Ghee: A short consideration from an Ayurvedic perspective
Article - Summer 2005 Issue of "Light on Ayurveda" by Peter Malakoff
This is the secret name of ghee: "Tongue of the gods," "navel of immortality." We will proclaim the name of ghee; We will sustain it in this sacrifice by bowing low. These waves of ghee flow like gazelles before the hunter... Streams of ghee caress the burning wood. Agni, the fire, loves them and is satisfied. - Rig Veda
As the Ganges has poured down through the myths and plains of India for thousands of years, so has ghee flowed through all aspects of the Indian culture. In the Ayurvedic wisdom, family homes, religions, peoples and kitchens of India, ghee is a sacred and celebrated symbol of auspiciousness, nourishment and healing as well as an esteemed article of everyday use.
When we consider ghee we are in the company of superlatives. In India, ghee has been highly regarded for so many things, for so long, that one enters into a crowded river of praise. The milk of cows is considered to possess the essence or sap of all plants, and ghee is the essence of milk. According to a Vedic analogy, ghee is hidden in milk, like the Divine Lord in creation. Through the introduction of Agni to milk, by the friction of churning, butter appears. This butter is then heated over fire and the most hidden part of milk- ghee- appears.
The Vedas call ghee the ‘first and the most essential of all foods’.and ghee is a central element of the Vedic culture. The great theme of the Vedas is yagya (sacrifice) and ghee is an essential offering to Agni (fire) in all yagyas. Agni is the mouth of the Gods and through offerings made to Agni, ghee is the food that feeds them. The Mahabharata says, “From ghee flows the sustenance of all the worlds”. The God Agni, the first word and deity of the Rig Veda is known as Hutabhu (the devourer of ghee). The association of ghee with light and brilliance is found in many passages of the Vedas. In fact, the Sanskrit word for ghee is Ghritam. It comes from the root ghr, which means to shine. The ingestion of ghee is offering the finest of fuels into the fires of digestion (Agni). Ghee increases the sattvic qualities of life both in our self and in our environment (the Gods are the elemental rulers of the cosmos). It allows body and mind, both subtle and gross, to burn with a refined brilliance. Ghee increases Dhi (intelligence) refines the Buddhi (intellect) and improves the Smrti (memory). Ghee also builds the aura, makes all the organs soft, and increases Rasa (the internal juices of the body).
Ghee increases ojas, which is the underlying basis of all immunity and the essence of all bodily tissues. Dr. Vasant Lad. writes, “As ghee is the pure essence of milk, in the same way ojas is the pure essence of the dhatus”. Maya Tiwari calls ghee the “single most ojas-producing food on earth”. Although ghee kindles or increases the digestive fire (Agni), on which all nutrition depends, it does so without aggravating Pitta, the elemental functioning of fire within the body. In fact, ghee cools the body, essential in much of today’s world, where everything is overheating. Ghee balances all the Agnis of the body. Because of its superb penetrating qualities ghee has the ability to carry a substance deep into all seven dhatus. Ghee is used as a yogavahi (carrier) for herbs and bhasmas (ashes) of gemstones, heavy metals and even certain toxins. Ghee also causes secretions and liquification in the dhatus that dissolve wastes, allowing the doshas to carry away ama. The ingestion of ghee is used in Panchakarma to first penetrate into and then dissolve ama in the dhatus, allowing the wastes to be then carried to the intestinal tract and expelled.
Sneha is a Sanskrit term meaning to express by touch, love and caring. Sneha is the feeling and knowing that someone cares for you and that you are being comforted and cherished. The Ayurvedic texts talk of four Substances for Snehana (the application of oily substances on the body): They are Taila (Oil,) Vasa (animal Fat), Majja (bone marrow) and Ghrita (ghee). Of these, Ghrita (ghee) is considered superior. Ghee softens and strengthens, protects and nourishes the skin. Ghee increases the overall strength, luster and beauty of the body. Until the last generation in India, men gave ghee massages on the street. Ghee was almost always the preferred substance for the skin, however, since it is more expensive than oil it has come to be used for internal purposes only. It is still used externally for the old and young. Mothers in India massage their babies with ghee. I massaged my Father daily with ghee before he died. He loved it. Sometimes, when he could not sleep, I would rub it on his feet and temples, and it soothed his agitation. It is considered one of the best substances for Abhyanga (self-massage).
