Bilva or Aegle Marmelos is the embodiment of Lord Shiva himself and is one of the sacred tree symbols of Hinduism. One finds the reference of this tree throughout India. In Sanskrit this is known as Bilva and in Hindi this is called Bel.
From the Hindu pantheism point of view this tree is the symbolic representation of Shiva, Parvati, Surya and Lakshmi- the Goddess of Wealth. It is said that no worship of Shiva is complete without offering Bel patra or Bilva leaf. Thus Shiva is called Vilvadanda or staff of the bel-wood. These leaves on the lingam cool and refresh the heated deity. Its trifoliate leaf or tripatra symbolises the three functions-creation, preservation and destruction:-of the Lord as well as His three eyes.”
It is forbidden to break the branches of the tree as Brahmo-daitya or Ghost Gods reside on it. In Bengal during the Durga Pooja on the ashtami (eighth day) the Goddess Durga is invoked on a twig of Bel tree. And in the prayer a devout says, “I shall get hold of thee and worship thee as the Goddess Durga. Thou art Sriphala. Thou art great virtue, and always dear to Sankara. I welcome thee, in order to invoke the Goddess Chandika.” The fruit of Bel tree is also called Sriphala because it is said the fruit is made out of the milk of Goddess Sri.
Mahant Rama Shankar of Banaras wrote quoting the Skanda Purana and explained the origin of Bilva tree, “One day while Parvati was resting some drops of sweat fell from her forehead on the mountain Mandara, from which grew the bel tree, Girija lives on the root of the tree, Maheswari on its shoulder, Dukshayani on its branches, Parvati among its leaves, Katyayani in its fruit, Gaori in its flowers while in thorns the numerous Saktis find a home. It is also believed that Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, also lives in the bel tree.” Those who perform the puja of Shiva and Parvati devoutly, using the leaves, will be endowed with spiritual powers. The leaves are-symbols of three Gunasaar
The five portions of the tree, the root, bark, leaf, flowers and fruit, also have great medicinal value and are used to cure snakebites.
From the medicinal point of view Bel fruits are very useful. In the ancient Ayurvedic system of medicine one can find ample references of usefulness of Bel for the cure for habitual constipation, dysentery and dyspepsia. In the dasamula-the famous Ayurvedic tonic, Bel is one of the ten vital ingredients. According to the Smriti those who wear amulet of Bilva, their offspring is not harmed at the time of birth and misfortune never invades the house.
Really speaking Bilva is medicinally and religiously very powerful. On the one hand it acts as a boost to health and cure for many ailments, on the other hand it has great spiritual significance which permeates the Hindu way of life.
“I offer one leaf of Bilwa to Lord Shiva,
Which has three leaves,
Which causes three qualities,
Which are like the three eyes of Shiva,
Which is like the triad of weapons,
And which destroys sins of three births.”
“In Hinduism the tree is sacred. It is used in the worship of Shiva, who is said to favor the leaves. The trifoliate leaves symbolize the trident that Shiva holds in his right hand. The fruits were used in place of coconuts before large-scale rail transportation was available. The fruit is said to resemble a skull with a white, bone-like outer shell and a soft inner part, and is sometimes called seer phael (head-fruit). However, it is quite likely that, the term ‘Seer Phal’ has coined from the Sanskrit term ‘ShreePhal, which again is a common name for this fruit. Many Hindus have bael trees in their courtyards.”
The fruit is eaten fresh or dried. If fresh, the juice is strained and sweetened to make a drink similar to lemonade. It can be made into sharbat (Hindi) or bel pana (Bengali/Oriya language), a refreshing drink made of the pulp with water, sugar, and lime juice, mixed, left to stand a few hours, strained, and put on ice. One large bael fruit may yield five or six liters of sharbat.
Significance of Sri Lakshmiji and the Bel leaves
“Born from the breasts of Goddess Lakshmi, the Bilva tree is ever dear to Mahadeva. So I ask this tree to offer a Bilva leaf to Lord Shiva. To have darshan of the Bilva tree, and to touch it, frees one from sin. The most terrible karma is destroyed when a Bilva leaf is offered to Lord Shiva.” – Sri BilvASTakam (v. 6–7)