fundamental principles of ayurveda

Ayurveda is one of the oldest sciences, which has still managed to retain its peculiarity in this techno-age successfully. The success of any science depends on its fundamental principles.

A tree grows and flourishes if its roots are strong and stable. Similarly, the success of Ayurveda lies in its sound fundamental principles. The basic principle is the explanation of the working mechanism of Ayurveda in terms of laws of nature. Ayurveda and prakriti (nature) are interconnected.

These principles have remained as eternal truth for the last thousands of years.

The fundamental principles of Ayurveda are still applicable in this era because of their scientific background. Ayurvedic principles were established after testing in several ways and proving them with reasoning.

Let us look at some important principles of Ayurveda.

1. Loka Purusha Samya (Macrocosm in Microcosm)

The word loka means universe & purusha is for the individual. According to Indian philosophy, there is complete similarity in structures of the world and the human body.

Ayurveda believes that whatever is present in nature is also present in the human body in minute dimensions. Thus, the human body is a tiny replica of this vast nature.

This principle explains that biological energies of body Vata, Pitta and Kapha maintain body functions just the same way as wind, sun, and moon do in nature.

We can say that there is a direct relationship between individual and environment.  Both of them are affected by each other. Hence, to maintain life, we should be aware of the balanced state of the body as well as the environment.

This principle also has a role in disease development and management. Ayurveda has explained that air, water, season, and location are responsible for epidemics. If these factors get polluted, then it causes diseases and calamities, resulting in outbreaks.

Thus, a change in the whole structure & function of the universe plays a significant role in epidemics. These diseases can be managed if changes in the world are reversed to normal.

2. Principle of Panchamahabhuta (five essential elements)

Everything in this world is composed of five elements (panchamahabhuta), i.e., air, space, fire, water & earth. The combination of these five elements makes up an infinite number of objects in the universe. The same five elements create & compose the human body.

Ayurveda says the body is pancabhautic and its development & maintenance is done through diets which are also pancabhautic in nature.

Man has five senses, through which external objects are perceived in the form of energy. Based on recognition by these five senses, the entire universe is divided into five elements, i.e., pancamahbhuta.

Each mahabhuta possess a natural quality which is accepted by one sense organ only.

Mahabhuta Natural quality Characteristic feature
Space Sound Constructability
Air Touch Mobility
Fire Vision Heat
Water Taste Liquidity
Earth Smell Roughness

Five Elements in Body

Based on the unique feature of each element, we can sense them by their activities in the body.

Mahabhuta Nature in body Function in body
Space Body channels, Ears Transport of materials in the body, creation of sound
Air All bodily movements, Touch sensation Subtle & gross movements
Fire Digestive fire, Pitta dosha Digestion, transformation, visual perception
Water All bodily fluids like blood, plasma urine, etc. Softness & union of various substances
Earth All stable structures of body like bones, teeth, nail, etc. Stability, support & composition of substances

The practical utility of five elements in Ayurveda

Pancamahabhuta is present in the body as well as in diets & medicines. In the body, these five elements are found in the form of doshas (vital energies), dhatus (body tissues), and mala (waste products).

In dietary substances they represent rasa (taste), virya(potency), vipaka(post-digestive taste).

Moreover, the objects of sense organs, the vision, smell, taste, touching & hearing depend on mahabhutas.

In a healthy person, these elements remain in balanced proportion. However, in today’s life, the balance does get disturbed. Our body has a natural tendency to maintain equilibrium. It eliminates elements in excess & takes up elements which have reduced.

E.g. In the case of diarrhea, dehydration, i.e. shortage of jala mahabhuta (water) occurs. To treat this condition intake of fluids is advised.

3. Dosha-Dhatu-Mala – Root of body

Ayurveda believes that dosha (biological energy), dhatu (body tissues) & mala (waste) make the foundation of the body. If the foundation gets weak, building falls early. Similarly, if these basic units get impaired, then the body becomes prone to illness.

We can explain all the functions & dysfunction of the human body in terms of dosha, dhatu & mala. Let’s understand these terms in depth.

