Neem – Earth’s Wish-fulfilling Tree

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati, UK

The ancient Indian seers, who lived deep within the heart of nature, observed and unveiled its hidden wealth and carried out a critical examination of all medicinal vegetation. They called this branch of knowledge Ayurveda, which literally means ‘the science of life’, and considered it to be another Veda. For a long time, the high potency and curative value of Indian medicinal herbs has been recognized in countries outside India. Hippocrates recommended Indian herbs in his medical treatise. The Greek physician Dioscordes (100 AD) extols many Indian plants. Swami Sivananda has claimed that “the preparations of Ayurveda are potent, cheap, producing lasting effects and permanent cure. Ayurveda will surely triumph over other systems of medicine.”

The neem tree

The neem tree is one of the main plants of Ayurveda. Each and every part of the neem is used for curative purposes, from root to leaf. It is a large tree, which grows up to fifty feet and prefers a tropical climate, although it grows throughout India. Its leaves are serrated and pointed like a spear and the leaf formation is beautiful, giving it a delicate and feathery, feminine appearance. Neem purifies the atmosphere and kills germs. Therefore, it is grown at the south side of houses and in hospital grounds. Delivery rooms are fumigated with its burning bark. It is believed to be particularly protective of women and children.

The English name for neem is Margosa and its botanical name is Azadirachta indica. It is from the meliacae family and in Sanskrit it is called nimba. Neem is the Hindi appellation. It has been identified on 5,000-year-old seals excavated from the Indus Valley civilization. There are two types of neem – mittha or sweet neem, and karwa or bitter neem. There is a saying in Hindi, Satya neem ki taraha karwaa hota hai – “The truth is as bitter as neem.” Just like truth, neem is bitter to take also, but if you can bear it, it can save your life.

Curative properties: The quality of neem is heating, and it is a blood purifier. The leaf is a stimulant, anthelmintic and discutient. Being an antiseptic and disinfectant, it is applied externally on cuts, wounds and boils. For any type of fever, neem juice should be taken for seven days. Fresh leaves are cooked and eaten for immunity from malaria. In diabetes a preparation made from powdered neem, bilwa (bel) leaves and kali mirch (black pepper) is prescribed. This medicine should be taken in the early morning on an empty stomach, the best time for taking neem. The bark, roots and leaves are used for the treatment of scabies, eczema, rashes, leprosy and other skin diseases. Neem leaves mixed with haldi (turmeric), which is also an antiseptic, are applied as a paste to skin infections. In cases of chickenpox, measles and smallpox, the patient’s bed is strewn with neem leaves to extract toxins. The body is also fanned with neem branches. Bathing in a neem leaf infusion is excellent for swelling ulcers, eczema, leprosy ulcers, soothing scabs and clearing away scars after the pox. There are also many brands of neem soap with no chemical additives that not only keep the body fresh and clean, but are also excellent for the skin.

Performing trataka on neem leaves is said by doctors to be excellent for the eyes. In Indian villages they claim that if you take a small amount (about a handful) of hot rice, ghee (clarified butter) and a teaspoon of dried powdered neem mixed together daily, just before lunch, you will not die if bitten by a poisonous snake. Karak chai (a strong or concentrated tea preparation) is also made from the leaves, bark and roots. Neem is revered by Indian herdsmen as a gentle, but effective veterinary poultice. According to the 16th century Portuguese botanist, Garcia da Orta in his Cikiquitos, “It is a tree that has great repute as valuable and medicinal. The sore backs of horses that were most difficult to clean and heal were very quickly cured with leaves pounded and put over the sores, mixed with lime juice.”

The fruit and seed: The fruit is small, yellow and oval-shaped, with a bitter/sweet taste. It is anti-periodic and a tonic. Neem oil is made from the seed of this fruit (which is anthelmintic) and used for massaging the body. Neem seed oil has been clinically tested as an external contraceptive. It is a stimulant, antiseptic and insecticide. The oil is used to protect the bark of other trees from termites. It is injected into the valuable red cedar sapling found in north Queensland, Australia, to protect against moth. After the oil has been extracted, the remaining part of the seed is used as fertilizer. Pesticides, as well as cosmetics are made from it.

The bark: The bark is anti-periodic, bitter, a tonic and astringent. Both the bark and a resin that it contains are burnt to purify air and keep it free from insects. A concoction made from boiling ground neem bark (2 ounces), cloves (30 grains), cinnamon (30 grains) and water (20 ounces) acts as a tonic, and is useful in intermittent fever, loss of appetite, convalescence after fever, malaria and general debility.

