Honey - Nectar of the Gods and Men

Swami Sambuddhananda Saraswati

Honey, known as madhu in Sanskrit, shalad in Urdhu, mel in Latin, miel in Spanish and French, and meli in Greek, is considered to be the most ancient of sweetening agents in the world. It was recognised as a miracle food thousands of years ago by Pythagoras, who insisted on its use as a principal food for the initiates in his school of philosophy. He called it a food for the gods - endowed with pranic power and rejuvenating properties. Today, honey is coming back into fashion as a healthier way to imbibe sugar, refined sugar having gained its popularity only over the last 500 years or so.

How is it made?

The story of honey is a fascinating one as it includes, in its manufacture, both the plant and animal kingdoms. A sugar (sucrose) is produced as food in plants and carried in the cell sap for assimilation or for future use. There is a concentrated supply at the base of each flower for the proper growth of the ovaries. Any excess of this is ejected and this is what the bees collect, along with the pollen.

The collector bee fills its honey sac, which is an extension of its oesophagus. This is where the nectar is subjected to a chemical change, altering it from sucrose. On returning to the hive, the bee regurgitates the nectar and it is stored in the cells and processed by the workers until it has ripened into honey, which takes about two weeks.

Its varied properties

An average honey contains fruit sugar (fructose), glucose, dextrose, levulose and malt sugar (maltose); various enzymes necessary for strengthening the body and digestion; organic acids; minerals and traces of chemicals which maintain hormonal balance, and vitamins. (The darker the honey, the more minerals it has in it.) It also, however, contains large quantities of calories.

There is an enormous variation in its properties depending on where and what flowers it comes from. The most common of honeys is usually from clover and its varieties; and is mild and the best for most purposes. It can also be made from orange blossom to sage, from raspberry flowers to pine trees. The consistency can be thick or very thin and runny, like wild honeys and those from the tropics. The colour can range from cream to black and from red to green! If the honey is old it can form sugar crystals, which can be made liquid again when kept in very hot water for about half an hour. In the Charaka Samhita (v. 249) it states that:

"Honey is the best 'yogavahi' substance, that is, it carries the properties of the drugs added to it." Therefore honey from the oleander is poisonous, and can be narcotic from other plants.

Use of honey for a yogi

Honey is an easily digestible and nutritious food and acts like a tonic on the system. As such it is an excellent food for yogis practising sadhana. Keeping the stomach light and cool, it is absorbed directly into the bloodstream without the need for digestion. In the past it was included in the traditional diet for yoga sadhakas of fruits, roots, milk and honey. It is said one who meditates a lot and wants just a little food, should take lemon juice and honey in the morning. The energy giving properties in honey give strength and stimulation to the whole system.

An age-old remedy

Honey has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. The Egyptians, Greeks and American Indians used it, as did the Australian Aborigines and Indians of the subcontinent. It is often noted in the ayurvedic texts and there is mention of it in the Vedas. In the Charaka Samhita (v.243-4) it states that:

"Honey is generally the aggravator of vata (wind), and alleviator of rakta (blood), pitta (bile) and kapha (mucus). It promotes healing and depletion."

Internal medicine

Honey has an effect on many systems of the body; firstly, increasing the digestive capacity of the stomach, helping the glands produce the necessary hormones for digestion. It is also beneficial in various gastric problems such as diarrhoea and hyper-acidity. In a test carried out on 600 patients with hyper-acidity, when honey was added to the normal treatment, 95% got relief in a quarter of the usual time. Three spoons of honey with orange or tomato juice taken regularly can even relieve constipation.

As an expectorant it can be used for coughs, colds, tonsillitis, sore throats and bronchial catarrh. Pain and swelling can be reduced by mixing honey with apple juice and taking two or three spoonfuls four or five times a day.

It is said to be beneficial for heart patients and high blood pressure as it helps the heart muscles work more strongly and easily, and expands the blood vessels which ease the pressure on the heart.

For various nervous disorders it seems to relieve weakness and calms and soothes the system, as it strengthens individual cells including brain cells; especially if mixed with the soaked husk of wheat or pod of mustard seed. A tablespoon of honey in hot water acts as a stimulant when tired or exhausted and also brings relief for asthmatic patients.

Honey is said to help in the removal of growing cancer tumours (a whole food diet should be used).

Honey can also be used as an ingredient in medicines for treating TB, ulcers, asthma, gallbladder and fiver disorders, arthritis and female problems.

External medicine

Nothing can live or breed in honey as it acts as an antiseptic. It is a good healer of wounds and is mentioned in ayurvedic texts for use after surgical operations. The wound should be spread with a layer of thick paste of sesame mixed with honey and butter, soaked with herbal medicines, plus another layer of paste. Honey can help heal externally, anything from cauterisation to dog bites.

Sparingly is the rule

"Honey should be taken in small quantities because it is heavy, ununctuous, astringent in taste and cold in potency." (Charaka Samhita, v.246)

If taken in a large quantity it causes ama (digestive and metabolic disorders) owing to its heaviness.

There is a sufi story about honey that depicts this. As a fly was searching for honey he finally found a beehive at the back of an orchard. He had such a strong desire for the honey and was now so close to obtaining it, that it put him into a frenzy when he found he couldn't get inside the hive. He called out: 'I will give a piece of gold to anyone who will help me into this hive!' Finally one very curious orange insect felt sorry for him and for a piece of gold helped him in. No sooner was he in than his legs became stuck to the honey. Although he fluttered his wings, slipped and slid about, he became stickier and finally stuck. 'Oh dear,' he despaired. 'This is tyranny, this is poison - I am caught. I gave one piece of gold to get in but would gladly give two to get out!'

Therefore take heed; although honey can be used regularly in a normal diet, it loses its potency if large quantities are ingested merely for taste. Although considered a sattwic food, along with the yogic diet, it would only become tamasic when taken to excess. So, let the sweetness of honey be a sweetness to health.