The Neem & the Ashvatha. The combination of both trees symbolizes the unity of male and female principles and balance of the universal energies. 

An evergreen like tree with a round crown, pretty leaves, and oily buds grows in the front of almost every home. In Sanskrit and my mother tongue it is called ‘Nimba’, or Neem. In traditional families, great emphasis is given to planting it along with another sacred tree - the Ashvatha. The combination of both trees symbolizes the unity of male and female principles and balance of the universal energies. It was believed to ensure health and happiness for the householder’s family. 

Out of many plants useful to the human being, only few are so versatile in their multiple uses, as the Neem tree (Azadirachta indica). The tree has been used in India for centuries - in medicine, cosmetics, building, agriculture and industry. The firm and fast growing Neem wood has excellent resistance against termites, making it a much sought after building material.

Nimba oil is also used for lighting lamps and for any skin diseases, and the fruit is used for the production of methane. Domestic animals are fed with cakes made from Neem seed and the extract from the tree acts as a pesticide on more than 200 types of insects. Green fertilizers enriched with Neem significantly increase the contents of organic nitrogen, and in addition, crops in stock are treated with Neem against mould and other pests.

In traditional families, great emphasis is given to planting the Neem along with another sacred tree the Ashvatha. The combination of both trees symbolizes the unity of male and female principles and balance of the universal energies. It was believed to ensure health and happiness for the householder’s family.

The classical text of the Upanishad, which deals with forestry and agriculture notes that Neem is a good medicine for unfertile soil, ill crops and animals. These qualities gave the tree a well deserved name ‘Sarva roga nivarini’ - The healer of all illnesses.

In the past few years the tree has become a symbol of the traditional Indian native knowledge and resistance against the greed of the multinational companies. In 1994, Indian farmers staged a series of mass demonstrations in reaction to the conclusions of the GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) conference. Millions of people took part. During these demonstrations the protesters carried branches of the Neem tree in their hands.

Ayurvedic medicine has used Neem as one of the strongest detoxifiers and toning agents to the immune system. Nimba removes toxic and excessive substances from the body, supports the healing process, reduces fever, works as a disinfectant and lowers the level of blood sugar. Every housewife knew that there is no better cure for skin rashes, eczema, inflammation, open wounds and fevers than Neem. Even its twigs were used as an antiseptic toothbrush and Neem oil is still used in preparing toothpastes and soaps.

Neem is commonly used in homes to prevent and cure against chicken pox and mumps. If an illness is threatening anyone in a given family, Neem leaves are laid on the ground of the home and spread on the body of the person for overall disinfectant. In the Panchakarma centres, Neem is still used as an important ingredient for steam baths because it hastens the exit of toxins from the body. Women, who have just given birth, drink the juice of the Neem tree, as the herb helps to normalize contractions of the uterus and prevent inflammation. In the classical texts, Neem is mentioned as a reliable and safe contraceptive for women. Because Neem works as an anti aphrodisiac in the long run, sadhus and sanyasis have traditionally used it to assists them in reducing sexual urges. In the last seventy years the government of India initiated and carried out many thorough studies of the healing properties and qualities of Neem. A wide range of products from Neem have been introduced to the market, such as organic pesticides, medicine and cosmetics.

For centuries the West ignored Neem. British, French and Portuguese colonizers treated the practices of Indian farmers and traditional doctors with disdain. However, with growing awareness of the dangerous effects of chemicals and pesticides, the situation in the West has begun to change. In the early seventies, an American wood importer noticed the advantages of Neem wood and took samples to his factory in the USA. After ten years of research and thorough safety testing of Neem extract, he had the product patented under the name ‘Margosan O’. Later he sold the patent to a multinational chemical company. In the mid eighties, around a dozen Neem products were patented by American and Japanese companies, including toothpaste. This same company also entered the Indian market in an attempt to convince Indian manufacturers to either sell off their technology or to become suppliers of raw materials for the multinational company.

This practice gave rise to protests by Indian scientists, farmers and political activists who pointed out that multinational companies had been misusing the indigenous experiential knowledge and the results of decades of Indian modern scientific research. This, in turn, provoked an ongoing international debate about the ethics of intellectual property and the patent law. On one side of this debate there is a growing forum for creating a just international law system that would take into consideration and acknowledge the indigenous knowledge, and the products developed based on this knowledge as a part of the intellectual property of the nation to which it belongs.

The access to Neem products had been free or a very low price to all Indians. The tree spreads across the continent and the old village techniques used for extracting oil and manufacturing pesticide emulations were inexpensive. Nevertheless, as a direct consequence of the practices of the multinational companies, the price of Neem seed has risen twenty times more in the past twenty years. As a result, local farmers cannot afford to buy the seed - this raw material is therefore leaving the communities for the world of industry. This has created a regime in which a handful of big companies holding the patent will soon control the entire access to Neem, and its entire production.

The case of the Neem tree is not isolated. There are other similar stories reflecting the present state of politics in pharmaceutical industry. Another famous story is about that the herb ‘Phyllanthus niruri’, which has been traditionally used as an effective remedy for hepatitis. Even though the use of this herb has been proved to be part of traditional indigenous knowledge, and is a well documented discovery in the Indian medical system, a certain American company obtained a European patent for the use of the herb.

A consensus is growing across India that this kind of behaviour by multinational companies must be stopped. More and more, scientists are backing up the campaign for preserving and defending collective indigenous knowledge. They are all united in the feeling that the benefits of hundreds and thousands of years of the collective experiential knowledge of indigenous people should be accessible to all, without needing to pay horrendous sums to individuals or companies.

A person living in the West probably feels good when he or she finds natural medicine with no side effects on the shelves of a pharmacy. It may not occur to him or her to be interested in the process through which the product came to the market. He or she may not know whether this medicine is equally accessible to the people in the country of its origin, where it was freely available for thousands of years.

A patent mark on the cover of a medicine does not mean anything strange to a person from the West. He or she may not know that the politics of patenting result in the destruction of biodiversity in the country of origin. To indigenous communities, biodiversity means the same thing as what ecologists call sustainable life, therefore, life itself. From the commercial point of view, biodiversity has no value whatsoever. For businesses it is just a mere ‘material’ for gross manufacture and profit.

The growing popularity of Ayurveda and other systems of natural healing in the West has a side that has not been realized by many people. Those who wish to support Ayurveda and live by its example should contribute by developing vigilant awareness and widening their understanding of broader aspects. The time of the enlightened reign of emperor Ashoka, when natural reserves were preserved and consciously maintained by the state is over. The global renaissance of this vision is still ahead of us. Instead, we live in a time of global piracy.

The Ayurvedic practitioners, who wish to establish a high standard of Ayurvedic healthcare and maintain its values in the West, need a receptive approach from the public. We feel an urgent need for the public to grow into an educated and conscious partner for the future. Ideally, this would be a partner who supports healthcare that does not harm anyone, and brings happiness to all those involved in the process. Creating such a high standard of Ayurvedic care is a responsible and deeply human task. It means the elevation of respect for life to the highest level.

Read next chapter: ESSAYS ON AYURVEDA 22 >>






Titled as “Roving Ambassador of Ayurveda”, belongs to the first generation of Ayurvedic practitioners and teachers who have pioneered the way for Ayurveda's recognition as a mainstream system of medicine.



Born and raised in Paris, she has always been looking at the horizon. The city that nourished her, it was her trampoline for courageous free flight around this planet. It’s inspiring to keep up with her.


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