Amla – Lakshmi’s Tree

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

Nature is not made by divinity; it is a part of divinity.

–Swami Satyananda Saraswati

The intelligence of the universe expresses itself through sacred and medicinal plants. India has always had the unique advantage of possessing a wide range of climatic, geographical and geological conditions wherein an infinite variety of these rare and precious herbs and trees could flourish. The medicinal, culinary, cosmetic, aromatic and sacred applications of these plants were well known to Ayurvedic practitioners, and they are still of immense benefit to us today.

Swami Sivananda writes, “The greater part of Ayurvedic treatment is by medicinal herbs, which form its mainstay. The study of these herbs and their characteristics by the ancient seers is minute and thoroughly scientific. This is evidenced by their scholarly treatises, which give the results of their research. The fact that these herbal medicines continue to be widely used with remarkable success even up to the present day by quite modern Ayurvedic medical practitioners all over India is a patent proof, beyond any doubt, of the high and enduring merits of this system of therapeutics.” If we can learn more about the mysteries of the plants that are all around us, it will greatly enrich our lives.

Renaissance of Ayurvedic science

The high development and specialization of herbal medicine in India is a direct outcome of her vastness and fertility. Thousands of years ago India’s great sages established Ayurveda with the purpose of alleviating human suffering on all levels of existence. They saw illness and health as part of an interlocking whole – body, mind and spirit – that must be treated as one inseparable unit. For medicines and treatments, they looked to the natural world around them, to the plants used by the earliest forest tribes. Today the Indian government has opened laboratories for the clinical testing of Ayurveda’s medicinal plants. Indian forestry departments are studying and growing these plants in scientific conditions, advised by the forest dwellers, whose ancestors cultivated forest plants. The country’s botanical gardens are creating and preserving Indian herbaria, so that Ayurvedic doctors have a constant source of healing plants.

Modern science still extracts most of its medicines from plants, yet sadly, as we are rapidly losing touch with nature, we know less and less about their medicinal value. However, more and more people, both Eastern and Western, are now visiting Ayurvedic centres. Ayurvedic medicine is rapidly becoming commercialized in India, and certain plant medicines are being produced with modern technology in the form of pills, oils and mixtures, which are finding increasing acceptance all over the world. Finally, the West is looking outside the laboratory to ancient natural methods of healing, and the time is ripe for an Ayurvedic renaissance. It is time we reconnected with this great science by growing our own plants. Growing Ayurvedic plants will bring us closer to nature and increase our consciousness of the daily and seasonal changes that constantly affect us. One plant that is being propagated in the Rikhia ashram and which is widely used in many Ayurvedic preparations is the bountiful Amla.

About the Amla tree

The Amla or Neelikkai (Phyllanthus Embilca) is also called Amalka in Hindi. In Sanskrit its name is Amalaki, which translates as ‘the sustainer’ or ‘the fruit where the goddess of prosperity presides’. Lakshmi (the goddess of prosperity), who is especially associated with this tree, is worshipped with its leaves, especially in the month of Marga Shirsha (November/December). The English term for Amla is Indian gooseberry. It is a small tree with leathery leaves and a fleshy fruit. This fruit is very cheap and common. Growing in all Indian forests it is very much prized by all Indians. Its size is that of a small lemon, and it is round and pale green in colour. It is sour, astringent and also sweet, and is obtainable in unlimited quantities from January to April. The Amla fruit is considered to be so nourishing that the tree has been worshipped in India from ancient times as the ‘Earth Mother’, and is said to be nursing humankind.

Curative properties

Amla is one of the richest natural sources of vitamin C, its fresh juice containing nearly twenty times as much vitamin C as orange juice. A single tiny Amla is equivalent in vitamin C content to two oranges. Clinical tests on patients suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis have shown that this high concentrate is more quickly assimilated then the synthetic vitamin. It is an ingredient of many Ayurvedic medicines and tonics, as it removes excessive salivation, nausea, vomiting, giddiness, spermatorrhoea, internal body heat and menstrual disorders. Because it is also cooling, it increases sattwa, and is an excellent liver tonic.

