Thursday, April 22, 2010
The Seven Sacred Plants of India
Humans have long understood the medicinal properties of plants and have imbued trees, plants and flowers with spiritual properties. In a cave in northern Iraq dating to 60,000 – 80,000 BP lay a neatly buried Neanderthal strewn with medicinal flowers (including yarrow, cornflower and grape hyacinth). This person may have been a shaman or healer. Archeologists found remains of garlands strung with gold in burials unearthed in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor in Egypt. In ancient Egypt, garlands were worn by loved ones of the deceased and left at the gravesite, just as we do today. And in the Alpine region on the border of present-day Austria and Italy, a 3,000 year old mummy (the Iceman or Oetzi) was found with tattoos. There is evidence that his tattoos were therapeutic since they were filled with a mixture of burned herbs and applied to acupuncture points (9, 12, 13, 15)
In India, the Indus Valley civilization thrived from 2,600 – 1,900 BP with cities, agriculture, organized religion and sophisticated art and architecture. Some researchers believe that the Vedic culture and early Sanskrit civilization (with early elements of Hinduism) arose from this Indus Valley civilization. Since ancient times, trees and plants have been considered sacred for a variety of reasons: a close association with a deity (neem and tulsi with Lord Krishna); sheltering an object of worship; belief that the plant was created from body of a god (the Flame of the Forest from the body of Lord Brahma); proximity to a sacred act (Buddha’s enlightenment under the peepal tree); and finally, a major role in the local ecology or economy.
Early Vedic texts describe the energies within plants and their use as medicine. The Rig Veda describes plants and their actions. The Atharva Veda mentions the therapeutic uses of plant medicines in greater detail. Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, the two classic Ayurvedic texts classified all medicinal substances into three groups: vegetable, animal and mineral origin. Astanga Hrdaya and Astanga Samgraha deal with Ayurveda material medica.
According to the Atharva Veda, all of creation is a part of the cosmic web. This web was created by the one Supreme Spirit and is beyond all relative creation. The Supreme Spirit is within each person, so humans have the capacity to remold the web into a divine life on earth. Humans as well as devas/gods affect the web through their actions. Humans, societies, animals, and nature are all interdependent. When the energies are in balance, we have health and when they fall out of balance, we experience disease. This is true at both the individual and societal level.
Ayurveda texts describe a set of specific plants, alone or in combination as rasayana (nourishing the essence of life). Each herb embodies energies/vibrations that match an energy/vibration in the human body. Nature uses the same materials when creating plants, minerals, mantras, and human bodies. According to the Vedic sages, the building blocks of nature (subtle vibrations) are universal. Due to this belief in the likeness within all of nature, herbs, sounds, gemstones, colors, aromas, and foods all act as medicine when used properly. (2: pages 221 – 222; 7: pages 12 – 13; 8: page 140; 11, 16)
For this paper, I selected the following seven medicinal plants: amalaki, champaka, jasmine, neem, sandalwood, tulsi, and vetvier. For each plant, I listed their sacred associations, dosha effects, energetics, indications, actions and included a brief description of the plant, its distribution and uses. I plan to continue studying herbs and their sacred associations. Another goal is to study native Northwest plants and apply Ayurvedic concepts to their use.
Amla or Amalaki (Emblica officinalis)
Sanskrit name: Dhatri (mother, nurse)
Other Name: Indian Gooseberry
Sacred association: worshipped as Mother Earth in Hinduism
Part used: fruit, seeds, root, bark
Dosha effect: balances all three doshas, but pita in particular
Energetics: all tastes but salty, predominantly sour/cooling/sweet
Dhatus: works on all tissue elements and increases ojas
Systems: circulatory, digestive, excretory
Indications: Bleeding disorders, hemorrhoids, anemia, diabetes, gout, vertigo, gastritis, colitis, hepatitis, osteoporosis, constipation, biliousness, weak liver or spleen, premature graying or hair loss, general debility and tissue deficiency
Actions: nutritive tonic, rejuvenative, aphrodisiac, laxative, stomachic, astringent, haemostatic
Precautions: acute diarrhea, dysentery
Preparation: decoction, powder, confection
Amalaki is one of the strongest rejuvenatives in Ayurvedic medicine. The Charaka Samhita says it is the best of medicines to prevent aging. It rebuilds and maintains new tissues and increases red blood cell count and ojas. Amalaki cleanses the mouth, strengthens the teeth, nourishes bones, and causes hair and nails to grow. It improves eyesight, bleeding of gums, and relieves inflammation of the stomach and colon. It is very high in vitamin C (3,000 mg per fruit). It improves appetite, cleanses intestines and regulates blood sugar.
