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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Plants and Deities

A well-spread belief in Indian cultures acknowledges the presence of deities in trees and plants in general. Those deities are usually closely linked with the tree they inhabit, but may be begged to leave and choose another one in case one wants to feel the tree or in similar instances. So, one would think that they are ultimately distinguished from the tree. Still, in some cases a person who has damaged a tree is blamed by the tree-deity as having cut an arm of the deity's son. In a Jataka, a she-deity inhabiting a tree has her son injured by a monk who wants to fell the tree. But I wonder whether this is the original meaning of the motive of the injure to the deity's child. Perhaps, in all instances where no distinct child is presented, one could suppose that the deity refers to the plant itself as his/her child. I do not know of similar beliefs in other cultures, nor did I find an explicit statement of that in Indian texts, so this theory would presuppose an ancient belief which has only survived in stock sentences in the text which have actually been preserved to us.
The presence of a deity inhabiting a plant seems to shift the requirement of non-violence from the plant itself to the living being inhabiting it, so that it seems that life is not typical of plants, but rather bestowen on them through their inhabiting deities. Something similar might have been the case of (some) Jaina thinkers who justify the necessity of non-violence towards water and earth as motivated by the many (invisible) living beings inhabiting them.


VS said...

This concept is unique. As far as I know (layperson), plants are also supposed to be sensing entities.

elisa freschi said...

VS, do not mix our own mainstream view about plants with (historically or geographically) distant views. Descartes did not acknowledge even animals among sensing entities. Indian Buddhism, along with many other philosophical schools (such as Rāmānujācārya's Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā) deny any sentience to plants. Others, as hinted at in this post, seem to reinterpret the sentience of plants as external to plants.

Finally, in order to critically evaluate our common assumptions: why do we all agree in denying sentience in water and earth?

VS said...

Well, we go by what has been taught to us and which we believe corresponds to our ideas.

We all agree sentience in human beings, but just see how we treat each other.

I have a tendency to avoid typing, so I cant expound on what I am trying to imply. ;o)

elisa freschi said...

You are right, sentience in other beings is closely connected to the issue of non-harming them. Hence, non considering plants as sentient beings may be very practical;-)

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