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What is Ayurveda?
Today we will answer the question “What is Ayurveda?” In this comprehensive article we
will introduce you to the basic concepts of Ayurvedic medicine.
One of the oldest natural healing system in the world. Developed in India thousands of years ago.
A healing system based on a balance between the mind, body, and spirit.
Ayurveda is an applied science which is based on certain premises. These premises are said to have originated as revelations perceived by our ancient seers, who were highly evolved spiritual beings.
These seers in turn, passed on their knowledge and wisdom to worthy students.
This knowledge and wisdom was carefully preserved through oral discourse from teacher to student, over many centuries. Later on, as the art of writing developed, this ancient knowledge was faithfully and meticulously recorded on papyrus and palm leaves. These writings form the basic tenets or principles of Ayurveda, as we know it today, but its actual source of origin is lost forever, somewhere in early Time.
Basic Concepts of Ayurveda
Table of Contents
The treatise on Ayurveda begins with an exposition on the creation of the Universe, or the macrocosm. It then goes on to explain how, finally human beings, or micro-cosms, are formed and are continually being formed from the macrocosm. The link between the macrocosm and the microcosm is a permanent one. It is this invisible link which binds every individual to the macrocosm through his various births as also in the intervening periods between his successive births.
Rebirth of each soul is taken for granted and no separate explanation is needed, nor given, for the same.
This is a very vital concept in Ayurveda.
Before Time began, the universe was envisaged by the Purush (who can be equated with God, in our understanding ), from the primordial , unmanifested Prakriti. As the universe began to evolve, this now manifest Prakriti began to continually evolve through various stages. Two distinct streams of Prakriti then began to differentiate from it . From the first stream evolved the elements of the gross universe and from the other stream, the finer and intangible elements of the universe were formed.
The Five Basic Elements
From the first stream are formed the five basic elements of the entire universe, the panch mahabhootas. Akaash ( ether ), Vayu ( wind ), Tej ( fire ), Aap ( water ) and Prithvi ( earth ) , are the five elements which thus came into existence. Each preceding element contributes to the formation of the successive element. This process is reversed during dissolution of the microcosm or macrocosm and the sequence then becomes Prithvi – Aap – Tej – Vayu – Akaash in succession.
Admixtures of some of these five elements also give rise to what are called, rather confusingly, the three Doshas, because the term ‘dosha’ does not automatically imply ‘fault’. Earth and Water admix to give the kapha dosha, Fire, Water and Wind admix to give the pitta dosha and Wind and Ether admix to give the Vata dosha.
The Three Doshas
The panch mahabhootas and the three doshas are primarily, the structural units of the macrocosm and microcosm alike. ( In further discussions, we shall consider the human body to be the microcosm ).
The five elements and the three doshas are made up of matter, and so have weight. Being matter, the laws of physics, chemistry etc. also apply to them. They are, therefore, each in varying amount, tangible / visible / palpable to us directly, or if not, they are at least discernable and measurable with the help of sophisticated instruments.
In other words, their existence is either obvious, or can be proved.
The Anatomical descriptions of the Human Body in Allopathy at the macro cellular, micro cellular and infinitely sub cellular levels do not have any corresponding descriptions in Ayurveda. Here anatomical and physiological descriptions are defined by the quantity, proportion and qualities of the elements and tridoshas present in the area of the body being considered and often there are no distinct territorial boundaries either.
Ayurveda has, however, compartmentalized the Human Body into seven dhatus. Each dhatu is again composed of varying proportions of the five elements and the three doshas. Also, each dhatu serves as a substrate for the formation of the next dhatu. Usually, it takes about a month for each subsequent dhatu to be formed from its substrate dhatu. The process by which this is said to occur, is called ‘digestion’.
The ras dhatu is formed from the food we eat, and is the first dhatu to be formed. The other dhatus, in succession, are the rakta, mansa, meda, asthi, majja and shukra dhatus.
We cannot equate these dhatus with anatomical entities as defined in Allopathy, even though some rough collaboration can be found in cases of the first five dhatus with lymph, blood, muscles, fatty tissue and bones. In fact, the temptation to equate them with each other may more often than not lead to error, as there is only very superficial resemblance between them.
The Formation of Dhatus
As each dhatu is formed from its substrate, an unutilised portion of the substrate is left behind. This portion is then converted into an excretory product, called dhatu-mal, which is then excreted from the body through urine, stools, etc. Apart from the seven main dhatus, there are seven associate dhatus as well.
The formation of dhatus occurs by means of metabolism, for which agni, called dhatvagni, is required. Dhatvagni is provided by the pitta, and may be equated with the various enzymes and hormones of Allopathy. Each dhatu has its own agni. As each dhatu is formed by a process of refinement of the previous dhatu, shukra dhatu is considered to be the most refined dhatu of all.
The associate dhatu of shukra dhatu is called Oj, meaning the vitality of the individual.
