James's Reviews > The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

The Yoga of Herbs by David Frawley
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Jun 07, 11


During the era of Lord Buddha the land now known as India was adorned with lush gardens and parks, ponds of lotus flowers bristling with swelling buds, palaces and pleasure pavilions.

On Spring evenings these throbbed with song and dance as mango anointed breezes pierced the hearts of young ladies and their lovers. Beautiful courtesans, female dancers, poets and musicians employed by great rajas gladdened these grounds with their presence.

At that time, Indian philosophy, literature and art effloresced. Great poets and their royal audiences were as intimately intertwined as word (nama) and meaning (rupa), and the immortal stanzas of the renowned bard Kalidasa rumbled through the domes of noble palaces like dark monsoon clouds among peaks, thunderous with flashes of blinding delight.

In those days, the government was benign, the citizens were law-abiding, and the rajas were Hindu. Chinese pilgrims seeking the sacred places of Buddhism wrote of the Indians as numerous, moral and happy. Vegetarian food was common, and only the lower classes and foreigners used garlic and onions. Rest homes were provided along the roads for weary travelers. There they would find sattvic food, beds and drink. The pilgrims came from many lands, thirsty for the scholarly education they could obtain at the glorious university at Nalanda, India’s crest jewel in the realm of learning, rivaled not even by Plato’s Academy in Greece. The Buddha himself frequented the mango grove at Nalunda, where all the arts and sciences were taught, including Ayurveda.

It was during this era that a great Raja of Orissa came to power. This mighty Raja was most generous, and virtuous, a mighty sacrificer, and truthful, handsome and intelligent. He presided over his pleasant kingdom as Indra rules among the Devas, with tributary princes at his side, and surrounded by learned pundits, by minstrels with ready songs to sing, by droves of haughty nobles and by the sidelong glances of the charming ladies of his court.

Of all the learned men at his court, however, none could compare with his Ayurvedic Vaidya, who shone for the simplicity and effectiveness of his diagnoses and the elegance of his strategies of treatment. He was able to ferret out the root of a disease, rather than getting caught up in the branches.

And of all the beauties of his court, his daughter, the Princess, was the most charming—with her tremulous eyes darting and flashing like little minnows, her gazelle-like eyes dark as lotus blossoms, her poison, ambrosial eyes. She was golden limbed, and her midnight of hair was a flowing mass of thick, blossoming, iridescent darkness. She was adorned with star-like strands of pearls, her breath was fragrant as mango blossoms, and her voice as soft as liquefied moonlight. As a young woman at court she had already learned, in addition to the erotic arts, sixty-four auxiliary arts. To name just a few: singing, playing veena, dancing, painting, decorating her forehead, the art of adorning an idol with rice and flowers, flower arranging, bed making, garland weaving, the art of designing earrings and other ornaments, the art of mixing perfumes for the skin in order to stimulate desire, the art of dressing tastefully, magic and sleight of hand, cooking, the preparation of sherbets and other beverages, sewing, the solution of riddles, the art of reciting verses in a game between lovers, mimicry, reasoning and logic, chanting, fencing, carpentry, gardening, composing poems, the art of sizing up a man in a glance, and the art of teaching parrots to speak.

The Raja commanded a great General, a bull among men who, had it not been a time of peace, would have been a mighty vanquisher of cities. He rivaled the Devas with the beauty of his person. Much to the Raja’s consternation, his daughter the Princess had fallen in love with the General. And the General—whose loyalty to the Raja was otherwise absolute, and whose skill with the bow could not be matched in all the earth—was pierced to the marrow with but one darting glance from the eye of the Princess. After that glance, he vowed to her—even against the Raja’s wishes—that even if he were to conquer all the earth, for him there would be only one city, and in that city only one house, and in that house only one room, and in that room only one bed, and in that bed only one woman—the Princess—who would eternally be the light of his life.

He gazed long and lovingly at the beauty of her form and proclaimed to her that her breasts were like two rajas at war—each striving to invade the other’s sphere.

Because her father, the Raja, had forbidden her to see him, she resisted the General’s words. But just as even a brave enemy army is overcome with storm clouds of arrows, the Princess was overcome with the monsoon power of the General’s unrelenting expressions. Soon, the battlements of her lips succumbed to his attacks, as in love’s contest she sank—sighing—beneath fiery wounds of nails and teeth, and might have died—save that she drank ambrosia from her lover’s lips—and joining forces with him bodily she fought passionately in his embrace to achieve together with him the victory of love’s battle.

