearted hunter had been transformed into a man of compassion and understanding, and was delivered from his past bad karma by the grace of Shiva and the Bilva tree."

I do believe western Vaiṣṇavas must study these things and not reject them as 'demigod worship' since we don't really know anything yet about Hinduism, not even after 30 or 40 years of practise. It will not compromise the exclusivity of our Radha-Kṛṣṇa worship at all. It needs to be known in general, and in particular for Radha-Kṛṣṇa worship also, because so many stories about different gods are mentioned in Gaudiya Vaiṣṇava literature that we often don't know anything about due to our lack of Vedic/Hindu upbringing.


  1. Hare Krishna

    My dear friend Advaita dasji

    This time I have to disagree with you.

    I do not want to be a Hindu; I just want to try to be Krishna conscious.

    I know a few Indians here in Melbourne . One Indian I know coverted to christianity precisely because of what she termed "worship of many deities" in her country.

    I believe, worship of demigods, godesses are a distraction to our supposed exclusive worship of the divine couple and their associates.

    The Gita is clear on that- Chap. 7. And in Vilaskunja, from an excerpt from his Bhakti sandarbha lecture, Sri Ananta das Babaji Maharaj gave a simple yet to the point explanation.

    Kind regards

  2. Dear Malati,
    Please carefully read the final paragraph of the blog, which I wrote personally. I said there that nothing will and can break my nistha in the service and meditation of Radha Madangopal, and I have not said anywhere that one should surrender to 'demigods'. As I hope you know, Shiva is not a demigod and to think he is different from Vishnu is the 2nd offence to the chanting of the holy name of Krishna. Also at Vilaskunja, my dear old friend Madanmohan explained (that post of his partially inspired me to write the final paragraph) that knowledge of the elements and demigods is even required to understand Astakaliya lila, quoting the example of Arun. I found out the story of Arun only in 2000, 16 years after I first translated the reference to him in Govinda Lilamrita's first chapter. Just see our disadvantage! It would be interesting to make a study of all the details of basic Vedic knowledge most of us still lack even to enter into astakaliya lila, let alone general knowledge of the religion we have been devoted to, for sometimes decades.

  3. BTW The story of the Hunter and the Bilva tree, quoted in the blog, I first heard from Sri Vaishnava Pada Das babaji, one of the leading Gaudiya Vaishnava monks of Radhakund, in February 2002 in the Syamasundara Mandira.
    Certainly not a 'demigod worshipper'....

  4. Dandavats,
    hope all is well !

    I come across many names of personalities and things that are unknown to me. Indeed, the history of many of the Gods is one of them. And Their relation to the One Supreme God is another.

    When searching for some background information I usually end up reading masses of contradictionary literatures and articles. Very time-consuming and it doesn't make things clearer to me. Expansions, semi-avatars, incarnations, this god is a jiva, that god is an expansion of God, another is reffered to as both. At different times at differerent places emphasize is put on a different god, then it is all harmonized, then divided again.
    These are the moments I feel more christian then hindu. I feel attracted to vaisnavism, because of its clear theology. I do not feel attracted to general hinduïsm.

    You are right that many westerners like me just skip the whole subject, because it reminds them of Zeus, Athens, Mercurios and Jupiter. Something of an archaïc past.

    But you are right in your approach. So I appreciate you explaining it in a palatable way. I like to know more about Siva and His relation to our vaisnava theology. This is what particularly interests me......
    Who is Shiva ? What is He ?
    How does He relates to us, Gaudiya Vainavas ? His wife is Maya-Devi, Maya-Devi is an expansion of Yogamaya, Who guides the lila in the spiritual world. Yogamaya is Krishna's. What is the relationship between Radha and Yogamaya. Maya-devi and Yogamaya and Krishna and Radha. And how do They relate to Shiva ?

    Anyway, you are the right person to devote some articles to Shivaji.

  5. This may become a lengthy discussion and I am all ready for it, but let me first say that this blog is actually very personal. It is about a place and a person that mean a lot to me, so others may not really be able to gauge that, no offence taken and no offence meant. Another reason why I blogged this is that I realise how far we are away still from just the basic knowledge about this religion and this culture, though we consider ourselves 'senior devotees' etc., big big white Gurus, while we dont know things that the urchins of India naturally know....

  6. This Place and Person is dear to all of us.

    I am also curious about The relation between Sri Radha and Yogamaya. This is definitly not general hinduïsm. And you are free to answer or not answer in your own time, since everything concerning Her is confidential to begin with.

  7. Allright, briefly: starting with Yogamaya - in Gaura lila she is Sita devi, who manages all of Gaura lila and who is the spouse of Advaita Acarya, gaura ana thakur, the Lord who invoked Mahaprabhu's descent and without Whom there would be no Mahaprabhu. And without Mahaprabhu we lowly outcastes would never have heard of premabhakti or manjari bhava. Now I dont say that everyone should start worshipping Durga as a result, but to be careful in dismissing 'demigods' still.
    In Krishnalila Yogamaya is Paurnamasi, without whom - again - there will be no Krishna lila. It is Yogamaya alone who bewilders the gopis' shasuris and patis in such a way that they can meet Krishna.

