Women and Ayurvedic Plants

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

The essence of all beings is earth. The essence of earth is water. The essence of water is plants, and the essence of plants is the human being.

—Chandogya Upanishad (1:1.2)

Once, on the full moon night of May (Vaishakha Poornima), a beautiful queen was on her way to her family home to give birth to her first and only child. It so happened that as she was passing through the depths of the Lumbini forest with her entourage, her labour pains started earlier than had been expected. And so it was that she gave birth right there among the trees, in the lap of nature, while clinging on to the strange midwife, a tree, for support. It is said that this tree bent down in empathy with the queen so that she could hold on to its branches, thus expressing the deep connection and psychic link between women and trees. The child to whom this queen gave birth was to become known as the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and the tree to which she clung to was the ashoka.

The evergreen ashoka is from the Caesalpinaceae family. The ashoka is the tree most intimately associated with women in India’s mythology, and is said to remove their ‘grief’. The Sanskrit term ashoka literally means ‘that which ends sorrow’. In the Ramacharitamanas (Sundar Kand), Sita is imprisoned in the Ashoka Grove by her captor Ravana. In her distress, she turns to implore the ashoka, saying, “Hear my prayer, O ashoka tree, take away my sorrow and live up to your name.”

Life, according to ayurveda, is a system of mutual care and nourishment. Plants, rooted in the unity of nature, show this sense of caring more than many human beings. The consciousness of plants and trees is on a primal level, and is more psychic and telepathic in nature. Women are also known to be more psychic than men, and can communicate with plants and trees more easily. Thus Sita was drawn to seek solace from the ashoka in her time of need.

The image of a young woman and a tree recurs constantly in Indian art, and it is said that trees increase both the desire and fertility in a woman. The myths of the forest tribals teach respect for nature, not only by deifying plants, but also by having women transformed into plants. According to Indian mythology, if kicked by a virgin, the ashoka tree is said to burst into flower. Its red flower buds, which are highly nutritious, are eaten in the last month of the year ‘to remove grief’.

Curative properties of the ashoka

Swami Sivananda writes in his Home Remedies, “The bark of the ashoka is used in ayurveda. It has considerable reputation in uterine diseases, and is used in checking uterine haemorrhage or bleeding from the womb, menorrhagia or excessive menstruation. Ashoka is a uterine sedative and tonic.” He gives the following ‘Ashoka Decoction’, about which he states, “The womb will be strengthened, and all diseases of the womb will be cured.” “Boil six ounces of crushed ashoka bark, six ounces of milk, and twenty ounces of water, until it is reduced to a quarter of its volume, and strain. One ounce should be taken three times daily. This decoction must be freshly prepared daily.” About ‘Ashoka Amritam’ Swami Sivananda says, “This is especially useful in leucorrhoea, menorrhagia, pain in the womb, irregular monthly periods, scanty menstrual discharge, amenorrhoea, painful menstruation, displaced uterus, congested uterus, sterility and other complaints. It prevents miscarriage and restores normal action to the uterus. It improves conception capacity and increases general strength.”

Women and ayurveda

Ayurveda, which has existed for over 5,000 years, has always had a special branch of medicine just for women, offering natural alternatives. It has a very unique understanding of a woman’s body, which includes not only a deep knowledge of the physical and pranic bodies (ayur refers to prana as well as life), but her emotions, mind and spirit. For ayurveda honours a woman as a spiritual being, and its system corrects her basic metabolic imbalance so that the symptoms can be addressed. Ayurveda is feminine in its approach, always seeking harmony, non-invasive and never aggressive. It is based on the belief that the external universe is reflected in the human body, and that all things are intimately interrelated.

Ayurvedic herbal medicine is needed more than ever in this age of imbalance, where women are taking artificial hormone replacement therapy to the detriment of their physical, emotional, mental, and consequently spiritual health. Hormones are not to be found in plants, but there are phyto or plant steroids that form the basis for the production of many human hormones, and which often act like hormones in the body. There are at least fifty-seven phyto-steroids found in plants and food. The Ayurvedic approach is the conscious, aware, integrated approach. Its comprehensive system enables a woman to understand the great mystery of her own body and find inner balance.

