From almost the very beginning of human history,
inhabitants of India and Southeast Asia recognized the incredible curative and protective powers of Neem, Azadirachta Indica. Neem plays an important role in the region’s religious traditions as well as in the Ayurvedic healing system.
According to ancient myths, Indra – the king of Celestials – bestowed neem with its incredible power while returning to heaven on a sacred white elephant after retrieving a golden pot of ambrosia from the demons. He spilled the ambrosia on a neem, making it a tree blessed with virtuous qualities that could remove all diseases. In another story, insects are
said to be the creation of evil demons, and neem protects people from them by weakening the insect’s life patterns.
In yet another myth, the Sun God Surya is said to have been sought refuge from demons in a neem tree. That tradition is reflected in a belief among some Hindus that anyone who plants three neem trees lives after death in Suryalok
(Sun World) for three epochs and never goes to hell.
Ancient Indian astrologists also placed neem in a prominent position, associated with the constellation ‘Uttara Bhadrapada’, whose presiding deity is Abibudhanya.
Some of the earliest writings known to man focus on medicinal herbs and the
healing properties of plants. The Vedas, the oldest of the Hindu sacred texts and the basis of the Ayurvedic tradition, detail the use of neem
as a medicinal herb. Brihat Samhita, the ancient text written by Varahamihira (505 AD) and sometimes called “the encyclopedia of Indian Culture,” includes a chapter on medicinal herbs that highly recommends neem.
The names given to neem also reflect its value in ancient
society. In Sanskrit, neem is translated as “nimba” and becomes the basis of an ancient saying “nimbati ivasthyamdadati,” or “Neem, to give good health.” Another ancient name is “Sarvo Roga Nivarins” – or “the curer of all ailments.”
Thousands of years later, neem still plays an important role in healthcare and religion in many Indian households to such a degree that it’s almost “cradle-to-grave” healthcare insurance. For instance, families often bathe new-born babies in water
that has been boiled with neem leaves because of its medicinal and refreshing qualities. In South India, when a mother leaves a baby, neem leaves near the baby
for protection. Thousands of Indians use neem twigs to brush their teeth every day (a tradition recognized by the Indian subsidiary of international giant Unlived that created a neem-based toothpaste).
Another ritual called the “Ashwatta Narayana Puja” is used by couples who want to conceive a child. They perform a “marriage” of neem and the banyan tree and go around these seven times every morning for seven days.
Other ventures may start by propitiating Lord Vigneshwara to remove obstacles and for the smooth completion of the event. For the Siddhi Vinayaka Puja twenty types of flower are offered at the feet of the Lord, including neem flowers.
At funerals, the Puranas urge that family and friends chew neem leaves to protect against lingering infections, and spread more leaves at the threshold of the house where the death occurred – a tradition based on neem’s healing powers and dating back to the days when many people died in epidemics.
Rural residents of India have a festival called “ghatashapana” in which neem leaves are used to sanctify the water-pot. The Gamits of Gujarat offer neem juice to God, and then cattle and lastly take it themselves.
Many Hindus around the world still celebrate the New Year or ugadhi or Chaitra Vishnu, which comes in March/ April when the Sun enters the sign of Aries, by eating the bitter leaves of neem with a little jaggery to symbolize acceptance of the good with the bad. The tradition also signals the beginning of a season when neem is to be used regularly, since the period after the onset of the New Year is the season when
Pitta dosha is aggravated.
As per the Ayurvedic tradition, Neem helps to
keep Pitta in check.
Even Mahatma Gandhi was a believer in neem. Prayer meetings he conducted at the Sabarmati Ashram were held under a neem tree and a neem leaf chutney was a part of his everyday diet.