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Is the Udumbara tree really a "strangler fig"? (SN 46.39)


#1

This is about this passage from SN 46.39:

“santi, bhikkhave, mahārukkhā aṇubījā mahākāyā rukkhānaṃ ajjhāruhā, yehi rukkhā ajjhārūḷhā obhaggavibhaggā vipatitā senti. katame ca te, bhikkhave, mahārukkhā aṇubījā mahākāyā rukkhānaṃ ajjhāruhā, yehi rukkhā ajjhārūḷhā obhaggavibhaggā vipatitā senti? assattho, nigrodho, pilakkho, udumbaro, kacchako, kapitthano. ime kho te, bhikkhave, mahārukkhā aṇubījā mahākāyā rukkhānaṃ ajjhāruhā, yehi rukkhā ajjhārūḷhā obhaggavibhaggā vipatitā senti.
“Bhikkhus, there are huge trees with tiny seeds and huge bodies, encirclers of other trees, and the trees which they encircle become bent, twisted, and split. And what are those huge trees with tiny seeds and huge bodies? The assattha, the banyan, the pilakkha, the udumbara, the kacchaka, and the kapitthana: these are those huge trees with tiny seeds and huge bodies, encirclers of other trees, and the trees which they encircle become bent, twisted, and split.

Ven. Bodhi notes:

These trees are all of the type known as strangling figs. On their behaviour I cannot do better than to quote from E.J.H. Corner’s Wayside Trees of Malaya, cited by Emeneau, “The Strangling Figs in Sanskrit Literature,” pp. 347-49: Fig-trees whose trunks are composed of a basket-work of interlacing and anastomosing roots are called strangling figs because normally they begin life on other trees and gradually squeeze them to death. Birds, squirrels, and monkeys, which eat the fruits, drop the seeds on the branches of the forest-trees, where they grow into epiphytic bushes that hold on by strong roots encircling the branches. From thence their roots spread down the trunk of the supporting tree to the ground, where they grow vigorously. Side-roots encircle the trunk, joining up with other side-roots where they touch, and aerial roots grow down into the soil from various heights… [T]he supporting trunk becomes enveloped in a basket of fig-roots and the branches of the fig-bush begin to spread widely through the crown of its support. As the fig-roots and their supporting trunk increase in thickness they press upon each other, but the fig-roots, being the stronger, slowly crush the bark of the support against its wood, with the effect that the supporting trunk is gradually ringed, and its limbs begin to die back, its crown becoming stag-headed and uneven. A long struggle ensues between parasite and host, but if the fig-plant is vigorous it surely kills its support and finally stands in its place on a massive basket of roots.
Two Jātaka stories (Nos. 370 and 412) use the strangling fig to drive home the lesson that one should never tolerate the slightest evil, for while evil may appear innocuous in its origins it eventually proves fatal.

However, the udumbara tree is everywhere referenced as Ficus racemosa, and this fact sheet says explicitly that it is not a strangler fig. Meanwhile, drawing on ven. Bodhi’s above remark, we find on wikipedia that “The uḍumbara is one of several trees known as “strangler figs””.

Even though ven. Bodhi’s explanation makes partial sense, is the statement in bold above to be regarded as accurate?

Does anyone have a digital copy of “The Strangling Figs in Sanskrit Literature”?


#2

As for ‘kacchako’ it has apparently not been identified and for ‘kapitthano’, PTSD says ‘=kapiṭhana’, where in turn it says ‘the tree Thespesia populneoides’ which is also not a strangler, apparently. Provided this is accurate, then either ven. Bodhi’s statement suffers a second weakening fact or the dictionary is wrong.


#3

Not related to the OP; but boy, is the new typeface’s bold not so… bold.


#4

I think perhaps the function of similes is to elucidate the meaning. Udumbara might be another tree.


#5

Just heard the news of Mary Oliver’s passing. This is from her collection Dream Work.

Banyan

Something screamed
from the fringes of the swamp.
It was Banyan,
the old merchant.

It was the hundred-legged
tree, walking again.

The cattle egrets
flew out into the sunlight,
like so many pieces of white ribbon.

The watersnakes slipped down the banks
like green hooks and floated away.

Banyan groaned.
A knee down in the east corner buckled,
a gray shin rose and the root,
wet and hairy,
sank back in, a little closer.

Then a voice like a howling wind deep in the leaves said:
I’ll tell you a story
about a seed.

About a seed flying into a tree, and eating it
little by little.

About a small tree that becomes a huge tree
and wants to travel.

Listen, said the voice.
This is your dream.

I’m only stopping here for a little while.
Don’t be afraid.