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Monday, March 4, 2013

Sentience of plants in Indian philosophy

Are plants sentient beings or are they just living beings? In Classical India there seem to be two possible alternatives, i.e., a popular approach which regards plants as sentient and a scientific one which regards them as non-sentient.
The first one is was probably the most widespread one, since it is the target of the criticism of the upholders of the scientific view. One finds it represented also in Dharmaśāstra texts, in Purāṇas, Āgamas and in Dramas. Lambert Schmithausen has detected traces of it also in the Buddhist Canon, whenever monks refer to what (illiterate) lay people might be thinking. It is also the standard view of Jainism.
The latter view, by contrast, is the one adopted by possibly all philosophical texts I am aware of whenever they directly deal with the issue.
However, I started wondering what would Vaiṣṇava Vedāntins say about this topic (which is, I have to admit, not the most debated one in Indian philosophy), given that plants are regarded to be sentient by several Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas. While looking for an answer, I found this passage by (Śrī) Rāmānuja, in his Śrī Bhāṣya ad Brahmasūtra 1.1.4:

deva-asura-gandharva-siddha-vidyādhara-kinnara-kimpuruṣa-yakṣa-rākṣasa-piśāca-manuja-paśu-śakuni-sarīsṛpa-vṛkṣa-gulma-latā-dūrvādīnāṃ strīpunnapuṃsakabhedabhinnānāṃ kṣetrajñānāṃ vyavasthitadhārakapoṣakabhogyaviśeṣāṇāṃ muktānāṃ svasya cāviśeṣeṇānubhavasambhave svarūpaguṇavibhavaceṣṭitair anavadhikātiśayānandajananaṃ paraṃ bhrarhmāsti.

"Since it is possible that liberated beings, distinguished according to the respective specifications of supporter (as a tree), nourishment (as several plants) and object of experience (as herbs which cannot be eaten but can be seen, touched, etc.) have experience of themselves without specifications, the arousal of the super abundant bliss without limitations (avadhi) for the selves distinguished in feminine, neuter and masculine —gods, asuras, gandharvas, siddhas, vidyādharas, kinnaras, kimpuruṣas, yakṣas, demons (rākṣasa), ogres (piśāca), human beings, cattle, birds, snakes, trees, bushes, creepers, herbs and so on— through what is set into motion (ceṣṭita) by the transformations in the qualities of the own nature [of the brahman], is the supreme brahman".

Here there is a lot I do not understand (any help is welcome!), but any translation seems enough to highlight the fact that there in an unbroken succession from gods to bent herbs, which are all said to be selves (kṣetrajña, literally 'knower of the field') and that all of them can have experience (anubhavasambhava). Note that, as usual in India, the sentient beings are ordered in a rigorous succession from the highest to the lowest and that trees are on the upper level among plants. This is explained in Purāṇas and in the first kind of literature described above insofar as trees offer nourishment and protection to other living beings and are, in this sense, selfless and generous.


Jayarava said...

I'm not sure about the wider Indian world, but in early Buddhist texts trees are often home to tree spirits (rukkhadevatā; Skt. vṛkṣadevatā). I don't recall any reference to trees per se being sentient in my reading. I'll have to look at Smithhausen's book at some point.

I presume you've seen Sutherland's book on yakṣas which deals with their association with trees?

elisa freschi said...

I have discussed in the book-discussion of E. Banks Findly's "Plant Lives" (which you can read on Academia: to what extent thinking of trees as the abode of deities implies the sentience of the tree itself. But I had not thought of Sutherland's book. Thanks a lot!


The 3rd verse of Śikṣāṭaka, the authorship of which is ascribed to Śrī Caitanya, says:

तृणादपि सुनीचेन तरोरिव सहिष्णुना।
अमानिना मानदेन कीर्तनीयः सदा हरिः॥

Again, we find in the Gītā:

अश्वत्थः सर्ववृक्षाणां देवर्षीणां च नारदः।
गन्धर्वाणां चित्ररथः सिद्धानां कपिलो मुनिः॥१०।२६॥

Now, discounting the rhetoric inherent in the 1st verse it may be contended that sahiṣṇutā [patience or endurance] is possible only with reference to a sentient being. Also, if sentience is not assumed, then a tree would be nothing more than a sthāvara or immovable entity.

