The Lovely Leaf


Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

You must have noticed how bare and forlorn trees look in autumn. It is as if they have been shorn of all their life and spirit and merely exist, a mere shadow of their former majestic and magnificent selves. Come Spring, however, they regain all their glitter and glory, presenting a wonderful sight to the jaded human eye. What makes the difference between their former and latter states is the rich and luxurious foliage that adorns their branches—in other words, the leaves that provide the trees dense cover and nutrition. It is thus leaves that lend a look of majesty and splendour to their parents, without which the trees look stripped and sad. It is they who are the precursors of the much-awaited flower and fruit. When we look at a pine forest, a dense copse of firs or a wood of tall deodars, what impresses us first and foremost is their lush and luxuriant foliage. Leaves thus are an indispensable part of trees, big or small.

Before you start wondering as to why I have started holding forth on botany (one among the innumerable subjects I am totally unqualified to speak on) let me assure you that unlike many of my articles, this does have a purpose. As a measure of importance of the Leaf, we find several references to the same in the Scripture, some of which are recounted here.

It is only a few people and objects that can boast of a close association with the Supreme Being: the Leaf is one of them. I hear you commenting derisively, “The Lord and the Leaf”? What possible connection could there be between the most exalted of beings and the most humble of them? Does a leaf count at all, being an extremely insignificant part of Creation, liable to be blown away by a mere puff of wind?”

Yes, the Leaf does indeed count and occupies a pride of place in Creation, having afforded a resting place to the Lord during the Cosmic Deluge. Imagine the PraLayam, the virtual end of the world, with great sheets of water covering all available landmass, leaving the entire universe a raging ocean. All earth has disappeared and along with it, all the myriad life forms which inhabited earth in their teeming millions. The sole remnant of this MahApraLayam is the Lord, in the form of an endearing infant, lying with élan, chewing His toe held steady by one hand. This is the picture of the Lord portrayed by the BAla MukundAshtakam—

“KarAravindEna padAravindam mukhAravindE vinivEsayantam
Vatasya patrasya putE sayAnam Balam Mukundam manasA smarAmi”

If there is no land, where does the Lord lie in such a bewitching pose? It is on a banyan leaf, we are told, that the infant Mukunda lies amidst all the swirling waters of the cosmic deluge, having stored all beings and objects in His capacious tummy. Thus the Leaf has the distinction of surviving even when all other components of Creation have been wiped out. Not merely does it survive, it does so with distinction, providing a resting place for none other than the Supreme Lord. It is from this that Emperuman derives the glorious name “Vata Patra SAyee”, literally meaning one who reclines on a banyan leaf.

The sight of the enthralling infant recumbent on a leaf is so captivating that almost all Azhwars have made appreciative mention of the same. Listen to Sri TiruppANAzhwar, whose devotion-laden heart and mind are filled with the glorious sight—

“Ala mA marattin ilai mEl oru bAlakanAi
gyAlam Ezhum uNdAn arangattu aravin aNayAn
kOla mA maNi Aramum muttu tAmamum mudiviladu Or ezhil
neela mEni iyyO nirai koNdadu en nenjinayE!”

ஆல மா மரத்தின் இலைமேல் ஒரு பாலகனாய்
ஞாலம் ஏழும் உண்டான் அரங்கத்து அரவின் அணையான்
கோல மா மணி-ஆரமும் முத்துத்
தாமமும் முடிவு இல்லது ஓர் எழில்
நீல மேனி ஐயோ நிறைகொண்டது என் நெஞ்சினையே

Describing the leaf on which the Lord reclines, Azhwar says that it belongs to the Great Banyan tree—“Ala mA maram”. The Banyan tree is naturally tall and broad. However, the reason ascribed here to its greatness is that it has provided refuge to the Lord Himself.

All banyan leaves that we know are pretty small and wouldn’t afford space on themselves for a biggish ant, leave alone an infant, that too the Parabrahmam. How come then, that the Lord is described as lying down on this tiny leaf? We have no answer to this question except to point out the Lord’s capability for making the impossible, eminently possible– His “aghatita ghatana sAmarthyam”. Though He is the Brahmam, by nature huge beyond conception, He contracts His glorious tirumEni to fit the banyan leaf and lies on it amidst the floods that signify the end of the world.

Sri Poigai Azhwar asks the Lord, with the liberty of those who are close, where the banyan leaf came from, when the entire universe was in the throes of destruction. Where could the parent tree have been rooted, for there was absolutely no land left, having been inundated by the swirling waters of the praLayam. Azhwar wonders sarcastically whether the strange tree (which gave birth to the leaf on which the Lord reclines) had its roots in the waters or in the sky. Azhwar seeks a categorical reply from the Lord as to the origins of this weird and wonderful tree, which had not a place to put out its roots, yet was able to beget the leaf, which could accommodate the Lord Himself. Here is the beautiful pasuram, for which the Lord had apparently no reply-

“BAlan tanadu uruvAi Ezhulagu uNdu-Alilaiyin
mEl andru nee vaLarnda mey enbar-Al andru
vElai neer uLladO viNnadO maNNadO
sOlai soozh kundru edutthAi sollu”

பாலன் றனதுருவாய் ஏழுலகுண்டு, ஆலிலையின்
மேலன்று நீவளர்ந்த மெய்யென்பர், – ஆலன்று
வேலைநீ ருள்ளதோ விண்ணதோ மண்ணதோ?
சோலைசூழ் குன்றெடுத்தாய் சொல்லு.