The dhatus, dhatu-mals and all their intermediary substances are made up of pancha mahabhootas. Each dhatu is made up of varying quantities of the five elements. The total quantity and proportion of each element present in a person determine how much kapha, pitta and vata dosha are present in that person. Upon this depends the prakriti of that person in his current life.
Ayurveda Body Types
Hence, the tridoshas are not independent entities , but reflect the state of matter in the person’s physical body. Each tridosha has independent characteristics:
Vata has movement as a characteristic ( has either potential or kinetic motion or otherwise has enforced immobility ), it is unstable, gaseous, not visible to the eyes, is light in weight, dry and rough in texture. It spreads very fast. It is associated with coolness, foul smell, dark colour, bitter taste and sometimes, sound. It is a very powerful element.
There are five types of vata in the body : Prana-vayu, Apana-vayu, Vyaan-vayu, Udaan-vayu and Samaan-vayu.
These are also referred to as the panch-pranas.
The Prana-vayu is responsible for breathing in the air, taking in food and water, etc. It resides in the chest.
The Apana-vayu is responsible for throwing out the excreta from the body and it resides mainly in the region of the pelvis and Sigmoid Colon.
The Vyaan-vayu is responsible for the function of transportation throughout the body, at the macro and well as micro-cellular level.
The Udaan-vayu is mainly responsible for voluntary muscular actions of the body.
The Samaan-vayu is responsible for activities of digestion. Usually it refers to digestion in the Intestine, but I suspect that it is involved in the process of metabolism at the cellular level also, for ‘digestion’ could also encompass the entire metabolic process, as we know it in Allopathy.
Pitta has heat as a characteristic. It is liquid but not very moist in feel, of green or greenish-yellow colour, bitter, sour, tangy and sharp in taste. It can cause chemical burns if strong. It is relatively stable, can flow but it does not spread very fast. It is fairly light in weight. It is connected with light energy as well.
There are five types of pitta in the body:
The pachak pitta is found in the region of the epigastrium. As its name suggests, it helps in the process of digestion.
The ranjak pitta is found mainly in the liver and spleen. It ‘colours the blood’ or converts the ras dhatu into rakta dhatu.
The bhrjak pitta is found in the skin.
The sadhak pitta is found in the heart and gives us perception of everything.
The alochak pitta in centred in ours eyes and gives us sight.
Kapha is heavy, colloidal, potentially frothy, whitish in colour, mucoid, slimy or slippery to the touch, of faint odour, slightly salty when stale, cold to the touch, is inactive and has hardly any inbuilt motion, is stable, visible, does not flow or spread. It is long-lasting. It gives shape and contour to the body and forms the building blocks and connective tissue of the body and its organs.
There are five types of kapha in the body:
Kledan kapha resides mainly in the epigastric region, it mixes with ingested food and prepares it for digestion.
Avalamban kapha resides in the heart, where it supports the various ( cardiac and, according to Ayurveda, non-cardiac as well ) functions of the heart.
Rasan kapha is found in the throat, where it helps the tongue and other organs to function.
Snehan kapha is found in the brain and complements its activities as well as those of the senses.
Shleshan kapha occurs in the various joints of the body, and acts as a binding force for the whole body.
Kapha facilitates the performance of functions, anywhere in the body, smoothly.
This then, is a brief outline of what the first stream of Prakriti does in the human body. In essence, this stream from the macrocosm helps to build the microcosm or the gross or Outer Body of an individual.
Our Inner Body
Let us now see what the second stream of Prakriti does in the microcosm. This stream of Prakriti gives us what I like to call our Inner Body, which is by far, the most important part of our body while we live our lives on Earth! This is our invisible body and it roughly correlates to the Astral body described in Western literature.
It is our Inner Body which drives our Outer Body and makes it function : ‘we’ are , in reality, our ‘Inner Body’.
This Inner Body, as decribed in Ayurveda, is made up of the Panch Pranas, Five Dnyanindriyas , Five Karmendriyas and the Mind Quartet (of Man, Buddhi, Chitta and Ahankar). They are close to the Soul and owe their energies to the existence of the Soul (Atman). It is this Inner Body of a person that is the actual doer, for it is with the help of this body that a person actually lives and interacts with the outside universe!
The Inner Body in turn, depends upon and is activated by the Seven Chakras described in Yoga. These Chakras control the Inner Body by means of a vast web of nadis(1) . The body is said to have seventy-two thousand nadis, which originate from sixty-four dhis (energy strings) which reside, tied up with each other, in the vicinity of the Umbilicus. These dhis, in turn, arise from the energy strings which enter the body from the macrocosm via the umbilicus. Ultimately, it is the dhis which link the microcosm to the macrocosm.
The Panch Pranas of a person are : Prana, Apana, Vyana, Udana and Samana. They are made of the Vayu panchabhuta. Each resides in a particular anatomical area of the body and has its own specific function, as described above.