In the example from the Gītā, the Lord, who is of the nature of Brahman or Consciousness, describes himself as the aśvattha tree among plants. So consciousness in trees is implicit on that score.

Brāhmaṇaspati said...

It is not necessary to assume that all plants in classical India were considered equally sentient. Trees being the largest of the plant kingdom, had a greater claim to sentience than smaller plants and therefore the case for the existence of the tree deities (vṛkṣadevatā) in them was stronger. One of the largest trees native to India is the Indian Banyan (Ficus benghalensis), called the yakṣa-tāru in Sanskrit, being specifically identified with the yakṣa spirits. Trees with spirits were considered specially sacred, the other sacred tree in India was the Pippala or Peepul, otherwise called the sacred fig (Ficus religiosa). The local belief in the potency of this tree (as well as the concept of vṛkṣadevatās) is evident from the days of the Indus Valley Civilization c. 4th to 3rd millenia BCE, see,,

elisa freschi said...

Thank you, Brahmanaspati, very good point. In fact, one of the striking things is that through Classical India one comes to reconsider the fact that the old Western classification of the natural world into minerals/animals/vegetables and Human beings is not at all "natural". Sanskrit texts speak of a hierarchy within each of these classes (with herbs at the lowest level and trees at the upper one among what Westerners would call "vegetables").


Dear Brahmanaspati and Elisa,

Excellent point! The idea of a hierarchy of sentience in plants is also implicit in the 6th case-ending in the Gītā verse I cited above – it is clearly a case of nirdhāraṇe ṣaṣṭhī. And the definition of nirdhāraṇa is given in Jagadīśa’s Śabdaśaktiprakāśa as ‘viśeṣasya svetarasāmānyadharmāvacchinnavyāvṛtadharmavattvaṃ nirdhāraṇam.’ To present my point more mathematically: the Lord= Brahman = Consciousness (itself)= Aśvattha tree [among trees] = highest level of sentience present in this particular tree.

Thanks for highlighting this very important point.

Vidya said...

I noticed that you have added the constraint - "classical India" right at the beginning. However I think the impact of earlier texts on this has to be taken into account primarily because earlier upanishidic ideas and their use of analogies often provide the germ of many ideas which later evolve into other often-unrecognizable ideas and hierarchies in later texts.
On this particular topic, I find the verse in Chandogya 6.11 as part of uddālaka Aruni's discourse to Svetaketu relevant.

...vrkṣasya yo mūle'bhyāhanyād, jīvan sravet, yo madhye 'bhyāhanyāt jīvan sravet saṣeṣa jīvenātmānuprabhūtaḥ pepīyamāno modamānas tiṣṭhati

The last word 'modamānas tiṣṭhati is particularly noteworthy here in the context of sentience. The word jiva merely tells us that they are living beings while the the modamanas allude to the aspect of sentience. We also need to remember that both Acarya Sankara and Madhvacarya have written Ramanujacarya does makes references from the Chandogya in the Śrībhāṣya (cannot recall if this verse is referred but he does seem refer to other verses from this section)

elisa freschi said...

Thank you Vidya, another useful point (in favour of the sentience of trees, not necessarily of plants in general).

@Dear readers and commenters, I am really grateful for your help in providing quotations!

Vidya said...

I am not sure if this distinction between "trees" vs "plants" for the word vṛkṣa is necessarily true in vaidika usage. Even in other contexts, many times words such as vṛkṣa, druma could be employed and understood in the sense of 'that which is cut/wood', and the distinction between tree, plant and shrub may not always hold except when the usage is specifically employed to mean a specific named-tree. There are also several examples from kāvya where creepers such as priyangu ettc, are attributed feelings and the like (even if it is poetic fancy).