  8. Thank you.

    If their is a relation with Krishna indeed we are not really talking about demigods, but Vaisnavas and Associates. Maybe the reason I sometimes get confused is because Their role in the material world is soo much emphasized that we forget Their link with the spiritual world.

    Especially in the case of Maya-devi and Shiva I need to be more carefull and my viewpoint needs to become more nuanced, I guess.

    It is interesting to devote more time to this subject since we are clearly under Their influence somehow or the other. Better to know how to relate to Them and Their different, sometimes seemingly contradictory, aspects.

    Especially travelling through India one cannot but be confronted with Shiva, Durga and Their worshippers.

  9. The verses in the Bhagavad Gita condemn demigod worship because they are approached for selfish gain - kamais tais tair hrta jnana prapadyante'nyadevata (7.20). On the other hand Rupa Gosvami says anya devan avajna ca (BRS 1.2.81), "one should not disrespect the devatas". The conclusion is easy - one should respect them but not worship them. That is ekanta krishna bhakti. The gopis worshippped Katyayani to get Krishna as a husband and they worship Surya to get an excuse to meet Krishna. To make his preaching of ekanta Krishna bhakti easier, ACBS called Shiva a demigod, but the truth is not that simple - in fact the 2nd offence to the chanting of the holy name is to consider the names and attributes of Shiva to be different from those of Vishnu. Without Shiva (Advaita) there would be no Mahaprabhu, and without Mahaprabhu we westerners wouldnt even KNOW about demigods, let alone that we could reject them. There is no paradox however - the devatas are pleased when we surrender to Krishna. Shiva tells Parvati: aradhananam sarvesam visnor aradhanam param - 'Of all types of worship, the worship of Vishnu is supreme."

  10. At midnight, on the evening before Durga and Kali pooja (worship), a tantric ritual called Bel Varan is performed with the appropriate mantras. A particular energy is taken from the tree and placed in a kalash (pot). This energy is then transferred to the statue of Durga or Kali to charge or empower it for the coming pooja

    I am actually referring to that segment only. Of course you did not recommend Durga or Kali puja worship in the quoted article but you did not say you disapprove of it either. That can be misundertood as tacit approval of their separate puja worship.

    Yes, I understand your position about Lord Shiva and I am not referring to Him.

    Of course if we have the time, we can read all these literature about expansions, incarnations etc like Matsya etc, but personally I do not have the time. That is why I am illiterate in that regard.

    What I have decided to devote most of my my reading time in, is only on the topics of the pastimes of RadhaKrishna, their associates, and Mahaprabhu. I realize that I can know their personalities, nature, characteristics better, that way.

    If that is no good, so be it.


  11. Dear Malati, actually I posted this blog because of the central topic of the Bael tree, which is sacred to me for personal reasons. I did not pick and choose - all except the last paragraph of the blog is copied and pasted from another webpage. It is not that I endorse everything in it. I personally do not endorse separate shakti puja. I have made that abundantly clear in my blogs of May 1 and May 4. Please peruse them.
    I fully appreciate and sympathise with the fact that you have little time to study the nitty gritty of all the devis and devas and you will stick to the essence of R-K Bhakti, that is just wonderful.

  12. Perhaps you should dedicate time to write some informative articles, Advaitaji, on your website

    You mentioned in a previous blog (to Murlidhar I think) that just as the Advaita-parivar can be expected to have something of a Shaiva side, the focus is still on Radha-Madangopal. Very nice. But perhaps it is time to explore this Shaiva side of the Advaita-parivar and explain Yogamaya etc. in it's proper place in relation to RK-lila. I think you are best suited for this for you certainly have a good knowledge of the scriptures.

  13. Please check the earlier comments I made in this page, my replies to Anuradha about Yogamaya. One more thing I could say is that Advaita and Sita are one tattva, like all the gods and their shaktis. So as Sita is coordinating and supervising Gaura Lila, so is Advaita. In this capacity He wrote the praheli, the riddle that effectively told Gaura to end his manifest pastimes (CC Antya 19: 20-21). In other words, just as Advaita invoked the Lord, so He also told Him to leave. In ritual this is called visarjana. I have written about this in my book 'The Glories of Advaita Acarya'.

  14. Here Durga and Yogamaya are used in the same context. I thought Yogamaya ruled in the spiritual world and Durga (Maya-devi) in the material. Although they are the same person they have clearly different aspects (like with Shiva and Vishnu).

    My question needs ( as Gaurasundar suggests) further elaboration.

    How to distinguish ? When to directly worship and when not ? We also worship Adwaitacharya directly with pujas and so on, Shiva not so directly. We worship Yogamaya directly, Durga not so directly. Sometimes we even say she is our enemy, and worse.. a deluding witch. Is this then not offensive, since she is also Yogamaya, Sita and Shivaji's wife ?

