Rudraksha - Tree of Life

Dr Swami Karmananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

No spiritual emblem is more closely associated with the path of yoga than the rudraksha mala or rosary. Rudraksha beads are synonymous with Lord Shiva, the overlord of the current reawakening of yogic science around the world. Similarly, no single tree is as rich with scriptural references, spiritual myths and legends as the rudraksha. Its berries, which are said to represent the tears of Rudra, have long been sought for their supposed medicinal and magical properties.

The Rudrajabalopanishad tells us that Lord Shiva was in the state of meditation for many thousands of years. When he opened his eyes from his prolonged samadhi, he beheld the whole vast sufferings and pangs of the unenlightened beings enmeshed in their struggle and confusion, and lacking any way of recognising their plight and the possibility of evolving themselves out of these seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Out of compassion, tears came to his eyes, and these fell to the earth giving rise to a tree called Maharudraksha. Rudra is the name given to Shiva in his destructive aspect and in Sanskrit it means 'howl' or 'cause of tears'.

The physical form

The botanical classification of the rudraksha tree is genus Eleocarpus, family Eleocarpaceae. Over 300 distinct species of rudraksha have been recognised, but of these only six are common. Rudraksha, in the form of large trees or smaller bushes, is found in Tibet, Nepal, India, China, Java, Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia and Mauritius.

The rudraksha tree flowers in the rainy season, the flowers being white and hermaphroditic. Rudraksha trees usually first bear fruit after about five years, but some take up to twenty years to do so. The fruit appears in the months of November and December and the seeds lie concealed in the centre, covered with a bluish-purple pulp.

The making of a bija

Preparation of rudraksha beads must be carried out in a particular way. The seeds are sun cured and the outer skin is torn away, revealing the round, oval or almond-shaped seed often with adhering strands of pulp. This pulp is removed by boiling in water mixed with lime (sodium bicarbonate).

The seeds must then be further cured by soaking in various precious oils, including almond oil mixed with musk, and oil from sacred trees. Finally, the prepared beads are roasted in the smoke of a sacred fire in which seven different sacred woods have been consumed. Afterwards, ghee may be used to harden the beads and black ash from the fire may be rubbed into the seeds as well.

Quality and classification

The best quality of rudraksha beads are divided into crescent-shaped sections, like the segment of an orange. These segments are referred to a 'mukhas' or faces, and its significance is determined by the number. Multi-faced beads are commonly divided into 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 22 mukhis, although rare aberrations which provide more faces are found.

According to 'Yoga Sara', spiritual attributes and powers corresponding to the gods abide in the beads according to the number of faces or mukhis. This determines the suitable mantras to be recited upon the mala and the particular value of the mala for the wearer.

The single faced rudraksha (ekamukhi) is considered to be the incarnation of Lord Shiva himself. According to one legend, every year Lord Shiva endows three such seeds to the world - one passes to his most precious devotee, the second to a political leader, king or statesman, while the third is kept by the Lord himself. It is rare and precious and carries the properties of all other rudrakshas. Whoever wears it will be absolved of sin, and if self-control is practised, he becomes one with the absolute (pure consciousness). It bestows both pleasure (kama) and liberation (moksha).

The two-faced rudraksha is considered sacred to Ardhanarishwara, who is hermaphroditic, (half Shiva - the male principle and half Parvati - the female principle). This reflects the tantric conception of the divine personality possessing both male and female attributes which are deserving of worship. The seed is also known as Gauri Shankara and makes possible the attainment of all desires and wishes. It bestows concentration and one-pointedness of mind, confers tantric powers, and brings peace in conjugal life, and facilitates the awakening of kundalini shakti in serious sadhaks.

The five-faced (pancha mukhi) is the most common and readily available type of rudraksha. It is worn by religious devotees, sadhus, yogis and swamis alone. It is sacred to Shiva as Kaala-asi (kalagni), destroyer of Yama, god of death. It symbolises Lord Shiva in his five aspects or panchabrahma (Sadyajata, Vamadeva, Aghora, Tatpurusha and Ishana); and is said to ward off the five heinous actions (panchamahapataka). According to Shiva Purana, 'It is lordly. It bestows all sorts of salvation and achievement of all desired objects'!

The bija mantras for wearing rudraksha beads, according to the number of mukhis, is as follows: (1) Om hring namah, (2) Om namah, (3) Om kling namah, (4) Om hring namah, (5) Om hring namah, (6) Om hring hrang namah, (7) Om hrung namah, (8) Om hrang namah, (9) Om hring hrung namah, (10) Om hring namah, (11) Om hring hrung namah, (12) Om krong kshang rong namah, (13) Om hring namah, (14) Om namah.

In psychological terms, the different mukhis act as voltage regulators, determining the intensity and frequency of the current of spiritual energy drawn from cosmic sources and integrated into the psychic personality of the individual wearer. This depends upon the personal attributes, samskaras and level of evolution, and the type and number to be worn.