A tree is just the most common term, because it can be considered an "abode" for beings ranging from brahma rakṣasas to yakṣas. If we consider that, then we could equally consider various tales of transformation of people to creepers (a recurrent theme). I don't believe that all this necessarily translates to a hierarchy in sentience within the class of plants or even leads to a trees vs plants dichotomy, unless of course there are other specific textual references that point to this.

elisa freschi said...

@Vidya, I am not acquainted with Vedic or Classical texts using 'vṛkṣa' for referring to plants in general or to anything but trees. Could you point them out?

As for the hierarchy among plants, I dealt with this point at p. 3 of my review of "Plant Lives" (here: I am inclined to think that: 1. we tend to see "plants" as a whole due to our Western background (since the Middle Age, Western culture used to distinguish three "realms" within nature, i.e., minerals, plants and animals). 2. I coudl not see any similar classification in India, where each "realm" is more structured and at the same time less distinct from the others. 3. texts always list trees, bushes, creepers, herbs as distinct items —as far as I know— and do not use a single term for all of them. 4. Speaking of trees is not just a case of metonymy (pars pro toto), but rather a sign of the unique rank of trees, which are often seen as generous beings insofar as they provide nourishment, shadow and support for many others. I would not say that trees are opposed to all other plants (hence, no dichotomy), since there is not a class of "all other plants". Rather, they are distinguished from bushes, creepers, etc.

As for the feelings attributed to creepers, the instances I am aware of speak of lovers embracing their beloved like a creeper and so on. Thus, creepers are a simile for *human* behaviour, not capable of having such feelings themselves. See, again, p. 3 of the same review for my whole argument. Do you know of different cases?

Anonymous said...

Cara Elisa, mi sono piaciuti molto gli articoli sugli animali e la vegetazione sul tuo vecchio blog, che ho trovato e letto con cura qualche anno fa (potrai trovarvi un mio commento scritto a quel tempo). Vorrei chiederti una domanda personale (ma anche filosofica): come cristiana, credi che solo gli umani abbiano uno spirito, un atma, o da cristiana moderna credi che tutti gli esseri viventi (le piante incluse, forse) abbiano uno spirito – o che nessuno e nulla ne abbia uno? E sei vegetariana?

elisa freschi said...

Grazie, lettore anonimo. La tua domanda mi sorprende, perché molto personale, ma senza firma… mi pare mi si chieda di spogliarmi davanti a qualcuno celato dietro un velo. Comunque: sì, sono vegetariana (il contrario mi pare filosoficamente insostenibile). Sì, penso che il concetto di 'anima' o di 'persona' possa essere allargato. E tu?


Dear Elisa,

An interesting example comes from the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, II.iii.1, and Śaṅkarācārya’s commentary thereon. I quote at length Swami Gambhirananda’s English translation of the aforesaid verse and the commentary:

Kaṭha Upaniṣad II.iii.1 –

ūrdhvamūlo’vākśākha eṣo’śvatthaḥ sanātanaḥ/
tadevaṃ śukraṃ tadbrahma radevāmṛtamucyate/
tasmillokāḥ śritāḥ sarve tadu nātyeti kaścana/ etadvai tat//

“This is the beginningless peepul tree that branches down. That (which is its root) is pure, that is Brahman and that is called immortal. On that are fixed all the worlds; none transcends that. This verily is that.”

