Dhanteras, (Dhanatrayodaśī in Sanskrit), is generally associated with wealth. We express both our gratitude for the abundance in our lives, and our prayers that it will be sustained and increase. This day is also associated with health as wealth, and celebrated as Dhanvantari Jayanti, the day that Lord Dhanvantari took birth.
Lord Dhanvantari is the embodiment of the wisdom of life, health and healing, of Ayurveda, and celebrated as the Lord of Ayurveda. In the field of Ayurvedic practice, we invoke the blessings of Lord Dhanvantari not only to enhance the healing potency of herbs and medicines, but to help one another connect with the innate power of health and healing within us.
While Dhanvantari is not mentioned in the Vedas, the healing power he embodies connects easily with forces we can visualize as clouds of healing nectar moving across the sky and raining down blessings. These blessings bring life, rejuvenation and health to all forms of life: plants, animals, people, and the earth itself.
In the Purānas, Lord Dhanvantari is revered as the divine healer and an incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu, who is the divine sustainer, protector and nurturer of all life and of the whole cosmos.
Lord Dhanvantari appears in the famous story of the churning of the ocean of milk by the forces of light and the demons, which is told in the Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa, the Mahābhārata, and the Rāmāyaṇa. As the devas, the beings filled with light, and the demons, lovers of darkness, churn this celestial ocean in search of immortality, various amazing treasures are churned up, including a wish-fulfilling cow, celestial jewels, and the Goddess Lakṣmī, the embodiment of abundance, beauty and every form of wealth.
Finally, Lord Dhanvantari appeared, strong and radiant with health. A fascinating light shone from his heart and his lotus eyes, and around his head. It was at once dazzling and gentle. His glowing body and his golden yellow robes shone in sharp contrast to the deep blue waters from which he emerged. His soft, playful smile alone surely had the power to destroy all kinds of diseases, like a windswept fire consuming a forest.
Dhanvantari was immediately recognizable as an incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu. He had four arms. In his upper hands he held a conch and Viṣṇu’s characteristic sudarśana cakra, a spinning disc of light and energy.
In one of his lower hands he held an unlikely power: a leech. In Ayurveda, leeches are respected friends. They are used even today to remove poison and toxins from the blood. The presence of a leech can also symbolize the need to remove toxic waste, to purify the body, mind and senses before we can really benefit from drinking nectar.
Some of the observers saw Dhanvantari holding a handful of herbs. No specific herbs, but symbols of the healing potency in plants and herbs everywhere. Together with the leech, they silently spoke of the wisdom that everything in nature can be medicine for the appropriate person at the appropriate time.
But all eyes were on what Dhanvantari held in his fourth hand: a pot filled with अमृत (amṛta), the celestial nectar of immortality. Whoever drank this amṛta would not only live forever and receive astonishing powers, but would also gain access to higher levels of knowledge. While we might think how extraordinary it would be to drink a few drops of a rejuvenating elixir that could give us the unending radiance and energy of youth along with unassailable good health for our body, mind and spirit, not all the onlookers had these things in mind. The demons visualized one thing: being indestructible in battle and ruling the cosmos and all its wealth with their enhanced powers.
The destiny of that pot of nectar unfolds in a longer story. Dhanvantari’s role is complete when the pot is grabbed by waiting hands. (It ended up in good hands.)
The tradition considers Lord Dhanvantari to be one of the additional avatāras or incarnations of Lord Viṣṇu. Who else but the supreme sustainer of the universe could have brought forth the nectar of immortality!
The next time we hear of Lord Dhanvantari, he has taken birth in Kāśi (known today as Varanasi) and is teaching the wisdom of Ayurveda, which he has learned from Lord Brahma. He becomes the king of Kāśi, though he lives like a yogi, filled with compassion, spreading the wisdom of health and healing. His core students are sages, people of great spiritual wisdom and discipline. They are dedicated to serving humanity.
The teachings they receive orally from Dhanvantari spread widely through his students. These students include Suśruta, who is often called the founding father of surgery and who is the author of Suśruta-saṃhitā, one of the three foundational texts of Ayurveda.
Today we see images of Lord Dhanvantari in the lobbies and treatment rooms of Ayurvedic hospitals, and in clinics where Ayurveda is practiced, often with a small lamp burning before the image. We see images of Lord Dhanvantari in the opening pages of many books on Ayurveda. We hear mantras invoking the blessings of Dhanvantari chanted by traditional vaidyas, and by people who perform Ayurvedic therapies at the start of their therapies. And we hear teachers of Ayurveda recite these mantras as an invocation at the start of their classes.