Amalaki includes all tastes but salty and is predominantly sour/cooling/sweet. It is sattvic in quality and gives good fortune, love and longevity – it is itself a long-living tree. It calms and balances the emotions of mothers who behave angrily towards their children. For children who have lost their mothers, it fills them with the sense that their mother is there.
Five grams of the powder, mixed in one cup of warm water, can be taken twice a day as a general tonic. It is used as a paste applied to the head for mental disorders. Triphala is a mixture of amalaki, haritaki and bibhitaki. It is the main ingredient in the famous medicinal jam chyavanaprasha, used for treating respiratory complaints and for rejuvenation.
It is also used in inks, shampoos and hair oils. (3: pages 157 – 158; 6: page 156; 7: pages 72 – 73; 16)
Champaka (Michelia champaca)
Sanskrit Name: Champaka
Other Names: Champaca, Champak, Champa
Sacred associations: offered to Lord Shiva as well as to Lord Krishna; it forms one of the darts of Kamadeva, the Hindu God of Love; flowers are also associated with Maitreya, the eighth Buddha.
Part used: flowers
Dosha effect: lowers pitta and kapha; increases vata in excess
Energetics: cooling, moisturizing
Dhatus: skin, reproductive
Actions: emollient, antipyretic, aphrodisiac
Aroma: delicately floral, sweet, reminiscent of neroli, ylang ylang, with some notes recalling clary sage
Champaca is a slender, medium sized evergreen tree related to the magnolia. The flowers range from pale yellow to deep orange and resemble a double narcissus. The absolute derived from champa is a brownish-orange liquid with a fresh, grassy top note that evolves into a delicately sweet, tealike fragrance with leafy undertones. It lends a floral, leafy note to perfume compositions and mixes well with rose, violet, sandalwood, rosewood, jasmine, cypress, lotus and vetvier. It can transport you to an enlightened point of reference. It is useful for irritated skin. On special occasions, closed buds are used to adorn women’s heads. Throughout the evening, the buds open, providing an elegant contrast with the women’s hair and releasing a scent reminiscent of tea, orange blossoms, and ylang ylang. The flowers are also floated in bowls of water to scent the room, as a fragrant decoration for bridal beds, and for garlands and hair ointments.
In addition to its use in incense, perfumes and cosmetics, the flowers are used to treat fever, venereal diseases, head ache and eye disorders. The wood is used for making posts, boards and furniture. (1: pages 114 – 115; 5: page 306; 11)
Jasmine (Jasminum officinale)
Persian Name: Jasmine (gift from the god)
Other Name: None
Sacred associations: associated with Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu (Arabian Jasmine tree)
Parts used: flowers
Dosha effect: lowers kapha and pitta; increases vata (in excess)
Energetics: bitter, astringent/cooling/pungent
Dhatus: plasma, blood, bone, marrow
Indications: emotional disturbances, headaches, fever, sunstroke, conjunctivitis, dermatitis, burning urethra, bleeding disorders, bacterial or viral infections, cancer of lymph nodes, bone cancer, Hodkin’s disease
Actions: Analgesic (mild), antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, carminative, cicatrisant, expectorant, galactagogue, parturient, sedative and a tonic for the uterus.
Precautions: severe chills, high Vata
Preparation: infusion (hot or cold, do not boil), powder, paste, medicated oil
Jasmine is an evergreen shrub or vine growing up to 10 meters high with delicate bright green leaves and star-shaped very fragrant white flowers. Jasmine is native to China, northern India and west Asia; and is cultivated in the Mediterranean, China and India. Sattvic in quality, Jasmine increases love and compassion. It carries psychic influences, makes the mind receptive and radiate the vibrations of mantras. Jasmine flowers are strongly cooling and calming. Their blood-cooling effects include strong antibacterial, antiviral and antitumor actions to stop bleeding. They strengthen the lymphatic system and are helpful in different kinds of cancer, including breast cancer. Jasmine is excellent for fevers and the oil helps relieve sunstroke. The whole flower is used for removing intestinal worms and is also used to jaundice and venereal diseases. The flower buds are useful in treating ulcers, vesicles, boils, skin diseases and eye disorders. The leaf extracts acts against breast tumors.