Imagine the scene-all the Universe, with its innumerable inhabitants, has been overrun by the swirling waters. There is a great emptiness, relieved only by the deluge, in which all the oceans have combined to inundate all available land. The sole remnant of the destructive deluge is the Lord Himself, who has swallowed all the sentient and non-sentient beings and stored them in His tiny tummy for safekeeping, till the occasion arises for the next Creative process. His form, however, is that of a bewitching infant, apparently in hunger and chewing the toe of His foot, holding it still in His right hand. And amidst all the deluge and the raging waters, He reclines on a small banyan leaf, hardly enough to provide full cover to His little back. Amidst the chaotic inundation, this wonderful leaf and its worthy occupant alone remain stable and steady, unaffected by the terrifying torrents. It is this scene that makes the Azhwar wonder where the leaf could have come from and how it was able to accommodate the great and glorious Lord Himself. However, Azhwar asserts that the episode is indeed true, quoting great souls—“mey enbar”.

Azhwars tell us that it is the Great Snake AdisEsha, who normally forms the Lord’s bed—“pulgum aNayAm TirumArkku aravu” “aravarasa perum sOthi anantan ennum aNi viLangum uyar veLLai aNayai mEvi” etc. If this is true, then the little leaf that Emeperuman lay on must indeed have been Adisesha, assuming the form of the banyan leaf.

Leaves continue to provide the Lord with a place of residence, in Srimad Ramayana too. When Sri Lakshmana puts up a beautiful cottage for Sri Rama and Sri Sita, it is covered on top with appropriate leaves, providing a pleasantly cool roof—

“kusa kasa sharai: parNai: suparicchAditAm tathA”

In fact, leaves play such a dominant role in the Lord’s residence, that the cottage is termed as a “ParNashAlA” or a leafy home.

And leaves provide not only the Lord, but His acolytes also refuge and camouflage. When Sri Hanuman seeks a hiding place to observe the proceedings in the AshOka vanam, it is dense foliage and an impenetrable leafy cover that supply him with requisite protection from the prying eyes of rAkshasis—

“avEkshamANascha dadarsa sarvam supushpitE parNa ghanE nileena:”

Does the Leaf’s association with the Lord stop with having provided Him a place of rest during Pralayam? Not at all, for it is a constant and continuing connection, as we shall presently see.

When there is any number of beautiful objects with which Emperuman’s eyes could be compared, it is again a Leaf, which finds favour with poets and philosophers. Listen, for instance, to the Adikavi Valmiki describing Sri Rama’s eyes as resembling beautiful lotus leaves—“Rama: kamala patrAksha:”. The leaves of the lotus are so beautifully round and broad that they provide the perfect analogy for the Paramapurusha’s eyes. It is not only Chakravartthi Tirumagan whose eyes resemble a lotus leaf, but Sri Krishna too, as the KrishNAshtakam attests—“utphulla padma patrAksham neela jeemoota sannibham”. If this is how the Lord’s eyes look, can His Consort’s be different? We thus find Valmiki comparing Sri Janaki’s eyes too to lotus leaves—

“SItAm kamala patrAkshIm idam vachanam abravIt”
“Padma patra visAlAkshIm satatam priya pankajAm”

There is a speciality about lotus leaves—though they are constantly in water and dot the surface of ponds, water doesn’t stick to them, but just runs off them—“nalinI dala gata jalam ati taralam”. Despite their being born in water and spending their entire existence in it, they are not attached to their aquatic environs. Their non-stick nature is thus held out to be an example of how we should remain unattached to this world and its attractions, while remaining in our mundane locales.

Thus, one who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Lord, remains unaffected by sinful action, as is the lotus leaf unattached to the water it lies on, says the Bhagavat Gita, providing yet another illuminating comparison with the incomparable lotus leaf-

“BrahmaNi AdhAya karmANi sangam tyaktvA karOti ya:
lipyatE na sa pApEna padma patram iva ambhasA”

The Gita contains yet another beautiful reference to the Leaf. Listing even humble offerings, which He accepts with delight when accompanied by devotion, Sri Krishna gives pride of place to the Leaf—

“Patram pushpam phalam tOyam yO mE bhaktyA prayacchati
tadaham bhakyupahritam asnAmi prayatAtmana:”

The Lord tells us that even if it is a mere leaf, a flower, fruit or just plain water, if the same is offered with devotion and love, He accepts the same with great pleasure and contentment, as if they are the best of gourmet dishes. Here, the Leaf is mentioned ahead, because it precedes the flower and the fruit, in the order of appearance on the tree, says Swami Desikan in the TAtparya ChandrikA. The Acharya provides further enlightenment by pointing out that the leaf, flower or fruit mentioned above refer to the simple ones available in plenty in nature, without the need for purchasing them—

“patrEshu pushpEshu phalEshu tOyEshu akreeta labhyEshu sadaiva satsu
bhakti Eka labhyE purushE purANE muktyai kimarttham kriyatE na yatna:”
(Garuda Puranam).

