Autumn creates the beautiful, natural environment in which the celebration of Navarātri takes place. The special characteristics of this season have had a huge influence on how the traditions of fasting and food offerings for this festival came about, as well as where the celebrations take place. The wisdom of Ayurveda, spiritual traditions and sacred rituals come together here.
So we will begin with a detailed examination of the fall season from the perspective of Ayurveda. This will give us a context for understanding why and how gentle fasting, उपवास (upavāsa) is a part of how we celebrate Navarātri. It will also help us understand why specific foods are offered to the Goddess to be infused with blessings and shared as प्रसाद (prasāda) and how this benefits us.
At a deeper level, it will also heighten our awareness of our intimate connection with nature, and how the cycles of time and change around us are reflected within us. The tangible steps we learn help us cultivate an increasingly profound, intuitive connection with the sacred in all life.
Fascinating beauty begins unfolding around us – in the trees and fields, the sky, the quality of the light – as we enter fall, the season known in Sanskrit as शरदृतु (śarad-ṛtu). In the Indian subcontinent, it is as though the flowers and birds have come out of hiding after the monsoon season. Nature seems to have regained its vitality. Grains and fruits ripen for harvest, and the clear night skies offer charming relief from the efforts and heat of daily life.
What an exquisite time to celebrate the Divine Goddess, who embodies the sacred abundance of the Earth and the forces of birth, life, and transcendence, during the nine nights of Navarātri!
Śarad-ṛtu is filled with sacred festivals: after Navarātri comes शरद् पूर्णिमा (śarad pūrṇimā) the night when Śrī Kṛṣṇa danced with his devotees under the full moon, and दीपावली (Dīpāvali), also known as Diwali, the festival of light. Many of these festivals include practices take place after sunset under the star-filled night sky and amidst the exquisite rays of the moon. It turns out that this is actually wonderful for our health as well. More on that to follow.
This delightful season extends from mid-September to mid-November, in the northern hemisphere. Ayurveda calculates its timing according to the movement of the sun, and the impact this has not only on the landscape around us, but on our internal landscape.
It’s this inner landscape that needs special attention in fall, because the possibilities for our health to get disturbed run high. In this lesson we will look closely at ways to eat and things to do to stay healthy in this autumn. In the lessons that follow, we will then see how many of the practices for these sacred festivals actually help create this balance in our health in very specific and significant ways.
In many parts of the world, like much of North America, autumn turns many of the trees into a spectacular blaze of red and gold leaves. It can make you wonder if the heat of summer is leaving the air only to be captured by the leaves, making trees look like they are enveloped in radiance and flames.
This analogy actually mirrors what goes on inside us. While we watch the magnificent display of fall colors around us, the accumulated heat of summer is leaving our organs and senses in a less magnificent way than the dazzling leaves.
It’s quite common to feel as though the heat of summer should get swept away with the first breeze, or appeased by the first starlit night. But instead, it makes a messy, lingering departure in blaze of burning symptoms.
Rashes and acne suddenly flare up, fevers have kids home from school, acidity and diarrhoea make nuisances of themselves. Eyes get dry and red. Even fiery emotions get stirred up and burst into expression, thanks to the way the “digestive capacity” of the mind and emotions can get thrown out of balance. Sleep gets disturbed. Pockets of inflammation can take many forms. Doctors are busy in this season.
What’s going on? Aren’t we supposed to be enjoying the crisper air and feeling relief from the heat of summer? The problem is that the heat we need to release is systemic. It has built up over many months, so it takes time to release. Unfortunately, the effect of a few days of cooler weather is still superficial by comparison. (Of course, dress appropriately if you’re in a place where the weather is turning cool.)
Let’s be clear that this is not just a problem in India and other hot climates. It’s happening everywhere, even though the intensity of the heat may differ. There is no absolute level of heat to release. It’s all relative to the environment in which we live.
The increasingly cool nights we experience in California and most of North American, for example, are indeed helping us release the accumulated heat of summer. But then the sunny Indian summer days warm up the air again. Not only does this big daily fluctuation in the temperature make the days seem hotter than they really are, but it also makes the release of that pent up heat get bumpy.
On the Indian subcontinent, the atmosphere has typically cooled down drastically during the monsoon season, only to overwhelm us with a fresh blast of super hot days when the monsoon clouds clear. All this heat around us and inside us can overpower our enjoyment of the lush beauty that the monsoon rains have brought to life.
In Ayurvedic terms, both these regional scenarios treat us to excess पित्त देाष (pitta doṣa). Pitta doṣa is the fiery force that is normally busy helping us digest both food and all the experiences our senses perceive, and transform them in ways that nourish and inform us. This same force builds up in excess during summer and needs to be released in fall. We can think of this as the releasing seeds of future disturbances caused by inflammation.
Now if the excess heat is released from the body’s deeper tissues into an overloaded, overheated and overstimulated digestive system, rather than leaving our bodies, it keeps cycling around inside us and causes problems. This is why Ayurveda urges us to help facilitate this seasonal release of excess heat through the kinds of foods and activities we choose.
This might all seem a bit counter-intuitive and confusing at first. So let’s look at a couple of principles in Ayurveda that can help us understand this process.
The first is that opposites create balance while things that are the same cause unbalanced excess: like increases like.
