Forests have always been central to Indian civilization. It represented the feminine principle in prakrti. In the Hindu pantheon, forests have been worshipped as Goddess Aranyani, the Goddess of the Forests and Animals that dwell within them. Forests are the primary source of life and fertility. The forest as a community has been viewed as a model for societal and civilizational evolution.
The Indian civilization was guided by the diversity, harmony and self-sustaining nature of the forest. Aranya means forest. The Aranyakas form the third part of the Vedas. They were developed by the hermits, living in the forests. They reflect an explicit transition in the philosophy of life of man. So ‘Aranya Samskriti’ the culture of the forest was not a condition of primitiveness but one of conscious choice. Indian culture considers the forest as the highest form of cultural evolution.
As a source of life nature was venerated as sacred and human evolution was measured in terms of man’s capacity to merge with her rhythms and patterns intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. The forest thus nurtured an ecological civilization in the most fundamental sense of harmony with nature. Such knowledge that came from participation in the life of the forest was the substance not just of Aranyakas or forest texts, but also the everyday beliefs of tribal and peasant society.
The forest as the highest expression of the earth’s fertility and productivity is symbolised in yet another form as the Earth Mother, as Vana Durga or Tree Godess. In Bengal she is associated with Avasthhaor or Banbibi, the lady of the forest. In Comilla, Bangla Desh, she is Bamani, in Assam she is Rupeswari. In folk and tribal cultures especially, trees and forests are also worshipped as Vana Devatas or forest deities. In the Southern Indian states, the concept of Vana Devatas means forest spirits.
ARANYANI: She is the Hindu goddess of the woods, forest and animals that dwell within them. Goddess Aranyani has been worshipped in India for centuries as a representation of the highest expression of life and fertility. She governs the forests and is the protectress and the guardian of animals. She is the mother of them all. Aranyani has been described as elusive and fond of quiet glades in the jungle. She is fearless of remote places. She is a rarely seen deity who is recognized in the sounds of the trees, particularly at dusk. The tinkling sounds of her anklets with bells can be heard while she is seldom seen. She seems to be dancing all the time as if she is tilling the lands while dancing. Rigvedic hymns describe how she wanders so far from the fringe of civilization. There seems to be no temple dedicated to her.
EARTH GODDESS: The dravidian Goddess Kali was already a divinity as well as a personification of forest phenomena. Durga is a mother goddess originating in the Vindhya forest as the vivifying force of the forests.
DEVI MAHATMYA: The sacred tree serves as an image of the cosmos, a symbol of the inexhaustible source of cosmic fertility. The Earth Mother as the primordial Mother says: O ye gods, I shall support or nourish the whole world with life-sustaining vegetables which shall grow out of my body, during a period of heavy rain. I shall gain fame on earth then as Goddess Shakhambari, Goddess who feeds the herbs, and in that period, I shall slay the great asura named Durgama, a personification of drought. 90:43:44.
RIG VEDA: The Rig Veda Hymn in Book 10, Hymn 146 gives a very poetic description of the Goddess Aranyani in the forest setting: Hymn CXLVI is dedicated to her. It is also repeated in Taittiriya Brahmana.
1. GODDESS of wild and forest who seemest to vanish from the sight. How is it that thou seekest not the village? Art thou not afraid?
2 What time the grasshopper replies and swells the shrill cicala's voice, Seeming to sound with tinkling bells, the Lady of the Wood exults.
3 And, yonder, cattle seem to graze, what seems a dwelling-place appears: Or else at eve the Lady of the Forest seems to free the wains.
4 Here one is calling to his cow, another there hath felled a tree:
At eve the dweller in the wood fancies that somebody hath screamed.
5 The Goddess never slays, unless some murderous enemy approach. Man eats of savoury fruit and then takes, even as he wills, his rest.
6 Now have I praised the Forest Queen, sweet-scented, redolent of balm,The Mother of all sylvan things, who tills not but hath stores of food.
TAPOVAN: Contemporary western civilization is built of brick and wood. It is rooted in the city. But Indian civilization has been distincitve in locating its source of regeneration, material and intellectual, in the forest, not the city. India’s best ideas have come where man was in communion with trees and rivers and lakes, away from the crowds. The peace of the forest has helped the intellectual evolution of man. The culture of the forest has fuelled the culture of Indian society. The culture that has arisen from the forest has been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life which are always at play in the forest, varying from species to species, from season to season, in sight and sound and smell. The unifying principle of life in diversity, of democratic pluralism, thus became the principle of Indian civilization.
Not being caged in brick, wood and iron, Indian thinkers were surrounded by and linked to the life of the forest. The living forest was for them their shelter, their source of food. The intimate relationship between human life and living nature became the source of knowledge. Nature was not dead and inert in this knowledge system. The experience of life in the forest made it adequately clear that living nature was the source of light and air, of food and water: Rabindranath Tagore.
OTHER FOREST GODDESS: Other forest Goddesses of note linked to Aranyani are the Gallic Goddess, Arduninna; the Serbian Goddess Dziewona; Italian Goddess Silvanus and the Siberian Goddess Yobin-Pogil. Of note is the Celtic Goddess Abnoba or Dianae Abnobae. She is also known as Abnoba the Huntress. Her symbols are the forest, the rivers running though the Black Forest and others. There seem to be no known images for her but she is worshipped as The Black Forest, by a river bank, mountain in the Black Forest and shrines.
Abnoba was the Celtic Goddess of the Black Forest in Germany. Anoba means ‘wetness’ or ‘river’. She is also associated with fertility and women’s rites. She is also goddess of childbirth and a number of rivers such as the famous river in England flowing through the town where Shakespeare was born. She is also the Huntress Goddess. Abnoba maybe a minor Goddess for Romans widely worshipped throughout Europe. Dziewona the Goddess of the wild woodlands for the Serbians, Czechs and Poles and Goddess Danu of the Celts might be closely linked with her. Unfortunately, just like the great forests of Europe, real information about her is scattered, diminished and mostly lost.