When to take neem: Neem leaves should be taken in the early morning on an empty stomach. Tender new leaves should be selected, twelve to fifteen in number, because they are not as bitter as the mature leaves. The best time for this is the month of Magha (14th January–14th February). This protects the immune system from the viral diseases prevalent after this period – Basant (spring). An image of the folk goddess Sitala can often be seen suspended from a neem branch where she guards against smallpox, once the great killer in the Indian countryside. In this month, the neem produces sweet-smelling cream-coloured flowers, which are also eaten. This flower is a stimulant, stomachic and tonic. Excellent chutney is made from them. It is useful in anorexia, vomiting or nausea, sour belching, worms in the bowels and fainting due to a bilious stomach. Pancakes are made from this flower mixed with ground rice. They are also added to chappatis and paranthas.

Another important time for neem leaf consumption is Chaitra Shukla Prathama (the first day of the white fortnight in April when the moon is waxing). In some states of India, this marks the start of the New Year. During Chaitra and Magha, an increase in pitta is needed to kill germs. Neem leaves can also be taken during the rainy season to prevent worms and other parasites invading the stomach. However, they should never be taken during grishma ritu (the hot season) or this will overheat the stomach and cause too much pitta, leading to diarrhoea. If you take a few neem leaves daily, you will not be troubled by mosquitoes, as they only like sweet blood!

In South India, people take neem leaves during the festival of Pongal, New Year. The sweet rice preparation is also called ‘pongal’. Hindus also consume neem leaves as the first food after attending funeral rites. On the tenth day after a death in the family, it is a must for the whole family.

Datoon: The villagers in India use the thinner branches of the bitter neem as a toothbrush, which contains its own toothpaste – the juice. It is called a datoon (from the Sanskrit root dat, meaning ‘tooth’). They cut the branch into sticks about five or six inches long, wash them and chew one end until it becomes soft and looks like a brush, and use it in the same way as a toothbrush. It keeps the teeth clean, and the gums healthy and germ-free. It is also very hygienic, as a new brush can be used every time. Besides, the neem juice can be swallowed to good effect. Neem is also used in actual toothpaste and toothpowder. From the bark a power is prepared for toothache. Swami Vivekananda writes in Brahmacharya Palan (‘Rules for Celibacy’) that cleaning the teeth with a neem stick aids in the practice of brahmacharya. Chewing a few neem leaves daily also cures pyorrhoea.

The spiritual aspect of neem

The neem tree is rich in spiritual qualities, and it is believed to be inhabited by devas, illumined beings. Venerated by Hindus, it is dedicated to the Goddess Mariamma who is believed to preside over all epidemics. A bunch of neem leaves is hung above the door as a sign of the presence of this goddess in the house. India’s earliest societies used neem leaves to exorcize spirits.

Tree marriage: Before a girl’s marriage in India, a ceremony may be performed with the neem tree. The neem represents the girl and it is married to the banyan tree, which is the symbol of her husband. If she is fated to lose a husband, that fate will then be transferred to the banyan and it will die, not her husband.

Neem Krishna: In Orissa the neem tree is especially revered, and not cut for anything but spiritual purposes. The statues of Lord Jagannath (Krishna), Balarama (Krishna’s elder brother) and Subhadra (Krishna’s younger sister) are carved from the trunk of neem trees, as also the rath or chariot which is taken through the streets twice a year, during Rath Yatra and Chandan Yatra.

New statues of Lord Jagannath are carved every twelfth year. Some months before the date for renewal, the chief priest of the Jagannath temple in Puri receives a vision in a dream about the location of the tree to be used for the statue of Jagannath. This neem log is called Daru Brahma, the tree of Brahma, the creator. The impressions of Krishna, Balarama and Subhadra are clearly marked on the bark, along with the four symbols of Lord Vishnu – shankha (conch) found at the top right of Krishna, chakra (discus), top left, gadda (mace), bottom right, and padma (lotus), bottom left. Snakes are always found around this tree (Lord Vishnu is depicted sleeping on a snake called Shesha Nag) and no birds nest in it. Before the tree is cut, a special pooja is performed and then the wood is taken to the temple for carving.

The neem tree beautifies and purifies the environment, gives shade, healing vibrations and medicine, and nourishes the earth in return for the life it draws from her. Therefore, we can understand why it has been called ‘earth’s wish-fulfilling tree’ by the classical texts.