jyeṣṭha pūrṇimā

ज्येष्ठपूर्णिमा

Lesson 4: Midsummer Prasāda
Part I

Share this lesson
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Relief and Inspiration in the Shade of a Banyan Tree

Imagine you are sitting under a huge, spreading banyan tree. It’s a burning hot day so you feel relieved and cool in the shade of this ancient tree. The light is soft, the air is fresh and pleasing, the atmosphere is hushed. You feel protected, not just from the heat and glare but in a comforting way that feels very personal. The curling aerial roots hang down like blessings reaching towards you. It’s fascinating. It beckons you to linger, to savor the sense of timelessness and subtle wisdom.

This is where the practices for Vaṭa Sāvitrī full moon bring us.

Traditionally, it is women who celebrate this occasion. It begins by observing upavāsa, a somewhat gentle fast aimed at cultivating a sense of purity, clarity and spiritual sensitivity. Some people fast like this for three days in advance, others just on the full moon day. Wearing fresh, even festive, clothes, they visit a banyan tree where they offer fresh fruits and flowers, and pour water at the base of the tree: a life-sustaining gift.

Taking a ball of red, yellow or white thread, they tie it carefully around and around the trunk of the tree, literally making a connection and binding their prayers and dreams to the tree. These prayers are for the wellbeing of their beloved and their loved ones. While the focus is traditionally on prayers for the health and longevity of a spouse, family members and loved ones are also included.

Then they circumambulate the tree while continuing these prayers, and sit to listen to or read the story of Sāvitrī. The practice here is to contemplate how she brought her husband back from death under a banyan tree through her love, wisdom and fearlessness, and to feel renewed, encouraged and enriched.

This probably all seems like a quaint midsummer ritual. Yet as we look at it closely, you will see it is filled with spoken and unspoken wisdom.

Here we will look at the Ayurvedic wisdom behind the prasāda for this ritual, and also at the rejuvenating power of this practice as a whole: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

The Whole Experience is Rejuvenating Medicine: an Ayurveda Perspective

What you pictured at the beginning is a glimpse of something I love about Vaṭa Sāvitrī Pūrṇimā: the practices take place in nature, under the branches of a banyan tree.

Both the setting and the ritual offerings are forms of prasāda, sacred gifts. They convey both subtle blessings and a beautiful healing potency. They soothe and refresh not only your physical body and senses amidst the intense heat of summer, but also your mind and spirit. From the perspective of Ayurveda, the whole experience is medicine in itself.

Since long before the divinely inspired wisdom of the Indian subcontinent had been written down, the banyan tree or vaṭavrkṣa (वटवृक्ष) has been revered as sacred, and its shade has been sought out by everyone from sages to merchants to weary travelers.

And for as long as the wisdom of Ayurveda has been spoken of, the vaṭavrkṣa has been sought out for the healing potency of its leaves, aerial roots and bark. But their value in healing wounds and burns, gums and fertility problems are not actually the focus of Vaṭa Sāvitrī practices.

In fact, as we examine these particular mid-summer observances from the perspective of Ayurveda, we get a sense of how the embrace of Ayurveda’s wisdom is also like a huge, spreading banyan tree. It includes so much more than herbal medicines and warm oil treatments, eating kitchadi, and attuning ourselves closely to the pattern of the seasons.

For example, in the Vaṭa Sāvitrī practices, we get a glimpse a branch of Ayurvedic healing called sattvavajaya cikitsā (सत्त्ववजय चिकित्सा), remedies for winning over the mind. These practices are like elixirs for cultivating strength of mind and character. They help us develop increasing harmony, contentment and spiritual awareness.

Even if you are not able to actually perform the practices for Vaṭa Sāvitrī Pūrṇimā, you can enrich your understanding by learning here in Part 1 about:

  • The Ayurvedic approach to staying healthy in summer

In Part 2 we will take a close look at:

  • The tradition and value of pursuing spiritual practices under banyan trees.
  • Renewing our relationship with trees.
The Impact of Summer

As ग्रीष्म ऋतु (grīshma ṛtu), summer sets in, the progressively warmer, longer days begin making things hot and dry around us and inside us. The sunshine is energizing at first. But gradually you can find yourself feeling overheated and thirsty.

For some people this means really dry skin, hot rashes or extra unpleasant body odor. For others it’s constipation, or diarrhea or burning urination. And for still others it can mean burning eyes, tiredness or feeling irritable and impatient.

In the language of Ayurveda, the excess kapha that brought us allergy episodes and wet, sticky colds in spring has come into balance, thanks to the dry heat. Now it is vāta, the airy force that is constantly moving, and pitta, the internal fire, that are accumulating.

According to the way Ayurveda calculates the seasons, based on the proximity of the sun, in the northern hemisphere summer extends from mid-May to mid-July. In places like California, where these hot months aren’t followed by monsoon rains, summer, in effect, lasts until mid-September. (In the Southern Hemisphere, summer would be mid-November to mid-February.