Dosha (Biological Energies)

Dosha is the energy which drives all the biochemical & physiological activities going on in the body. Doshas, in their normal state, maintain health while their derangement gives rise to disorder.

Although doshas are also made of pancamahabhuta, still, there is a dominant part of air, fire & water elements in a living being. This fact led Ayurvedic sages to evolve the Tridosha principle.

The three doshas Vata, Pitta & Kapha, have a predominance of Vayu, Agni & Jala mahabhuta. So pancamahbhutas form the structural entity of the body while Tridosha maintains the functional entity.

The literary meaning of ‘dosha’ is the one which causes defector which corrupts. It is to be noted that these three essential bio-energies are called doshas because despite being responsible for maintaining the body, they tend to spoil the body tissues and produce diseases.

Even though tridoshas are made of five elements, they are physiological units rather than anatomical structures. Therefore, in entire Ayurvedic literature, only their qualities, functions, characters have been described.

Dosha Dominant element Qualities Functions
Vata air & space cold, dry, light, mobile Controls movements, transportation of bodily components, excretion, respiration
Pitta fire & water hot, oily, liquid, sour, sharp Regulates vision, digestion, heat production in the body, hunger, softness, influences emotions of joy, anger, courage
Kapha water & earth Heavy, cold, slimy, less mobile, steady Maintains strength, shape & form of the body, fluid level, influences qualities of patience, forgiveness

Doshic Rhythms

Doshas are always in a state of constant flow. They increase & decrease according to age, day & night, stages of digestion, and seasons. However, this increase or decrease is within normal physiological limits and do not cause any disorders.

Predominant Vata Pitta Kapha
Life Rhythm Old age youth childhood
Dietary Rhythm End of digestion Middle of digestion Immediately after the intake of food
Circadian Rhythm (24-hour cycle) End of day & night Mid of day & night Beginning of day & night
Seasonal Rhythm Late winter, spring, summer        Rainy, Autumn, Early winter

By knowing Doshic Rhythm, we can take precautions at such times and prevent the doshas from getting out of control and thus, prevent disease. E.g., by carrying out emesis or purgation during the time of dominance of kapha or pitta, they can be eliminated easily.

Dosha – the prime cause of illness

If a person consumes diet or follows a lifestyle which is similar to the qualities of doshas, they get disturbed and spoil the body tissues. This imbalance leads to disease.

Suppose if someone over-eats hot, spicy, sour food in a warm environment, then pitta dosha gets aggravated and leads to gastric disorders.

Thus, Ayurveda realizes that along with medicines, diet, activity, psychological factors, environment, etc. also influence dosha & play an essential role in curing the disease.

Sapta Dhatu (Seven Body Tissues)

Seven primary tissues make various structures of the body and support & maintain the form of the body. In short, dhatus are the building blocks of the body.

Dhatus are continuously formed, destroyed, and formed again from digested food. The nutrients in the food transform under the influence of digestive fire. It then transfers to the dhatus through their specific channels (srotas) for nourishment.

Dhatu (Body Tissues) Functions
Rasa ( plasma & body fluids) Supplies nutrients
Rakta (blood) Supplies oxygen
Mamsa (muscle) Covers the body
Meda (fat) Maintains softness & strength of body
Asthi(bone) Maintains body posture
Majja (bone marrow) Fills up body cavities
Shukra (reproductive tissues) Responsible for reproduction

Excessive growth or undergrowth of tissues results in various ailments. By taking nutritious food, proper exercise, rejuvenation therapy healthy dhatus can be preserved.

Mala (Waste product)

Mala are those body constituents which regularly eliminates from the body. If malas get piled up, then they spoil the body tissues. That’s why aggravated doshas that remain in body and causes harm are also called malas.

These malas move in the body, obstruct the channels and brings about the diseases. They are formed after food digestion as well as the metabolism of dhatus. Mainly they are of three types, Purisha (feces), Mutra (urine) & Sweda (sweat).

When produced in reasonable quantities, they perform essential functions such as maintaining Vayu & Agni, providing moisture in the body, keeping skin hydrated and tender, etc.

