Cultural History of Medicinal Plants in India

Cultural History of Medicinal Plants in India

The usage of medicinal plants is interwoven in the spiritual, religious, social and other spheres of life as far as the Indian tradition is concerned. The Indian tradition is a unique tradition that envisages the fact that life has a specific purpose. The purpose of human life according to Indian tradition is defined as: Atmano mokshartham jagaddhitaya ca

This statement means that every human being should strive to achieve the afore-stated purpose of life which is to strive for liberation of one’s own self and also for the wellbeing of society in general. One’s own liberation involves leading a healthy and righteous life that is in harmony with nature and fellow-beings. Wellbeing of society involves not infringing upon the rights of others to live and also share the natural resources in a fair and free manner. In fact, the Indian tradition stresses upon man-animal-nature symbiosis for the wellbeing of one’s own self as well as the nature in which he exists.

Thus, Indian thinkers of yore envisaged that humans, animals and plants should play a complementary and supplementary role to each other leading to mutual harmony of the ecosystem that consists of these three mutually inter-dependent entities.

It is in this context that one has to view the role played by medicinal plants in various spheres of life of Indians as mentioned above.

Role of medicinal plants in religious sphere of Indian way of life

The time period between the 5th century to the 15th century (CE) marked the establishment of various temples all over India.[i] Temples are places of worship where the iconic form of God is worshipped. The icons would be generally made of stone, metals and such other material.[ii] While establishing the immovable icon, the icon would have a groove-like protrusion at the bottom that would be fixed in a base which would have a hole wherein the protrusion would be inserted to ensure proper bonding so that the icon would stand on a strong base without shaking or wobbling. While this is done, the juices extracted from several specified medicinal plants are extracted and prepared into a paste, which is applied to the base of the icon to firmly entrench the base of the icon so that the icon stands firmly on the base[iii]. This is done in all the temples once in a decade to ensure that the icon stands firmly attached to the base. This is an example of medicinal plants that act as a binding agent being put to good use.

Further, after consecration of the iconic form of the deity in the temples, during the daily pooja rituals, sacred water is kept in five different small vessels. The water of each designated vessel is used for different purposes like washing the hands, feet etc. of the icon and after doing so, all the water is collected in a bigger vessel. The Agama works specify the specific medicinal plants’ ingredients to be added to the different waters contained in each of the vessels. Finally, the water that is realized after offering the ritualistic worship as per procedure is distributed to the devotees. The dosage of distribution is also fixed at 1 spoon or 3 spoons. This sacred water which is the product of several waters having specific medicinal plants’ ingredients has specific preventive and curative properties. [iv]

The Indian pantheon consists of several deities and each a particular ingredient of a medicinal plant has been prescribed for a particular deity worship. For example Lord Vishnu is worshipped with Tulasi leaves (Indian Basil) whereas, Lord Shiva is worshipped with Bilva leaves, and, Lord Ganesha is worshipped with the leaves of the Doorva grass. The Indian medical ecosystem is an integrated ecosystem which is closely associated with nature and integrates various aspects of nature. For example, the three dosha-s (humors) are determined by three different Nadi-s and each Nadi is said to be governed by a particular deity. Propitiating a particular deity in the prescribed procedure, using the prescribed medicinal plants’ ingredients will result in specific changes in the humors of the human body, thus resulting in achieving the desired changes – preventive, curative as well as tuning of the body for specific purposes. For example, if a person desires to be an athlete then he requires to be physically fit with strong muscles that will enable him to run fast and so on. On the other hand, if a person wishes to be a master of Chess, he should have a strong memory power apart from getting flashes of mental brilliance that enables him to initiate moves catching the opponent unawares. Such specific capacities can be created based on worship of deities in the specified manner using the specified medicinal plants and partaking the produces that are a result of various religious rituals.

Further, while offering ritualistic worship to iconic form of the deity, during the performance of the ritual bath of the icon, water is stored in 108 or 1008 small vessels and poured on the deity. The Agama works specify 108/1008 medicinal plants’ parts that are to be added to each of the small vessels separately in a specified manner. The sacred water thus collected is distributed among the devotees in specific proportions for warding off diseases and achieving wellness in general. The water also contains specific preventive and curative properties.

The Agama works of India that deal with worship of Lord Shiva prescribe the preparation of different types of Linga-s to be worshipped for achieving designated results. The details are extensively mentioned in the Agama works[v].

What has been mentioned above is only a minuscule portion of the use and application of medicinal plants in temple rituals. Enormous amount of information is contained in the Agama works of India (that are in Sanskrit language) regarding the usage of medicinal plants in various aspects having preventive and curative properties. Further study of the same from this point of view is long overdue.

