Spiritual Beliefs and Social Activities Associated with Medicinal Plants in India

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Medicinal plants are those that are commonly used in treating and preventing specific ailments and diseases, and that are generally considered to play a beneficial role in health care (Srivastava et. al., 1996). Medicinal plant has also been defined as any plant with one or more of its organs containing substance that can be used for therapeutic purpose or which can be used as precursors for the synthesis of antimicrobial drugs (Sofowara, 1982). There are thousands of medicinal plants around the globe but only a small percentage of them are being used by human beings for medicinal purposes.

India is a land of varied climatic, geographical and geological conditions. These diverse environments allow various precious herbs and trees to grow in India. In India, plants have been used for treatment of diseases for centuries. Ayurveda, which was written around 900 BCE, contains the medicinal uses of several plants. Swami Sivananda (2018) writes, “The greater part of Ayurvedic treatment is by medicinal herbs, which form its mainstay. The study of these herbs and their characteristics by the ancient seers is minute and thoroughly scientific. This is evidenced by their scholarly treatises, which give the results of their research. The fact that these herbal medicines continue to be widely used with remarkable success even up to the present day by quite modern Ayurvedic medical practitioners all over India is a patent proof, beyond any doubt, of the high and enduring merits of this system of therapeutics”. Our lives will get enriched if we can learn the secrets of plants around us. Over the ages, people in India, especially in urban areas, forgot the use of the plants readily available around them. Medicinal plants, due to their benefits, had entered the daily life of the humans through beliefs and practices. This paper discusses the spiritual beliefs and social activities that are related to six medicinal plants namely Aloe Vera, Indian gooseberry, Ginger, Garlic, Indian lilac, and Basil.

The data were collected for the present investigation through literature survey on various books of medicinal plants and their uses and through valued research papers published on ethnobotanical uses of medicinal plants. Aloe Vera (Aloe vera), also known as ghitakumari, is a succulent plant species of the genus Aloe. It grows in the tropical climates around the world. It is cultivated for medicinal and agricultural uses. Arab traders brought Aloe vera in India as early as 600 BCE. In India, people are now seeking Vastu in the houses. The Vastu experts recommend the plantation of Aloe Vera plants inside the house. The aloe vera plants are termed as the most powerful plants regarding positive energy. So, to ensure proper flow of positive energy in your house, it is necessary to avail Vastu Shastra for aloe vera plants. It is recommended to plant the trees in the North or East direction of the house. Planting aloe vera plant is considered as one of the effective remedies to ensure good luck, happiness and flow of positive energy in the house. There is a belief that Aloe vera plant in a house help to remove toxins from the atmosphere and believed to be protect the home and its inhabitants from the evil eye. In Atharva Veda it is considered as the silent healer. The Hindu people thought that Aloe vera grew in the Garden of Eden and praised it for its life-giving benefits.

Amla (Emblica officinalis), also known as Indian gooseberry, has been used in Ayurveda and other Asian medicinal practices for thousands of years. Amla tree is worshipped as a sacred tree in India. Amla is considered as ‘Sattwic” because it stimulates spiritual purity. Amla increases the essence of living matter, the foundation of good health, mental sanity, and spiritual growth. The shape of the Amalaki became an integral part of Indian temple architecture which is said to have been inspired by amla. Amlaki shaped stone disc is placed on the shikhara of the temple called “Amalaka”. The leaves are provided to the lord of Shri Satyanarayana Vrata. The tree is worshipped on Amla Navami (November). People perform their rituals under the Amla tree.

It is worshipped by women in the month of Kartik (September-October) with flowers, sandal paste and vermillion etc. with an aim to be favored with male progeny. On the ninth day of the bright-half of the month of Kartik, is known as ‘Akshaya Navami’ (the imperishable Ninth) an offering is made to this tree. On this auspicious occasion Brahmanas are fed while sitting under the shadow of this tree. This brings virtues (Punya) to the host. The members of other castes cook their food sitting under its shadow and take their meal there. Where there are no big trees available, the sapling serves the purpose.