Plants to the rescue

Monthly cycle: According to Ayurveda, any disruption, emotional or physical, in a woman’s monthly cycle indicates a metabolic imbalance. It associates menstrual difficulties to an imbalance in the vata dosha and recommends natural remedies, which do not have the side effects of allopathic medicine, to balance these changes in a woman’s chemistry.

Indian madder (manjith or manjishtha), with its blood-red colour, is symbolic of the menstrual cycle. Powdered, and made into prescriptions, the Indian madder root is a valuable blood purifier, particularly prescribed for women with menstrual irregularities, and as an infusion after the delivery of a child. Ayurveda values the sesame seed (til or tila) for possessing medicinal properties useful in dysmenorrhea, especially in cases of irregular menstruation in pubescent girls. It prescribes the scarlet hibiscus (gurhal or jabakusuma) flower, which has particularly feminine virtues, as an emmenagogue (for promoting a healthy period). The densely formed flowers of the plantain (kela or kadali-phal) are powered into a medicine for gyneocological ailments. Swami Sivananda writes, “Take the juice of the plantain flower, and palmyra sugar-candy (or ordinary sugar-candy) and drink it in the early morning. This is useful for excessive menstruation.”

The flame of the forest (dhak or palash) is one of India’s most venerated trees with its bright red flowers. Juice made from its roots, bark and leaves are administered for regulating menstrual flow. During the spring festival of Holi, people smear each other with powder made from its dried petals. Ayurveda also extracts drugs from the vasaka (adusa) shrub, which regulate excessive menstrual flow. In Sanskrit botany this modest shrub is named Lion’s Muzzle and Stallion’s Tooth, after the shape and white colour of its flower. Ayurvedic physicians now regard vasaka as the rival of ashoka in its value to women. The Sanskrit word vasaka means ‘little dweller’ or ‘protector of the dwelling place’.

Infusions are made from the bark of the mango tree (aam or amra) to control excessive blood flow, while the seed is ground into a powder for countering vaginal discharge. Swami Sivananda also prescribes the following pomegranate decoction as an astringent injection in vaginal discharges: “Boil four ounces of pomegranate rind for fifteen minutes in twenty ounces of water. Strain and add one drachma of alum.” Another tree benevolent to women is the bauhinia (kachnar or kanchnara). Ayurveda’s main interest in the bauhinia is the drugs extracted from its bark to regulate menstrual dysfunction. The glorious display of its pink-white blossoms marks the advent of spring. In this festival time, after the harvest, village women go into the forest and collect the flowers and buds from this tree, which they dry and store for seasonal household remedies.

Pregnancy: Winter cherry (ashwagandha) regenerates the hormonal system and is good for fertility. Swami Sivananda writes concerning ‘Ashwagandhi Ghritam’, “Women will develop their conception capacity by use of this medicine. The resulting pregnancy will develop a fully developed foetus.” (Ghritam is the Sanskrit word for ghee). Ashwagandha is also prescribed as nutritional food for weak pregnant women, as it helps to stabilize the foetus.

The small scented herb cumin (jeera or jiraka), whose flowers open in parasols, is traditional to the diets of pregnant women as an antidote to morning sickness. Ayurveda uses pessaries made from the soap nut (ritha or aristaka), a large deciduous tree with fleshy fruit like a berry, which yields a type of soap, to induce childbirth, for both difficult delivery and abortion. The matured pulp enclosing the seedpods of the Indian laburnum (amaltas or aragvadha), one of India’s most lovely flowering trees, is used to make a gentle laxative for pregnant women. Small doses of castor oil are also given as a laxative in pregnancy, and immediately after childbirth. Medicine is also made from the drumstick tree (sahajan or sigru), with its long slender fruit, both to induce abortions and as an aid to difficult deliveries. Ayurveda uses small quantities of saffron in mixtures that are drunk to tone the uterus after childbirth, and to regulate gynecological disorders.

