Principles of Application of Herbs in AyurvedaDr. Sudipt Rath
Basic Concept of Health and Therapeutics
Ayurveda is the millennia old Traditional System of Medicine (TSM) from India. TSMs lack scientific vigour and systematic methods are the common public perception. But, contrary to this perception, Ayurveda is a systematic, structured, rationalized knowledge system about health and life which operates on robust principle based theoretical underpinnings. These principles are outcome of long standing keen and methodical observations of a supremely talented and unbiased sect.
Health is said to be functional, dynamic and harmonious balance among the components of the living being. This state of balance is individual specific and is manifested in proper and adequate tissue systems, peaceful state of mind in harmony with its surroundings rendering the individual to defeat the possible any pathological challenges. (Charaka Samhita Sutra Sthana : 21/18-19)
An imbalance to the health can be caused by two ways i.e. structural and/or functional (i) increase or (ii) decrease in any of the components of the living being. Therapeutics is nothing but disrupting the pathogenic process. Ayurveda states that an increase oriented pathogenesis can be managed by administering substances or mean that will effectuate a decrease in those components and similarly a decrease oriented pathogenesis can be managed by substances that can effectuate an increase in those components within the body.
Against backdrop of this basic understanding, application of herbs in Ayurveda is guided by certain principles. This principle based application differentiates Ayurveda from other systems of herbal medicine.
- PANCHA MAHABHUTA THEORY (PRINCIPLE OF FIVE BASIC PARTICLES ESTABLISHING SIMILARITY BETWEEN LIVING BEING AND THE MEDICINE)
Ayurveda states that all substances of this universe including the components of the living being and the medicines are made up of five basic particles, namely Prithvi, Jala, Agni, Vayu and Akash. Though these terms are roughly translated as Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether, but these translated terms scarcely reflect the concepts beneath these terms. Succinctly, Prithvi, Jala, Agni, Vayu and Akash represents inter alia mass, cohesive force, energy, movement and space. This principle establishes similarity between the living being and the medicinal substances at the molecular level allowing possible engagement among them when brought together. (Charaka Samhita Sutra Sthana : 26/10)
Each Mahabhuta is attributed a certain set of properties and actions. The predominance of a mahabhuta in a substance leads to manifestation of some/all properties attributed to the mahabhuta. There are 10 such pairs of properties called as Guna, each pair comprising of 2 opposing properties, like Heavy-Light, Hot-Cold, etc. Thus assessment of mahabhautik status of an herb is critical in its selection vis-a-vis a clinical issue. (Charaka Samhita Sutra Sthana : 26/11)
- SAMANYA – VISHESHA THEORY (PRINCIPLE OF SIMILAR-DISSIMILAR GUIDING THE POSSIBLE OUTCOME WHEN TWO SUBSTANCES ARE ENGAGED TOGETHER)
When two substances are engaged, similar factors increase and dissimilar factors decrease. Therefore, when a herb is administered it will potentially increase the similar factors within the living being and decrease the dissimilar factors. This fundamentally guides the principle of therapeutics in Ayurveda. One must assess the status of component(s) in a clinical issue and select a herb with similar attributes if components are undergoing decrease or vice versa. (Charaka Samhita Sutra Sthana : 01/44)
- DOSHA (REGULATORS) – DHATU(BUILDING UNITS) – MALA (WASTE PRODUCTS)
These are biological manifestations of Mahabhutas. Doshas are most important as they can produce changes in the other two. Thus every aspect of Ayurvedic therapeutics is expressed in terms of Dosha i.e. whether it pacifies certain dosha or otherwise. Assessment of dosha is done first in a clinical issue and accordingly herbs are selected to manage the issue.
Dosha – Dhatu-Mala are expressed functionally by the 20 properties mentioned above, with a particular dosha having few particular properties like Ruksha(dry), Chala (movement) are the properties of Vata. (Sushruta Samhita Sutra Sthana : 14/)
- RASA(Taste – signifying state of the substance at the initial stage) – VIPAKA(State of substance after Digestion & Metabolism) – GUNA (properties) – VIRYA (Potency types) – PRABHAVA (Effect specific to the substance)
These five concepts are tools of herb assessment and selection in Ayurveda. Each of these concepts signifies mahabhautik states of the substance at different stages of interaction with the living being. There are 6 Rasa, 3 Vipaka, 20 Guna and 2 Virya described in Ayurveda. Prabhava being specific effect of a particular substance is unique to that particular substance and thus no classification could be done. (Charaka Samhita Sutra Sthana : 26th Chapter)
For example – Madhura (sweet) rasa herb signifies predominance of Prithvi and Jala mahabhuta, which are also predominant mahabhutas of Kapha dosha, Mamsa(muscle) dhatu, etc. Thus this substance will increase Kapha and Mamsa dhatu. It also will decrease the dissimilar dosha i.e. Vata dosha. Therefore, in cases of Kapha and dhatu reduction and Vata aggravation Madhura substances are selected.
There are other factors which need to be considered for selecting a herb.
- PRAKRITI (CONSTITUTION) –
Each individual is endowed with a Prakriti that makes him/her to possess certain strength and also some susceptibilities. One must factor out facts like Madhura rasa substances will effectuate more Kapha increase in a Kapha Prakriti person while selecting a herb for an individual.
- KALA (TIME)
The living being is influenced by solar and lunar energy cycles of the nature. Thus some herbs are not suitable in some seasons. For example, Kapha is naturally vitiated in Vasanta (spring) season, thus one has to factor out this while prescribing a madhura substance in this season. (Charaka Samhita Sutra Sthana : 1/62)
- ADHISTHANA (AFFINITY OF A HERB)
Some herbs have specific affinity to specific target organ/ systems. These herbs will not produce effect in other organs or systems although the properties might suggest the same. (Charaka Samhita Sutra Sthana : 26/13)
These are main principles guiding the selection of herbs in Ayurveda. There are other principles applicable to herb selection in Ayurveda too. This principle based rationalized and structured selection process of herbs in Ayurveda for therapeutic use differentiates from herb-indication type of herbal medicine system. It also emphasises the fact that though it might look simple, use of herbs for health through Ayurveda requires expert assessment and prescription by a Vaidya.