Vajra Ben Ashara: The Dunagiri Foundation
The dunagiri foundation for Himalayan herbal research and yogic studies preserves the rare and endangered plants of the Himalayas and empowers the village people to harvest and process them. The Yog has talked to founder Vajra Ben Ashara.
Vajra Ben Ashara, you are the founder of the Dunagiri foundation in the Himalayas and the Samata Retreat Center in North Goa. What is your story?
Being a young traveler in India, I tried to figure out what to do with my life. I think India attracts a lot of people like that: people that ask themselves what’s the meaning of life and how they can be of service. So I came to India for many times and many years since the late 90ies. My journey was mostly in North India in the Himalayas. I walked over 2000 kilometers in those mountains seeking for my soul purpose. Eventually I met a saddhu with whom I lived for three years.
He taught me all of the Himalayan medicinal plants: where they grow, how to identify them and how to use them as medicine. During this process I found out that a lot of these plants were in an ecologically endangered state. They were overharvested. There is a lot of corruption going on around them like illegal harvesting and smuggling. So I made a vow that I would raise funds, come back to India and start the Dunagiri foundation.
What is the Dunagiri foundation and how does it relate to the retreat center here in Goa?
It’s called the Dunagiri foundation for Himalayan herbal research and yogic studies and basically it’s centered around working with the village people, empowering them to grow rare and endangered plants in these high altitudes. Once we got that going, I realized that Dunagiri would need a sustainable source of funding that would continually be there year after year after year, without depending on contributors or donations or my ability to raise funds, so that’s how Samata Holistic Retreat Centre came into being. We need a place to live in the winter when the Himalayas are full of snow. I have a five-year-old child and we needed a place where we could exist among other likeminded people and also a place where there is some tourism and foreigners, so we could spread the word about Dunagiri.
It was never really the plan to build a retreat center, but it so happens that the vision of Dunagiri has its own plans and I am just serving this vision. It’s all under the umbrella of Dunagiri and it’s all non-profit and all the money we raise here goes either to a project in the Himalayas or a local agricultural organic farming project here in Goa.
Which projects are going on right now under the umbrella of the Dunagiri foundation?
One of the main projects is growing a plant called Tejbal or Temal. It is a medicinal tree that has a spiritual significance. It is carried by many of the saddhus. The story of it is that it wards off bad energy, evil spirits, you know, that kind of thing. If you look at the lore of a plant, it tells you a lot about its use for medicine. If something is in its mythology warding away evil spirits, then you can generally deduce that it kills parasites and bad bacteria. That it is a really strong agent in expelling what shouldn’t be in our body. A lot of times an evil spirit is just that: a parasite in your stomach, from eating bad food, that is draining your energy and feeding off you. It doesn’t have to be a bigger event of spiritual significance. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Many times it is just dealing with general illnesses.
So we are growing this plant and we are using it for many types of purposes. One is to make toothpaste, one is antibiotic cream, one is medicated oils for massage and to cleanse the skin. It’s really good for skin diseases. A lot of people are migrating from the village to the city, and with that all the traditional knowledge of these plants is getting lost. The people who are smart enough to learn this knowledge from their grandparents are not taking interest in it. They want to go to Delhi, they want to go to university. They want to create a new life for them, a modern life that seems more attractive to them than their village life.
So a big part of our work is to re-inforce in the village that this information is important. It is very valuable, not only on a spiritual and physical and medicinal level, but also from a monetary standpoint. People can earn a living from this. And in the village this a very important thing, as they cannot really think past how am I going to feed my family? And we need to re-instill that you can feed your family. You can make an honest living by being the master of your own forest. And preserving what’s there and growing the medicine and not taking more than you need and not selling it to companies that will anyway make bad medicine out of it.
How can we contribute?
You can go to Dunagiri.org. It explains the projects we are doing in detail. There are many ways to offer your services, whether it’s a money contribution, volunteering, or just spreading the word. We are constantly developing. The next thing we are doing is developing our first post-processing facility in Himalayas. It’s basically that we help the farmers that we already support, to dry the plants they grow properly. This is a huge deal, because at the moment these herbs are all just dried on the rooftops of the villagers house and on the lifestock area and they all get contaminated with bacteria and microbia, so by the time they get into our hands a huge cleansing process has to take part.
What we are trying to do is to put these solar drying facilities in the village areas, so that they have a clean place to dry their plants. Then we take them, we make sure that the moisture level in these plants is at the correct level where they can be packed and nitrogen cealed, so that they can be stored for a long time. Before that in the past the villagers would keep it in a store room and after the winter it is full of mould. It is such a shame, the villagers who are able to grow these plants cannot keep them at a quality where a buyer like myself would be willing to purchase them. This facility that we are building is going to ensure that the quality of the plants is preserved, so that the medicine that is made from them actually works.