For example, the characteristic tastes in foods that increase heat in the body are salty, sour and pungent. So fall is not a great time for pickles, chillies, tomato based sauces, yoghurt (which creates a heating effect inside us despite coming straight from the refrigerator). It’s also not a good time to eat lots of salty snacks, sharp cheeses, garlic, excess mustard and ketchup, and even sour fruits.
Instead, this is the time to create fall meals that feature the opposite tastes: sweet, bitter and astringent. मधुर (madhura) or sweet tasting food doesn’t just mean foods laden with sugar, but foods that are nourishing, like rice, wheat, milk, ghee and of course sweet fruits.
When it comes to foods that taste bitter or तिक्त (tikta), we often avoid them and accuse them of tasting like medicine. Actually, they are medicine, particularly in this season. Some good examples are bitter melon, fenugreek seeds, all kinds of leafy greens, as well as digestive spices like turmeric, cumin and coriander. Other popular vegetables that have some bitterness include artichokes and broccoli. Yes, coffee is also bitter. But it’s so heating that it doesn’t make its way into a list of beneficial foods for fall.
Foods that have some astringent or कषाय (kaṣaya) taste include pomegranates, pears, apples and lentils.
So from the perspective of taste or रस (rasa) and the impact it will have on us, some of the most helpful, balancing foods to eat in fall are green mung beans, barley, wheat, and amaranth, along with all kinds of gourds and squashes, spinach and all kinds of leafy greens, carrots, and cucumbers, along with spices like turmeric, cumin and coriander.
Seasonal sweet fruits like pomegranates, apples, pears, and figs are wonderful, as well as dark raisins. Dairy products such as ghee and milk are excellent, as well as freshly churned buttermilk with cumin. But do avoid yoghurt, and keep cheese to a minimum. Rock sugar and raw honey are very good in this season.
The second principle is that in seasons when the sun is close, digestion is weaker, while in seasons when the sun is further away, our digestive fire is naturally stronger. In autumn, in the northern hemisphere, the sun has still not moved far enough south to boost our natural digestive strength. (Hang in there. The great digestive days of winter are coming.)
So in fall we continue to eat foods that are लघु (laghu), light to digest, and to eat in moderation, with plenty of digestion time between meals. We are definitely advised to avoid eating heavy, fatty foods and to avoid overeating. The foods mentioned for their beneficial tastes in this season are also easy to digest, as long as you eat them in moderation.
You will see many examples of these two principles in the lessons that follow on gentle fasting and preparing food offerings to become prasāda for Navarātri.
Another things that people who are familiar with Ayurveda will often do in fall is use simple purgative measures to help release this excess systemic heat. It’s a simple matter of drinking some warm milk with a pinch of turmeric and a quarter spoon of ghee before going to bed. If it’s necessary to make the effect a little stronger, we often soak about 15 dark raisins overnight and eat them in the early morning, along with their juice.
There are two special elixirs that particularly help us balance the excess heat we are trying to shed in fall: moonlight and pomegranates.
Moonlight is the most soothing and charming elixir both for the mind and senses, and for the physical body as well. It is the ideal cooling medicine for this season. It’s not that you need to lie in the moonlight in a bathing suit. Just lingering amidst the moonrays and gazing at the moon has an unexpectedly powerful effect. Or chanting and dancing in the moonlight. It’s fascinating that the festivals of the Vedic tradition that occur in this season have us celebrating in the early evening out under the moon and the starry night sky.
If you can’t find opportunities to sit in the moonlight, you can try this. Set a glass of water on a porch or windowsill and let it soak up moonrays throughout the night. Then drink this water in the morning. Also, if you happen to have any pearls, wear them during this season. They are cooling like the moon.
The second elixir for this season is pomegranate, दाडिम dādima, a magnificent fall fruit that’s both sweet and astringent, and loaded with health boosting qualities. Sweet pomegranate is quite an amazing medicine. As you chew juicy pomegranate seeds or sip their juice, you can feel it cleaning and purifying your mouth and gums, your throat and your upper digestive area.
Sweet pomegranate is लघु (laghu), light on the stomach and easy to digest. Its qualities are particularly easy to absorb. So it quickly starts to relieve excessive thirst and soothe all kinds of burning sensations and pockets of inflammation in our bodies. Eating pomegranate or sipping its juice is great for cooling hot eyes and for relieving fevers and diarrhoea. Pomegranate juice also helps build both mental and physical strength, and overall immunity. It’s even a heart tonic.
So look out for pomegranates as soon as they come in season and take advantage of their wonderful health boosting qualities. It’s worth having pomegranate in some form every day in autumn.
You can drink freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (no ice!), sprinkle the colorful seeds on top of rice or butternut squash – use your imagination here. Or just break open a pomegranate and eat the beautiful red seeds. Make sure you eat them slowly enough to enjoy the way the juice explodes in your mouth with each bite.
शरदृतु (śarad-ṛtu), autumn, may bring health challenges when we don’t understand how to eat in harmony with this season of change. But it’s also a time that is so beautiful and filled with auspiciousness that the sages of the Ṛg Veda sang this prayer again and again:
“May we see a hundred autumns, may we live for a hundred śarad-ṛtus!” पश्येम शरदः शतं जीवेम शरदः शतम (paśyema śāradah śataṃ jīvema śaradaḥ śatam).