10. O KING OF TRESS I BOW BEFORE YOU
O King of trees! I bow before you. Brahma is in your roots, Vishnu is in your body, Shiva is in your branches. In every one of your leaves there is a heavenly being.
Amongst the new wave of people-led environmental groups in India, Trees For Life is an outstanding example of an attempt to incorporate deeply-held spiritual values into a practical environmental project. The organisation was founded in 1987 by Balbir Mathur, a dynamic international businessman who lives in America. The story of how he was led from the competitive world of business management to planting trees is worth telling.
Mathur was born and raised in Allahabad, India, in a Hindu home. His father was in the army and he attended a British school where he was taught by Catholic missionaries. Like so many of his generation, he grew up with an inferiority complex about his mother culture. “I was led to believe that Indian religion was darkness and oblivion,” he remembers, “I wanted to be like the British, who seemed to have so much power. What was it that made them so powerful and us so weak?” Wanting to throw off what he saw as the apathy he had inherited through his Hindu background, he vowed to discover the secret of Western dynamism The search eventually took him to America in the late fifties where he married an American girl and settled down as a successful management consultant. His ambition was to bring his management expertise back to India. “I desperately wanted to help restore India’s self respect now that she was an independent country,” he recalls, “but first I had to become more American than the Americans and beat them at their own game.”
Materially he found success, but in 1976, on a trip home to visit his mother, his life took an unexpected turn. While he was in Allahabad preparations were underway for the world’s largest religious festival, Kumba Mehla, which takes place every four years at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. In freezing winter temperatures several million Hindus bathe in the sacred waters at the time of the full moon. It is said that anyone who bathes there at this time is released from their karma and freed from the cycle of birth and death.
For Mathur, the festival was a mass demonstration of Hindu superstition which, besides being a waste of time and an irrelevance in modern India, was also, with its huge, densely packed crowds and lack of proper amenities, a health hazard and quite often dangerous. When in his youth his mother had taken him to visit the 1955 Kumba Mehla, he had watched helplessly as hundreds of people had been crushed to death during a freak panic in the crowd. This experience had intensified his disillusionment with Hinduism. Now, however, he was fascinated by the spectacle of the world’s largest gathering of human beings and decided to try and get the National Geographic magazine from America to cover it. Back in Washington he managed to convince them to commission him to do the job himself.
Mathur takes up the story:
“Within two weeks I was back in India in the middle of the Kumba Mehla with two photographers. On 19th January 1977 was the main event. I had been up since before dawn going round interviewing everyone I could. At around seven or eight in the morning I came back to my tent. A man appeared and told me there was a yogi there who claimed to be 350 years old! One of the traditions at Kumba Mehla is that yogis who are normally never seen come out of the forests or down from the mountains and show themselves to the crowds. Many of them claim to have special powers, and I now know that some undoubtedly do, but a lot of them are fakes who just come to enjoy the adulation of the crowd and collect money.
“So when I heard that this Baba was claiming to be 350 years old I didn’t believe it. I said don’t give me all that bunk! But the man wanted me to see for myself. He challenged me, ‘If you’re a journalist then you should examine this man – he is one of the main attractions here. You are debunking him without seeing him – how can that be?’
“I had to respond to the challenge. ‘Where is this guy?’, I said, and off we went over eight miles of sand to see him. Eventually we crossed the Ganges and reached his place. He gave me an audience, but I was unimpressed. Then it started to rain. I thought of all these innocent people who might die of exposure. Northern India in January is very cold and it really rained. People were slipping, getting lost and hurt. I forgot all about my writing and just began helping. I was very angry at all these superstitious people coming here with no proper arrangements. Around two in the afternoon it occurred to me that one of these Hindu ‘bishops’ would probably declare that the rain was a blessing from God. So I thought, ‘Before that happens let me ask the people and find out what they really feel.’
“The first person I approached was a barber sitting in the wet slushy sand. I asked him how much money he would have made if the rain hadn’t come.
“He said about 100 rupees. So I asked him how much he had made. He said around 20 rupees. So I thought I had the case sealed and tight. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘Was the rain good or bad?’
“He gave me a completely blank look. ‘Rain is an act of God. It’s neutral. How can I decide whether it’s good or bad? Who am I to judge an act of God?’
“An illiterate, poor barber! I froze. Somehow the meaning sank into me. I was speechless. I consider that barber to be my teacher. It was a turning point in my life. In the next two hours I talked to sixty-three people and all of them gave me the same answer.
“Soon after that I returned to New Delhi. I was on a busy schedule but somehow my conscience told me to go back to the Mehla. This time I went to discover what gave that barber his strength. I spent fifteen days roaming and talking to people. I realised it was not the East that should learn from the West, but the West that should learn from the East.”
From then on Mathur took an increasing interest in spiritual matters. The same energy and enthusiasm which he had previously directed at becoming a Westernised businessman he now began to dedicate to the exploration and promotion of the Hindu values he had rejected in his childhood. He began to practice yoga and regularly fasting. At the same time, back in America, he lost his previous sense of drive and his business began to fail. In 1980, after a six-day fast, Mathur vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to fighting world hunger by planting fruit trees.
