Lesson 2: The Seasonal Wisdom of Ayurvedic Prasad – Neem
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Guḍhī Pāḍavā is a day to connect with the abundant blessings of bitter neem leaves - and in doing so, to discover an entire village pharmacy and even a goddess!
As you move through the streets and lanes of India, there is a presence you will keep noticing, the neem tree. Its abundant green foliage offers welcome shade along roadsides and in the courtyards of sacred shrines. Many homes have a neem tree growing right in front of them.
One person may tell you that neem trees grow everywhere because they don't need much water or special soil, and they keep their leaves almost all year round. Another person will tell you with great enthusiasm that the neem tree is their village pharmacy, and list some of the numerous home remedies they prepare from neem leaves and twigs.
Yet another person will be keen to have you understand that neem trees embody the Mother Goddess who protects not only their physical health, but their children and every aspect of their welfare.
In Sanskrit, neem is called nimbaḥ (निम्ब:), from a longer term that means 'to give good health', and ariṣṭa (अरिष्ट ), a safeguard against injury and sickness. Neem is well known to grandmothers and vaidyas as sarva roga nivāriṇi (सर्व रोग निवारिणि ), one who wards off all illnesses and diseases.
Those who worship neem trees know her as Śītala Devī, the Cool One, and resonate deeply with the name sarvatobhadra (सर्वतोभद्र), one who is auspicious in every way. They tenderly call her Mā, mother.
Neem leaves are given to everyone as a feature of the traditional prasāda at the conclusion of ritual celebrations on the morning of Guḍhī Pāḍavā and Ugādi, the spring New Year celebrations.
The first time you cup your hands to receive prasāda on Guḍhī Pāḍavā, it can be quite a surprise to find not some sweet delicacy or fruit, but a few notoriously bitter neem leaves with a little piece of jaggery. We have come to expect sweetness to be the vehicle for blessings. So these bitter, serrated leaves might look like intruders.
As you chew this prasāda for the first time, its bitterness is indeed startling. So it's easy to resonate with neem's designation as mahatikta (महातिक्त), greatly bitter, the most powerful of all bitter tasting things. So why is neem the prasāda for the auspicious occasion of welcoming the new year? There is great wisdom behind this.
A Special Protector in Spring
The new year celebrations of Guḍhī Pāḍavā and Ugādi come right at the start of spring. From the perspective of Ayurveda, this is a time when the wetness that has accumulated in our bodies during winter begins to "melt." In the language of the texts of Ayurveda, this is called kapha prakopa (कफ प्रकोप).
It's not a sign of being unhealthy, but a natural response to the movement of the seasons. It creates a sticky internal environment that can quickly lead to coughs, runny noses, allergy attacks and itchy rashes: all those familiar wet spring conditions that disrupt our enjoyment of this beautiful season.
The perfect antithesis to this environment is neem. Its bitter and astringent taste translates into a pungent potency once it is digested, which combines with its light dry qualities to penetrate quickly into the bloodstream. There, it can dislodge those small accumulations of stickiness that are on their way to becoming toxic, allowing the body to flush them out.
Neem is a remarkable purifier, without being heating. In the terminology of Ayurveda, neem pacifies both kapha and pitta dośas, though it can provoke vāta if you take it in excess, because its qualities are too similar to those of vāta: cool, light and dry.
Neem on the Altar for New Year’s Day
So the presence of neem leaves on Guḍhī Pāḍavā has a lot to do with protecting your health by purifying your blood and building immunity. Sometimes a mantra is recited along with this prasāda for additional blessings. It means: by eating these neem leaves, may you attain a strong, healthy body, may your wealth grow, and may all your troubles be destroyed.
Jaggery pieces accompany this neem prasāda not just to make it more palatable, but because jaggery has warming qualities that help open the channels, enabling neem to get absorbed quickly, since neem is cooling by itself. Sometimes the offering of neem leaves and jaggery is ground to a paste and mixed with tamarind and coriander seeds, or sometimes ajwain seeds. These ingredients also contribute to the immunity building qualities of this prasāda.
In some homes, people add neem leaves to their bath water on New Year's day, as a way of purifying their skin to prevent itchy spring rashes.
For Ugādi prasāda, neem is offered along five other ingredients to represent the six flavors. There is jaggery for sweetness, rock salt for saltiness, tamarind for sourness, chili powder for pungency, neem for bitterness, and pieces of unripe mango for astringency. According to Ayurveda, these are the six tastes that every balanced meal should include, and there is a detailed science behind the elements of nature that make up each taste.
While each of these humble ingredients has many health benefits, on Ugādi they have an additional role. Their collective presence invites people to embrace all aspects of life with equanimity, understanding that a full life includes experiences of all these flavors at various times. Each flavor can help you digest and appreciate another.
The Village Pharmacy
Traditionally, neem is a staple of daily health and hygiene, and is used for making numerous home remedies. From neem twigs for oral hygiene to neem paste to treat acne, warts and dandruff, and neem decoctions for acidity and fevers, neem is a constant contributor to family health. Neem is close to the hearts of farmers, who use it as a pesticide, rest in its welcome shade, and much more.
Vaidyas, expert practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine, put neem preparations to extensive use in treating numerous conditions from diabetes to chronic skin problems. Modern medical research has found encouraging possibilities for treating cancer and AIDS with neem. We will go into all this in greater depth in our course on neem, and see how they are deeply connected with each other and with the spiritual traditions of neem.
An immense treasury of living wisdom, at once practical and spiritual, comes together in the neem prasāda people prepare and receive to welcome the New Year in spring. The knowledge of grandmothers, farmers and vaidyas, of the ancient texts of Ayurveda and the findings of modern research, of the movement of the seasons and the experience of devotees who treasure a neem tree as the divine Mother: all this is infused in your gift of neem.
Preparing and Receiving Guḍhī Pāḍavā Prasāda
If you are lucky enough to have access to fresh neem leaves and flowers, which bloom in time for this New Year's celebration, simply place one or two stems of leaves on a small tray or plate, along with pieces of jaggery. When the puja is complete, offer everyone a few neem leaves and pieces of jaggery.
Otherwise, you can use dried neem leaves. Both the fresh and dried leaves take quite a bit of chewing, so you really get a chance to experience their flavor: you know you are eating medicine. Or you can offer a small bowl of neem powder, mixing it well with the crushed jaggery as you serve this prasāda.
If you are celebrating Ugadi, follow the same procedure with the addition of some salt, chilli, tamarind and raw mango, then mix all the ingredients together when offering them to people as prasāda.
Do take a moment to notice how fresh your teeth and mouth feel afterwards. Let it remind you of the possibilities of neem to help clean up the inner digestive environment so you can stay healthy in spring and beyond.
May this prasāda inspire in you a personal relationship with the knowledge and blessings of neem!
- This lesson is not intended to be medical advice. It is a study of the wisdom behind the prasāda of this seasonal celebrations.
- If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, please take only a tiny, token portion of this neem prasāda, and definitely don't try out the Ayurvedic spring regimen of small daily doses of neem. Neem is used in birth control, so it's not for you.
Teacher: Hema Patankar
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