Lord Kṛṣṇa’s birthday, Janmāṣṭamī, occurs in the two month period from mid July to mid September, in the northern hemisphere, which is called Varṣa-Ṛtu, the rainy season, in the Ayurveda tradition. This affects not only the weather conditions during this celebration, but also the kind of prasāda that is offered, since it is traditionally chosen to reflect the wisdom of healthy eating for this season.
Since we are part of the same ecology as the plants and environment in which we live, the rhythm of the seasons is reflected within us. It silently invites us to adjust our diet with care and wisdom in response to each season, so we avoid being susceptible to seasonal disorders, and aggravating existing imbalances.
Across the Indian subcontinent in varṣa-ṛtu, rain clouds burst day after day, reviving the parched environment with torrents of sweet water. In places like California though, not a drop of rain falls at this time, and the long summer continues. In yet other places, like the east coast of the United States, the continuing summer is interspersed with frequent thunderstorms and the air is heavy with humidity.
From the perspective of Ayurveda, there are common threads that run through the way we experience this season internally, and the measures we are encouraged to take to maintain the exquisite balance of good health.
As we saw in connection with the prasāda for Rakṣā Bandhan, whether the weather outside is hot and dry, raining constantly or intermittently, this is the time of year when our digestive fire is at its weakest, and वात-दोष, vāta-doṣa is the predominant force to balance internally. Vāta-doṣa is characteristically dry and cool, constantly moving and destabilizing. This is primarily thanks to the continued proximity of the sun directly over the northern hemisphere, and is compounded by the seasonal weather conditions. Let’s look more closely at how varṣa-ṛtu effects these three environments.
पृथुक (Pṛthuka) – Flattened Rice
Flattened rice shares most of the amazingly nourishing yet light qualities of regular rice. But it is not generally used in religious rituals and symbolism the way uncooked rice grains are. It is Kṛṣṇa’s love for flattened rice that elevates this humble snack food to the realm of sacred ritual for this occasion.
Flattened rice, or poha, as it is known in Hindi, is made by parboiling rice to make it soft, then rolling it flat and drying it to form flakes.
The texts of Ayurveda describe पृथुक (prthuka) or flattened rice as sweet in taste (meaning that it is nourishing and mild), and cooling. It is स्निग्ध (snigdha) or unctuous and softening, बृम्हण (bṛmhaṇa) or nourishing, and बल्य (balya) or strengthening. It is heavy to digest, so it’s best eaten in modest quantities.
It tends to increase कफ (kapha), the stabilizing, earthy force in the body that is also responsible for unwanted weight gain when it’s consumed in excess. But it calms वात (vāta), the airy, destabilizing force that so often gets out of hand in this season. From a practical perspective, this makes flattened rice an excellent balancing food in the rainy, late summer season, as long as we eat it in modest quantities.
दुग्ध (Dugdha) – Milk
Since ancient times, cows’ milk has been both an invaluable form of sustenance, and a compelling spiritual image.
The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam describes Lord Viṣṇu’s cosmic form, as floating blissfully on an ocean of milk, क्षीरसागर (kṣīrasāgara), which sages have described as a sea of potentiality. People have gazed as the night sky, wondering if Lord Viṣṇu is actually resting in the Milky Way. A famous story that is told in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and in the Mahābhārata, describes the churning of this ocean of milk by the gods and demons, who were searching for the nectar of immortality within its depths.
In the Vedic tradition, cows are honored as a form of Lakṣmī Devī, the Goddess of wealth. From the nourishing sweetness of cows’ milk, to the ghee derived from it – vital in performing sacred fire rituals – cows and their milk have been an invaluable source of well being. Even cow dung is valuable as fuel and for its antiseptic qualities.
From the perspective of Ayurveda, दुग्ध (dugdha) or full cream, organic cow’s milk, is sweet in taste, cooling, and wonderfully स्निग्ध (snigdha) or unctuous and softening. It is jīvaniya, life giving and rasāyana, rejuvenating, and strengthens not only the body but also the intellect and immunity. The technical descriptions of milk’s qualities read almost like a hymn of praise, referring to milk by many names such as jīvana, life, and rasa, nectar.
