Ashvattha (in Sanskrit), the peepal or Pipal (Ficus Religiosa) is a very large tree. Its bark is light gray, smooth and peels in patches. Its heart-shaped leaves have long, tapering tips. The slightest breeze makes them rustle. The fruit is purple when ripe. The peepal is the first-known depicted tree in India: a seal discovered at Mohenjodaro, one of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilization.
The peepal is used extensively in Ayurveda. Its bark yields the tannin used in treating leather. Its leaves, when heated in ghee, are applied to cure wounds. The Brahma Purana and the Padma Purana, relate how once, when the demons defeated the gods, Vishnu hid in the peepal. Therefore spontaneous worship to Vishnu can be offered to a peepal without needing his image or temple. The Skanda Purana also considers the peepal a symbol of Vishnu. He is believed to have been born under this tree. Some believe that the tree houses the Trimurti, the roots being Brahma, the trunk Vishnu and the leaves Shiva. The gods are said to hold their councils under this tree and so it is associated with spiritual understanding.
The peepal is also closely linked to Krishna. In the Bhagavad Gita, he says:
“Among trees, I am the ashvattha.”
“Among trees, I am the ashvattha.”
In the Upanishads, the fruit of the peepal is used as an example to explain the difference between the body and the soul: the body is like the fruit which, being outside, feels and enjoys things, while the soul is like the seed, which is inside and therefore witnesses things.
According to the Skanda Purana, if one does not have a son, the peepal should be regarded as one. As long as the tree lives, the family name will continue.
The peepal is also sacred to Buddhists, because the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment under it. Hence it is also called the Bodhi tree or ‘tree of enlightenment’.
Some people are particular to touch the peepal only on a Saturday. The Brahma Purana explains why, saying that Ashvattha and Peepala were two demons who harassed people. Ashvattha would take the form of a peepal and Peepala the form of a Brahmin. The fake Brahmin would advise people to touch the tree, and as soon as they did, Ashvattha would kill them. Later they were both killed by Shani. Because of his influence, it is considered safe to touch the tree on Saturdays. Lakshmi is also believed to inhabit the tree on Saturdays. Therefore it is considered auspicious to worship it then. Women ask the tree to bless them with a son tying red thread or red cloth around its trunk or on its branches.
Women circumambulate the peepal tree to be blessed with children or to gain a desired thing or person. Peepal tree is planted in the temples of Shani and Hanumanji. The tree is worshipped on Saturday, especially in the month of Shravana, because goddess Lakshmi sits under the tree on this day. Any person who waters the tree is believed to earn merit for his progeny, his sorrows are redeemed and diseases cured. The peepal tree is also worshipped to escape from contagious diseases and enemies.
A peepal tree is planted to the east of the house or temple. Eight or 11 or 12 years after the tree has been planted, the upanayan ceremony is performed for the tree. A round platform is constructed around the tree. Different gods like Narayan, Vasudev, Rrukmini, Satyabhama are invoked and worshipped.
The Peepal tree is generally used to scare Shani away. It is the tree that sheltered Sita. Upon it Lord Hanuman sat and saw all the miseries of Sita. Hence this tree has a special place in the heart of Lord Hanuman or Anjeneya Swami.
To pay your respects, take a ribbon of raw thread (Kachha suta) and wrap it around the trunk while wishing that a particular problem be solved by the deities that live in the Pipal tree.
Peepal tree has a wide range of vernacular names in different locales and languages, few of them are -
अश्वत्थ - aśvatthaḥ vṛksha, pippala vṛksha
அரச மரம் - arasa maram
రావి - Raavi
araLi mara - ಅರಳಿ ಮರ
അരയാല് - Arayal
પિપળો - Pipdo
पिंपळ - pimpaL
އަޝްވަތި ގަސް - Aśvati gas
ଅଶ୍ୱତ୍ଥ - Ashwatth
බෝ bo, ඇසතු - esathu
โพธิ์ - Pho
peepal - پیپل
পিপুল / অশ্বত্থ - Ashwattha