Abhyanga bypasses the digestive system and allows the qualities of ghee to penetrate directly into the deeper tissues. It is said that sixty per-cent of what is placed on the skin is absorbed into the body. We literally ‘eat’ what we put on our skin. Ayurveda suggests that if we would not eat something, we should not use it on our skin. In ancient India, wells full of ghee were made and saved for times of war, especially for those who suffered wounds. When a surgeon cuts open a body, he only does so, knowing that the body will be able to heal itself. The surgeon cannot heal. Ghee magnifies Ropana (healing), and its effectiveness in facilitating recovery from wounds is celebrated. In Ayurveda, when a person has a chronic peptic ulcer or gastritis, ghee is used to heal the ulcer inside the intestinal tract. Ghee works wondrously on bedsores for the elderly or debilitated. It can also be applied for broken bones and bruises. It is highly effective for all sorts of skin rashes. It is also used on burns from both fire and chemicals. Once, I accidentally got some sandalwood oil in my eye. It burned intensely, and I was unable to wash it out with a variety of eyewashes. I spent hours in pain and finally remembered to try ghee. Almost immediately, the ghee pacified the burning and the eye irritation ceased.
Just recently, a friend of mine who is a yoga instructor had a pressure cooker blow up in his face, giving him second and third-degree burns. He immediately put some ghee on his face and went to the emergency room. The doctors told him that he would be scarred for life, that the burns would take several months to heal and that he should take steroids because the body shuts down the production of testosterone after burns. He declined to take the steroids and continued to apply the ghee, twice daily. After six days he was completely healed without scarring. Ghee is an exquisite Rasayana (rejuvenative substance, giver of Rasa-juice) and is known to contribute to longevity. In Ayurveda, long life is correlated with good Agni and good Kapha. I have mentioned how ghee increases Agni. Ghee also has the qualities of being heavy, slow, oily, liquid, dense, and soft. It is these qualities of Kapha that help build the body, unit by unit. Ghee, in a very sure and steady way, slows the aging process by enriching the living one.
Ghee has the quality of snigda (oiliness, unctuousness). It is smooth, lubricating and nurturing. Ghee makes the voice soft and melodious. Ghee is Guru (heavy). It mildly increases the qualities of Kapha and decreases Pitta and Vata, which are both light. In moderation, ghee balances all the doshas. Ghee has the quality of mrdu (softness). In Ayurvedic Panchakarma treatments, ghee is the oil used on the eyes. In Netra Basti, (eye-bath) a small dam is built around the eyes and filled with warm ghee. Then, the patient opens his eyes to its soothing softness. After that treatment, one sees the world though a soft diaphanous curtain of love and loveliness.
In India, ghee is made from both Cow and Buffalo milk. You can tell the difference because Buffalo ghee is white and Cow ghee is more yellow. Also, the ghee of a Cow is in liquid form at body temperature. The ghee of a Buffalo is still slightly solid. Buffalo milk and ghee are more tamasic (dulling), while Cow milk and ghee are believed to be more sattvic (pure and purifying). Cow ghee is used in lamps in temples and pujas all over India. The light of a ghee lamp is the most beautiful and brilliant of all lights. The light of burning ghee is said to ward off negativity and evil influence.
Ghee is the most refined end product of milk. When making ghee, there is a concentration of all the qualities of the milk. This includes, antibiotics, hormones (rGBH), chemical pesticides, etc. For this reason, always use the best milk/butter possible. When a cow is milked, there is whole milk. If you let this milk sit for a while, cream rises to the top. Then the cream is skimmed off and churned. After a while, and all of a sudden, as a result of the Agni of churning, the fat globules begin to stick to each other and form butter. What is left over is buttermilk.
