The sacred fig tree (Ficus religiosa) believed to have stood on the site of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, the Bodhi tree is an important symbol in Buddhist iconography. According to Buddhist mythology, Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, becoming the Buddha. It is also known as the asvattha tree and is associated with the Hindu god Vishnu. Also known as the peepal, Bo tree or Bodhi fig tree, it derives its name from the Sanskrit and Pali words bodhi, which means “awakening” or “supreme knowledge.” Though universal in its connotations, it holds additional significance in other branches such as Tibetan and Tantric Buddhism, where it is associated with the cremation ground and is considered the dwelling place of demons or rakshasas. The most identifiable feature of the tree is its heart-shaped and long-tipped leaves, but in iconography it is usually the entire tree and only occasionally the leaf that is featured. The tree at Bodh Gaya was the central object of veneration around which the Mahabodhi temple, now a major pilgrimage site, came to be constructed at around 250 BCE.
Excavations at the site of the Bodh Gaya temple have revealed the foundations of another temple, a perimeter wall, the fully-carved slab of the symbolic diamond throne (Vajrasana) and a pillar, which is believed to have been built by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka during his reign from 250–233 BCE, to protect and commemorate the tree and the site. Evidence for the provenance and existence of this earlier temple is offered by inscriptions — in an account of his visit in the eighth Major Rock edict of Ashoka — and in images of the Bodhi tree at the the stupas at Sanchi, Bharhut and Amaravati. Accounts by Chinese travellers Fa-Hien and Hieun Tsang (or Xuanzang) of the fifth and seventh centuries CE respectively, also attest to the presence of a Bodhi tree with a railing around it.
During the aniconic phase of Buddhist art, until the first century CE, the Buddha and critical episodes of his life were represented indirectly through symbols such as the Buddhapada or a pair of footprints, the vajrasana throne, the dharmachakra or wheel of law, and the Bodhi tree, among others. In Bharhut, these are present in the numerous reliefs on the railings (vedika), pillars and gateways (toranas) of Bharhut, of which two reliefs in particular illustrate the existence of the Bodhi tree and its original dedicatory temple. In the first relief, the tree is shown rising up above the vajrasana in a pillared pavilion and flanked by the triratna symbol and vihara like structures between which is an inscription that reads: Bhagavatho Sakamunino Bodho, meaning “the illumination of the blessed Shakyamuni.” The second relief of the tree rising above the roof of a temple is considered a representation of the rear of the temple. These and scenes of devotion at the tree are recurring motifs that are consistent with those traced from the railings of the Amaravati stupa (dated to the third century BCE), as well as those on the southern and eastern gateways (of the first century BCE) and the third-century BCE pillars of the Great Stupa at Sanchi. Later, with the advent of iconic representation during the Kushana rule from the first century CE, the tree was depicted with the Buddha in meditation beneath it, such as seen in Gandharan relief sculptures and in the later sculptures of the Pala period between 800 CE and 1200 CE.
Myth has it that emperor Ashoka when still a non-believer had the Bodhi tree cut and burned down when he first came upon it. However, as he witnessed another tree grow back from the ashes, he was overcome with awe and shame and turned instantly into a believer. Later, unbeknownst to him, his wife cut down the tree again, as she believed he had failed in his task. Learning of this, Ashoka built a wall around the new tree. It is believed that it was subsequently hacked down by King Pushyamitra in the second century BCE, during his persecution of Buddhism, but again survived. It was again destroyed by King Sassanka in the seventh century CE, but later restored by the Magadha king Purna Varma, who surrounded it with a seven-metre high stone wall to prevent it being cut down again.
The tree at the Mahabodhi temple is thought to be a direct descendant of the original Bodhi tree and its sapling, planted at Jetavana monastery by the Buddha’s chief disciple Anathapindika, is considered the second-holiest tree. Among the other descendants of the tree, the Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, an Iron Age city in Sri Lanka, is believed to have grown from a cutting taken to the city by Ashoka’s daughter in the third century BCE.
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