What do the three parts of the Bilva leaf symbolise?

The Bilva leaf has immense significance in the worship of Lord Shiva. The Bilvāṣtakam extols the virtues of the Bilva leaf and Lord Shiva’s love for it:

Tridalaṁ triguṇākāraṁ trinetraṁ ca triyāyudhaṁ
trijanma pāpasaṁhāram ekabilvaṁ ṣivārpaṇaṁ

I offer the Bilva leaf to Lord Shiva. This trifoliate leaf embodies the three qualities of sattva (goodness), rajas (passion) and tamas (inertia). The three leaflets are symbolic of the three eyes of Lord Shiva. Wielding the power of three weapons, it destroys sins committed in three earlier births. I worship Lord Shiva with the sacred Bilva Leaf.

Furthermore, the three segments of the Bilva leaf represent the Holy Trinity – Lord Brahmā Vishnu and Shiva:

Mūlato brahmarūpāya madhyato Viṣṇurupiṇe
agrataḥ śivarupāya ekabilvaṁ ṣivārpaṇaṁ

The lower part of the Bilva is Lord Brahma, the middle is Lord Vishnu and the upper tip is Lord Shiva himself. I worship Lord Shiva with the Bilva Leaf.

The origin of the Bilva leaf

All leaves and flowers that transude milk from different parts of their foliage are believed to be dear to Lord Shiva. According to Hindu mythology, the Bilva leaf has emerged from the heart of Goddess Lakshmi. The sixth śloka of the Bilvāṣtakam elucidates this beautifully:

Lakṣmyā stanuta utpannaṁ mahādevasya ca priyaṁ
Bilvavrkṣaṁ prayacchāmi ekabilvaṁ ṣivārpaṇaṁ

This sacred Bilva tree has emerged from the heart of Goddess Lakshmi and is dear to Mahādev. I offer the Bilva leaf to the Lord.

The Bilva tree is suffused with milk that is the very essence of Goddess Lakshmi. This manifestation of the love of the divine mother that oozes milk from the stalk of the Bilva leaf is pleasing to Lord Shiva. The act of chanting the name of Lord Shiva through His various mantras, under the Bilva tree has immense significance:

Darśanaṁ bilvavṛkṣasya sparśanaṁ pāpanāśanam
aghorapāpasaṁhāraṁ ekabilvaṁ ṣivārpaṇaṁ

Beholding the Bilva and coming in contact with it destroys all sins. The most terrible deed is destroyed when a Bilva leaf is offered to Lord Shiva. I perform worship for Lord Shiva with the holy Bilva Leaf.

There is another legend that exalts the importance of the Bilva leaf. It is recited on Mahashivratri. One night a hunter who was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva lost his way in the forest. While wandering at night, he heard the growls of wild animals. Frightened, he scurried up the nearest tree. Coincidentally, it was a Bilva tree. He spent the night up there, out of the reach of tigers. To keep himself awake, he kept plucking and dropping the Bilva leaves while chanting the name of Lord Shiva. The next morning, when he climbed down, he had unknowingly dropped thousands of leaves on a Shiva Linga. The night-long worship pleased Lord Shiva who saved him and granted him a boon. Such is the glory of the Bilva leaf!

The Bilva tree itself is believed to be sacred, having sacrificial importance. It is the very abode of all pilgrimages. Watering the roots of the Bilva tree awards spiritual benefit equivalent to taking a scared dip at the waters of all holy pilgrimages. The Bilva leaf should be offered in an upside-down position to Lord Shiv.

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