In America today, very little butter is churned the old-fashioned way. Most modern dairies, even many organic ones, no longer churn their cream to make butter. In a typical dairy, the cream is pushed (extruded) through a fine mesh screen in which the heavier and larger molecules of butter are held on one side of the screen while the smaller molecules of buttermilk pass through. I asked an Vaidya (Ayurvedic Teacher) about what difference this process of extrusion makes. He said that butter made without churning is lacking in some quality of Agni. He went further in his consideration saying that the home-based Indian culture churns their cream with a hand churn, rolling it back and forth between their hands. This back-and-forth action imparts a particular balancing quality to the ghee, instead of the one-way action of a gear driven churn.
There is one very important difference in the way ghee was and is made in India. The Indians start out with milk from a cow, just like in America. But, they do not let the cream rise to the top and skim it off as we do in the West. Instead, and here comes the key difference- they culture the milk with yogurt, allowing it to sit for four to five hours, just before it becomes completely soured. Then they churn the whole milk. From that point on, the process is more or less the same. (I have read of recipes for making ghee in India that culture just the cream, but most families I talked with about making ghee produce their butter by churning whole milk).
This culturing with yogurt introduces another form of Agni into the substance of refining the milk into butter and then ghee. In my recent visit to modern day India, it was very difficult to find high quality, pure cow ghee. The commercial milk, cream and butter are homogenized and pasteurized, and now even ultra-pasteurized, a process whereby milk is heated to a higher temperature than pasteurization for a shorter period of time. This kills and destroys various living substances/enzymes in the milk thus prolonging shelf life. Ultra-pasteurized milk can keep un-refrigerated for over a month. I have learned that the reason ultra-pasteurized milk is refrigerated in America is that people in this country would not trust un-refrigerated milk. According to the Ayurvedic Vaidyas I consulted, all of these factors (homogenization, pasteurization, ultra-pasteurization) increase the Vata (air and ether, destructive, catabolic, drying, rough) qualities in what was originally a very Kapha (earth and water, building, oily, tonifying, anabolic) substance-milk. Some of these processes, like homogenization, make the milk, and thus the cream and butter, indigestible. One of the things you can look for in milk and cream is the sticky quality (picchila), one of the gunas of Kapha. The milk or cream will literally stick to the glass it is poured into. This quality will be much reduced in highly processed milk products.
In America, as in India, there is a similar theme to the story. Although organic dairies are appearing all over the country, many of them make their butter by extrusion. Furthermore, they homogenize and ultra-pasteurize their milk. Another consideration to mention is that milk comes from cows and that the general treatment of cows in America is not very good. This is another reason to purchase milk and butter from small family farms, which tend to treat their animals better. Also, try to purchase your milk and butter from a dairy that grazes its cows on growing green grass, not only on hay and silage, even if they are organic.
Now, back to making ghee . . . Once you have obtained your unsalted butter, heat it in a stainless steel or enamel pot, bringing it to a boil. It is best to make your ghee in stainless steel heavy pots, rather than aluminum because of toxicity from the aluminum. Also, avoid thin stainless steel because a heavier pot will distribute the heat of the fire more evenly, surrounding the ghee. Try to use heat from fire rather than an electric range (This is again in the realm of subtlety and sattva that I referred to earlier). There is a quality of Agni that lends itself and pervades a substance cooked on flame not present when butter is cooked on electricity. I do not entirely understand the difference between the heat of a fire and the heat of an electric range and I asked several Vaidyas about it in India. They simply said that fire was a superior (more sattvic) way to cook food.