Ayurveda recommends taking a tonic made from the fruit throughout the winter months. The fresh fruit is a diuretic and a laxative. A cooling and refreshing drink can be made from it. Ayurvedic doctors recommend drinking the juice during the summer months when the body’s functions become sluggish due to the heat. To clear the bowels and correct digestion boil four teaspoons of Amla powder, four teaspoons of Myrobalans Chebulic and four teaspoons of Bahera, in twenty ounces of water. For best results, two ounces should be consumed in the early morning on an empty stomach.

The dried Amla fruit is astringent and useful in cases of diarrhoea and dysentery. It is also a very important ingredient in the famous Chyavanaprash, and a constituent of Triphala (three fruits) powder. Swami Sivananda writes in Home Remedies, “To cure burning eyes and cool the head and brain, make a paste of Amla, apply it to the head and then take a bath. The application of a small quantity of Amla oil to the head before bathing removes diseases of the eyes, night blindness and bilious giddiness. Amla confection is used in syphilis, flatulence, bronchitis, asthma and consumption.” A series of clinical tests on the Amla have found that the fruit contains elements that are anti-viral, raise the total protein level in the body, activate the adrenaline response, and protect against tremors and convulsions. The Amla is also said to bestow beauty.

Delicious chutney is made from the Amla fruit, which should be eaten before the rest of the food with a little rice (preferably on an empty stomach), not with or after the meal. Unlike other preserves Amla does not lose its properties over time but retains its curative power and quality. Dried Amla is an excellent digestive, which can be consumed after food. It is said that the Amla fruit should not be taken on Thursdays. During the month of Kartik (November/December) it is most auspicious, and beneficial for the health to take one’s food under the Amla tree. This is the tradition in many parts of India, especially the south, and people picnic under the Amla for the whole month. If no tree is available, then it is said that, at least, one should keep a branch or twig of Amla near the food.

Amla and Adi Guru Shankaracharya

The great sannyasin Adi Guru Shankaracharya left his home at the tender age of eight and began his parivrajaka (wandering life) throughout India. One day, when he went seeking bhiksha (alms) he came to the house of a very poor woman. She had nothing in the house with which to feed him, but as it is most inauspicious to turn a sannyasin away from the door without offering anything to eat, she searched until she found the only edible thing she had in the house – a single Amla fruit. When she offered it to Shankaracharya, his gentle young heart was so moved by her poverty and her action that he invoked Goddess Lakshmi in the form of the Kanakadhara Stotram, which literally means ‘the flow of gold’. Kanaka means ‘gold’ and dhara means ‘flow’. Verse 16 of this hymn is: “O Mother, who bestows prosperity and provides ananda (joy) to all the senses. O, Lotus-eyed one, who opens the door into every domain, by prostrating to you, all sins are destroyed. Bless me always with everything that is auspicious.” On completion of this stotram, Lakshmi was so pleased that she blessed and enriched the house by sending down a shower of golden Amlas.

Many years later, a boy who had been mute from birth was brought to Shankaracharya by his father. Shankaracharya, who had been able to penetrate and ascertain the depths of the boy, asked him, “Who are you? What is your name, and where do you come from?” Whereupon the boy opened his mouth and out poured the magnificent verses on Adwaita Vedanta which are now known as Hastamalaka Stotram. Shankaracharya then initiated him into sannyasa and gave him the name Hastamalaka. Hasta means ‘hand’ and amalaka refers to the fruit. He was given this name to signify that he could talk about Brahman as clearly and simply as presenting an Amla fruit on the palm of the hand. The fact that this fruit is used as a symbol for spiritual truth shows in what high esteem it has always been held in India. As Naveen Patnaik writes in his book The Garden of Life, “The great Indian philosophers conducted their dialogues in the forest using plants again and again to illustrate concepts of spiritual continuity to their students, because the forest represented the endless self-regeneration of life, or what we would call today an ecosystem, complete in itself.”