    As you see, there is still some confusion. How to discriminate and how to approach Their different aspects ?

    Especially Yogamaya intrigues me/us. She deludes me ;-)

    Guess, I would like you to shed more light.

  15. Anuradha:
    "Here Durga and Yogamaya are used in the same context. I thought Yogamaya ruled in the spiritual world and Durga (Maya-devi) in the material."

    That's right. Here she makes you forget that Krishna is God and in the spiritual sky (Goloka department at least) she also makes you forget that Krishna is God.

    "How to distinguish? When to directly worship and when not? We also worship Adwaitacharya directly with pujas and so on, Shiva not so directly. We worship Yogamaya directly, Durga not so directly."

    As far as we are concerned, we do not worship characters in Gaura lila through puja or mantra meditation or so, we do have arati and adhivas kirtan songs about Gaura and his parshadas. Let me give this modern example. We are all used to working with computers, and we are hardly aware that all our work is being monitored by our virus scanner, temporary files are being made of our work all the time, etc. Yet this is going on all the time. Similarly, Yogamaya is constantly monitoring Krishna's lila, deluding Radha-Krishna's superiors always just at the right moment, so they wont find out Their secret affair. Only occasionally she appears, as Paurnamasi, to personally intervene in the lila, advising Jatila to send Radhika to Mother Yashoda to cook for Krishna and why that is the best thing to do. The rest of the time she works on the background, invisibly. Same in Gaura lila, with Sita and Advaita. yogamAyA bhagavatI gRhiNI tasya sAmpratam | sItA-rUpeNAvatIrNA SrI-nAmnA tat-prakASataH (Gaura Ganoddesh Dipika 86) 'Sitadevi is Yogamaya Bhagavati, or Paurnamasi, (Adwaita's) wife."

    "Sometimes we even say she is our enemy, and worse.. a deluding witch. Is this then not offensive, since she is also Yogamaya, Sita and Shivaji's wife ?"

    She is having an ungrateful task. vilajjamanaya yasya sthatum iksa-pathe'muya (SB) Maya is shy to appear before the Lord's eyes. But that is her function, just as Radharani's mother in law has the function to make life difficult for the Divine Couple. Her obstructions ultimately yield excitement, and so we must see Maya devi too.

    "Especially Yogamaya intrigues me/us. She deludes me"

    In that case you are very lucky. Those deluded by Yogamaya no longer see Krishna as God but as madangopal, the all-attractive cowherd Cupid.

    "Guess, I would like you to shed more light."

  16. With regards to the point about Western Gaudiyas not being as "educated" as Indian urchins, etc., this can be easily solved by reading. Amar Chitra Katha does an ultra-fantastic job in this respect.

    I used to consider myself knowledgeable, and almost everything I know has it's basis in ACK. So for those who don't know ACK is a comic book publisher where they have all the stories. So it sounds rather silly telling someone to go and read comic books, but seriously, ACK is a fantastic foundation for deeper learning.

    Many pundits and knowledgeable people I know from other samparadayas also highly praise ACK and read it in their childhoods, even if they also grew up in Western countries. I still have my large collection of ACKs. In one sense they saved my life.

  17. Yes I agree. I remember reading ACK when I was in ISKCON Nepal in 1981, it was very helpful. They even had one about Mahaprabhu. I read a Dutch version to my daughter when she was little, too.

  18. I have got that one about Mahaprabhu. :)

    And speaking of which, my copy of the 'Krishna' ACK is so utterly torn and beyond repair, barely held together, only because I used to read it absolutely every day as a child. :)

  19. ay Radhe,
    Lord Sivaji is well known considered as parama Vaisnava so his worship his the same as worshiping a dearest servant of the Lord . In The Srimad Bhagavad Gita the Lord declear that the service rendered to his devote is even superior to the service rendered to Himself.
    An addition to this we should not forget that many essential vaisnava prayers like Sri Radha kripa kataksa and many others are pronounced The lotus mouth of Lord Sivaji and even Mahaprabhu Himself accepted as described in Sri Caitanya Caritamrita the leftover of Sivaji. Lord Sadasiva appeared in a combined form with Mahavisnu in Sri AdvaitAcarya toward whom we should be unlimitedly grateful since He called Sri Krsna in this age of kali to appear as Mahaprabhu. Sri Advaita Acarya has also tested the rarest manjari bhava wich Gauranga has magnanimously distributed in this age. So in my humble eyes Lord Sivaji who is present in the most important holy place of the world like Vraja is undoubtely granting us the entrance in the sacred dhama , his protection during our bhajan and surely Radhakrsna prema. The bel tree wich you have thoroughly described has to be considered in true a PREMA KALPATARU. Only the ignorant and those who are blind will not pay their regards and respectful worship to Lord Sivaji at the same way every aspirant vaisnava offer his prayer to Sri Rupa and Sanatana Goswami.

  20. how special is to find a four foliate bilva patra???

  21. how special is the four foliate bilva patra? please explain.