Cancer-buster Rosy Periwinkle

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“Let us progress ourselves, it is the best way of making others progress.”

~ The Mother (CWM, Vol. 15, p. 76

Long time ago, once my uncle visited my home and our whole garden was filled with one plant in full blossom, the Madagascar Periwinkle or the Rose Periwinkle. He laughed out loud, saying why on earth would people plant flowers that are of no use, no scent and grows like a weed. He suggested we grow a few rose bushes and jasmines instead. He also added that these ‘weeds’ are seen growing more in cemeteries; so my mother immediately had the gardener remove these plants.

Years later, I came to know how ignorance colours our existence. There is more to this angiosperm than meets the eye, in fact it’s a life saver. This small flowering plant with its inconspicuous looks houses an inscrutable chemical processing unit.

Science and the Secrets of Periwinkle

In the year 1950, scientists discovered that this plant processes a chemical known as vinblastine, an incredibly useful cancer drug that stops cells from entering mitosis interrupting cell division which is one of the key factors of cancer disease. World Health Organisation considers this drug as the most efficacious and safe. Not only that, it is a very cost-effective medicine with top priority.

But the medicine comes with a problem. They need around 500 kg of leaves and flowers of this plant to produce just 1 gram of vinblastine. Scientists had been in a 60-year long mission to understand how this plant makes this chemical in a natural way so that they can prepare it synthetically and make it available for a greater number of people perhaps at a much lower cost.

Finally, a professor by the name Sarah O’Connor after a 15-year study figured out that Vinblastine is one of the most structurally complex medicinally active natural products. Using a very modern state-of-the-art genome sequencing techniques they could finally pin down the pathway to vinblastine production.

A large number of laboratories around the world were involved in searching for answers, and finally the secrets of this now famous plant periwinkle finally emerged. They figured out that in order to reach vinblastine synthetically, there ought to be a particular step by step process. A staggering 31 steps in all!

Another small interesting fact about Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) is that insects leave this plant alone. Even deer don’t feed upon them. Because of this one feature, this plant is loaded with alkaloids that are necessary for the production of chemicals such as Vincristine and Vinblastine.

Progress – an Integral Part of Life

So you see, the rosy periwinkle you probably pull out like a weed and throw away is actually a very impressive super-plant indeed. What the plant has taught us over 60 long years is we cannot reach our goal without progressing one step at a time. And guess what, the Mother through her divine vision, gave “progress” as the spiritual attribute to this flower, rose periwinkle.

“Whatever occupation or task falls to your lot, you must do it with a will to progress; whatever one does, one must not only do it as best one can but strive to do it better and better in a constant effort for perfection.”

(The Mother, CWM, Vol. 12, p. 53)

Progress is an integral part of life; every aspect of our life is about progress. Starting from our birth, we are fed and taken care of by our parents so that we can grow healthy and show signs of progress. Every stage of turning, grasping, crawling, walking or talking becomes a milestone to celebrate. When we watch a child grow, the progress seems natural and involuntary as if there is a divine orchestra playing in the background. That is why the Mother said, “Progress is the sign of the divine influence in creation.” (CWM, Vol. 15, p. 75)

Also read:
Progress Simplified for Yearning Minds

If not for progress, we would lead a life of stagnation, with no life purpose. But let’s not forget that a lot of effort that needs to be put in order to progress from one stage to another. How many hours of hard study, sleepless nights and eye-glasses that only gets thicker to reach the number of accolades for which we aspire!

Progress always happens in steps, and this is not only true at a microcosm but also at a macrocosm level. For instance, at the cosmic level, the planet Jupiter has a 12-year cycle around the Sun. At a microcosm level, we need 12 months to complete a year on planet earth or 12 hours to complete a day or night. The same 12 years are needed to progress from grade 1 to grade 12 of our educational system.

This system is not just true of our modern times but even in the past a disciple (shishya or chela) had to spend 12 years with his Guru in an ashram to become eligible for further growth. No wonder the planet Jupiter is also called as Guru in astronomical and astrological jargon.

Just like the rosy periwinkle that takes 31 steps or maybe more to reach vinblastine, we cannot reach a PhD degree without completing the previous steps. At every stage whether it is a child studying for a board exam or an adult going to attend an interview, progress is the underlying factor that ushers us forward.

Progress at a Deeper Level

While we are busy progressing towards our goals, there is a subtle layer of progress that is happening at a much deeper level. This progress is the process of evolution which is happening in nature at a miniscule level that is not visible to our human perception. But, once one begins to become increasingly self-aware and conscious through the practice of yoga or spiritual discipline, one becomes sensitive to and awakened to the inner progress of self as much as the outer progress.

“That within us which seeks to know and to progress is not the mind but something behind it which makes use of it”

(Satprem, Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness, chapter 3)

Sri Aurobindo has uniquely described the concept of involution and evolution in his great works such as ‘Savitri’ and ‘The Life Divine.’ He says that matter is not essentially different from the spirit; they are the two poles of One Truth. So are the Inconscient and the Superconscient. And between the two poles is a continuum. So, when we see progress in the external reality, our inner reality is also gradually progressing through experience, wisdom and maturity.