Balbir Mathur had always loved trees – not in the usual way, as a horticulturalist or a naturalist – but in a mysterious and personal way. He felt drawn into deep empathy with them. Influenced by his mother and his Hindu upbringing, he had imbibed a natural sense of the dignity of trees. For the Hindu, trees are to be respected as fellow living beings, not simply a source of firewood. Particularly on account of the extreme heat of India, the shade of the tree is welcome, and the tree is looked upon as a friend.
As a child Balbir often heard his mother recite a prayer popular among devotees of Krishna which compares a tree to a humble devotee. The tree lives to a great age standing upright in scorching heat, freezing cold, wind and rain and is always prepared to give shelter to passers-by. It freely gives its fruits and flowers. Among its roots grow healing herbs. In its branches a whole host of creatures can live. If someone cuts its limbs, it remains silent and does not complain. The tree is the very symbol of tolerance and generosity. It is the model for all devotees of God to follow.
A popular Krishna story tells how two demigods were once cursed to stand as trees. They were born as twin arjuna trees in the courtyard of Krishna’s childhood home, in the forest of Vrindavana. Krishna, with His beautiful, blackish complexion and peacock feather in His hair, was God Himself playing as a mischievous child. One day, after the trees had grown to their full height, Krishna playfully pulled them down, releasing the two demigods from their imprisonment. After spending long years of penance as trees, they were much wiser than before and had become purified of their sins. They offered prayers to Lord Krishna and returned to their home in the heavenly realms.
This story illustrates the Hindu teaching that a soul is made to enter the body of a tree as a result of being too sensual. By living as a tree the soul learns patience and tolerance. While in this predicament, the living being in the body of a tree should be treated with gentleness and sympathy. To do otherwise would be to add further hardship to the great trial which that soul is already undergoing.
Influenced by this religious sensitivity to trees, and by his own inner affinity, in his childhood Balbir had actually experienced a close relationship with a tree. It was the lemon tree that grew in his garden. Each day he would get a fresh lemon from this tree for his tea. He used to say to this tree, “You have provided me so much nourishment and love, one day when I am rich I will plant thousands of lemon trees for poor people so that they too can share your nourishment.”
One day he felt as though the tree spoke to him. He never forgot that tree. “All during those years in America this lemon tree friend kept on coming back to remind me of my promise, `When are you going to do it?'”
So finally Balbir had decided to do something. He decided to begin by planting 144 lemon trees. Back in India he hired a gardener to follow him and plant a tree with fertiliser and water wherever he pointed. First he approached his mother: “I asked her, `Can I plant a tree by your house?’ She said no – she was seventy-three years old and who would take care of it? He approached other relatives and friends but they had other excuses. It seemed that no one wanted a tree on their land. Eventually with difficulty I managed to find homes for some of the trees. My real wish, though, was to plant unlimited trees, but how was I to get people interested?”
Mathur hit upon the idea of asking a local holy man to bless lemon tree saplings. The man was visited by thousands of people daily and if he were to bless the plants then perhaps some of those pious people could be persuaded to take them and grow the trees as a sacred task.
When he spoke to the holy man he received significant advice.
“I asked him to bless my lemon trees. At first he was reluctant. He said that such a project had to be ‘an act without any consequences’. If I were to act in that way then my work would be successful. He said that if I were to think even of other people’s benefit then I would also think of my own, and it would fail. If I were simply to express my soul, the world would follow.”
Mathur arranged for the man to bless 2,500 trees. Suddenly everyone wanted one because the trees were blessed. Some people stood in line all day to get one. Not only did they take the trees to plant at home, but some promised to plant many more as well. From this Mathur understood that it was not enough just to ask people to plant trees, however good the reasons may be. There had to be another dimension, a spiritual one. It was this that the holy man had hinted at in telling him that it must be an act ‘without consequences’. In other words, it had to be a spiritual act, an act of service to the Supreme. In Hindu understanding, all actions in this world have consequences, or reactions. The reaction, either good or bad, comes as a result of the desire that caused the original action. If one does some work for one’s own benefit, then one must accept the reaction, good or bad, depending on whether the original motivation was good or bad. Obviously, planting trees is a good act, and brings a good reaction, or good karma. However there is a stage beyond this: an act without any reaction, without consequence. In performing such an act there cannot be any attachment to the good result, as in the case of an ordinary good deed, done to earn a reward in this world. This is an act for the sake of God. Only such an act can be free of karma, and consequently completely selfless.
The realisation that Mathur had stumbled upon was that planting trees had to be more than a mere good deed, it had to be a transcendental action, one that appealed to the deep-seated spiritual conscience of the Indian people. By appealing to their underlying religious sense, Mathur felt he would be able to touch their deeper motivation – the same motivation that brought them in their millions to bathe in the sacred waters at the Kumba Mehla – their desire for liberation from the world of birth and death.
And so the concept of Trees For Life was born.