It is clear to me that it is important to create and enjoy a beautiful and positive environment when making ghee. This subtle quality of ambiance is in line with cooking ghee on the flames of fire, it makes a difference. Once the butter begins to boil, reduce the flame to the lowest point at which the butter will continue to boil. As it boils, moisture evaporates off and it will begin to clarify and the butter will turn from cloudy yellowish liquid to a more golden color. Whitish cloudy milk solids will rise to the top and sink to the bottom. Do not stir. After a half hour to an hour and half to several hours, depending on the amount and the size of the pot and the amount of ghee compared to the flame, your ghee will be ready. The ghee will be a clear beautiful golden color with a wonderful smell that some have compared to popcorn. The moment ghee is ready is critical and lasts only a short time. If the ghee is cooked too little, moisture will remain in the ghee and it will lack in exquisite taste and qualities. Also, because of the moisture, it will tend to spoil or sour. If ghee is cooked too much, it will burn, turn slightly darker and have a certain nutty flavor. This does not ruin the ghee at all, but it is to be noticed, so that over time you will capture the ‘perfect’ ghee to be experienced between these two ‘extremes’. After the ghee is ready, skim off the top light crust of whitish milk solids. (These and the heavier ones at the bottom of the pot are traditionally used to make sweets. Children in India love them and always plead with their Mothers to have the leftovers when ghee is made. )
Then, pour the golden, sweet-smelling liquid through layered cheesecloth to catch any last impurities, into a bottle, leaving the slightly burned milk solids (caramelized lactose) on the bottom of the pot you cooked it in (ghee contains no lactose or milk sugars). Do not close the glass jar into which you pour the hot ghee until it comes to room temperature so that no moisture from condensation forms on the inside of the jar. Moisture spoils ghee, allowing a mold to grow which will sour the ghee. This is the reason that you always use a clean and dry spoon to take your ghee out of its container. For a similar reason do not refrigerate your ghee. First of all, it is not necessary. but, most importantly, condensation will form inside the jar as you take it back and forth between a refrigerator and a warm room.
Making ghee is a beautiful and peaceful experience. The sound of softly boiling butter, the pouring of the thick golden liquid into bottles, the wonderful smell that permeates the space.
The older the ghee, the better its healing qualities. 100-year-old ghee is greatly valued in India and fetches a very high price. Such ghee was often kept in Temples in large vats and families would pass on aged ghee to their next generation to be used as medicine on the skin (not internally).
According to Maya Tiwari, the traditional Vedic day for making ghee is on purnima (the full moon). The moon represents Soma, the Mother and nurturing and all the best qualities of milk and butter are energized on this day. The quality of ghee will change as the time of year and the diet of the cows change. Not all cows in America are given green pastures to graze on. Even those that are allowed to graze in the fields often do not do so all year round. Many dairy farmers, even organic ones, feel that too much grass in the diet gives a undesirable or grassy taste to the milk. Also, in winter, there are many days when the cows are not able to go out to pasture and there is more hay, silage and legumes in their diet. This will noticeably change the quality of their milk, butter and ghee. The more cows graze in the fields on grass, the more yellow is the ghee. This ‘yellow’ is the result of an increase of beta-carotene in the butter. This is why dairies began to color their butter- to fool those who remembered the color of butter from cows fed on growing green grass. I have also noticed that there is a sweeter taste to the ghee when there is more grass in their diet.
Ghee is nourishing and healing, steady and dependable and always supportive of life and living. Ghee brings an excess of goodness wherever and whenever it is appreciated and used. An ancient scripture summarizes it best: Ayurghritam (Ghee is life).
(Though I have presented ghee as an entirely benevolent substance, there are cases where its use is contraindicated. People with obesity should be very frugal in their use of ghee and those with high ama, acidity, dyspepsia and fever should not take ghee at all).
Peter Malakoff has studied with Dr. Sunil Joshi, a world-renowned Ayurvedic Physician and Panchakarma Specialist. He received his Ayurvedic Sadhana Padavika Diploma from the Kalidas Sanskrit University of the State of Maharashtra, India.