The treasure of this plundering was that the Princess one day discovered that she was with child.

She did not know what to do.

Holding her pet parrot to her lips she feigned it were her love, and whispered that she would give back all his kisses and embraces if only his seed were not growing within her womb.

The pet parrot, in fact, had been chattering to the Queen, the mother of the Princess, for some weeks, repeating all the nightly love whisperings and sighs between the Princess and her lover the General—although the young Princess had striven to check the bird, fearful that her father, the Raja, would hear. And so it was that the Queen learned of her daughter’s pregnancy.

Of course mother and daughter attempted to hide the fact from the Raja. Standing together on a white balcony, looking out at the billowing, dark blue monsoon clouds, they conspired together to ask the learned royal Vaidya to prepare an herbal potion that would cause a miscarriage—for otherwise the Raja would be enraged.

The royal Vaidya heard their argument. And though even a scholarly man can be convinced by a strong argument, the Vaidya was not only a scholar, but also a physician of deep moral character. He could not destroy life.

“You must!” the Queen commanded him.

“I cannot,” the Vaidya replied.

“Then you will suffer,” rejoined the Queen.

And so it was that the Queen went to her husband, the Raja, and told him that the Vaidya had impregnated his daughter, the Princess. The Raja, outraged, ordered the Vaidya to be brought before him. And though the Raja pummeled him with questions and insults, and ordered him to be cast into prison, on a restricted diet, with only a tiny mattress to recline on, the Vaidya, who was a firm follower of Dharma, spoke only the following words:

From all your herds, a half cup of milk,
From all your granaries, a small piece of bread,
In all your palace, only a dungeon’s bed,
Can a man use more? And do you own the rest?

The parrot, overhearing these words of the noble Vaidya, flew directly to the Princess, who was pining away as she listened to the cries of the peacocks.

“What brings you here, my darling?” the Princess asked the bird.

The bird, who rivaled Rig Veda pundits with his memory, repeated word for word the conversation between the Raja and the Vaidya. Upon hearing the words of the noble Vaidya, who had said nothing against herself or the Queen, the Princess began to feel pity and admiration for the Vaidya’s saintly qualities. She rushed to the Raja, her father, and told him all.

And so it was that the Raja and the Princess decided that the Vaidya should resume his duties, and that the child in the womb of the Princess should, himself, become a Vaidya. In order to prepare the mind of the young soul who would be her son, she traveled to that crest jewel of educational institutions, Nalanda, with its mango grove, scholars, and gardens—and took up the study of Ayurveda when the child was still in her womb. Because she was the Princess, the daughter of the great Raja who supported the university, all the senior Vaidyas strove to awaken within her heart the essence of Ayurveda. She—having already learned all the arts of a young lady at court—took up the study of Sankhya, herbology, pathology, diagnostics, and therapeutics—so that by the time the child was born, the very milk he drank from his mother’s breasts was replete with Ojas, the essence of Ayurvedic wisdom.

Nalunda at that time was a magnificent center of intellectual debate that drew scholars from afar. It was a place where nit-picking Sankhyins debated with spaced-out Vedantins, no-nonsense Buddhists clashed with ethereal Hindus, dour Monists fought it out with pious Dualists, and austere Sadhus lectured love-eyed voluptuaries versed in the Kama Sutras. It was a place where some made lean matters fat and others made fat matters lean, where sharp debaters ripped apart conclusions, hypotheses and arguments of their opponents as savagely as vultures tearing apart a piece of rotting meat tossed into the air. And so it was here that—after reaching the age of sixteen—the son of the Princess had passed with highest honors all the questions of his examiners. He was, however, put to one final test: He was to wander the vast grounds of Nalunda and bring back to his examiners any herbs that were useless.

He wandered far and wide. At first he went to the mango grove, where grew the King of Fruit. He knew the leaves of the mango tree could be used to treat diabetics, so he gave up searching there and searched in the forest. Everywhere he turned he found healing herbs. He returned to his examiners and, ashamed, admitted that he had failed: He could not find even one single plant in the vast domain of Nalanda’s verdant grounds that was not curative in some disorder.

