One problem facing scholars trying to understand ancient polytheistic religions is that most of these religions have no modern believers or practitioners. Scholars must rely on ancient texts, artwork, artifacts and objects, but there’s no living believer to answer questions, nor is there any way we can observe the ancient rituals and practices.
An important exception to this general rule is Hinduism, where, after almost 3,000 years, priests still continue to perform their rituals, sacrifices and temple rites; it’s as if ancient Egyptian priests were still worshipping in functioning Egyptian temples. By observing Hindu rituals, we can sometimes gain insights into the broadly parallel rituals of religions of biblical times.
An interesting example of this is the case of Asherah and tree veneration described in the Bible. The King James Old Testament often describes "groves" as sites of religious ritual usually condemned by the biblical authors. The Israelites are repeatedly commanded to “overthrow (the Canaanite) altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:3; cf. Exodus 34:14; Deuteronomy 7:5, 16:21). These “groves” are said to be made of “wood” (Judges 6:25), which can be “planted" (Deuteronomy 16:21), “cut down” (Deuteronomy 7:5) and “burned” (Deuteronomy 12:3). The groves are obviously religious shrines; they include altars, “pillars” and images of gods (Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:3) that are “under green trees” (1 Kings 14:3; 2 Kings 17:10; Jeremiah 17:2). Groves are served by “prophets” (“nabi”) (1 Kings 18:19).
Israelites are commanded not to “plant a grove of trees near unto the altar of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 16:21). Worshipping at these groves is "evil in the sight of the LORD” (Judges 3:7; 1 Kings 14:15, 16:33, 21:3; 2 Chronicles 24:18). Reforming Israelite kings such as Hezekiah and Josiah are praised for destroying the groves associated with the Israelite temple (2 Kings 18:4, 23:4-6; 2 Chronicles 14:3, 17:6, 31:1).
The English word “grove" in all of these passages is translated from the Hebrew “Asherah,” a name that we now know referred to an ancient goddess worshipped at religious shrines associated with a sacred tree (or a large pole made from a tree). These shrines included a tree, an altar for offerings, pillars and images of the goddess. Functioning Asherah shrines haven’t existed in the Near East for nearly 1,500 years, so it’s very difficult to get a complete impression of what they were like.
But in Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism, similar tree veneration is still widespread and, remarkably, includes all of the elements of Asherah tree veneration described in the Bible. It’s likely that such veneration of sacred trees is a prehistoric and nearly global phenomenon.
In South Asia, many Buddhist temples or monasteries have a sacred Bodhi tree, purporting to be a cutting from the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment in north India. These Bodhi shrines include images of the Buddha, places for offering flowers and oil lamps, and the practice of hanging colored cloth at the shrine.
Most Hindu temples have sacred trees as well. The Munesvaram Temple, near Chilaw, Sri Lanka, is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Near the temple, a large tree is venerated by a sacred pool. The shrine around the tree includes an altar and an image of the major god being worshipped — in this case, Ganesh. His image has been anointed, dressed with garments, festooned with garlands of flowers, and provided with offerings of fruit, liquids, flowers, incense and oil lamps. All of these practices were also found in biblical temple offerings (Exodus 22:29, 25:31-33, 30:7-8; Leviticus 23:40; 1 Kings 6:29), where women are said to have woven cloth to hang on the groves (2 Kings 23:6). The tree is also surrounded by what the Bible would have called “pillars” (Hebrew: “massebah”), which were raised stone pillars dedicated to a god and often carved with his or her image. Such sacred trees can also be found inside the temple itself.
In these South Asian tree shrines, we find broad parallels to all of the elements described in the Asherah shrines in the Bible. Thus, although the specific characteristics are quite different, the broad pattern of tree veneration in South Asia can provide interesting insights into religious shrines and practices described in the Bible.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.