It is considered to offer a kind of white pumpkin (Petha) to the Brahmanas as a gift. A small portion of the pumpkin is cut out and some small pieces of gold, silver and brass coins are put in the hole. It is covered with a new cloth and presented to the priest who accepts this as ‘Gupta-Dan’ (a secret gift) blessing the donor to have a male issue. The womenfolk make five circumbulations of this tree, and tie a thread round its trunk each time. This symbolizes its sacred character.

As this is considered as the form of Lord Vishnu and people perform the Tulasi bibaha with Amla tree on Dwadashi Day. It is believed that god Vishnu dwells in it. In fact, amla is said to have grown from the drops of Amrit, meaning heavenly nectar that fell from the abode of gods. So that there is a belief the fruit can cure almost all types of health problems. “Amlaki Akadasi” is celebrated in different parts of India.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale), also known as ada or adrak, is a flowering plant whose rhizome or simply ginger, is widely used as a spice or a medicine. As one of the first spices exported from the Orient, ginger arrived in Europe during the spice trade, and was used by Ancient Greek and Roman. Ginger has many magical benefits, including attraction, love, money, peace, prosperity, and purification. Ginger is associated with the forces of fire and sun. Root of the ginger is used to bring prosperity and banish of poverty. When the ginger is chewed, drunk or eaten, it is believed to help raise more magical energy. Smoke of burnt ginger root is used to charge amulets and ward off evil spells. It also helps to clear negativity. Some believe that eating Ginger before performing a spell will increase your power as you have already been “heated up” by it. It also protects from evil eye.

Ginger is associated with the forces of fire and sun. Root of the ginger is used to bring prosperity and banish of poverty. When the ginger is chewed, drunk or eaten, it is believed to help raise more magical energy. Smoke of burnt ginger root is used to charge amulets and ward off evil spells. Since the ancient times, ginger root was used as a food preservative. Men noticed that when food was prepared with ginger did not go bad as quickly. Hence, they considered ginger root to be magical. Ginger has antimicrobial qualities and is quite effective against salmonella and parasites. Ginger root is considered as ‘horned body’, which is a sacred word. Ginger root is indeed sacred and used by ancient priests to invoke the power of fire.

Ginger root has to be kept or planted to attract prosperity in house. A human-shaped ginger root is believed to be extra powerful. Some (cleaned) root has to be chewed and spit it on the source of the ‘sickness’ to banish it. Preparation of ginger-infused wine or cocktail is used to rejuvenate the passion in a healthy relationship. Powdered ginger root is sprinkled in purse or pocket to attract more money. Some powdered root is burnt for success. The smoke of burned root is used to consecrate rituals tools, charge amulets and break evil spells. Chewing or eating or drinking some ginger infused food/drink to banish fatigue and in case of love, prosperity, protection and exorcism. A root is thrown in the sea to calm down a thunderstorm and invoke peace. Ginger root’s oil is also used in attracting blends for sexuality, love, courage and money. Some believe that eating ginger before performing a spell will increase power as already been “heated up” by it.

Garlic (Allium sativum), also known as rosun, is native to Central Asia and northeastern Iran, and has long been a common seasoning worldwide, with a history of several thousand years of human consumption and use. Garlic has been used since ancient times as a talisman against evil spirit. The ancient Egyptians believed in spirits which killed children while they slept snatching them breathe, and most widely used protection against these demons was a string of garlic. The use of garlic is known around the world not only for its taste, but also for their magical powers. In the East of the India, garlic is used as protection against spells. Garlic was an important weapon in the fight against the spirits. It was also common that windows, doors, and the gates of the farms they rubbed with garlic. They believed that evil spirits feel a great fear for the garlic. When a person died, it was common to insert cloves of garlic into the mouth of the dead to prevent evil spirits come into the body. In some cultures, a necklace of garlic is forced to load until they are cured. With regard to the magic, garlic is an indispensable for all ally spells related to the protection and the removal of evil.

