There is growing interest in ayurvedic herbs these days. What is the difference between an ayurvedic herb and herbs in general? Does an herb have to grow in India to be “ayurvedic”? It is easy to understand the difference between ayurvedic herbs and herbs in general when we know what ayurveda really is. The word “ayurveda” means “science of life” or “science of longevity.” The techniques of ayurveda integrate body, breath, mind, and consciousness in the treatment of all ailments, from the simplest illness to the most complex disease. But ayurveda is not the science of disease; it is the science of health. Its goal is to make it possible for us to live a healthy life until our last breath. Any herb that helps us become healthy, retain our vitality, and live the full span of life can therefore be called “ayurvedic.”
Any herb growing anywhere can be adopted in the ayurvedic system of healthcare provided it has the necessary properties.
Because ayurveda developed in India, ayurvedic experts studied the healing and rejuvenative properties of the plants that grew there and used these plants in their preparations. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that only herbs grown in India are ayurvedic. A number of the herbs mentioned in ayurvedic texts also grow outside India. Many plants with properties similar to the ones mentioned in ayurvedic texts grow in Europe and Central America, for example. Any herb growing anywhere can be adopted in the ayurvedic system of healthcare provided it has the necessary properties.
Furthermore, herbs that have become popular in certain countries (say, India or China) have come to be regarded as Indian or Chinese, even though they are widely used elsewhere. Den shen, for example, is known as a Chinese herb, but people in other parts of the world have been using it for thousands of years; in North America it is known as red sage. People have been using the same powerful rejuvenative herb under the name ashwagandha in India and withania in the West. Another “Indian” herb, vacha, has long been used by Europeans under the name calamas and under other names by Native Americans.
Is it appropriate to combine herbs not mentioned in ayurvedic texts with other herbs? Yes, this is perfectly fine. However, to do this effectively the herbalist, pharmacist, or alchemist who combines them must have a comprehensive knowledge of the herbs, their unique properties, and what makes them compatible. Herbalism is a vast subject, one which was practiced in all cultures before the advent of modern medicine. In earlier times, however, herbalists were knowledgeable only about the herbs that grew in their own region. They worked with them and came to know their properties intimately. There was very little interaction with herbalists from different parts of the world and so their knowledge was limited to local plants.
Today the situation has obviously changed: herbalists are no longer limited to plants that grow locally. Herbal treatments—whether for prevention, healing, or rejuvenation—can be more effective if the best herbs from different regions are combined. And this can be done only if ayurvedic experts further their knowledge by researching and studying the science of herbs developed in various cultures. Without solid, scientific research the current interest in herbalism will fade without making any significant contribution to raising the overall standard of health and well-being.
Can you explain the role of herbs in our spiritual practices? How can they enhance our spiritual growth? In ancient times the Vedic people experienced nature as the Divine Mother because everything evolved from her. They called her Prakriti. Everything that existed in her and evolved from her was saturated with consciousness. According to ayurveda, especially the tantric version, herbs are the embodiment of the living goddess. If applied properly, they release divine energies, not only to heal the physical aspect of our being, but the mental and spiritual aspects as well. People in ancient cultures lived close to nature and had great sensitivity toward the consciousness localized in these herbs. They knew intuitively in which plants the divine energies are concentrated and they knew how to invoke these energies and bask in their light. Holy basil (ocimum sanctum), neem (melia azadirachta), pipal (piper longum), bael (aegle marmelos), mandar (erythrina indica), and haridra (curcuma longa), for example, were worshipped by the Vedic people. And because they identified these and many other plants as living gods and goddesses, to them this was not plant worship but nature worship.
Just as some species of animals are more evolved than others, and some humans possess a higher degree of intelligence than others, there is a greater degree of consciousness, intelligence, and healing power inherent in certain plants. In ayurveda, such plants are called herbs. This definition may or may not accord with the botanical definition, but this is how the ancient scriptures, such as the Atharva Veda and tantric texts, differentiate herbs from other plants. There are a host of mantras that describe not only the medicinal properties of these herbs but the spiritual powers they embody as well. For a practitioner of yoga these herbs can bring about a remarkable transformation.
How important is it to use only organically grown herbs? In a time when almost the whole planet is contaminated with chemicals and other toxins, how can we obtain herbs which are pure? It is very important to use only organically grown herbs in herbal preparations, whether they are meant for healing our bodies or for uplifting our consciousness. Unfortunately today the entire planet is suffering from contamination from chemicals and other substances and so are the herbs, but there is still some relatively pristine land left. If we refrain from polluting it and use the herbs that grow there, that will be a good start.
But obtaining herbs that are pure requires more than organic farming methods. Just as a human being consists of body, mind, and soul, herbs also are composed of these three components. To ensure their physical health we must grow them organically so that the plant is free from toxins and grows in accord with nature. To ensure their mental health we must maintain a harmonious and cheerful environment where the herbs are growing. This means that the place and its immediate surroundings must be free from the negative energies of fear, anger, and violence. The ancient Vedic herbalists supplied food for the soul of the herbs by repeating mantras and making fire offerings. According to them only healthy and happy herbs can engender health and happiness in humans and other living beings. Only when herbs are awakened in the first place can they awaken those who use them. Only when they are enlightened can they enlighten those who use them.
The Vedic method for growing herbs, therefore, is much more sophisticated and complete than what we call organic farming. There is a complete set of mantras for planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, and processing herbs for ayurvedic preparations. There are specific rituals, along with specific fire offerings, for nourishing the herbs at a spiritual level and uplifting their consciousness. If herbs are cultivated in this manner they will have a miraculous effect on our body, mind, and soul.