In China, one variety is used to treat hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and dysentery; the flowers of another variety are used for conjunctivitis, dysentery, skin ulcers and tumors. The root is used to treat headaches, insomnia, pain due to dislocated joints and rheumatism. In the west, the common jasmine was said to ‘warm the womb’… and facilitate birth; it is useful for cough, difficulty in breathing, etc.
Jasmine oil is used extensively in the production of perfumes and incense. The concrete is produced in Italy, France, Morocco, Egypt, China, Japan, Algeria and Turkey; the absolute is primarily produced in France. Jasmine essential oil (concrete or absolute) is non-toxic, non-irritant, generally non-sensitizing and is good for dry, irritated and sensitive skin. It is also good for muscular spasms and sprains. It is helpful to treat depression, nervous exhaustion, and stress-related conditions. ‘It produces a feeling of optimism, confidence, and euphoria. It is most helpful to treat apathy, indifference, or listlessness.’(3: Page 176; 4: Pages 111 – 113; 11)
Neem (Azadiracta indica; Meliaceae)
Sanskrit Name: Nimba (bestower of good health)
Other Names: Indian Lilac
Sacred associations: one of the most sacred trees and is considered to be of divine origin; amrita (the elixir of immortality) was being carried to heaven and a few drops of it fell on the Neem tree; people believe the tree to be a manifestation of Goddess Durga; in some areas, the tree itself is believed to be a Goddess called Neemari Devi
Parts used: bark and leaves
Dosha effect: lowers pitta and kapha; increases vata
Energetics: bitter/cooling pungent
Dhatus: plasma, blood, fat
Indications: skin diseases (urticaria, eczema, ringworm), parasites, fever, malaria, cough, thirst, nausea, vomiting, diabetes, tumors, obesity, arthritis, rheumatism, jaundice
Actions: bitter tonic, antipyretic, alterative, anathematic, antiseptic, antiemetic
Precautions: diseases of cold and tissue deficiency generally
Preparation: infusion (hot or cold), decoction, powder, paste, medicated ghee or oil
The Neem tree, a member of the mahogany family grows throughout India. The history of the Neem tree is inextricably linked to the history of the Indian civilization. For centuries Indians planted this tree in the vicinity of their homes and practiced daily interaction with the plant. Neem proved an invaluable source of health, hygiene and beauty that was freely available. Having a bath with a decoction of Neem leaves keeps one’s skin supple and healthy. Neem leaf powder or crushed leaves incorporated into face packs provides emollient action. The antiseptic properties of Neem leaf extracts help control pimples and acne.
Neem is one of the powerful blood purifiers and detoxifiers in Ayurveda. Its medicinal properties are documented in the ancient Sanskrit texts and it is estimated that Neem is present, in one form or another, in 75% of Ayurvedic formulations. It cools fever and clears toxins in most inflammatory skin diseases or those found in ulcerated mucous membranes. It is a powerful febrifuge, effective in malaria and other intermittent and periodic fevers.
Neem can be taken whenever a purification or reduction program is indicated. It clears away all foreign and excess tissue, and possesses a supplementary astringent action that promotes healing. It is one of the best healing and disinfectant agents for skin diseases and anti-inflammatory for joint and muscle pain.
It is believed that Neem oil prevents baldness and graying of hair and has been used as anti-lice and anti-dandruff treatment. A teaspoon of dried Neem leaf powder, mixed with the same quantity of ghee (clarified butter) and honey helps control skin allergies. (3: Pages 178 – 180; 11; 14)
Sandalwood (Santalum album)
Sanskrit Name: Candanam
Other Name: None
Sacred associations: associated with Lord Dharukavaneswarar; used for rituals and ceremonies and in temples
Part used: wood and volatile oil
Energetics: bitter, sweet, astringent/cooling/sweet
Dosha effect: lowers pitta and vata, increases kapha or ama (in excess)
Dhatus: plasma, blood, muscle, marrow and nerve, reproductive
Systems: circulatory, nervous, digestive
Indications: eye diseases, cystitis, urethritis, vaginitis, acute dermatitis, herpes zoster, bronchitis, palpitations, gonorrhea, sunstroke
Actions: Antidepressant, antiphlogistic, antiseptic (urinary and pulmonary), antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, astringent, bactericidal, carminative, cicatrisant, diuretic, expectorant, fungicidal, insecticidal, sedative, tonic.