Now Śaṅkarācārya’s commentary:

“Ūrdhvamūlaḥ, that which has its roots above – the root that is the state of supreme Viṣṇu. This tree of the world, comprising everything from the Unmanifested to the immovables, has its root above. It is called vṛkṣa (tree) because (of the root-meaning) of being felled. It consists of many evils, such as birth, old age, death, sorrow, etc; it changes itself every moment, inasmuch as no sooner is it seen than its nature is destroyed like magic, water in a mirage, a city in the sky, etc., and it ceases to exist ultimately like a tree; it is without any heart-wood like the stem of a plantain tree;” (pp. 213-14, Eight Upaniṣads, vol. 1, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama)

The commentary makes clear that the tree of phenomenal existence is here treated as a living organism, endowed with the qualities of birth, maturity and death. Also, it gives a [quasi-later Vedic?] definition of a vṛkṣa. The definition is: vṛkṣaśca vraścanāt.

Here also another tree, namely plantain or banana is mentioned, with an implication of its hollowness: kadalīstambhavanniḥsāraḥ.

Another interesting point lies in the very first line of the commentary: ūrdhvamūla ūrdhvaṁ mūlaṃ yat tadviṣṇoḥ paramaṃ padamasyeti so’yamavyaktādisthāvarāntaḥ saṃsāravṛkṣa ūrdhvamūlaḥ. Now Viṣṇu is derived from the root viś, meaning ‘to pervade’. Thus Viṣṇu is expansive consciousness or vyāpticaitanya. So when the tree of the phenomenal existence [in which the plant kingdom is also included; cf. avyaktādisthāvarāntaḥ] is said to have its roots above in the supreme state of Viṣṇu, it is implied that the entire universe is rooted in an all-pervading consciousness.

Though it is principally a metaphor, I have sought to explore the implications underlying it because of one powerful expression: ‘avyaktādisthāvarāntaḥ’. In the same vein I also wonder if it implies the sentience [or at least responsive capabilities] in metals [when suitably stimulated; I have Sir J. C. Bose’s experiments in mind].

Anonymous said...

[sì, sono vegetariana (il contrario mi pare filosoficamente insostenibile). Sì, penso che il concetto di 'anima' o di 'persona' possa essere allargato.]

Brava! Scusami l’anonimità, infatti non ho l’intenzione di celarmi postando anonimamente (sono Ashvamitra, Filippo), ma non posso aprire il il mio account Blogger su questo computer all’ufficio sul quale molte cose sono filtrate, e oggigiorni ho pochissimo tempo per fare l’internet a casa. Per me, sono vegetariano, anzi vegano, ed anche se non ho un’idea chiara di quale possa essere la natura dell’anima, o se qualcosa che si potrebbe chiamare un’anima pure esista, credo che in ogni caso tutti gli esseri viventi devano avere la stessa natura ed essenza.

Vidya said...

I did not say vrksha is used for plant but it seems like it is used for wood in general in atleast one or two places in RV. There are chapters in ayurvedic texts titled, vrkshayurveda where it encompasses the whole plant kingdom. In general, my point was that contexts and usages of vanaspati, vrksha and the many hymns addressed to oshadhis also need to be taken into account and that categorization/classification does not automatically imply hierarchy esp as it relates to sentience. In a tropical landscape trees certainly have a greater social visibility but when it comes to sentience, does that necessarily equate to a hierarchy especially considering the importance of herbs and oshadhis?
(This is not an area I know much about, but just wanted to add this perspective.)

As for creepers, I was referring to allusions where a creeper sprouts buds when a maiden touches it and is said to respond to stimuli.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, Vidya. I am not an expert on this topic and badly need to keep on researching about it. I would insist on the hierarchical element (see Rāmānuja's quote, which seems quite hiearchical), but I agree with you that this does not necessarily imply different degrees of sentience. As for the "importance of herbs", this does not seem to me to be the main point. Gems are also important and so are water and fire, but this does not necessarily imply that one regards them as sentient.
As for creepers, you seem to refer to the case of the śālabhañjikā, which —I thought— regards a maiden touching a Śāl tree and letting it flower, isn't it?

elisa freschi said...

@Aśvamitra, essere vegani mi pare la scelta eticamente più sensata. Per quanto mi riguarda, continuo a consumare ogni tanto uova o latticini per motivi sociali, ma mi dolgo del sostenere così il sistema degli allevamenti, con la strage di innocenti che comporta.