Usage of medicinal plants in socio-cultural aspects

As mentioned above, Indian systems of thought specify that human life has a specific purpose and one should endeavor to achieve these purposes (however, they also provide enough flexibility to each individual to pursue his own individualistic goals also within a particular frame work that prescribes living in harmony with nature and other fellow beings. In other words the individualistic goals should not be detrimental to the interests of the ecosystem or other fellow beings.). To achieve the designated goals the Indian texts prescribe the performance of 16 sacraments, known as Samskara-s. Medicinal plants and their various parts are specifically used in almost all of these sacraments in various forms. For example a particular sacrament called ‘Pumsuvana’ is performed during the third month of pregnancy. As part of this ritual, the juice extracted from the flowers of the Banyan tree is poured into the nostrils of the pregnant woman which would ensure that the fetus would become a male child. This ritual is also endorsed in the works of Ayurveda. Several such instances can be quoted to show the usage of medicinal plants.

Apart from the above, it is observed that the aforementioned sacraments are of two types:

Those sacraments that are performed after the passing away of the person are known as ‘apara karma-s’. In all these rituals the leaves and sprouts of the Udumbara tree (ficus—) are used. On the other hand, the sacraments performed after the birth until marriage are known as ‘purva karma-s or shubha karma-s’. Mango sprouts and leaves are extensively used in all these rituals. It is generally understood that the Udumbara tree leaves facilitate a mindset that is conducive for detachment etc. that ensures the smooth passage of the soul to its next destination. On the other hand the mango leaves used in all Shubha karma-s ensure peace, health and prosperity by stimulating and revitalizing certain parts of the body as well as recharging the environment with the necessary vibrations.

Similarly, the usage of medicinal plants’ parts is also well integrated into the food habits of the traditional Indian system. The Agama works specify that one should completely fast on the day of ‘ekadashi’ – the 11th day of the lunar fortnight. After completely fasting on this day, it is prescribed that the breaking of the fast should be done immediately after sunrise on the subsequent day known as ‘dwadashi’ (the 12th day of the lunar fortnight. The ingredients of the food to be partaken on this day has been specifically prescribed. This involves the usage of pepper rasam, jeera, grated gooseberry with curds, curry of the flax seed / linseed leaves. Chilies are specifically avoided since they can cause ulcers when consumed on an empty stomach.

Agama works also specify the specific food stuffs that are to be consumed based on the seasons. For example, partaking of split green gram is prescribed during the December-January months. Roasted dry ginger and jaggery with desi ghee is also prescribed to be consumed in specific proportions to maintain the metabolic rates in the body during extreme winter. Several other such prescriptions are made, that ensure maintenance of all-round wellness of the body and its associated aspects.

Indian tradition also prescribes that one should undergo ‘abhyanga’ (oil bath for the head and body) regularly, especially during the festivals like Diwali, Ugadi (new year’s day) and such other festivals, including on one’s own birthday and other auspicious occasions. The benefits of Abhyanga are enumerated very extensively in the works of Ayurveda, and hence are not discussed in this context. This aspect of ‘abhyanga’ which involves an oil bath has been integrated into the rituals so that no person who follows the tradition does not forego the same on some pretext. The oil used for the application to the head and body is a combination of several medicinal plant products that are extremely effective in achieving general wellness.

Thus, we see that, medicinal plants and their ingredients are extensively used in almost all spheres of Indian way of life. What has been mentioned here gives the reader a glimpse of this feature.


[i] There exists an enormous corpus of Sanskrit literature pertaining to various aspects of establishment, consecration and all other aspects associated with temples. These works are known as the works of ‘Agama Shastra’.

[ii] Two types of icons would be consecrated in temples, the first type being an immovable icon generally made of a specific type of stone and other one being a movable one that would be taken in procession and hence known as the ‘processional deity’.

[iii] As is mentioned in Kamika Agama- part 2 :

tatsthānaṁ śodhayitvāṣṭabandhādyairbandhayed dṛḍham| puṇyāhaṁ vācayitvānte śāntiṁ yuktyā samācaret|| 115

In order to alleviate the defects, the Guru should purify that place and make the Linga and other images to be firm and steady by applying the eightfold bond (ashta bandhana).