Rudraksha beads can be of five colours and were worn according to one's caste. According to Rudrojabalopanishad, white beads are produced only in heaven and are to be worn only by gods; brown beads should be worn by brahmins; red beads are for kshatriyas, yellow beads are for vaishyas and black beads are for sudras. The most highly prized are white, followed by red, then golden, black and brown. The first and third varieties are rare, so the traditional association with each caste is not on a basis of value or rarity.

Sometimes red and black are not the natural colours, but are produced after soaking the beads in oil-dyes during the preserving process.

Blood pressure and rudraksha

Rudraksha occupies a unique place in the Hindu Materia Medica. It has always been considered to possess properties which prevent ageing, prolong life and rejuvenate the human organism.

Rudraksha beads are recognised as antipyretic (will lower elevated body temperature), anti-helminthic (ridding the body of worms), and anti-paralysant. They help their wearer to maintain a perfect balance between the three vital airs - namely bile, wind and phlegm.

The major physiological influence of rudraksha on the human body is to control the blood pressure. This is very important, not only for those with hypertension and hypotension, but also for those who wish to meditate successfully. This is because the blood pressure changes during meditation and people can have experiences which they mistake as spiritual; or feel heat or cold in the body; or even feel irritability.

Physiologically, this is how rudraksha works. In the side of the neck there is a group of pressure sensitive cells called baroreceptors. They continually monitor the changing blood pressure accompanying each cardiac impulse, and relay this information to the vasomotor centre in the base of the brain. This centre makes any minute adjustments in heart rate and cardiac output, which enables a constant blood pressure to be maintained. At the time of meditation, when rudraksha is worn in contact with the baroreceptors, control over the cardiac impulse is enhanced so that variations do not occur and meditation is not disturbed by these transitory influences.

Therefore, upon the basis of their own clinical experience, doctors, healers and physicians of every healing science in India today, routinely prescribe the wearing of rudraksha as an adjuvant in controlling blood pressure and managing heart disorders.

Further medicinal uses

Various species of Eleocarpus are utilised in many traditional systems of healing. For example, an infusion of bark and leaves is used as a mouthwash for inflamed gums. The fruit, which is high in citric acid, is used in some organic brain disorders, pneumonia, ulcers, dysentery and diarrhoea, and as an emetic. The leaves are high in vitamin C content and are used for rheumatism and as an antidote for poison. A bark decoction is also used for rheumatism, indigestion and bileousness. The seeds are used, again for rheumatism, typhoid fever and epilepsy. Sufferers from smallpox, chickenpox or leprosy may be given the paste derived by rubbing the dried fruit or seed on a stone.

The Atharva Veda, Puranas and Upanishads delineate curative and healing properties of each type of bead, but expert advice should be sought before using any of these methods.

Spiritual significance

In spiritual life, the rudraksha mala is received from the guru at the time of initiation. When received from a guru, such a mala is of infinite value, and no price can be set for it. Perhaps its value can best be assessed as all you have or can offer to the guru forever, be it in the form of service, prayers, devotion, money, material goods or everything. In fact, a mala worn without the blessings of a guru, or saint is considered ineffectual or even detrimental to its wearer, as such a mala has been purchased for ego gratification, while the mala is intended to eradicate the ego of a sincere aspirant.

The number of rudraksha beads worn is variable. According to the scriptures, the benefits attained by wearing 1,100 beads cannot be described in thousands of years. 'Let those who have faith wear 3 beads in the top knot, 6 in each ear, 12 round each wrist, 36 over the crown of the head, 32 or 27 tightly around the neck, and 108 as a garland. They will surely attain Rudrahood', enjoins the Rudrojabalopanishad.

Rudraksha should be worn by all those who wish for both pleasure (kama) and liberation (moksha) in life, and especially by devotees of Shiva or his consort, Kali, Uma, Parvati Devi, enjoin the scriptures. It is equally venerated by householders engaged in active worldly life in order to work out their karma.

Other tantras claim that the wearer of the rudraksha mala will obtain riddhi (psychic prosperity). Rudraksha mala is also used in various sadhanas for repetition of mantras, charms and incantations, and as a protective armour against ill-luck, accidents and diseases.

Kundalini tradition

In the tradition of kundalini yoga, rudraksha is symbolic of the ajna chakra (bhrumadhya), the seat of spiritual insight and intuition. By virtue of kriya yoga, or by force of long and vigorous austerities, the emotional and reproductive energies are redirected upwards within the body of a yogi. The 'seed' commonly released through the urethral meatus of a man is transmuted by the practices of yoga into the more subtle secretions of the regenerated pineal and pituitary glands in the brain itself.

This transcendental 'seed' of Lord Shiva is then released in the world by the sages, yogis and masters as their compassionate works and actions having a far reaching influence upon the evolution and destiny of mankind as a whole. Rudraksha is the symbol of this transmutation of sexual energy into spiritual energy within the yogi's nervous system, and its subsequent ejection from the third eye (ajna chakra) as tears of divinely inspired, compassionate, intuitive and spiritual action for the evolution of our race.