By Maryann Readal
Seeing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of strings of what looked to be brown seeds hanging in stores around holy places in India made me extremely curious about this seed.
On a recent visit to India and Nepal, it was a very common sight to see hundreds of people walking around Buddhist temples in a clockwise direction, while moving their fingers along a long strand of seeds. The seeds turned out to be from a tree called the rudraksha tree, Elaeocarpus ganitrus Roxb. I later found out that each string contains 108 seeds, and one fingers each seed while reciting a specific mantra, which is a word or phrase repeated over and over again. My curiosity was sharpened even further when an Indian astrologer gave me one of these seeds to use in order to ensure that my good fortune would continue.
Now I had to learn more about these seeds, and this is what my curiosity uncovered: The rudraksha tree grows at the base of the Himalayas, as well as in other tropical and subtropical areas like Hawaii, Guam, and the Maldives.
The seeds from the trees growing in Nepal are the most prized, and I was very excited to discover a tree growing where we were staying in Nepal whose seeds were still attached. The rudraksha tree is evergreen, reaching 200 feet in height, with racemes of fragrant white flowers that bloom in the rainy season. The fruits are about one centimeter in diameter and have a slightly smaller seed inside, which is the rudraksha seed. Because the fruit is blue, the tree is often referred to as the blueberry tree.
E. ganitrus has been important in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. The leaves have antibacterial properties and are used to treat wounds. The leaves, bark, fruit, and seeds have been used to cure stress, anxiety, depression, palpitation, nerve pain, epilepsy, migraines, lack of concentration, asthma, hypertension, arthritis, and liver disease. Ongoing studies in India are exploring the pharmacological properties of E. ganitrus for its use in developing new drugs that treat a variety of diseases. For more information on this tree’s medicinal value, please see Elaeocarpus Ganitrus (Rudraksha): A Reservoir Plant with their Pharmacological Effects in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences Review and Research.
The seeds from the rudraksha fruit have also been used for thousands of years for ritualistic, spiritual, and astrological purposes.
The seeds are important to Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists for healing, meditation, controlling stress, and facilitating positive changes in the body, mind, and spirit. In ancient Indian folk tradition, they were thought to ward off evil spirits and omens.
There are several stories about the origins of the rudraksha tree. My favorite is one that tells of Shiva– the principal god of Hinduism–upon returning from a long period of meditation, opened his eyes and saw the suffering of humanity. His tears of compassion fell to earth and became rudraksha trees. The name rudraksha comes from the Sanskrit “rudra,” another name for Shiva and “aksha” meaning tears.
So…it is not surprising to find people in India and Nepal circling their shrines fingering these strands of 108 beads, all the while warding off bad spirits due to the medicinal properties of the seeds and gaining peace through stress control by reciting the mantra and meditative walking.
A short, but interesting story about the seeds of a medicinal tree in India.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.