Precautions: high kapha, severe lung congestion; sandalwood is non-toxic, non-irritant, non-sensitizing.
Preparations: infusion (hot or cold), decoction, powder, medicated oil
Sandalwood is a small, evergreen, parasitic tree native to tropical Asia. It has leathery leaves and small pinky-purple flowers. Trees must be over 30 years old before used in sandalwood production. Sandalwood is currently a threatened species, although there are large tree plantations in India and Australia to meet the demand for this sacred and aromatic tree. The leaf of the plant possesses anti-bacterial properties. The roasted resin of the leaves controls dysentery. The latex heals cracks in the hands and heels and eases swelling of the lungs when taken internally. The wood from the tree is used to make cartwheels and is also a popular building material for temples. The dry leaves of the tree can be used like sandpaper to rub and clean woodwork.
Sandalwood is one of the oldest perfume materials, with at least 4,000 years of uninterrupted use. It is used as a traditional incense, cosmetic, perfume and embalming material throughout the East. In Chinese medicine, it is used to treat stomach ache, vomiting, gonorrhea, choleric difficulties and skin complaints. In the Ayurvedic tradition, it is used mainly for urinary and respiratory infections and for acute and chronic diarrhea.
A few drops of sandalwood oil applied to the 3rd eye will relieve heat and thirst, and is good for fever or overexposure to the sun. It is used to treat respiratory problems: bronchitis, persistent coughs, laryngitis, and sore throat. Sandalwood is also used to treat diarrhea and nausea. Sandalwood is a mood elevator and has been used to alleviate depression, insomnia, nervous tension and stress-related complaints. Sandalwood helps the awakening of the intelligence. It helps open the third eye, to increase devotion and promote meditation. It also aids in the transmutation of sexual energy.
Sandalwood is used in skin care for acne, dry, cracked and chapped skin, aftershave, and as a moisturizer. Formerly sandalwood was used as a pharmaceutical disinfectant. It is used extensively in soaps, detergents, cosmetics, perfumes and incense. It is also used as a flavor ingredient in soft and alcoholic drinks.
India is the primary producer of the essential oil, particularly the region of Mysore, although some oil is distilled in Europe and US. It blends well with many essential oils, most notably, rose, lavender, bergamot, rosewood, geranium, vetvier, patchouli, myrrh and jasmine. In India, it is often combined with rose in the famous scent aytar. Australian sandalwood (S. spicatum or Eurcarya spicata) produces a very similar oil, but with a dry-bitter top note. Amyris is known as West Indian sandalwood but is not related and is a poor substitute. (3: Pages 143 – 144; 4: Page 166; 11)
Tulsi (Ocimum basilicum)
Sanskrit Name: Tulasi
Other Names: Holy Basil, French Basil, Common Basil, Sweet Basil
Sacred associations: one of the most sacred plants in India; regarded as a goddess and a consort of Lord Vishnu; ceremonially married to Lord Vishnu every year, marking the beginning of the marriage season
Indications: insect bites; gout, muscular aches and pains, rheumatism, bronchitis, coughs, earaches, sinusitis, flatulence, nausea, cramps or scanty periods, colds, fever, flu, infectious diseases.
Actions: Antidepressant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, cephalic, digestive, emmenagogue, expectorant, febrifuge, galactagogue, nervine, prophylactic, restorative, stimulant of adrenal cortex, stomachic, tonic.
Precautions: relatively non-toxic, non-irritant; avoid essential oil during pregnancy.
Tulsi, a native to tropical Asia and Africa, is now widely cultivated throughout most of the world. There are many varieties used for both culinary and medicinal applications. It is a tender annual herb, with very dark green, ovate laves, grayish-green beneath with stems bearing whorls of two-lipped greenish, or pinky-white flowers. The plant has a lovely aroma.