As Nature is in progress continuously, called evolution, we are already and inevitably progressing toward a spiritualised individual and society. But this is a very slow, natural and unconscious process.

With sincere tapasya and sadhana, we can progress much faster. As the Mother explained through her drawing once, Yoga is the conscious route which takes the human to the divine through a straight path, whereas in the pursuit of our ordinary living, we traverse the same journey through a great zig-zag of many lives.

Progress and Transformation in Integral Yoga

As we become more sincere and serious about our sadhana and spiritual practice, a new transformation begins to happen and a new kind of progress starts to take place. According to Sri Aurobindo, the complete radical transformation which is the goal of Integral Yoga goes through three stages: psychic transformation, spiritual transformation and the supramental transformation.

“In this Yoga, one can realise the psychic being as a portion of the Divine seated in the heart with the Divine supporting it there—this psychic being takes charge of the sadhana and turns the whole being to the Truth and the Divine, with results in the mind, the vital, the physical consciousness. . . —that is a first transformation.

“We realise it next as the one Self, Brahman, Divine, first above the body, life, mind and not only within the heart supporting them—above and free and unattached as the static Self but also extended in wideness through the world as the silent Self in all and dynamic too as the active Divine Being and Power, Ishwara-Shakti, containing the world and pervading it as well as transcending it, manifesting all cosmic aspects.

“But, what is most important for us, is that it manifests as a transcending Light, Knowledge, Power, Purity, Peace, Ananda of which we become aware above and which descends into the being and progressively replaces the ordinary consciousness by its own movements—that is the second transformation.

“We realise also the consciousness itself as moving upward, ascending through many planes physical, vital, mental, overmental to the supramental and Ananda planes. This is nothing new; it is stated in the Taittiriya Upanishad that there are five Purushas, the physical, the vital, the mental, the Truth Purusha (supramental) and the Bliss Purusha; it says that one has to draw the physical self up into the vital, the vital into the mental, the mental into the Truth Self, the Truth Self into the Bliss Self and so attain perfection.

“But in this Yoga we become aware not only of this taking up but of a pouring down of the powers of the higher Self, so that there comes in the possibility of a descent of the Supramental Self and nature to dominate and change our present nature and turn it from nature of Ignorance into nature of Truth-Knowledge (and through the supramental into nature of Ananda)—this is the third or supramental transformation.

“It does not always go in this order, for with many the spiritual descent begins first in an imperfect way before the psychic is in front and in charge, but the psychic development has to be attained before a perfect and unhampered spiritual descent can take place, and the last or supramental change is impossible so long as the two first have not become full and complete…”

(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 29, pp. 497-498)

Savitri’s Yoga

In the epic Savitri, we find a beautiful description of Savitri finding her soul – the first psychic transformation that Sri Aurobindo speaks of.

A sealed identity within her woke;
She knew herself the Beloved of the Supreme:
These Gods and Goddesses were he and she:
The Mother was she of Beauty and Delight,
The Word in Brahma’s vast creating clasp,
The World-Puissance on almighty Shiva’s lap,—
The Master and the Mother of all lives
Watching the worlds their twin regard had made,
And Krishna and Radha for ever entwined in bliss,
The Adorer and Adored self-lost and one.
In the last chamber on a golden seat
One sat whose shape no vision could define;
Only one felt the world’s unattainable fount,
A Power of which she was a straying Force,
An invisible Beauty, goal of the world’s desire,
A Sun of which all knowledge is a beam,
A Greatness without whom no life could be.
Thence all departed into silent self,
And all became formless and pure and bare.
Then through a tunnel dug in the last rock
She came out where there shone a deathless sun.
A house was there all made of flame and light
And crossing a wall of doorless living fire
There suddenly she met her secret soul.
(CWSA, Vol., 34, pp 525-526)

Yet, this is only the first transformation that Sri Aurobindo speaks of. Spiritual progress doesn’t stop here. Even the spiritual transformation cannot entirely transform an ignorant mind of a human. For this he adds, one has to realise the dynamic nature of the divine which is called the supermind that has an innate ability to transform the entire being and nature of humanity.

“Man is a transitional being, he is not final; for in him and high beyond him ascend the radiant degrees which climb to a divine supermanhood.

“The step from man towards superman is the next approaching achievement in the earth’s evolution. There lies our destiny and the liberating key to our aspiring, but troubled and limited human existence—inevitable because it is at once the intention of the inner Spirit and the logic of Nature’s process.”

(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 12, p. 157)

Don’t miss:
Progress in Sadhana: Words of Sri Aurobindo

Let me conclude by saying that the humble periwinkle flower reminds us of the inevitability and the necessity of progress. While we think that our progress is limited to our lives alone, let us not forget that we are a part of the whole and we are constantly striving to become a better humanity.

Cancer being one of leading causes of death, second only to cardiovascular diseases, Periwinkle seems like an herb that gives us hope, asking us to conquer disease and death in a step-by-step fashion. While doing so in our external world, we are surely progressing inwardly bringing a greater and  more conscious awareness to our collective life.

~ Design: Shahla Sayeed and Biswajita Mohapatra

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