Balancing the Impact of Summer Through Six Qualities

To balance the internal stampede of dryness and heat, we can find protection in the power of opposites. Specifically we do this by focusing on six qualities in the food we eat and what we expose our mind and senses to.

The first is sweetness. It is moist and cooling. Among the six tastes, it is the only one that balances both vāta and pitta. Eating sweet, मधुर (madhura) foods doesn’t mean you should dessert instead of regular meals. In Ayurveda, the idea of sweetness encompasses all kinds of nourishing foods: ghee, grains, dairy products, starchy vegetables, and of course seasonal fruits.

It’s also helpful to be around the sweet fragrance of flowers and incense.

The second quality is that the food we eat should be लघु (laghu), light to digest. This is important because our digestive fire is significantly weaker in summer. With the sun in close proximity, our bodies turn the inner fire down low to help us stay cool.

People who follow an Ayurveda lifestyle tend to eat light foods like mung dal, rice and cilantro regularly throughout summer. Enjoying seasonal fruits is a big focus. They also sip on thin buttermilk infused with rose and cardamom.

You definitely want to avoid eating big, heavy meals as though it’s Thanksgiving.

Even too many raw salads put a burden on your digestion in summer, especially when they are vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower that are usually cooked. Chew them extra well if that’s your only option.

The third quality may be less intuitive: summer food should be स्निग्ध (snigdha), a little oily, softening and smooth. Clearly this isn’t a recommendation for deep fried food, which is heavy to digest, but for cooking food in a little ghee or coconut oil. This is another important way to counteract dryness from inside, and keep your digestive fire as strong as possible.

It also refers to oil massage, which is a great way for your body to drink up soft, nourishing lubrication through your skin.

Fourthly comes हिम (hima), the cooling quality. No, it doesn’t mean adding lots of ice to the things we drink. That really dampens and weakens your digestion. Nor does it mean running the air conditioner all day. The best place to start is by creating coolness from inside.

You can do this by eating light, naturally sweet foods and gentle digestive spices that keep us from heating up internally. Think of cucumbers, coconut water, coriander and fennel seeds, for example.

Externally, explore spending time in cool environments like forests, gardens and riverbanks. The classical texts of Ayurveda praise the value of spending time in the shade of tall, spreading trees in summer. Not only is it cool in these places, but it also gives our senses relief from the taxing heat, glare and dryness of summer.

Fifthly, things that are liquid and fluid, द्रव (drava) are the friends we’re always looking for during the hot, sultry days and nights of summer. It can feel like every sip of water or juice is reviving our life force. So Ayurveda advises us to take it further and also choose foods that are moist, juicy and even soupy over dry foods. Along with this comes the welcome advice to seek out moist environments amongst dense trees or beside the ocean or a river.

The sixth quality is staying calm, śānta (शान्त), revelling in a peaceful state of mind. Long, scorching summer days have a way of making many of us feel frayed and impatient. At the same time, getting agitated and upset makes us feel even more hot and uncomfortable. Making an effort to stay calm softens that taxing edge.

One of the Sanskrit words I really like for this peaceful state of mind is nirvāta (निर्वात), “sheltered from the wind” – not from sweet breezes but from forceful winds. It’s a wonderful analogy for being protected from agitating thoughts and emotions.

In the language of Ayurveda, we can think of this as a place or a state where vāta dośa, the airy, drying force that is constantly moving, is undisturbed and therefore not fanning the flames of potential short tempers or anxiety.

Vaṭa Pūrṇimā Prasāda: a Simple Map for Summer Health

The offerings placed before a banyan tree on Vaṭa Savitri full moon are simple, straight from nature, and seasonally perfect. We offer fresh, sweet, seasonal fruits, and even little cucumbers, along with a pot of fresh water.

These offerings embody the first five qualities we need for summer. They are sweet, light to digest, and a little oily or smooth (think of what it’s like to bite into a banana). Plus, they are cooling and juicy. So they are a natural map of how to stay healthy in summer.

There is something else we receive as prasāda on this occasion. It is more than seasonally perfect fruits.

The sixth quality, calmness, comes from the environment of worship under a sacred tree. This calm state is also called samprasāda (सम्प्रसाद). It’s a beautiful and significant word with meanings like wellbeing, kindness, serenity and a gift that carries divine blessings. Perfect isn’t it! Here’s how we connect with it.

Prasāda:

For this full moon practice, we don’t go to a temple structure but into nature. The living, breathing banyan tree with its spreading branches is the sacred space. We enter a place where the air is saturated with life-giving energy, prāṇa (प्राण), and with heightened spiritual power.

So the big gift of the occasion is spending time doing spiritual practices under a vaṭavrkṣa, वटवृक्ष, a banyan tree. It’s more than breathing wonderfully oxygenated air and taking a break from hot kitchens or screen time, from overly stuffy or overly air-conditioned environments.

It’s an amazingly uplifting experience, a rejuvenation. In fact, it’s a form of sattvavajaya cikitsā, an elixir for winning over the mind, for developing inner harmony and spiritual awareness. It is medicine in itself.  We will explore this more in Part 2.

Teacher: Hema Patankar

Share this lesson
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email