Swami Sivananda writes in Home Remedies, "India has ever been evolving art after art, science after science as her contribution to the common heritage of all the nations of the world. Her greatest gift to the world is her gift of the spiritual science of self-perfection. Next to it I would place the 'Science of Life', the Ayur-Veda, as a precious gift to be carefully developed and broadcast to all nations."
The science of Ayurveda began thousands of years ago in the Himalayan regions. The great seers who founded it did not differentiate between our inner and outer world, seeing both as one. They treated spiritual suffering along with the body and mind. In fact, the fundamental philosophy of Ayurveda is that any kind of suffering can be termed disease ('dis-ease'), while inner contentment is equated with good health. True health, according to Ayurvedic science, means a sound body, a sound mind, sound emotions and a sound soul, which also equates with another great science - yoga. Ayurveda used plants and herbs, diet, aromatics, and even cosmetics, for restoring and maintaining mental equilibrium. Ayurveda also used the breathing and meditation techniques that form the basis of yoga, its sister science.
Ayurveda is therefore not just a school of medicine but, like yoga, it is a whole way of life and thinking, day to day. It represents a totally balanced or yogic lifestyle based on a deeper knowledge of ourselves and our environment, and the awareness that we are interdependent with all other life forms. According to both yoga and Ayurveda, the goal of life should be to understand and realise the principle of Brahman, or the oneness of life, and for this we need integrated health. We cannot isolate ourselves from the energies of Nature, but must acknowledge our universal link in order to be truly healthy in body, mind, emotion and spirit. Ayurveda therefore stresses the fact that what we take from Nature must be replaced in equal proportion, and that we should maintain the purity of the environment in order to preserve equilibrium. If we fell a tree, for example, we must plant another to ensure ecological balance.
The simple plants and herbs around us, which we use daily in the kitchen without thinking, are actually potent medicines when the secret of their healing power is revealed. Ayurvedic doctors know this secret and the art of how to use and prescribe them, and we can also learn it to help us maintain balanced health. This type of natural medicine is cheap, practical, easily available and completely safe. Besides, if we learn to cultivate our own plants, we can also improve our surrounding environment. Let us look at two of these common plants which we know so well - garlic and ginger.
Ayurveda calls garlic 'the wonder food'. It is a very pungent root whose botanical name is Allium Sativum, and it is from the Aliaceae family. In Sanskrit it is called rasona, in Hindi lasan, and in Marathi lasoon. It gives strength to the body, and is especially good for the heart. It is included in almost all forms of Indian curries, although it is not eaten by very puritanical sects like Vaishnavites because it is reputed to be an aphrodisiac. It is also eaten raw with oil and chillies as chutney, or with salt as a blood cleanser and for nervous disorders such as headaches and hysteria.
From the very beginning Ayurveda has used the garlic plant to treat a wide range of diseases. It prescribes garlic for anorexia and for diseases of the vocal cords. Tested in the modern laboratory, garlic has been found to be anti-protozoan, anti-parasitic and antiviral, as well as an antibiotic and anti-fungal in cases of tuberculosis and meningitis. In 1994, the chemist Chester Cavallito identified the strong smell of garlic as the compound allicin, an antibiotic, which has such a broad spectrum as an effective agent against disease-spreading microbes that its medicinal value is still being analysed. Allicin is destroyed when garlic is cooked and so loses its antibiotic power. Garlic is also used for gynaecological problems, to regulate or bring on menstruation and to improve the libido. According to Ramana Maharshi, it acts like amrit or nectar for children.
Crushed garlic fried in mustard or coconut oil is used as an antiseptic liniment, especially in the relief of scabies, sores and ulcerating wounds. Garlic expels wind from the bowels, invigorates the stomach, tones the system, expels sputum by turning it into liquid, increases the secretion and flow of urine, and kills thread and round worms found in the bowels. Swami Sivananda writes, "Garlic is useful in deafness, earache, chronic bronchitis, asthma, consumption, shock or collapse, dysentery, piles, fever, debility and whooping cough. It reduces blood pressure effectively."
The juice of garlic is used externally as a counter-irritant. When mixed with eight parts of water, it makes a good antiseptic lotion for washing infected wounds. When taken internally, it reduces blood pressure and high cholesterol. A teaspoon of garlic juice every four hours will check early cases of typhoid. Garlic rasam (a preparation like pepper water) removes all sorts of rheumatic pain, lumbago etc. Garlic confection is a tonic for women after delivery. A little poured in the ears removes temporary deafness and earache.