Anonymous said...

Sono stato vegetariano da circa quindici anni, e durante quel periodo sono da tempo in tempo “andato al prossimo livello” adottando il veganismo, ma ripetutamente sono tornato al mero vegetarianismo, ingannato dalla falsa informazione disseminato dai maledetti mamsahari, alla quale ero troppo soggetto essendo una persona molto diffidente e vivendo nell’occidente dove il vegetarianesimo, per quanto una scelta comune in nostro tempo, nondimeno ha ancora molti nemici. Quando arrivai in India pensavo che potessi bere il latte con una buona coscienza perché credevo che qui le mucche, essendo animali sacri, non venissero maltrattate. Ma fra poco cominciai ad accorgermi che anche qui la sola scelta etica è il veganismo: l’agricoltura industriale è raggiunta anche qui, anche qui le mucche lattanti passano la vita essendo torturate in fattorie infernali e vengono uccise quando non possono dare più latte; inoltre, pure nei villaggi vengono picchiate, pure negli ashrama sono confinate, e non posso accettare il confinamento e l’uso degli animali per i fini umani pure quando siano trattati bene. Ma essere vegani è difficile anche in India. L’idea del veganismo è molto debole qui. La vasta maggioranza dei vegetariani induisti, essendo umani normali, non pensano mai a cosa fanno e perché, sono vegetariani non per ragioni coscienti ed etiche ma solo per convenzionalità (benché dichiarino, se si chieda, che lo sono per ragioni etiche), e così non se ne fregano che, bevendo il latte di una mucca, l’hanno uccisa non altrimenti che se l’avessero mangiato la carne: l’importante è che la carne non li renda impuri toccandogli la bocca. Così i miei conosciuti non capiscono perché rinuncio ai prodotti di latte, che costituiscono un elemento fondamentale della cucina vegetariana induista e perciò sono difficili da evitare.

elisa freschi said...

Va così anche per me, nel senso che anch'io ho tentato di diventare vegana per i motivi che citi (non voglio essere complice della strage di vitellini e della sofferenza di mucche imprigionate e uccise appena divengono inutili). A tratti ci sono riuscita e molto più spesso no, per motivi di salute (anche se non dubito che avrei potuto trovare una soluzione anche vegana, ma non ho incontrato medici giusti), di gusto (formaggio e yogurt continuano a piacermi molto) e soprattutto di vita sociale (e' molto difficile cenare con amici da vegana:-)). Al momento tento almeno di moderare i danni (latte solo di mandorla o simili, yogurt di soya, formaggi solo da allevamento all'aperto e biologico). Non basta, ma almeno è un po' meglio, spero.

elisa freschi said...

Dimenticavo: sì, hai ragione, il vegetarianesimo può avere almeno due scopi: tutelare la propria purezza o tutelare la salute degli animali.

Anonymous said...

[il vegetarianesimo può avere almeno due scopi: tutelare la propria purezza o tutelare la salute degli animali.]

Il primo è certamente il solo scopo degli induisti normali. So che la questione dei motivi originarii del vegetarianismo indiano è controversa, ma un mio amico indù, credente ma senza illusioni, ha scritto recentemente su Facebook che il vero motivo originario fosse la voglia di mantenere la purezza personale e non l’ahimsa.

अश्वमित्रः said...

[(anche se non dubito che avrei potuto trovare una soluzione anche vegana, ma non ho incontrato medici giusti),]

Questo è davvero un problema. Ma non credere le loro bugie, sorella: il veganismo non è per nulla impossibile, malgrado i loro PROPAGANDA. Solamente si deve sapere come farlo. Ma capisco bene le difficoltà. Dai, forza, sorella.

