What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is the ancient Indian system of natural and holistic medicine. When translated from Sanskrit, Ayurveda means “the science of life” (the Sanskrit root ayur means “longevity” or “life” and Veda means “science”).
While allopathic medicine tends to focus on the management of disease, Ayurveda provides us with the knowledge of how to prevent disease and how to eliminate its root cause if it does occur.
The knowledge of Ayurveda was passed on orally through a lineage of sages in India until it was collated into text more than five thousand years ago. The oldest known texts on Ayurveda are the Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and the Ashtanga Hrudaya. These texts detail the affect that the five elements found in the cosmic system - earth, water, air, fire, space – have on our individual system, and expound on the importance of keeping these elements balanced for a healthy and happy life. According to Ayurveda, each person will be influenced by certain elements more than others. This is because of their prakriti, or natural constitution. Ayurveda categorizes the different constitutions into three different doshas:
• Vata dosha, in which the air and space elements dominate
• Pitta dosha, in which the fire element dominates
• Kapha dosha, in which the earth and water elements dominate
The dosha affects not just the shape of one’s body but also bodily tendencies (like food preferences and digestion), and the temperament of one’s mind and emotions. For example, the earth element in people with Kapha dosha is evident in their solid, sturdy body type, their tendency for slower digestion, their strong memory, and their emotional steadiness. Most people’s prakriti is made up of a combination of two doshas. For example, people who are “Pitta Kapha” will have the tendencies of both Pitta dosha and Kapha dosha, with Pitta dominating. By understanding the qualities of our natural constitution we are better able to do what is needed to keep ourselves in balance.
The Sanskrit word guna is difficult to define and has many meanings, although it may be best described as the modes of matter. There are three main categories of gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. Everything in prakrti (nature) is constituted of each of these categories, although not in a way that allows for separation. The gunas and prakrti are dependent on each other and thus, one cannot exist without the presence of all other components (Ramakrishna Rao 62).
Sattva is the category of guna that is responsible for creation, goodness and the beneficial characteristics that make up prakrti. Sattva activities allow the mind to be still and move towards a state of balance or equilibrium. Such actions lead to the realization of purusa (the true self) and thus, sattva qualities are said to be responsive to the light of purusa (Vatsyayan 116). In order to gain and maintain sattva, avoidance of rajas and tamas is necessary. Consuming sattvic food is also thought to be a way of enhancing the sattva quality, helping to illuminate the mind (Guha 146). Such foods are those that come in pure or natural forms such as fruits or vegetables.
Rajas is the guna category that refers to passion, preservation and is the cause of all activity. Rajas expresses itself in motion and, because it is present in all matter, it causes all things to be in a continuous state of change (Vatsyayan 116). Rajasic actions are often selfish and driven by a desire to gain power, wealth or fame. Rajas is associated with heat and because of this, spicy, hot or fried foods fall under this category.
Tamas is the third guna which refers to ignorance or delusion and the negative attributions that arise because of it. It is in opposition to sattva and thus resists activity and the light of purusa (Vatsyayan 116) by inhibiting the expansion of the mind. Tamasic actions are often classified as immoral, deceitful, hostile or violent. Foods such as meats, junk food or heavily processed items are included in this category.
The combination of these three gunas is thought to make up the characteristics of all beings. They make up prakrti similar to the way the three primary colours are able to make up the colours of the entire spectrum. Prakrti is in its purest state when all three of these qualities are in equilibrium. This state is labelled by the Sanskrit term samyavastha (Ramakrishna Rao 65). The imbalance of these three qualities is believed to cause disruptions in the normal functioning of the body. This approach to medicine is referred to as Ayurveda and is based around a holistic approach to healing.