It so happened that Lord Buddha, himself, The Awakened One, had at that moment walked from the mango grove, and happened to be sitting with the examiners. He looked at the youth, whom he would name Jeevaka, and uttered these words:

No single plant in the whole world’s garden plot
Bears such sweet fruit as the mind of an enlightened Vaidya
Who realizes there is no substance under the Sun
Without curative value.

Ambrosial is the fruit of such
A Vaidya’s mind, and poison
The fruit of a Vaiyda’s mind
Who knows this not.

And so it was that Jeevaka became the chief medical council of Lord Buddha, training all those monks who would travel to other lands spreading Buddhism and Ayurveda. Jeevaka also became a great surgeon, performing plastic surgery and even cranial surgery. However, because he was not a Brahmin, many of the other, high-born, Vaidyas became jealous of his high standing and even began to suffer from some subtle derangements of Pitta due to that jealousy. They convinced Lord Buddha that doing surgery was doing violence. Even the great alchemist and philosopher Nagarjuna became jealous of the young Jeevaka and joined the argument, and thus surgery was banned and later declined as an Ayurvedic science.

This victory did not quench the jealousy of the lesser Vaidyas, however, because their knowledge, compared to Jeevaka’s, was merely like the light of the stars compared to the brilliance of the full moon. Thus they plotted with one Vaidya from Kerala in South India, who devised a test for Jeevaka.

The Keralan Vaidya sent a messenger to walk the hundreds of miles from Kerala to Nalanda, bearing a written message to deliver to Jeevaka. In addition, the messenger was instructed that—while traveling—he was to eat tamarind pod, take a bath using tamarind leaves boiled in water, cook food with a tamarind wood fire, sleep under a tamarind tree at night, use tamarind stem to brush his teeth, gargle with tamarind leaf water every night, and use tamarind sticks for flossing his teeth.

The messenger followed the instructions exactly, and it took months for him to reach Nalanda, where he handed the written message to Jeevaka. The message read:

1. Here is your patient.
2. Give him proper treatment.

Jeevaka took the messenger’s pulse, examined his skin, tongue and eyes, and questioned him.

It became obvious to Jeevaka that the messenger, through overuse of tamarind by all possible routes of administration, had developed eczema. Jeevaka considered the etiological factor, wrote a message for the Vaidya in Kerala to read, and instructed the messenger to walk back to Kerala—on the way eating one handful of tender neem leaves every morning, bathing every day using water boiled with neem leaves in it, cooking his food using a neem leaf fire, sleeping beneath the boughs of a neem tree every night, using neem stems to brush his teeth, gargling with neem leaf water every night before bed, and using neem sticks for flossing his teeth.

The messenger arrived in Kerala and handed the Vaidya Jeevaka’s letter, which read:

Your messenger must be cured of eczema by now.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Preethi (new)

Preethi Beautiful rendering. Thank you.. For a few moments I was transported centuries ago, I could smell the air, I could feel the princess whispering her secrets! Enjoyed it immensely.Would you mind telling me where I could find such stories..Especially those of Nalanda.... Is it a book? If so, I would consider buying it if I knew the title...


James Preethi wrote: "Beautiful rendering. Thank you.. For a few moments I was transported centuries ago, I could smell the air, I could feel the princess whispering her secrets! Enjoyed it immensely.Would you mind tell..."

Preethi, you do not know how much I appreciate you words. I wrote that story in the way I did precisely because I wanted to travel in my mind back to that era.

The seed of the story was planted when my vaidya had just seen Slumdog Millionaire and asked me to write something up about Jeevaka that would not put people to sleep.

I had studied Sanskrit in college. So drawing on my knowledge of court poetry, I concocted the tale, which he was going to publish in LA Yoga Magazine.

But then a lady friend of the vaidya protested against the detail leading up to the "victory in love's battle," which she felt was "not Vedic" because of its sensuality.

Of course, it could have been said of the lady that she "doth protest too much," because she then ended up marrying the vaidya.

(However, I did not mind. I had long since grown accustomed to the fact that the authors of such protests are unable to distinguish which aspects of Indian culture are Vedic and which of Dravidian origin.)