Tulsi is widely used in Ayurvedic for: bronchitis, coughs, colds, asthma, flu and emphysema. It is also used as an anecdote for insect and snake bites. It has been used against epidemics and fever, such as malaria. It improves blood circulation and the digestive system. Tulsi is sattvic and opens the heart and mind, gives love, devotion, faith, compassion and clarity; cleanses the aura and gives divine protection. It increases prana and develops pure awareness. Holy basil is used to relieve anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, migraine, nervous tension. It clears the head, relieves intellectual fatigue and gives the mind strength and clarity.
Tulsi is an herbal remedy for various common ailments. The juice extracted from the leaf is given to cure fever, dysentery, skin infections, intestinal worms and to reduce vomiting. The stem is made into beads and used as rosaries by the Hindus.
Basil essential oil is produced in France, Italy, Egypt, Bulgaria, Hungary and the US. It is colorless or pale yellow with a light, fresh, sweet-spicy scent and balsamic undertone. It blends well with bergamot, clary sage, lime, opopanax, oak moss, citronella, geranium, hyssop amongst others. The oil is used in soaps, cosmetics, and perfumery; and also used in savory foods. (4: Pages 52 – 54; 7: pages 107 – 108; 11)
Vetvier (Veiveria zizanoides)
Sanskrit Name: None
Other Names: Cuscus, Cuss Cuss, Kuss-Kuss grass
Sacred Associations: Lord Shiva; it is also believed that Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating on a mat woven from kuss kuss grass
Dosha effect: lowers vata; will increase pitta and kapha if used in excess
Energetics: sweet, bitter; warm and grounding
Dhatus: skin, nerve, reproductive, joints
Indications: arthritis, root chakra blockage, nervousness, insomnia, rheumatism, stress, disconnectedness, anorexia, postpartum depression, aging skin, tired skin, irritate menopause, loss of appetite
Actions: antiseptic, tonic, relaxant, woman’s hormone balancer, grounding, regenerating, strengthening, aphrodisiac, rubefacient, moth repellent
Preparations: lotion, bath, massage oil, patches, perfumes, never use more than 5% in a blend
Precautions: non-toxic, non-irritant, non-sensitizing; when creating a lotion or perfume, it can overwhelm the other scents
Vetvier is a grass whose rootlets have been used for their fragrance since ancient times. It is native to south India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. It is now cultivated in various parts of the world and the essential oil is mainly produced in Java, Haiti, and Reunion with some distilled in Europe and the US. It is useful for aging or irritated skin. It is reputed to have an aphrodisiac effect and to be a female tonic and useful in post-partum depression. A decoction of the root is used to treat swelling and pain in joints, fever, jaundice, etc., and the oil is used to cure rheumatic pains. The roots relieve thirst and burning sensations, and purify and invigorate the blood, skin and genitourinary tract. It strengthens the digestive fire, digests ama, and calms both vomiting and diarrhea. It purifies sweat and urine; a strong decoction, cooled is good for inflammation of the urinary tract or the reproductive organs, and a weak decoction, cooled, can be sipped during high fevers. It benefits almost all pitta-caused inflammations, and its paste makes a good cooling application for pitta-induced skin diseases or in “hot” fevers.
The root has a pleasant aroma and when dried has been used to scent linens and clothes. It was also woven into mats that were sprinkled with water and hung like curtains to cool and scent the air in dwellings. In India, the grassy plant is sown wherever there is erosion of the soil. Its strong roots hold onto the soil and prevent loss.
The oil distilled from the roots is amber-colored and very sweet and earthy. Vetvier dilutes beautifully, lending richness to dry-toned blends and the smell of stems and leaves to rose-based perfumes. Vetvier is extremely long-lasting and is an excellent fixative. It mixes well with: rosewood, jatamansi, all citrus, sandalwood, dhavana, angelica, geranium, ylang ylang, rose, lavender, cinnamon, patchouli, oak moss and clary sage. Vetvier is very relaxing so is valuable in massage and baths for anyone experiencing stress. Incense or essential oil made with vetvier cools the mind and can improve concentration.
Vetvier is also used as a fixative and fragrance ingredient in soaps, cosmetics, and perfumes. The oil is used in food preservatives, especially for asparagus. (1: Page 92; 4: Pages 187 – 188; 5: Page 297; 6: page 160; 11)