The tree’s lesson — the importance of swadharma

The tree’s lesson

(A story illustrating the importance of swadharma)

Geetha Ganapathy

Once upon a time, in a lush, verdant land, lived three friends – a hillock, a tree, and a cloud. The hillock stood towering over all other creatures around, the tree sprouted from its soil, much like a limb grown over time. Besides being home to many varieties of flora and fauna, the two friends also contributed richly by supplying the land with food, fuel, medicinal herbs and much, much more. The cloud was content to hover above them, sometimes protecting them from the harsh sun, sometimes bringing down joyful showers or sometimes merely frolicking around much to their amusement and delight. Together, they were a happy team, genial and suffusing warmth all around.

But one day, the hillock found the tree disconcerted.

“Is something worrying you, my friend”, he enquired with concern.

The tree confessed, “Well, yes, I have been thinking about something. Have you realized that our dear friend the cloud has something that you and me can never hope to possess?”

The hillock responded with a puzzled look.

The tree continued, “The power of mobility, the freedom to move around. Don’t you want to experience it?”

The hillock laughed aloud. “Why would you want to leave this place and go elsewhere? Don’t you love what you do and aren’t we all the happiest here?”

The tree swayed his branches in vehement disagreement.

“How can you be sure that greater happiness does not exist beyond this place? All I know is that I want to experience what I never have so far. I do not want to simply be stuck here forever.”

“But how can you…” the hillock wanted to ask, but not wanting to argue further with his upset friend, stopped the discussion and left the tree alone with his thoughts.

As days rolled by, the tree became quieter, completely immersed in his newfound desire to move. The hillock was worried for his friend but there was nothing he could do. Though he knew that his friend was asking for something next to impossible, he empathized with the tree’s longing to break free. After all, he didn’t move either and to him, the beauty and richness of the wide world was limited to what he could see simply from his vantage point as the tallest structure in the vicinity.

Finally one day, the tree made up his mind and shared his plan with the hillock. The hillock shrieked in horror.

“And how do you propose to get uprooted”, he exclaimed.

“I am going to get the help of our good friend, the wind. I am going to ask him to pack in all his power and move me.”

“Don’t do this, this seems a very bad idea to me”, the hillock tried to persuade the adamant tree, but to no avail.

Finally the tree’s wish prevailed and the wind was summoned. Wise as he was, the wind, at first expectedly disagreed. But the tree (ironically) refused to budge from his stand.

“If you cannot help, I will look for some means to help myself”, he declared, stubbornly.

At the end of the futile attempt, the wind agreed and decided to fulfill the tree’s wishes. The hillock had mixed feelings. While he was happy that his friend was getting closer to seeing his plans fructified, he also knew that the tree’s plan bordered on the foolish. Ultimately, he resigned himself to the inevitable and decided to co-operate.

The next morning, as asked for, the wind gathered all his forces and blew hard at the tree, over and over again, till the mighty tree finally shook with a rumble and fell with a thud. And then as the hillock looked on in dismay, he rolled along its sides at an astonishing speed till he hit the ground below, bruised and battered.

The wind had done its job well, but the result was not what the tree wanted. As he lay helpless, he realized, a bit too late, that getting himself uprooted had not given him what he wanted. Instead, he had made himself non-functional and only brought his own end closer.

“I am, after all”, he sadly realized, “not exactly designed for movement!”

The wind, now gentler and calmer, rustled the dying tree’s leaves.

“My friend, nature has deemed a role for each of us and her design is as close to perfection as possible. You try to tamper with her plans and it helps no one. As long as you spread your roots, and firmly stood your ground, you were one of nature’s most beloved children. Your roots made sure there was enough water trapped in the ground for you and others to thrive, your sturdy trunk and branches were home to many creatures, your leaves not just provided shade but also helped in making rains, and the flowers and fruits you offered were food to many. Just the mere sight of you with your myriad colors and hues, was enough to fill one’s heart with bliss and joy. But fueled by greed and blinded by desire, look what you have done to yourself”, he sighed.

The tree listened in silence and could not but agree. And then slowly, he felt drops of water falling on him. He looked up and saw his friends, the hillock and the cloud, shedding tears of sorrow.

“I should have advised you right. I let you on your path even though I knew that it wasn’t the best thing for you. I failed in my role too. There is after all a reason why you and me have been created this way”, the hillock lamented at his own foolishness and that of his friend.

“Do not cry, my friends”, said the dying tree, who was much wiser now. “Let my experience be a lesson to all. I now understand that each one of us has a duty to do and a role to play. Shirking it and seeking to put one’s unwarranted desires above all else will neither help self nor the society.”

He then spoke to the wind, “Can you do me one last favor, my friend? Please scatter my fruits all around so that the seeds in them may grow to be my children, stronger and wiser than I am. Animals can graze on my leaves and after I am dead, people from nearby villages can cut me up and use my wood as furniture for homes and fuel for hearth. And at the end, whatever remains of me can integrate with this very soil that nurtured me and serve to enrich her in return. I am hoping to atone for my folly by doing the last useful act in my life.”

The wind nodded, “So be it, my friend. Rest in peace!”

With that, the tree breathed his last, and his dying wish was fulfilled.

And till today, we see all of nature’s children play their part and execute their roles to perfection. As human beings, nature’s most evolved children, we have a lot to learn from our co-habitants on earth in fulfilling our swadharma. If not, it will not be long before we meet the same fate as the tree’s.

श्रेयान्स्वधर्मो विगुणः परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात्‌ |

स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेयः परधर्मो भयावहः ||

(Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3. Karma-yoga, Verse 35)

It is far better to discharge one’s prescribed duties, even if faultily, than another’s duties. Destruction in the course of performing one’s own duty is better than engaging in another’s duties, for to follow another’s path is dangerous.


Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation (SVBF) is established as an international extension of the ancient Sri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri, Karnataka State, India. It is incorporated as a non-profit religious and charitable organization in the USA. The Foundation functions under the direct guidance of the Jagadguru Shankaracharya, His Holiness Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamigal of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham.

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