Rain-makers: The Sacred Bodhi Tree

Śrī Maha Bodhi
The Sacred Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura

Part One

By J.B. Disanayaka
from Water in Culture: The Sri Lankan Heritage

The king had the power to cause rain and among some of the sacred objects he used to achieve this objective were trees that were considered sacred. The belief that certain trees could cause rain is commonplace among primitive cultures. Relics of tree worship are found even in modern Europe. Sir James George Frazer, in his monumental work, ‘The Golden Bough' has amassed a wealth of information about trees that have rain­making powers. (13.82)

The most sacred tree that Buddhists hold in veneration is the tree that botanists have identified as ‘ficus religiosa'. In Sanskrit and Pali, it is called the bodhi tree, because the founder of Buddhism, the Buddha, attained Enlightenment or bodhi at the foot of such a tree in Bodh Gaya (in the present North Indian state of Bihar). The Sinhalese call it the Bo tree.

The Buddhists believe that the bodhi tree is endowed with many magical powers which no other tree in the world possesses. It derives its magic from its associations with the life of the Buddha. In contagious magic, an object that has any physical link with a being is as powerful as the being himself.

The physical link that gives the bodhi tree its power is two-fold: firstly, the fact that the Buddha sat under this tree at the moment of his Enlightenment, and secondly the fact that he spent a whole week, the second week after his Enlightenment, gazing at this tree with motionless eyes.

"In the memorable forenoon, immediately preceding the morn of his enlightenment" writes Mahathera Narada, "as the Buddha was seated under the Ajapala banyan tree in close proximity to the Bodhi tree, a generous lady named Sujata, unexpectedly offered him some rich milk rice specially prepared by her with great care. This substantial meal he ate, and after his enlightenment the Buddha fasted for seven weeks, and spent a quiet time, in deep contemplation, under the bodhi tree and in its neighbourhood" (21.27).

The second week after his enlightenment was uneventful but for the silent lesson of gratitude he taught to the world. Says Mahathera Narada: "As a mark of profound gratitude to the inanimate Bodhi tree that sheltered him during his struggle for enlightenment, he stood at a certain distance gazing at the tree with motionless eyes for one whole week. Following his example, his followers in memory of his enlightenment still venerate not only the original Bodhi tree but also its descendants (21.29). Since the Buddha is endowed with the power to produce rain, the bodhi tree which has had physical links with the Buddha is also endowed with similar powers.

In the life story of the Buddha there are several instances in which he was associated with rain­making. There was once a severe drought in the North Indian state of Bihar and one of the cities that was affected by it was the capital city of the Licchavis of the Vajji kingdom, Vesali, on the banks of the Ganges. Food became scarce and many died of hunger and disease. People complained to the ruler who convoked a general assembly where it was decided to invite the Buddha to visit the city. At this time the Buddha was spending his time in a neighbouring kingdom, on the other side of the Ganges. The Buddha accepted the invitation and visited the drought-stricken city. "As soon as the Buddha set foot in the Vajjian territory, there was a thunderstorm and rain fell in torrents" (20.941)

Part II | Part III