[di gusto (formaggio e yogurt continuano a piacermi molto)]

Ah, capisco bene, infatti volevo menzionare il mio AMORE per i prodotti di latte, specialmente i formaggi. Ma si sa che si deve fare sacrifice per i nostri principii: se non fosse così, a che valerebbero? È la natural dell’etica.

[e soprattutto di vita sociale (e' molto difficile cenare con amici da vegana:-)).]

Capisco anch’io, benché sia un pazzo aperto e “uncloseted” e non esiti di dare il no quando qualcuno voglia offrirmi qualche cibo non-vegano – cosa che, come saprai, è molto difficile specialmente in India, dove dare il cibo su ogni occasione e’ un rituale comunissimo, ed il non accettarlo è considerato estremamente insultante, ed anche
incomprensibile. Ma in tali situazioni mi godo dell’indulgenza che si concede al barbaro.

[Al momento tento almeno di moderare i danni (latte solo di mandorla o simili, yogurt di soya, formaggi solo da allevamento all'aperto e biologico). Non basta, ma almeno è un po' meglio, spero.]

Lo è, brava. Tieniti alla fede, sorella. Siamo intornati dai rakshasa. Forza.

[il vegetarianesimo può avere almeno due scopi: tutelare la propria purezza o tutelare la salute degli animali.]

Il primo è certamente il solo scopo degli induisti normali. So che la questione dei motivi originarii del vegetarianismo indiano è controversa, ma un mio amico indù, credente ma senza illusioni, ha scritto recentemente su Facebook che il vero motivo originario fosse la voglia di mantenere la purezza personale e non l’ahimsa.

elisa freschi said...

Hai ragione, terrò a mente. E hai perfettamente ragione sull'etica che deve poter prevalere. Dopo tutto, anche a me pare assurdo chi dice di non poter abbandonare la carne perché "mi piace troppo".


A very interesting evidence for the existence of sentience in plants comes from the following consideration of udbhijja variety of bodies [the other three varieties being jarāyuja, aṇḍaja & svedaja] in the prameya section of Mānameyodaya:

“न चेन्द्रियायतनत्वे प्रमाणाभावादुभिज्जानामशरीरत्वम् इति वाच्यम्। आमिषादिसदसद्भावनिबन्धनपुष्टिह्रासादिदर्शनेन दाहच्छेदादिभिः इतरशरीरवदेव वैगुण्यावाप्तिदर्शनेन च सुखदुःखानुभवे सिद्धे तेनैवेन्द्रियकल्पनोपपत्तेः। न ह्यनिन्द्रियाणां सुखदुःखानुभवः संभवति।

यत्पुनः अचेतने अर्थबन्धनाद् इत्यत्र ‘ओषधे त्रायस्वैनम्’ इत्यादिमन्त्रमुदाहृत्य ओषधीनामचेतनत्वमुक्तं तद् अभिमुखीभावाद्यभावप्रयुक्तं न तु चेतनानधिष्ठातृत्वप्रयुक्तं तावन्मात्रस्यैव प्रकरणोपयोगात्। अत एवाहुराचार्याः। ‘न चाचेतनस्याभिमुख्यं संभवति। न च पशुत्राणे प्रैषणप्रवृत्तिरुपपद्यते’ इति। चेतनाधिष्ठतत्वेऽपि ओषधीनामाभिमुख्याद्यभावः। वृक्षाद्यारोहणदर्शनेनैव चेतनाधिष्ठानत्वं कल्पनीयम्।”


Another affirmative evidence from the 1st chapter of Manusmṛti:

उद्बिज्जाः स्थावराः सर्वे बीजकाण्डप्ररोहिणः।
ओषध्यः फलपाकान्ता बहुपुष्पफलोपगाः॥४६॥
तमसा बहुरूपेण वेष्टिताः कर्महेतुना।
अन्तःसंज्ञा भवन्त्येते सुखदुःखसमन्विताः॥४९॥

elisa freschi said...

thank you, Sudipta. If I'll ever succeed in publishing an article about these topics, this will be very much because of the helpful comments I receive.

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