Ancient Indian literature and Mythology is replete with names & various accounts of wide variety of Trees and Flowers. The elements of nature have always been imperative not only to worship of our Gods and Deities but they also play prominent roles in the tales of Hindu legends and myths.
Although most of the flowers viz. Jasmine, Lily or Rose are offered to Gods plucked directly from plants, ‘Parijata’ is only flower considered to be so auspicious that it can be picked up from the ground and offered to Gods. There are many interesting myths woven around this flower depicting its association with Indra’s heavenly gardens, romancing the Sun god and jealousy between Krishna’s wives.
The name ‘Parijata’ refers to Indian coral tree, night flowering coral jasmine or simple fragrance. It simply means descended from, begotten or fully developed.
The Etymology of Parjiata is “Paarinaha Samudrath jaatho va parijatah” which means it’s known as ‘Parijata’ due to its origin from Samudra (Ocean) as a result of extensive searching (Parinaha). This is where we can see the classic tale of Samudra Manthan emerging.
When the churning of ocean was collectively accomplished by Devas and Asuras with the much aid from Vishnu and Shiva, it started bestowing many distinctive gifts in the form of various mortals, immortals, divine or semi-divine creatures and assorted potion like Amrit (Nectar). Each of them claimed either by a Deva or an Asura taking those products immediately under their possession. According to this tale Devi Lakshmi emerged with Amrit and they were considered to be the vital gifts granted by Ocean. However, one most unusual and rare variety given by the Great Waters for the world was the celestial tree of Parijata which surfaced on its shores with ethereal beauty and aromatic fragrance which made everyone around ecstatic.
This mythical Parijata tree rose from Milk Ocean and was promptly claimed by Indra who planted it in his gardens. These flowers became symbol of his royalty, power and status as King of Devas. The unique species of plants was available only in Indra’s paradise garden and was matter of high pride for Indra.
Another story surrounding the tree’s origin on earth is found in several Indian scriptures narrating Krishna bringing this heavenly tree to earth. It so happened that one day, Narada bought some flowers from Indralok and gave them to Krishna, who in turn gave them to his first wife Rukmini. On seeing this, Narada the trouble maker went straight to Krishna’s third wife– Satyabhama who felt very jealous to hear this. Satyabhama insisted Krishna on getting this plant for her home instead of asking for few flowers. When Krishna and Satyabhama arrived at Indralok to borrow Parijata plant, Indra objected and eventually a battle ensued between them resulting in Indra losing the battle.
On the metaphorical level this tale is about possession of a magical tree by the divine beings residing high beyond the realm of humanity. But it could also be a way of our ancients to describe an experience of the discovery of an exquisite tree from ocean with special fragrance and medicinal value and which was eventually reserved only for élite class of society like Devas. The appearance, scent and its benefits would have been a farfetched matter for the common people of that period. Only few might have had the chance to its rare glimpse and shared that limited description with others or the ancient storytellers ignited the image of these beautiful flowers for the common folks in the sight of their imagination.
The botanical name of Parijata is Nycatanthes Arbortristis wherein Nycatanthes means ‘night flowering’ and Arbortristis means ‘sad tree’ or ‘tree of sorrow’. But contradicting to these meanings, Hindu myths describes Parijata as ‘Kalpa vruksha’ – wish fulfilling tree. And this belief would have been symbolically represented through a short folktale about Princess Parijat who fell in love with Surya- the Sun god. Surya however had a condition before marrying her that she would never turn away from him. Parijat agreed as she could never imagine going away from her beloved. They married in autumn and never knew when winter and spring flew by.
During summer when Surya’s power became immense, it became difficult for her as even nearing him would burn her. One day at noon, suddenly Surya appeared at her door and Parijat flinched for a second. Becoming angry, Surya’s power knew no bounds and Parijat wilted. On coming to his senses, Surya realised his mistake and turned to Gods for help. Gods knew how much Parijat loved Surya and they granted her another life as Tree. Surya and Parijat are not able to meet each other in day light as she still cannot bear his glow and sheds her flowers. But at night, Surya visits her and so Parijata becomes fragrant again being kissed by Sun.
This is the tale explaining one such natural phenomenon wherein while for all others plant sunlight is essential for their survival and blooming , Parijata is one such flower which can have a life only if there is no sunlight. Hence such dreamy tales and myths could be the attempts of primeval people of interpreting the functioning of Nature way prior to the birth of Science.