[iv] As is mentioned in Kamika Agama- part 2 :

candanośīra siddhārtha dūrvā kāśmīra toyayuk| uttamaṁ pādyaṁ uddiṣṭaṁ maddhyamaṅgata kuṁkumam|| 29

candanośīra yuktāṁbaḥ pādyaṁ kanyasaṁ ucyate| varālośīra karpūra tuṭi jāti lavaṅgayuk|| 30

mureṇaiva samāyuktaṁ śreṣṭamācamanīyakam| elā lavaṅga karpūra mura jāti yutaṁ samam| elālavaṅga karpūra jalaissārdhaṁ tu kanyasam|| 31

āpakṣīra kuśāgraistu yavākṣata tilairyutam| śāli siddhārthayuk śreṣṭhaṁ yavāsarṣapa śāliyuk|| 32

taṇḍulairmadhyamaṁ proktaṁ śālitaṇḍula saṁyutam| arghyaṁ kanyasaṁ uddiṣṭaṁ anyathā ca nigadyate|| 33

The padya (water used to wash the feet of the iconic deity) prepared with candana, usira, siddhartha, durva, kasmira and water is considered to be of superior kind. The padya prepared with candana, usira, siddhartha, durva and water is of medium variety. The padya associated with candana, usira and water is of inferior kind. The acamana (water used to wash the face of the iconic deity) prepared with varala, usira, karpura, tuti, jati, lavanga and mura is considered to be of supreme kind. The acamana associated with ela, lavanga, karpura, mura and jati is of medium variety. The acamana prepared with ela, lavanga, karpura and water is of inferior kind. The arghya (water used to wash the hands of the iconic deity) prepared with water, milk, tips of kusa-grass, yava, akshata, tila, saali and siddhartha is considered to be of superior kind. The arghya associated with yava, sarshapa, saali and tandula is of medium variety. The arghya associated with saali and tandula is of inferior kind. The preparation of padya and others is told now in another way.

siddhārtha candaniśīra dūrvāyuk pādyameva ca| elā lavaṅga karpūra varāla phala saṁyutam|| 34

etadācamanīyaṁ vā yajeta yajanāṅgake| kathitañcātra vā grāhyaṁ atroktaṁ tatra vā bhavet|| 35

Siddhartha, candana, usira and durva may be taken for the padya. Ela, lavanga, karpura, varala and phala are recommended for the preparation of acamana. These should be utilized for the worship, considering that these belong to the essential parts of a perfect and complete worship. The substances told earlier for the preparation of padya and others or those told here mat be taken. The arghya may be prepared with either five substances – yava, sarshapa, vrihi, tandula and akshata, or it may be prepared with three substances – vrihi, tandula and akshata. Or, if no such substance is available, the argya may be prepared with pure water alone.

[v] As is mentioned in Kamika Agama- part 2 :

sāravadvṛkṣajaṁ bhūtyai kṣīradrumajaṁ āyuṣe || 33 mādhuryagandhaguṇavajjñānasaubhāgyakīrtidam | raktāhvacandanāśokaṁ śiṁśupāśokabilvajam || 34 sarvaduḥkhādi rāhitye piśācajamaricchide |

The Lingas made of wood got from the heavy and solid trees are suitable for the attainment of prosperity and wealth; the Lingas made of wood got from the trees associated with the exudation of sap or resin are for the attainment of longevity; the Lingas made of wood got from the trees which are with sweet sap, good fragrance and auspicious qualities are capable of bestowing spiritual knowledge and prosperity. In order to be free from all kinds of afflictions and worries, the Lingas made of red sandal, asoka, simsupa (another kind of asoka) and bilva are suitable. The Linga made of wood got from the paisaca-tree is suitable for effecting destruction to the enemies.

yadvā sādhakanakṣatra vaśālliṅgaṁ tu dārujam || 35 kāraskaraṁ cāmalakaṁ tathodumbarajambukau | khadiraḥkṛṣṇakakubhau śirīṣāśvatthakau tataḥ || 36 punnāgaścaiva nyakrodhaḥ palāśaḥ plakṣakastathā| ambaṣṭhabilvārjunakāśśālmalī vakulastathā || 37 piṇḍī sarjastathā vṛkṣo vañjulaḥ panasastathā | āmrārkau ca kadambaśca vahninimbau tathaiva ca || 38 madhukaścāśvinīpūrva nakṣatrāṇāṁ tu pādapāḥ| ebhirṛkṣairabhiruddhaistarubhiśśāntikādikam || 39 vidhāya liṅgaṁ kartavyaṁ sādhyarkṣe māraṇādikam |

Or, the Linga may be designed with the wood compatible to the birth-star of the sadhaka. Karaskara, Amalaka, Udumbara, Jambuka, Khadira, Krishna-kakubha, Sirisha, Asvatthaka, Punnaga, Nyakrodha, Palasa, Plakshaka, Ambashta, Bilva, Arjuna, Salmali, Vakula, Pindi, Sarja, Vanjula, Panasa, Amra, Arka, Kadamba, Vahni, Nimba, Madhuka- these are suitable to the lunar mansions starting from Asvini. If Lingas are to be made from these trees compatible to the lunar mansions, first ‘santi-homa’ and the related rituals should be performed in a lunar mansion. Then only the Lingas should be designed in a day synchronizing with the nakshatra suitable to the intended purpose. Otherwise, the sadhaka would be affected by unexpected bad effects such as untimely death.

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