For five years Mathur went into the villages, finding out what it was that people wanted, what their needs really were. Not surprisingly he found that they truly wanted trees. But a number of practical conditions would have to be met for them to genuinely support any attempt by an outsider to plant trees in their villages. It was no good talking to the farmers about the world’s environmental problems. They had pressing needs of their own. Mathur had to become an instrument to fulfil those needs. All over India there are tree planting projects, usually sponsored by the government, but the success rate is appallingly low – roughly ten percent of trees planted survive their first year – because people are not motivated to care for them. For a project to succeed it had to be simple, it had to be practical, and it had to appeal to the immediate needs of the village people. “It is not a tree issue, it is a people issue”, says Mathur.
The first thing Mathur discovered was that the choice of tree was essential. In order to deserve the attention of the hard-pressed villagers, the tree should give quick returns. Mathur’s intention had always been to plant fruit trees, because they were a real means to give nourishing food where it was most needed at minimum cost. Now he devised a list of basic conditions: the trees must give nutritious fruit; they must grow quickly and give fruit within one year; they must be easy to look after and grow in poor soil; and they must be able to fit in a confined space. To meet these conditions he came up with a shortlist of five trees: lemon, papaya, banana, drum-stick and falsa.
His next discovery was that it was better to deal with the women of the village. The men were often producing cash-crops on their land and it was hard for them to give space for planting trees, no matter how nutritious they were. They were caught in the trap of always needing money for today, without being able to think of tomorrow. However, give a fruit tree to the woman of the family, for her to plant outside her back door, and she will guard it carefully. She has to feed her family, and the fruit from the tree will help her. Mathur found that the women of the villages naturally wanted to care for the trees he gave them.
After a year or two, the whole family would appreciate the value of the tree and would have established a relationship with it. It was their tree, or rather it was part of their family, just as the cow or buffalo who gave them milk or ploughed their field were, and like them it must be cared for in return for its service.
Mathur developed the lesson he had learned from the holy man who first blessed his trees. He gave the whole programme a spiritual base. Wherever possible the trees would be blessed before being given out, and Mathur himself would always emphasise that this was divine work; that to care for a tree was a sacred duty, as has always been taught in the Hindu scriptures. He published a leaflet filled with scriptural quotations glorifying trees and the act of caring for them. (see chapter end)
In Mathur’s words:
“Wherever possible, we distribute trees as prasadam (spiritual blessing), whether from temples, gurdwaras or mosques – it doesn’t matter. Westerners don’t understand this, but that doesn’t make any difference – the religious or spiritual centering of the tree is very important. Trees have a power and a language of their own which is not easy to communicate. When the holy man blessed my lemon trees, all the people who earlier weren’t interested wanted one. It is that change in the heart that is needed, the same change that I had experienced when the barber spoke to me.”
Finally, now that the families had their sanctified trees and were receiving their fruit, they may be ready to go further. The long-term goal of Trees For Life is to give people a taste for caring for trees so that they can grow such trees as mango and guava, the traditional mature trees of India, which should be found at the heart of every village and lining every road. These trees grow slowly over many years and need much more care and commitment when they are young. But they are a gift not just to one family, but to generations of villagers in the future. This is the real goal of Trees For Life.
By 1989, Trees For Life had grown into a large network of volunteers with a full-time office in Delhi. During that year they planted over 700,000 trees in villages across India.
In the same year Balbir Mathur went back to the Kumba Mehla with Trees For Life and distributed 200,000 saplings to pilgrims. Mathur believes that ninety-nine percent of these trees have now been planted and are being cared for. “You could see from the faces of the people how well they would care for them – they took them literally as their babies, the way they would take prasadam, the sacred food from the temple.”
While handing out the trees, Balbir also handed out a few postcards, to be filled in and returned as a makeshift survey of the results. Some of these eventually came back with details of the date planted and the address. On one of them was written, “You have not given us a tree, you have given us amrita, heavenly nectar.”
THE GLORY OF TREES
verses gathered by Balbir Mathur from Hindu scriptures
Trees are like good people who care for others. They have to keep standing in the sun but they give shade to others. Whatever fruits they bear they do not eat themselves, but give them to others. How kind they are.
(Vikrama Caritam 65)
The whole life of these trees is to serve. With their leaves, flowers, fruits, branches, roots, shade, fragrance, sap, bark, wood, and finally even their ashes and coal, they exist for the purpose of others.
Trees have five sorts of kindness which are their daily sacrifice. To families they give fuel; to passers by they give shade and a resting place; to birds they give shelter; with their leaves, roots and bark they give medicines.
(Varaha Purana 162, 41-42)
O tree! You bear fruits, leaves and flowers and protect people from scorching sun. Whoever comes to you in scorching heat, you take away their suffering and give them coolness. This way you surrender yourself for others. That is why you are guru of all kind people. Even the most generous person cannot do things with such devotion as you. And yet you show yourself to no one. Therefore, O tree, please accept my heartfelt respects.
(Bhamini Vilasa 89)
O tree! You are standing on the path. Live for a long time and be happy, because with your blossoms the cuckoo is happy, with your pollen the bumblebees are happy, and passers by are happy with your fruits. So live long!