There is a mythological story concerning garlic. It is said that when the gods (devas) and demons (rakshasas) churned the ocean of consciousness, amrit (the nectar of immortality) emerged. The greedy and lascivious demons wanted it all for themselves. One of them, out of selfishness, grabbed the vessel and ran away with it. The devas were dismayed at the loss because it would make the demons more powerful than them, and tilt the scales in favour of the dark forces over the powers of light. They therefore appealed to Lord Vishnu to save them. In order to restore the balance, Vishnu took the form of the beautiful and enchanting Mohini, who offered to resolve their quarrel by serving the amrit to them all equally.
The demons, captivated by Mohini, agreed and Vishnu, in the beautiful form of Mohini, started serving the gods first. But the demons began to worry that there would not be enough for them, and one of them slipped into the line of the gods, unobserved by Mohini. He was already swallowing the nectar when the Sun and Moon noticed what was happening and warned Mohini. Then Vishnu, in this female form, took his chance to act. As the demon walked away, Mohini took the ladle with which she was serving the amrit and threw it at the demon. It became Sudarshan Chakra, the invincible lethal weapon of Vishnu, and sliced off the demon's head. When the head was severed from the body, some of the drops of nectar fell on the ground along with his blood.
It is said that these drops became the garlic plant, and that is why the garlic plant has both sattwic (divine) and tamasic (demonic) qualities. It is excellent for the body and keeps it strong and healthy, which is why it is called amrit, but as it also has the touch of the demon, it has tamasic qualities which effect the mind negatively. Garlic is therefore forbidden for sadhakas.
Ayurveda calls ginger 'the universal remedy'. It is from the Zingiberaceae family and its botanical name is Zingiber Officinale. In Sanskrit it is called ardhrakam and in Hindi adrakh. It was widely used by ancient Indian and Chinese medicine. Both the Moghul emperor Akbar and Confucius ate fresh ginger with every meal as a digestive and carminative. It contains a volatile oil.
Crushed fresh ginger can be rubbed on the forehead for the relief of headaches. It can be chewed for sore throats and lost voices. Ginger candy is used for throat lozenges. In India, ginger juice is the equivalent to mustard plaster, applied to children's chests when they suffer from colds and bronchitis. Sliced ginger, with the skin removed, in heated milk removes rheumatic pains, dyspepsia, wind, etc. Contemporary medicine considers ginger a potent antidote to motion sickness, as well as being anti-cholesterol and an anti-coagulant.
Swami Sivananda advises in Home Remedies: "Mix equal parts of fresh ginger juice, fresh lemon juice and honey. Take two to three tablespoons in the early morning on an empty stomach. This will remove dyspepsia or biliousness, purify the blood, stop bleeding from the gums and stimulate digestion." Essence of ginger (Tinctura Zingiberis) increases the appetite and stimulates the digestion. It acts as a tonic for the stomach and is useful in diarrhoea, flatulence in the stomach and bowels, and intestinal colic.
Dried ginger is called nagaram in Sanskrit and south in Hindi. Ayurveda calls dried ginger 'the great medicament' against colds, cough, rhinitis, bronchitis and indigestion. It is a strong aromatic stimulant, prescribed for abdominal distension, colic, diarrhoea and nausea. Ayurvedic physicians used an infusion of dried ginger in hot water to induce sweating for breaking fevers. They also applied it externally to relieve rheumatic pain. However, they stressed that ginger should be avoided by those who suffer from hyperacidity and gastric ulcers.
Swami Sivananda gives the following prescriptions in Home Remedies: "One or two pinches of dried ginger in hot milk removes rheumatic pains . . . Make a paste with water and dried ginger. Heat it and apply it to the head to relieve headaches. This paste can also be applied to the joints to remove rheumatic swelling."
Nature has gifted us with God-given medicines in our own kitchen: coriander, black pepper, cumin, fenugreek, cardamom, tamarind, cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, garlic and ginger and we should know how to use them properly. They are cost effective, have no side effects and can be universally applied by all ages. Modern drugs, on the other hand are not natural, are expensive and have many side effects. Antibiotics, in particular, kill the system and their toxic effect remains for a long time in the body.
So when you enter your kitchen try to see your spices and condiments in a different light - coriander as an eye lotion for conjunctivitis and an aid to virility; black pepper for cholera and bronchial complaints; tamarind for heat stroke and throat gargles; cinnamon for body pain, toothache, anorexia and bladder disorders; fenugreek for blood, dysentery and gonorrhoea; cardamom as a tonic for the heart, to mention only a few of these wonderful remedies.