3. Concept of Agni (Digestive fire)

In addition to doshas, Ayurveda has given importance to Agni for the living. It is crucial for the build-up of the health of an individual. For the proper growth of body tissues, food must be appropriately digested and metabolized.

Ayurveda describes Agni as the basis of life. It is said that if Agni subsides, the person dies; when Agni works appropriately, the person remains healthy and falls ill if Agni is disturbed.

Agni is not present in the body in the form of fire, as the name suggests, but is in the form of pitta. It performs various functions like digestion, production of heat, vision, complexion, courage, cheerfulness, etc.

Agni is of 13 types according to function & site of action. There are,

  1. Five Bhutagni – As all the dietetic materials are made of five essential elements. Those all five elements in food have their Agni. Five bhutagnis digest their part of the substance present in food.
  2. Seven Dhatwagni – All dhatus contain their Agni to metabolize the nutrients supplied to them. This Agni digests materials to make the element alike to them for their nourishment.
  3. Pachakagni – It is the pitta present in the stomach and intestines. It is in liquid form, oily, hot, and sharp, so it digests food quickly. It also supports bhutagni and dhatwagni.

The life-span of an individual, his strength, color, power, immunity, all depends on Agni. One can’t stay happy and healthy if every now & then he is suffering from constipation, diarrhoea, vomiting, weakness, etc.

4. Ojas: Ayurvedic concept of body strength

The concept of ojas is an independent principle of Ayurveda, which supports life and protects against various diseases. Ojas is the essence of all dhatus, which gives energy to the body.

Reduction of ojas causes diseases & its total absence leads to death. There are two varieties of ojas. One which is in the heart called Para ojas while other circulates in the whole body known as Apara ojas.

Para ojas is only eight drops in quantity and is the base of life. Its loss is a sure sign of death.

Ojas contributes a great deal towards developing resistance against disease. Therefore, if ojas decreases, care should be taken to enrich ojas by proper medicines & diet like milk, ghee, meat soup, etc.

5. Concept of Manas (Mind)

Almost all diseases affecting the body leave their mark on the mind. Thus, the disease has two distinct seats – body & mind. As doshas are the cause of, so Rajas & Tamas are two doshas of mind.

The human mind possesses three qualities, Sattva, Raja &Tama. Out of these three, two are doshas because sattva guna represents the qualities of knowledge & happiness.

Raja symbolizes anger, pride, aversion & action whereas Tama is indicative of fear, ignorance, confusion & inactivity.

Raja & Tama are susceptible to corrupt & hence, are known as pollutants of the mind (Manas dosha). When these doshas rule the intellect, it leads to various mental disorders.

6. Principle of Karya-Karana (Cause & Effect)

There always exists some particular cause (karana) behind any action (karya).In Ayurveda, the term karana refers to the causative factor of the disease. The term karya (effect) is the imbalanced doshas.

The causative factors of the disease have been categorized into three:

  • Unwholesome contacts of the sense organs with their objects
  • Intellectual ignorance
  • Seasonal variations

Ayurveda believes in curing the disease of its root for which knowledge of karana is a must. Sometimes, the karana is clear, and other times are hidden.

7.Principle of Roga – Arogya (Disease & health)

Imbalance of dosha means disease & balance of dosha implies health. It is clear that in any affliction, imbalance of dosha is an important event.

Due to faulty diet & lifestyle, doshas get imbalanced & they attack other body elements, thus causing disease. Ayurveda defines health as a complete state of happiness, while the disease is called pain.

8. Principle of Dravya-Guna-Karma

Ayurveda believes that any dravya (substance) can be studied well by understanding its guna (properties) & karma (functions). Functional activity of any material depends on its qualities, which is inseparable from the substance.

In Ayurveda, dravya refers to the medicines & human body, as it is the substratum of disease & thereby of treatment.

Guna (Attributes)

To understand the functions of a substance, one must know its properties. Guna represents the tool for assessment of clinical symptoms and planning drugs & therapies for treatment.

Forty-one guna are mentioned in Ayurveda, out of them twenty called as Gurvadi guna are treatment based.