The Five Sense-Organs
The Five Dnyanindriyas are the five Sense-organs as we know them in Allopathic medicine : the Eyes, the Ears, the Nose, the Tongue and the Skin. They have the same functions, too.
But what is interesting is that in Ayurveda each Sense-organ has been given a subject matter in the macrocosm or Prakriti, to which it is always linked. Hence each Sense-organ of every Individual is always linked, whether in the Sleep state or Waking state of that Individual, to its subject matter in the macrocosm. The subject matter of the macrocosm is called Tanmatra and is not perceptible to ordinary human beings but is said to be perceptible to highly evolved beings such as Yogis.
Each Sense-organ is predominantly made up of one particular panch-mahabhoota and is linked to the Tanmatra which has evolved from that specific mahabhoota only :
Sense Organ Panch-mahabhoota Function:
- Nose Earth Smell
- Tongue Water Taste
- Eyes Fire Sight
- Skin Wind Touch
- Ears Ether Sound
The Five Karmendriyas are :
Our two Upper Limbs, the two Lower Limbs, the organ of Speech, the Genitalia and the Organs of excretion (namely, the anus and urinary bladder). There are no corresponding entities in described allopathic medicine. The concept of karmendriyas belongs to ayurveda alone.
One Deva is said to control each Dnyanindriya, Karmendriya and Mind Quartet. The Mind Quartet is the subtlest of all the organs of the body. The active principle of the Mind or Manah resides in the region of the throat. (That is why, when become emotional and the mind is acutely stimulated, we feel a catch in our throat).
The Mind functions on three levels :
The Subconscious mind is active during the sleeping state. Is over-ridden by the Conscious mind during the waking state. The Subconscious mind is affected by the actions we have performed during our waking state ,our emotions and volitions. This mind rules over our neuro-endocrinal , sympathetic and para-sympathetic systems and regulates their functions. The over-all state of this mind determines our mental and physical health.
The Subconscious mind exerts its influence while we are asleep. It resides both inside as well as outside of our body and can travel astrally in space.
The Conscious mind enables us to carry out our sensory-motor activities, to make judgments and decisions, etc. It is our link to the external world and helps us to interact with it. It makes us consciously aware of ourselves. It resides mainly within our body and to a very short distance outside it ( perhaps in our aura ). It is individualistic in nature. It lives in the present time as does the individual it belongs to.
The Superconscious mind is a very vast entity. It resides mainly outside our body and very far away from it, even way beyond the atmosphere of the earth. It is non-individualistic in nature and exists as a universal Consciousness. Yet, with voluntary or non-voluntary activation of our dhis and chakras, we can activate our links to it. This mind transcends Time : it lives in the past, the present as well as the future. As a rule, our anatomical and physiological systems are not aware of it and cannot connect with it.
The Mind quartet
But our Superconscious mind is very much aware of us and is always in ‘ready mode’ to connect with us, as occurs in enlightened Yogis.
It is important to note that the mind, at all its three levels, is made of up of panchamahabhoota, or matter, only.
Buddhi is the second part of the Mind quartet. Though distinct from the Mind, Buddhi is functionally closely connected with it. Roughly translated, it would mean ‘Wisdom’ or processed thoughts. It resides at the root of the Tongue, in close proximity to the throat, which is the seat of the Conscious Mind.
Chitta is the next part of the quartet. It comprises awareness of the surroundings in respect to self and also memory, both active as well as latent, of one’s current and the many past lives. It resides in the vicinity of the Umbilicus. So when we are in a life-threatening situation, we feel fear in this part of our body!
Ahankar is the final part of the Mind-quartet. It is the basic awareness of Self, and our Ego. It resides in the Heart. So when one refers to oneself, one points to one’s heart!
The Mind-quartet is in close proximity to the Soul of a person, and functionally, though not physically, envelopes it.
The Astral body
Immediately after death, the Panch pranas exit from the body, pulling the rest of the Inner Body with them. After the exit of the Pranas, the dhis near the umbilical area begin to unwind, allowing the Inner Body to separate from the Outer Body and then get released into the macrocosm.
When the Chitta and Ahankar get released from the physical body, awareness of the Self shifts from the physical body to the Astral body, and the person now begins to ‘live’ in his Astral body. Since all the Sense organs are also located in this Astral body, no sensation is felt after death in the physical body which the Astral body has left behind.
The dhis which have connected the Inner body to the physical body slowly dissipate and dissolve into the surrounding atmosphere. Then the Astral body floats away, to embark upon its journey into Space until the time comes for it to again re-incarnate on the Earth !
But that is another story altogether and not quite within the field of Ayurveda!
Ayurvedic medicine is a enormous subject that you could study for a life time and still not be a master. However we hope you learned some of the basic principles of the Ayurvedic healing system.