Nursing mothers: Many plants are used to increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers. The star-like leaves of the castor plant (rendi or eranda), one of the first medicinal plants known to mankind, are warmed and applied to a woman’s breasts as a galactagogue (to increase breast milk) and the oil is rubbed to prevent sore nipples. The leaf also provides one of the ingredients in a mixture drunk to increase milk flow. (The seeds of the castor plant have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to four thousand BC). Another galactagogue is cumin, as is asparagus racemosus (satavar or satavari), a graceful and delicate climbing plant that grows wild in the lowland Indian jungles.

Camphor has the opposite effect on the milk of a new mother. Swami Sivananda says, “Camphor (kapur or karpuram) is an anti-galactagogue that checks the accumulation of milk in the breasts, so it is beneficial for mothers who have lost children soon after birth, and who suffer from severe pain in the breasts owing to accumulation of milk.”

Camphor is extracted from the wood of the evergreen camphor tree. The Chronicles of the Emperor Akbar state, “The camphor crystallizing on the inside of the tree looks like salt; on its outside, like resin; and it often runs on to the ground where it solidifies. It is as white as snow.” Ayurveda however stresses that camphor is very acrid and if taken in large doses, highly poisonous.

Plants for beauty

Ayurveda holds that nature is the greatest source of beauty. It also stresses the importance of living close to, and cultivating, flowering plants because of their tranquillizing effect. The purely natural cosmetics described in classical Indian poetry and literature, written hundreds of years ago, are still used by Indian women today. Many of these were introduced by the early Ayurvedic physicians. All the plants from which Ayurveda extracts its cosmetics are also medicinal and purifying. Traditional Ayurvedic massage oils not only keep the skin beautiful, but also remove stress and fatigue, clean and disinfect the skin, and act as an aid to the digestive system. Ayurveda’s facial treatments, besides beautifying also heal sores, acne and other blemishes. Breath-fresheners and lip colouring aids also act as appetite stimulants.

Henna (mehndi or madayantika) has a history dating back thousands of years in India of being used by women to colour their hands, nails and hair. A perfume is made from the small rosy white or red flowers, which also acts as an anti-irritant, deodorant and antiseptic. Ayurvedic preparations made from henna cool the body during the heat of summer. If a few sprays of these exquisitely scented flowers are placed underneath the pillow at night, the heat will be removed from the body. Henna paste is also a cure for skin rashes brought on by the summer heat, apart from having antibacterial properties.

Saffron (kesar or kumkum) made from the dried stamens of the crocus plant, became the most valuable cosmetic that could be obtained in Asia. It was used as face mask by royal women or wives of wealthy aristocrats and merchants. Not only did it smoothen the skin, but also added a golden glow to it. Charaka, one of ayurveda’s legendary physicians of the first century AD, recommended women to drink a concoction of leaves from the slightly bitter Indian sarsaparilla (anantmul or sariva) to restore colour to a sallow complexion. South Indian women put the roots of this slender creeper in brass or earthenware pots to sweeten the water and mouth.

Return to the world of plants

Indian women incorporate plants into their lives in many ways, from washing their hair to worshipping their ishta devata, for health and happiness, balance and beauty, cooking and fumigating their homes – all without the use of chemicals! Surely it is time for women in general to turn once more to the natural and simple world of Ayurveda. On all levels of their life – medicinal, cosmetic, culinary, aromatic and sacred – they can take inspiration from the traditional Indian woman, who has maintained such a close link with the natural healing and spiritual energies around her. Then they will be able to not only attain better physical and mental health, but find a harmony and balance within, which will open doors to a deeper understanding of themselves, their place in the natural order of things, and the real meaning of their lives.