Garlic has a very protective spirit and will protect negativity of life and of houses. It is used to get rid of bad spirit or bad energies. Garlic is also used in spiritual healing. It strengthens the inner spirit. If one facing a lot of problems in life, cooking with lots of garlic is recommended. A bite of garlic can repeal the evil spirit around. For protection from evil spirit garlic powder is sprinkled on the floor and is placed beneath the children’s pillow. In the kitchens, garlic is rubbed against the pot before cooking in order to remove negative energies. For curing diseases, a fresh and peeled clove of garlic is rubbed on the affected area and then it is thrown ion water. Garlic is also used in spells and charms for safety, especially against spirits and evil creatures. There is also a belief that, it safeguards against spirit or people who suck energy. It is also used in vows, commitments and promises.

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The pungent flavor and small of garlic makes it an alternative fire symbol. Eating garlic represses having sensible views of life and well-rounded ideals. Passing through a field of garlic signifies increases prominence and better financial outlook. Wearing of garlic is believed to protect against inclement weather, monsters and enemy attack. Garlic has a very protective spirit and will guard against negativity in your life and in your home. Ancient brides in various cultures kept cloves of garlic in their pocket for good luck and to ward off evil on their wedding day. The tradition still continues in some cultures. Wearing of garlic is believed to protect against inclement weather, monsters and enemy attack. Biting into garlic could repel evil spirits. In both Hinduism and Jainism, garlic is thought to stimulate and warm the body and to increase one’s desires. Some devotees of Hinduism generally avoid using garlic in preparation of foods, while and others follow this only for religious festivals. Followers of Jainism avoid eating garlic daily basis.

In some Buddhist traditions, garlic is understood to stimulate sexual and aggressive drives to determinant of meditation practice. In Mahayana Buddhism, monks and nuns are not allowed to consume garlic and other pungent species, which are deemed as being ‘earthy pleasures’ and are viewed as promoting aggression. Neem (Azadirachta indica), also known as nimba, grows in tropical and semi tropical regions. It is native to the Indian subcontinent. It is also found in neighbouring countries like Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It is widely used for medicinal purposes. The neem tree is rich in spiritual qualities and it is believed to be inhabited by God and Goddess. In Vedas, neem is called “Sarva Roga Nivarini”, which means that neem can cure all diseases and illnesses. Neem tree is considered to be divine in origin. According to Indian mythology, amrita (ambrosia or the elixir of immortality) was being carried to heaven and a few drops of it fell on the Neem tree. There is another story that once the Sun took shelter in the Neem tree to escape from the overwhelming powers of the demons. One surely goes to heaven when he plants three or more Neem trees during his lifetime.

In Indian culture, Neem is considered as ‘Kalpavriksha’, the mythological wish full filling tree. In West Bengal, there is a belief that the Goddess of small pox, Sithala lives in Neem Tree. When a person suffers from small-pox, the leaves of this tree are used in several ways for treatment. He is fanned by the leafy twigs of Neem. As the Goddess seat on its leaves, its leaves are believed to possess a curative effect. In South India people take neem leaves during the festival of Pongal and during the New Year celebration of Bengal Neem is also used to take in this auspicious ceremony. In Odisha Neem tree is not cut for anything except spiritual purposes. The statues of Lord Jagannnath, Balaram and Subhadra are carved from a trunk of a neem tree.

In many Hindi folk songs, a stirring appeal is made to the goddess to free the patient from the disease. In the bright-half of the month of Chaitra (March-April) which is known as ‘Nav-Ratra’ the women worship Neem trees with offering of flowers, vermillion and other fragrant objects. Neem oil is extracted from the fruit of Neem tree. It has many medicinal values. The oil is applied to his head and the lower part of the feet for lowering down the temperature. The flowers also have blood-purifying properties. The soap made from Neem cures skin diseases. The branches of Neem are used for brushing the teeth. Its antibacterial properties help to protect gum from infection.