Gurvadi gunas are found in body tissues, in food & drugs influencing them. To understand the functions of dosha, dhatu, and mala, one must know the 20 qualities, e.g. Pitta is a dravya because of guna like heat, sharpness, fluidity, etc.

These gunas include ten pairs of qualities in which each pair have opposite features. They are,

  • Heavy-light
  • Cold-hot
  • Unctuous-dry
  • Sharp-slow
  • Stable-flowing
  • Soft-hard
  • Lucid-slimy
  • Smooth-rough
  • Subtle-weighty
  • Thick-liquid

These attributes can be seen in clinical conditions such as unctuous quality can be seen in the oily face of acne sufferer while dry skin is seen in scalp with dandruff.

Karma (Action)

It is the action which is responsible for union & separation of substance. The action takes place according to the specific properties of the material. E.g., the effect of movement occurs due to light & flowing properties of Vata Dosha.

Karma in Ayurveda implies the action of drugs, the function of doshas, etc.

9. Rasa-Virya-Vipaka theory

These are the active principles of food & herbs. As per Ayurvedic pharmacology, the action of any substance depends on its taste (rasa), active principle (virya), and post-digestive effect (vipaka).

Some dravya function rasa-oriented & some others are vipaka-oriented. Some act with guna, others with virya & others due to prabhava (special effect).

Rasa (Taste)

Rasa is the object of a gustatory sense organ. It indicates elemental composition, properties & explains the action of a drug. Since their taste can predict the majority of drug actions; drugs are classified accordingly.

Sweet, sour, saline, pungent, bitter, and astringent are the six tastes mentioned in Ayurveda.

Drugs having the first three tastes alleviate Vata while the next three tastes relieve Kapha. Drugs of astringent, sweet & bitter taste reduce Pitta Dosha.

All these rasas used in proper doses bring about happiness; otherwise, they are equally harmful. For the maintenance of health, drugs & diets having a combination of several tastes are advised.

Virya (Potency)

The factor with which a dravya act is known as virya. The action of dravya is known by virya, as it rules over all other principles.

Virya is of 2 types: Hot and cold, depending upon the extreme importance of these gunas.

Hot potency means that drug helps in the release of heat & energy while Cold potency does energy conservation. Drug with hot potency pacifies Vata & kapha dosha while cold potency purifies the blood and pacifies pitta dosha.

Principle of virya is useful in assessing unknown & foreign drugs for their potency because it can be ascertained when it comes in contact with the body.                                                         E.g., hot potency of black pepper or cold potency of rock salt can be known immediately after its connection with the tongue.

Vipaka (Post-digestive effect)

After intake, food gets digested by Agni. The properties that emerge after that are known as vipaka. Vipaka is a long process.

The ultimate change of a drug which was initially perceptible as a taste is vipaka. This change occurs after passing through various stages. In the end, the transformed part is classified into three types, Sweet, Sour & Pungent.

The actions of vipaka in the body are similar to that of rasa. The three types of vipaka indicate their inherent relationship with body tissues through the three doshas (tridoshas).                                                                                                                  E.g., drugs having sour or sweet vipaka will usually be nourishing while of pungent vipaka will be of reducing quality.

10. Principle of Samanya & Vishesha (Generality & Speciality)

The objective of this principle is to maintain the balance in body elements (dosha, dhatu, mala) for attaining health. It focuses on building up the deficient components & to lessen the increased factors.

The principle is based on the fact that similarity (samanya) always brings about increase, whereas specialty (vishesha) brings about the depletion of the elements.

This principle has special significance from the view of treatment. The state of increased body elements can be pacified by food & regimen, which are qualitatively opposite to it. Similarly, decreased elements can be normalized by diet & regimen of similar qualities.    E.g., intake of too much spicy & oily food provokes pitta dosha so to calm it; we must take a cold diet.

Why do we need these principles?

All living beings are striving to become happy and healthy. Knowledge of these fundamental principles and their proper application is a key to health and happiness.

The description of basic principles shows that all fundamentals regarding life, disease & treatment have been discussed in Ayurveda.

It is indeed the complete science of life.