Herbs and Spirituality
Wisdom of Ancient India's Rishis:
Usage of Herbs for elevation of mind and consciousness
A popular notion about Ancient Indian Rishis is: They were mendicants or Sadhus who retreated from civil society into Himalayan caves for the purposes of doing tapasya or penance to seek divinity. This notion, often spread by either the ignorant or those with a malicious agenda is as untrue as saying that Himalayas are a desert. The fact is that our ancient Rishis & Munis were scholars & researchers devoted entirely to pursuit of knowledge. This pursuit led them to compile Vedas, Upanishads etc that are mostly seen as religious texts; these ancient texts, especially Vedas, contain, apart from spiritual and metaphysical knowledge, huge treasures of scientific information covering subjects as diverse as mathematics, astronomy, geography, botany, biology to astrology and others. Thanks to these Rishis & Munis, the beginning of developing an understanding of relationship between humans and plants can be traced back to the prehistoric times. The Vedic literature reveals a huge range of terms used to describe plants and plant parts, external features as well as internal structures, classification of plants and clear evidence that use of manure and rotation of crops were practiced for the improvement of fertility of soil and nourishment of plants. As per Rigved, Vēdic Indians had deep knowledge about food manufacture, action of light on the process and storage of energy in plant bodies. Post-Vedic Indian literature reveals that botany developed as an independent science and became the foundation on which the science of medicine developed. As a result, treatises such as Charak Samhita and Suśhruta Saṃhitā came about, better knowledge of agriculture and horticulture developed. Rishi Parashar is the father of these studies as seen in works like Krishi-Parashar and Vrakshayurveda. Vēdic botany thus developed as a full-fledged discipline, and the manner in which it got integrated into daily life was by way of including plants & plant products in rituals; in fact, there is no ritualistic activity without usage of a plant product, be it everyday pujas or yagnas. Vedic Botany also dwells on subjects like morphology as well as classification of plants & herbs. Such classifications allowed the Rishis to not only develop the science of medicine to cure common as well as complicated ailments, but also to ascertain herbs that will help them stay fitter & focused in their pursuit of knowledge. They had attained excellence in the field of surgery, and use of herbs for protection of health and disease-freedom; not just this, they were able to find medicinal properties of herbs through their intuitional faculty. A major find was that herbs could be used to ward off bad planetary effects on human health apart from developing in-depth understanding of mystic effects of herbs, which involved tapping of potential of undeveloped minds of plant wealth. The ancient Indian rishis knew that plants were living entities and showed a mental response to pain and pleasure. They combined this knowledge with the understanding that the human body has a pronounced astral constitution and is likely to be affected by subtle external forces (Sun, Moon and other astral bodies). Several plants that have medicinal properties are also regarded as holy as per Vedic practices. Tulasi, or the Holy Basil, for example is regarded as a goddess with its leaves used prior to commencement of every ritual and is used as a herbal remedy for mild infections as well as for common cold. Sandalwood, popular for its enchanting scent not only adorns the forehead as Tilak of many a Hindu but is often used for skincare for its cooling & soothing properties. Jasmine is often associated with Bhagwan Shiva and is believed to be effective in controlling & calming the mind by acting on the mind's receptors through its aroma. This sacred plant is also believed to cure breast cancer, by acting on the lymphatic system. Neem, known for its detox properties, is often an ingredient in hair oils as well as skin care ointments. Turmeric or Haldi is used as an antiseptic as also a purifying and pain-relieving agent. The Rishis paid special attention to illnesses of the mind, their healing as well as enhancement of memory power and mental faculties. They would use these herbs and their preparations along with yoga & meditation techniques to heal minds, strengthen minds, augment mental capacities to achieve a state of heightened or elevated consciousness. While the range of such herbs is vast, a few may be worth mention and these include: Malkangani, Jyotishmati: Powdered seeds are used with almond, pepper and cardamom powder to improve memory. Brahmi: Its dry plant in combination with other materials enhances memory; mixture of its powder with unboiled cow milk relieves and when mixed with honey or pepper or cow’s “ghee” (purified butter) eases anxiety. It is believed that Brahmi imparts knowledge of Brahman, or Supreme Reality by providing mental calm and clarity. It helps awaken the crown chakra and balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain and is often consumed with hot water & honey prior to practice of meditation. Shankhapushpi: Its powder mixed with milk or “bach” (Acorus calamus roots) or honey and “ghee” helps improve memory power. Its juice with honey cures epilepsy, psychosis and insanity while its shade dried powder alone or with “bach” strengthens the mind. Most researchers believe that Shankhapushpi enhances overall intelligence and creativity by increasing circulation to the brain along with improving learning, memory, and recall. Banyan Tree: Its root bark powder when taken with sugar and cow’s milk enhances memory. Posta, Post, or Apheem: Poppy seeds or Opium is extremely beneficial in delirium, sleeplessness, convulsion, etc. Jatamanasi: Often referred to as the Mental Soother, jatamansi soothes nerves of agitated, anxious minds without any dulling effects. Its usually taken with milk - boil 1 teaspoon in a cup of milk and consume it in the morning before getting down to mental or meditational pursuits. Japa or Hibiscus: Popularly called "The Devotion Potion," its delicate flowers strengthen devotion in japa or chanting of mantras. Thus, the chanting becomes more fruitful and the focus during meditation is enhanced. Most people recommend setting 1/4 ounce of Japa flowers in a pint of cool water and consuming a cup of this refreshing summer concoction to encourage devotion to spiritual practice. No discussion on benefits of herbs used by our ancient Rishis can ever be complete without the mention of Bhaang, popularly known as Cannabis or Marijuana. While its mostly known as an intoxicant, ancient Rishis referred to it as Vijaya. The plant is said to have 400 properties and barring one, that is an intoxicant, the rest are medicinal. Its oil and its proteins have multiple uses and the plant leaves & stems can also be used to make cloth and paper. Among the major benefits are: Reduces Depression, Anxiety, and Stress, Soothes Distress in Nerves, Helps in Reducing Weight, is an effective treatment for Elderly health Issues like arthritis and multiple sclerosis, and is also known to Cure Skin issues. The wisdom and knowledge of ancient Indian Rishis about not just botany and medicine is vast & comprehensive. Its time for India to go back to its roots, explore Ayurveda further and use this knowledge for the benefit of humanity.