There is also a belief that, a person having food which is cooked by using Neem wood as fuel will have no effect of snake-bite. Neem leaves are also chewed in case of snake bites. If it is taste as bitter, he is regarded as free from the bite. This belief is found not only in India but in many countries of the world. In Northern Europe the leaves and ashes of Neem wood are regarded as the protector against snake-bite. The people of Cornwall believe that no serpent can dare come near the ashes of Neem trees. If a branch of Neem tree is kept with a person, he is free from the fear of snake bites.

Neem leaves are used to drive back the evil spirits. If a man is possessed of any spirit, he is made to experience the bitter smell of the smoke coming out of burnt leaves. In order to resist the malicious spirits, small pieces of Neem are burnt in the fire-pot and placed near the door of the confinement room. It is believed that the smoke and fire of Neem wood are powerful enough to defend against the entry of devils and demons into the room. In India, there is a ritual to chew Neem leaves to protect the persons from the spirit of the dead while returning from the cremation ground. They get rid of the evil effects which are caused by the contact with the dead.

In Maharashtra and Gujarat, when a woman is blessed with a child, an earthen pot, filled with the urine of the cow and Neem leaves, is placed before the door of the confinement room which wards off the entry of evil spirits. It is still a custom among the Chitpavan Brahmans of Maharashtra that, if a person enters the confinement room, he has to wash or sprinkle the urine of the cow with a twig of Neem tree on his feet.

The Brahmans of Poona hang the Neem leaves on the front and back doors of their house if they are favoured with a child. In Ahmednagar, if a man is bitten by a snake, he is immediately taken to the temple of Bhairav, and is treated with leaves mixed with Mirch (black pepper). The priest tries to remove the effect of the venom by uttering Mantras (charms) touching the body of the patient with a bunch of leaves. The Kanphata Yogis (pierced ears) of Kachcha (Saurashtra) get their ears pierced and they use small pieces of Neem in their ear-holes. They also apply its oil to cure the wounds.

A number of tribes of Madras worship the Neem tree and make the symbol of this tree on the body of their dogs. The Banajaras test the chastity of their wives by means of this tree. The husband throws a stick of Neem on the ground and says ‘If you are a chaste wife, please lift up the staff in your hand.’ The Doms of Uttar Pradesh believe that Kali, the power of Goddess dwells on this tree. Kurmis also have the same faith. They place the image of the goddess Kali under this tree and worship her with devotion.

In the early medieval period, the use of the leaves of the Neem tree at the worship of Manasa suggests that this tree came to be associated with the snake-cult. In South India stone images of snakes are placed at the foot of the Nim trees and worshipped. There is also a belief that smoke produce by Neem leaves keep the evil spirit away from home. In South India, in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana, flowers of Neem tree are used to make ‘Ugadi Pachhadi’ (soup like pickle) in New Year indicate that one should take experience bitter and sweet things in life as joy and sorrow. In the state of Maharashtra, there is ancient practice of drinking a small quantity of Neem juice or paste during New Year (Gudi Padwa) before starting festival. Mythlogically ‘Gudi Padwa’ or Ugadi is considered as the day on which mother Goddess was created. It is the birthday of the mother Goddess. Neem is accorded much significant during this festival. In many homes Neem leaves are tied on the doors as ‘tarans’. It is compulsory to chew Neem leaves to start the new Year. So Gudi Padwa is known as ‘Neem Day’.

In Tamil Nadu, during summer (April to June), an age-old tradition is followed in Mariamman festival. Garland of Neem leaves and flower is the indispensable item in this festival. During any celebration and weddings, the people of Tamil Nadu decorate their surroundings with Neem leaves and Flowers to keep away evil spirits and infections.

In Hinduism, it is essential to worship Neem tree. There is a ritual to eat its leaves mixed with pepper and sugar in New year day to protect themselves from sickness and diseases throughout the year. Among the Kanpathayogis or the Nathas (A section of the Nath sect) use a piece of Neem branch on their ear-hole like ear ring. It symbolizes the identity of that particular group of Yogis.

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