Baby on the Banyan leaf

Indian Mythology 15 Comments

Published in Speaking Tree, Nov. 14, 2010


Markandeya was no ordinary sage. He had been blessed with immortality. Perhaps so that he could see and report what no one else had seen. Only he witnessed Pralaya and lived to tell its tale.

Pralaya means the end of the world. Hindus believe that just as plants die, animals die, humans die, and so does the world. The moment of death of the world is marked by the rising of the oceans. Waters rise to submerge the continents and the mountains, drowning every forest and river valley and desert and island. Nothing survives this great deluge. Markandeya witnessed this sight and was filled with fear. But the waters did not pull Markandeya down. He stayed afloat mysteriously.

Then Markandeya saw a strange sight. He saw a Banyan leaf cradled by the waves. On it he saw a radiant baby gurgling happily, sucking his right big toe. The child inhaled deeply. Markandeya found himself being sucked into the baby’s body through his nostril. Within, to Markandeya’s surprise, was the whole world, all the realms, the Lokas that stand above the sky and the Talas that are located below the earth. Surrounding these realms were oceans. In these realms were mountains and rivers and forests and all types of living creatures – plants, animals, humans, Devas, Asuras, Nagas, Yakshas, Rakshasas, Apsaras, Gandharvas. It was as if Pralaya had never happened. Every one lived as they did before, oblivious of the great calamity outside the child’s body.

Markandeya then found himself being exhaled out. He was back in the waters, surrounded by the waves, watching the baby gurgling happily on the Banyan leaf. He realized he was being given a message, a silent symbolic message. It was up to him to decipher it.

Outside the baby’s body was death, inside was life. As long as Markandeya was outside, he experienced fear and insecurity, within he experienced wonder and security. And the baby simply gurgled, unafraid and confident, fully aware that life and death were two aspects of life, rising and falling like waves in an unending ocean. The baby was God who saw the events as they were, without expectation or prejudice, unlike Markandeya.

Markandeya realized Pralaya is both real and metaphorical, objective and subjective, marking the moment when everything collapses around us, all structures break down and nothing exists to support us, when we are left with nothing to hold on to. The only thing that can take us through, like a raft, like the Banyan leaf afloat on the waves, is our faith. Faith in what? Faith in an entity that defies all change and transformation. Not everyone may have experienced this spiritual reality but everyone can imagine it. It is a state where there is no death, no change, no restlessness – only stillness, silence, serenity and immortality. This is represented in sacred art as the Banyan tree, which is why it is referred to as the Akshaya (indestructible) Vat (fig).

That God takes the form of a baby is a marker of renewal and innocence. The world collapses when innocence and purity is lost; it will be reborn once again, fresh and innocent. Why was the baby sucking his big toe? In the Purusha Sukta hymn of the Rig Veda, Markandeya knew, society is defined as a living breathing creature (Purusha) and not an impersonal organization. The head was constituted by Brahmins (philosophers), the arms by Kshatriyas (warriors), the trunk by Vaishyas (traders) and feet by Shudras (laborers). Wisdom is celebrating the whole body, especially the neglected feet. The innocent baby loves the foot and suckles on it. It does not see the feet as inferior or dirty or inauspicious. Such judgements are cultural; a child has no clue about them. Society creates values that result in one group of people justifying their domination over and suppression of another group of people. Society creates values where the head is celebrated and feet exploited and ignored. When this happens, society collapses and Pralaya follows.

What is significant also is that the right big toe is being suckled and not the left big toe. In symbolic terms, the left side of the body which is the side of the heart is associated with material reality and the right side is associated with spiritual reality. The baby looks at the spiritual side of things. He knows that differences between philosophers, warriors, traders and laborers is just superficial, of the mind and matter, of the flesh and social station. These are temporary and contextual. What is common and permanent in all of them is the soul, the spiritual reality that lives in the flesh of all those who inhabit society, from the highest to the lowest,the richest to the poorest, the strongest to the weakest. Within every flesh, is divinity. The fool focuses on the flesh, the wise focus on the soul. The fool therefore will encounter Pralaya outside divinity, the wise will always enjoy tranquility inside divinity.

  • ashish sahu

    topic mentioned banana leaf, content tells banyan leaf….

  • Gaurav Ahuja

    I just love your blogs Devdutt ji….and it reinforces my faith on divine and on myself….Thank you for being you..:)

  • uday

    It was fun reading, thanks. JaiSriKrishna.

  • Ravi

    Sir, To me it reinforces the similee “If there is calm and serenity in ‘Jammu & Kashmir’ (meaning my mind, physically located at the top of the body) then the whole of me is in Heaven; else every ‘Pradesh’ (major system in body, like stomach being symbolically represented by ‘Madhya Pradesh’) is in problem and i am in ‘Hell'”.
    With due respects, kindly get the title corrected from ‘… Banana Leaf” to “Banyan Leaf”


  • Type – the article titled Banana leaf instead of Banyan leaf.


  • Prabal

    It really does not matter, but for whatever it is worth, the title probably needs a correction from ‘Banana’ to ‘Banyan’

  • Anupam

    Wonderfully written and analysed

  • sagar


    Could not understand why is right side of body symbolize spiritual reality and left material reality????

    Thanks for such constant enlightenment



    • Sekhar

      Sagar, According to yogic science, our left side is the most active side (probably because of organs like the heart & the stomach and the right side has only liver). Moreover, the surya nadi ( ida) is on the right & the chandra nadi (pingala) on our left. Our breathing pattern changes from right to left nostril…Try to keep your hands in your nostril and you will realise which nostril you are breathing right now…. When you do spiritual activity Or Japa or Puja or think about the infinite/God either in a form or without a form, you will breath with your right nostril…But when your consciousness hovers around body( sex/physical love etc) or mind ( argue/disagree etc) or intellect ( plan/forecast etc) you breath through your left nostril..Control your breath & you will master your mind…Our ancesters kept telling us how to do this. As i am writing this, I realise that i breath with my left.

  • deepasri chowdhury

    I choose not to notice the cast system when I look at the world through my eyes. But I have never been able to get others to see my view. This story of yours is I guess one of the best ways in which this topic could be explained to those who still live in the preindependence era.
    thank you.

  • Niranjana nagpal

    Devdutt sir, kudos to you for your constant and regular efforts to educate us. You are our guru. May god’s grace always be on you and may he bless you with more wisdom and protect you from arrogance.

  • Cherry

    I am indeed indebt to you for all your articles. I ve gained so much knowledge through them… thank you….
    May God Bless you

  • Nikhil

    Awesome Stuff!!

  • shiva karadi

    I bow to your divinity Sir,..Such a clear and chiry way you described it…I was always your big FAN !!..I read lot many books of your’s..I even recommended few of my friends…your work is amazing which educates being in One’ness of world, which we need to be spiritual but not religious also…..thnq Sir..continue your good work.

  • Ritesh K R

    Interesting article…loved it..esp about the attention god gives to neglected feet…. is this why we indians touch our elder’s feet when we seek their blessings?..