On this day, we find practitioners of Ayurveda invoking the blessings of Lord Dhanvantari in their clinics and hospitals. In addition to the offerings of a ghee lamp, kumkum, sandalwood paste, incense, fruits and flowers, we see that various herbs, roots, oils and medicinal formulas placed before the image of Dhanvantari.
The vaidyas and their assistants chant mantras and hymns invoking the blessings of Dhanvantari, praying that all the forms of medicine and knowledge they offer will be potent and bring health to those who imbibe them. These vaidyas do not consider themselves as the ones who ultimately heal their patients. Rather, they endeavor to offer the ideal treatments, medicinal herbs and guidance that will best enhance the natural healing ability within each person. So invoking divine blessings plays an important role in their work.
People also celebrate Lord Dhanvantari at home. For example, people who are making efforts to restore or maintain their personal health will often place all their herbs and medicines on an altar to Lord Dhanvantari on this day. They pray that their potency will be strong and received well by their body, and that this will translate into improved health. They also pray that they will have the focus and discipline to follow the health guidance they have received.
More generally, people worship Lord Dhanvantari on this day with prayers that family and friends will be blessed with good health. They invoke the presence of Dhanvantari by chanting mantras. The simplest one is Oṃ Dhanvantaraye Namaḥ. In addition to lighting a ghee lamp and offering fruits and flowers, kumkum and incense, they may offer nine different kinds of grains. With this offering they pray that all the food in their home will bring health to those who eat it. They also place a lamp in the north east corner of their home to light the way for Dhanvantari’s healing presence to enter.
A beautiful outcome of this small celebration is a renewed dedication to live and eat, to think and act in such a way that the wealth of health is enhanced every day both within us, and in the people with whom we interact.
There is a special offering that accompanies these prayers. It is not the typical rich sweets and delicious goodies that people look forward to at Dīpāvali. It is something much simpler and in tune with maintaining good health in the autumn season — even though we are nearing its end.
As we saw in the Navarātri lesson on śarad ṛtu the fall season, is a time when the accumulated, systemic heat of summer is making its way out of our body. Even though the weather is getting progressively cooler, we still need to pay attention to this deeper process so that it happens smoothly.
So the traditional offering for this celebration is a simple mixture of coriander seeds धान्यक, (dhānyaka) and rock sugar मिश्री (miṣrī) or खडी साखर (khaḍi sākhara). Both are wonderfully cooling and light to digest.
According to Ayurveda, dhānyaka, coriander, has the three best tastes for staying healthy in fall: sweet (मधुर, madhura), bitter (तिक्त, tikta)and astringent (कषाय, kaṣaya). It is warming, slightly lubricating, and light to digest (लघु, laghu). It has a special potency for igniting the digestive fire, which helps develop a good appetite and makes other food easier to digest. In fact, it’s great for digesting not only the food you have just eaten, but also the toxic remnants of meals past.
Dhānyaka, coriander, is wonderful for relieving excessive thirst and burning urine, and very helpful in getting rid of worms. Plus it’s a tonic. In fact, coriander is used in various forms as a home remedies for many different conditions. So while coriander may be best known as a culinary spice, it is also a staple of kitchen medicine.
For example, this simple combination of coriander seeds and rock sugar can be soaked overnight in room temperature water. The strained infusion can be sipped next morning to relieve burning sensations in the body and excessive thirst.
Rock Sugar is processed quite differently from the familiar raw and white sugars, and without the involvement of chemicals. So it has traditionally been considered the purest form of sugar to use in sacred rituals, as well as in medicinal formulas.
In Ayurvedic terms, rock sugar is मधुर (madhura), sweet in taste, शीत (śīta), cooling, and लघु (laghu), light to digest. It is very refreshing for both the body and the mind. These are ideal qualities for calming and releasing excess heat in fall. Sucking a few crystals is also a good way to relieve coughing.
Such simple, healing nectar!
As you slowly chew this prasāda, contemplate this healing blessing entering you and uniting with the irresistible attraction to health that pulses in each cell of your body.
You can also look around you and recognize the great healing power that abounds in life: in fresh foods, in water, in the sight of the rising sun and the night sky, in trees and the laughter of children, in uplifting company and sacred knowledge.