This is very different from the modern tendency to dismiss milk as too laden with lactose, and to use soymilk instead: similar in color, but that’s about all. It’s a long discussion that we won’t go into here. Try to use unhomogenized, full cream, organic milk for this recipe. If that’s not possible, use your best available option. It’s worth making this effort because in modest quantities, the cooling, unctuous, and calming effects of real milk – consumed warm – are a boon in keeping the balance of health in this season.
नारिकेल (Nārikela), Coconut
Coconuts are valued by those who offer nourishment, those who offer worship, and those who offer healing. In fact, one of the Sanskrit words for coconuts is श्रीफल (srīphala), the fruit that embodies prosperity and auspiciousness, and brings beauty and growth. Coconut oil is even famous for bringing luster to the skin and helping hair growth thick and strong.
Ayurveda describes coconuts in similar terms. The abundant, dense “flesh” within a coconut shell is मधुर (madhura), sweet tasting, स्निग्ध (snigdha), softening and lubricating – the perfect balance for dryness – as well as बृम्हण (bṛmhaṇa), nourishing and बल्य (balya), strengthening. And of course both coconut water and flesh are wonderfully cooling. It’s a bit heavy to digest, so it’s usually eaten in smaller quantities, mixed with foods that are light to digest, as it is in this recipe.
Coconut has a wonderful ability to stabilize aggravated vāta, the dry, airy and often depleting force, and also excess pitta or heat – perfect qualities for this season. It’s quite enlivening, like a tonic, and remarkably good at relieving any kind of burning sensation. Don’t get nervous about coconuts and cholesterol. They have now been given the “good cholesterol” stamp. And this recipe uses just a little coconut.
Coconut is valuable in this rainy season prasāda because it’s sweet, nourishing and lubricating qualities are excellent for balancing vāta doṣa. It is equally valuable if you are in a place where this season is an extension of summer, since coconut is so good at relieving heat within the body.
गुड (Guḍa), Jaggery
Jaggery is unrefined cane sugar, rich with minerals. It boosts both digestion and elimination, and gives a slow release energy boost. Jaggery adds an earthy sweetness to this dish.
Ayurveda describes guḍa, jaggery, as मधुर (madhura), sweet and nourishing, and also heavy to digest in excessive quantities. It’s उष्ण (uṣṇa) more heating than most of the other ingredients, so it creates good balance in this recipe.
घृत (Ghṛta), Ghee
Ghee or clarified butter, is the primary auspicious offering in sacred fire rituals. Just as it makes the flames of the sacred fire leap high and glow, it also make the ghee lamps on a home altar burn bright, and boosts the internal fire of our digestion. It helps our memory and intellect shine and our senses stay sharp.
So rather than thinking of ghee as mere cholesterol, understand that it plays a very important role in keeping the digestive fire strong, both in general, and in this rainy or late winter season. Along with this, it is an outstanding source of nourishment, strength, and immunity. It is definitely heavy though, which is why we generally consume it in small quantities.
Ghee is a mainstay of health in Ayurveda, both in medicinal formulas and health promoting home cuisine.
Ayurveda describes ghee as मधुर (madhura), sweet tasting (meaning that it is mild and nourishing), and शीत (shīta), cooling. Yet despite its coolness, the sum of its qualities actually makes it ideal for keeping both vāta and pitta, the airy and firey forces, calm while at the same time increasing the digestive fire.
Ghee is definitely स्निग्ध (snigdha), softening and lubricating for the whole body, and helps us become more supple. You can even think of it as an internal moisturizer for dry skin. In fact, like the sacred fire and ghee lamps, it can make your skin glow.
एला (Elā), Cardamom
Cardamom is a delightful, fragrant spice. While it is great for helping food get digested properly and avoiding gas. It’s also an effective mouth freshener.
Ayurveda describes cardamom as मधुर (madhura) slightly sweet, कटु (kaṭu), pungent, in taste. It is उष्ण (uṣṇa) heating – though not excessively, and तीक्ष्ण (tīkṣṇa) penetrating. It calms imbalances in all three doṣas or forces within the body, though it should be taken in moderation in hot weather or when there is aggravated heat in the body.
How to prepare Poha Kheer:
Teacher: Hema Patankar