Leaving common garden leaves, we shall now consider an extremely exalted specimen, held holy and venerated by all—the Tulasi. Glorified by the sobriquet “Tiru TuzhAi”, Tulasi occupies the pride of place among leaves, being extremely dear to Emperuman, who wears it practically on all parts of His divine body—

tOLiNai mElum nan mArbin mElum sudar mudi mElum
tALiNai mElum punainda taNNam tuzhAi udai ammAn

தோளிணை மேலும் நன் மார்பின்மேலும் சுடர் முடிமேலும்
தாளிணை மேலும் புனைந்த தண்ணந் துழாயுடையம்மான்

says Sri Nammazhwar, describing the Lord to be a veritable walking forest of Tulasi, with the leaf adorning Him from head to foot.

The Tulasi enjoys such close association with the Lord that it is impossible to think of ever worshipping Him without using the lovely leaf. It is not even necessary that the leaf should be fresh—even a dried one is equally dear to the Lord, we are told. Commensurate with its status, Shastras prescribe several rules for plucking Tulasi leaves for the Lord’s worship—

–they should be plucked in a group of four and not as single leaves
–they should not be plucked on Sundays, Tuesdays, Fridays etc.
–they should not be plucked on EkAdasi, DwAdasi, amAvAsya and similar days
–removing the leaf from the plant should be done gently and without hurting the plant, our sharp nails not playing a part in it
–a mantra should be uttered while plucking Tulasi leaves, propitiating the sacred plant.

Few are the homes unadorned by Tulasi plants and fewer still are the homes where they are not worshipped, attesting to the sanctity attached to them. Apart from its sacredness and use in the Lord’s worship, Tulasi has abundant medicinal properties and serves as a sure cure for a host of diseases.

If it is Tulasi that pleases the Lord, His Consort is enamoured of the Bilva leaf, we are told. Her ashtOttara Sata nAma stotram tells us that Sri Mahalakshmi resides in the Bilva—“Bilva nilayAm varArOhAm yashasvinIm”.

Another leaf, which is indispensable in vaidIka karmAs like PuNyAhavAchanam, is that of the Mango tree. Water sanctified by recitation of the PavamAna sUktam is to be sprinkled over the KartA and his home, using mango leaves, to the accompaniment of VEda mantras like “DEvasya tvA Savitu: prasavE…..”, “VAstOshpatE pratijAnIhi asmAn svAvEsO anamIvO bhavA na:….”. And be it any auspicious function—marriage, upanayanam, seemantOnnayanam or other, no festivity or celebration is complete without a festoon of mango leaves hung across the doorway. On EkAdasI, DwAdasi, ChaturdasI, ashtamI, navamI, prathamA, PourNamI, the day of the annual ceremony, Fridays, Tuesdays, Saturdays and on one’s birthday, when use of twigs, etc. is forbidden for brushing the teeth, it is customary to use the leaves of the mango tree for the purpose.

It is again a leaf, that of the Plantain tree, which is used for offering food to both Devatas and the Pitru vargam. It is noteworthy that during ShrAddha karmAas, annam, pAyasam, bhakshaNam, etc. are offered to the concerned Pitru devatas, to VisvEdEvas and to Sri Mahavishnu, on plantain leaves. Even the regular Pitru tarpaNam performed on various occasions like amavAsyA, monthly SankramaNam, etc. is offered on plantain leaves and not on silver, brass or stainless steel plates.

Shall we end this piece with a beautiful English idiom, viz., “turning over a new leaf”? This usage appears eminently applicable to Prapatti, which involves a sea change in one’s attitude, requiring one to give up all that is not to the Lord’s liking and to adopt a way of life totally in conformity with His wishes. We are required to eschew all that is taboo and to espouse all norms of right conduct. And as a prelude to such a change, we seek the Lord’s forgiveness for all our acts of omission and commission, performed during innumerable births. We accept Him as our sole Saviour and surrender ourselves to Him, body and soul. Saranagati is thus the essence of the idiom, “turning over a new leaf”, in its most comprehensive sense.

Though any number of pages could be written on the subject, I shall end here, with a (mis) quote from Frost-

“The leaves are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep”

Prabandhams in tamil font copied from

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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