So, I felt I might as well publish it here. I culled some of my knowledge of Nalanda online, having originally read of it in an excellent book entitled Bhartrhari, by Harold Coward, about the titular poet-grammarian, whose philosophy of language I dearly love.

Coward's source, and the only account of Nalanda I know of, comes from a couple of Chinese monks who journeyed from China to India and wrote of their travels, much in awe of what was for much of human history the richest land (culturally and materially) on earth. Much else written about Nalanda disappeared when it was sacked and burned by Muslims, a cultural loss easily as great as that of the library of Alexandria. It burned for six months.

BTW, just after purchasing your book, I was offered a job writing for a film company, and have not had an opportunity to give it the attention I'm sure it deserves. But I certainly will.


message 3: by Preethi (new)

Preethi Hi James - Enjoyed reading your response as well :) Although Indian I am not an academic. Hence do not know what would constitute as Vedic or otherwise. But I can recognise a good story :) This story certainly deserved to be published. I am so glad I came across this, here. Do concoct more. Also, I have always been fascinated by everything Nalanda. I know the bare bones of its history and its atrocious demise. I have come across translated letters exchanged between Huien Tsang and King Harshavardhan online. They are fascinating. But your story rings true to that era. If I may, it sounded like something translated from an ancient text. The descriptions sound authentic. Thanks once again. I will look up the resource you mentioned also.


message 4: by James (last edited Dec 29, 2013 10:39AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

James G'day, Preethi ~ I'm happy to hear from you. Most of my Indian friends want to talk about Jim Morrison or Pride and Prejudice, and eschew all things Indian as if it were tobacco, so it is refreshing to meet an Indian with whom I engage in an ongoing daydream about India's past. You are quite a discerning reader because I am quite familiar with many translations of Sanskrit court verse and so I blended those into the story. Sometimes I will write like that. For instance, I will take a list of American folk expressions, such as "If the good Lord's willin' and the creek don't rise" or "He was happy as a coon in a cornfield with the dogs all tied," and I will just go down the list, and include every item in the list to concoct a colorful story that sounds as if it were written by William Faulkner. Which I ain't. So I was given the very bare bones of the Jeekava story from the vaidya. Then I got out my collections of Sanskrit verse and culled images to suit the story's needs, interweaving these with whatever notions my Indology professors were able to pound into my skull. For instance, the stuff about nama/rupa and Valmiki and the arguing sadhus and kama sutra voluptuaries is just me satirizing. But the way I really love to read Indian satire, and there is a wonderful volume written by a disciple of the Kashmiri wonder Abhinavagupta. I really want to know more about Nalanda also. I'm fascinated by it. I did happen to find Huien Tsang's book, though his name is spelled using the pinyin system. I would really love to transform that story into a novella. And wouldn't the travels of Huien Tsang make a great film! I wonder if China or India has already made one.

Here's the link to Travels: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3...


James Darn, I inadvertently deleted your last comment. You did mention, however, that you are a fan of P & P? I'm not sure what that is. As for Abhinavagupta, he was a fellow in Kashmir who came up with the idea of shanta rasa as underlying all the other rasas. I guess it's aesthetic theory for yogis and yoginis, based on their abiding intimacy with inner bliss as the substratum of all experience. He is also infamous for having initiated his grandmother into tantra. Yes, THAT, kind of tantra. Speaking of which, a few years ago I developed an interest in Kashmir Shaivism, and so sent off a letter to Lakshmanjoo, the last great living exponent of that tradition. It was kind of like sending a letter of to Santa Claus, North Pole. I wanted his translation and commentary of Vijnana Bhairava Tantra. Much to my surprise he appointed one of his disciples to correspond with me. His name was Dina Nath Muju. And Dina Nath was very sweet, sending me the saint's teaching of Shaivism and expecially the translations I had requested, which he discussed sutra buy sutra with Lakshmanjoo every week. I have had this manuscript sitting around for a few years, but now I'm thinking of publishing it. I'm really wondering, also if there is a good source on Nalanda. There are a few videos on YouTube, but the production values are not outstanding. It would be wonderful to do something that really does justice to it. I was surprised that one of the videos said that Panini lectured there. I thought I had read that Panini composed the Ashtadayayi before there was writing, and so it was all committed to memory. It is so remarkable, because in order to describe the structure of Sanskrit, he invented a metalanguage that prefigured computer languages by a chouple of thousand years.


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