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Do plants have life? Earliest conversation between sage Bhrigu and Bharadwaja.

In the Shan­ti Par­va of the Mahab­haratha, there is a very inter­est­ing and insight­ful con­ver­sa­tion between the two great sages, Bhrigu and Bharad­wa­ja. Bharad­wa­ja seems to think that trees do not have life and express­es the same to Bhrigu. Bhrigu not only explains how plants have life but also brings out the role played by the ele­ments in the func­tion­ing of the plant sys­tem and also elab­o­rates on the var­i­ous phys­i­o­log­i­cal process­es includ­ing tran­spi­ra­tion and pho­to­syn­the­sis, in just a few vers­es. He even attrib­ut­es the sense of touch, sound and vision to plants. Let us see each state­ment of sage Bhrigu and also look at how they are in res­o­nance with mod­ern sci­ence.

While expound­ing about the nature of real­i­ty and the role of the Pan­cha Maha Bhutas, sage Bhrigu says that all mobile and immo­bile objects are made of the five ele­ments and explains how the five sens­es of liv­ing crea­tures also par­take of the five ele­ments through var­i­ous process­es.

Bhrad­wa­ja upon hear­ing this, tries to apply this prin­ci­ple to the plants and trees gets a very relat­able ques­tion. He asks that if all mobile and immo­bile objects are com­posed of these five ele­ments, why was it that in all immo­bile objects those ele­ments are not vis­i­ble., espe­cial­ly in trees. He goes on to say, “The five ele­ments are not notice­able in the trees. Trees do not appear to have any heat. They do not seem to have any motion. They are again made up of dense par­ti­cles. Trees do not hear: they do not see; they are not capa­ble of the per­cep­tions of scent or taste. They have not also the per­cep­tion of touch. How then can they be regard­ed as com­posed of the five (pri­mae­val) ele­ments?”

Bhrigu explains:

~ Trees have life. They are not inan­i­mate.

~ Though dense, they have spaces with­in them (Akasha).

~ They con­stant­ly pro­duce fruits and flow­ers. The droop­ing of their leaves, fruits, bark and flow­ers are a con­se­quence of the prop­er­ty of heat they hold with­in them (Agni).

~ Dur­ing light­ning and thun­der, through their sounds, the trees drop their fruits. Sound is per­ceived through the ears. There­fore, the trees have the abil­i­ty to hear and per­ceive sound. (sound per­cep­tion).

~ A creep­er winds itself around a tree and goes around all its sides. A blind object, with­out vision, can­not find its way. Through this, it is also evi­dent that trees have vision per­cep­tion and can see. (sight per­cep­tion)

~ Plants drink water through their roots (explained in detail, below). Thus, they have the per­cep­tion of taste.

~ Plants are prone to sick­ness and dry­ing up. They also grow back again when cut or chopped off. They not only have the per­cep­tion of touch but are also very sus­cep­ti­ble to plea­sure and pain.

~ Trees have the inher­ent abil­i­ty to recov­er. Trees are prone to dif­fer­ent kinds of dis­eases and these dis­eases that the trees catch can be cured through dif­fer­ent oper­a­tions.

~ Trees pro­duce many kinds of flow­ers with dif­fer­ent kinds of odours — good and bad, of the sacred per­fume of diverse kinds of dhu­pas. It is plain that trees pro­duce scent.

TRANSPIRATION:

  1. In the fol­low­ing verse, Bhrigu explains the process of tran­spi­ra­tion with a very easy to under­stand exam­ple:

vak­treṇot­pala nāle­na yathord­hvaṃ jalam ādadet

tathā pavanasaṃyuk­taḥ pādaiḥ pibati pādapāḥ

As one sucks water upwards with help of lotus peti­ole, trees drink water through the roots with the help of air.

Here, using the exam­ple of a bent lotus-stalk, Bhrigu refers to the cap­il­lary action in plants which helps the plant suck up water through nar­row spaces against the force of grav­i­ty. Xylem, the plant vas­cu­lar tis­sue is made of mil­lions of tiny cel­lu­lose tubes. Water mol­e­cules rise up through these tubes through the stem up to the leaves due to the forces of cohe­sion and adhe­sion. Tran­spi­ra­tion of water through the leaves helps to pull more water from the roots. This process is called cap­il­lary action. Trees and plants can­not drink through their roots with­out cap­il­lary action.


The lotus stalk has vis­i­ble holes and cap­il­lar­ies as can be seen from the cross-sec­tion view. Bhrigu using this exam­ple to illus­trate cap­il­lary action, is again proof of their deep under­stand­ing of the micro­scop­ic world and micro­cosm.

In the Vrik­shaayurve­da by Parashara, the process of tran­spi­ra­tion in plants is explained in more detail through the plant’s vas­cu­lar cir­cu­la­to­ry sys­tems. The nutri­tive sap that is held by the Earth is called Prithvi Rasa — the ele­men­tary flu­id. This sap is absorbed by the plants through the roots. The root is called mula - that which helps fix the plant to the soil. Through it, the plant drinks the rasa from the earth. Syadani is the vas­cu­lar cir­cu­la­to­ry sys­tem of the plant that helps the roots and per­forms the func­tion of trans­port­ing the Rasa. Sira is the part of the plant’s cir­cu­la­to­ry sys­tem that helps cir­cu­late the absorbed rasa in both inward and out­ward direc­tions.

The cohe­sion-ten­sion the­o­ry explains how leaves pull water through the xylem. Water is absorbed at the roots by osmo­sis, and any dis­solved min­er­al nutri­ents (rasa) trav­el with it through the xylem. Water mol­e­cules stick togeth­er, or exhib­it cohe­sion. As a water mol­e­cule evap­o­rates from the sur­face of the leaf, it pulls on the adja­cent water mol­e­cule, cre­at­ing a con­tin­u­ous flow of water through the plant.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS:

Bharad­va­ja then asks Bhrigu what hap­pens to the water after it is absorbed by the root and enters the plant. Bhrigu explains the process of Pho­to­syn­the­sis as fol­lows:

tena taj jalam ādat­taṃ jaray­aty agn­imāru­tau

āhāra­parināmāc ca sne­ho vṛd­dhiś ca jāy­ate

Fire (from the sun and inter­nal heat) and wind (caron diox­ide) cause the water thus sucked up to be digest­ed and aids in the pro­duc­tion of food in the plant. Accord­ing, again, to the quan­ti­ty of the water tak­en up, the tree advances in growth and becomes humid.

The process of pho­to­syn­the­sis by which plants con­vert the sun­light and car­bon diox­ide into sim­ple sug­ars and oxy­gen is thus referred to by sage Bhrigu.

This also, in align­ment with mod­ern tran­spi­ra­tion the­o­ry estab­lish­es that the rate of tran­spi­ra­tion is direct­ly influ­enced by the tem­per­a­ture, sun­light and sur­round­ing air. In active­ly grow­ing plants, water is con­tin­u­ous­ly evap­o­rat­ing from the sur­face of leaf cells exposed to air, caus­ing a neg­a­tive pres­sure (suc­tion force) in the xylem that pulls water from the roots and soil.

Pre­sent­ing the above points, sage Bhrigu estab­lish­es thus: “From these cir­cum­stances, I see that trees have life. They are not inan­i­mate.”

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