An Introduction to Ayurvedic Concepts – Panchamahabhuta
Ayurveda explores in detail the “Science of Life” and perceives a close relationship between Human and the Universe. In order for us to be healthy, we have to live in harmony with ourselves as well as with the Universe. “As is the macrocosm (universe), so is the microcosm (individual)” says Ayurveda and further states that the whole Universe is an interplay of various energies that manifest as both energy and matter. Looks like Einstein’s theory of E=mc2 concurs with Ayurvedic basic principle of the Universe.
In this Ayurveda 101 part-by-part series, I will give an overview of Ayurvedic’s definition of health, the concept of Panchamahabuta (5 Great Forces) and Vata, Pitta and Kapha which are the basic functional method for diagnosing disease (inequilibrium) and maintaining health. I will then go on to discuss Ayurvedic concept of digestion and finally Ayurvedic’s unique concept of Preventive Medicine. I will make every effort to use English words to replace some Ayurvedic terms. However the reader is asked to bear in mind that Sanskrit has profound depth and significance and one word could have several meanings depending on the context of discussion. As such, translation or transliteration of each word in English may not suffice and the reader is cautioned not to take any information out of context.
What is Ayurveda
The word “Ayurveda” is a combination of 2 Sanskrit root words - “Ayu” which means “Life” and “Veda” which means “Science, knowledge or learning”. Ayurveda therefore covers the entire Knowledge and Science of Life (including mineral plant and animal life). Ayurvedic’s philosophy of well being in steeped in the prevention of disease and promotion of the health through diet, lifestyle and harmonious living. The curative and maintenance aspect of disease is also discussed in-depth but preventive medicine is seen as the ultimate key to healthy living.
Ayurvedic definition of Health
So how does Ayurveda work? In order to understand this, we need to understand the Ayurvedic definition of health which states:
“Sama dosha sama agnischa sama dhatu mala kriya
prasanna atma indriya mana swastha iti abideyate”
Susrutha, Chap 15
Sama means “Balance” and the word Dosha does not have any English translation. To put it grossly Dosha refers to a state or force that can be easily imbalanced due to internal or external factors. I will expound on this further below. Ayurveda classifies 3 types of dosha known as Vata, Pitta and Kapha which I will explain further below.
Agni refers to the food transformation and dhatu refer to the body tissues and Mala kriya discusses the excretion. This first part of the definition covers the physical aspect of the body while the second part covers the non-physical aspect ie. the healthy state of soul (atma or inner happiness), the senses (indriya) and the mind (manas). Ayurveda’s healthcare system therefore covers both the tangible, seen, gross as well as the intangible unseen subtle aspect of life itself. Ayurveda clearly states that if and only if there is a balance in the physical (seen; body) and mental (unseen; energy) can a person be considered to be truly healthy.
In today’s article I will focus on the Pachamahabuta which forms the foundation of Vata, Pitta and Kapha dosha.
Panchamahabuta - Basic concept of Ayurveda
“Pancha” means Five; “Maha” means “Great”; Bhuta means “unseen force” (the word Bhuta does not have a direct transliteration in English. Many English books refer to PMB as “Elements” but it should not be confused with the elements of the Chemistry Table. When I use the word Element here, bear in mind that I am referring to the PMB )
These 5 forces pervade the Universe in an “unseen” energetic level and “seen” at the matter level (E=mc2 ). Although the understanding of the 5 Forces and their role in human, plants, environment and health requires a deeper study, a simplified analysis is provided below.
The 5 Forces or States or Elements are 1. Space (Akash), 2. Air (Vayu) 3. Fire (Agni) 4. Water (Jala) and 5.Earth (Prithvi). These 5 PMB are ultimate forces that make up the Universe. Everything needs space to exist and in that sense Space (Akash) is the first Force in being. This is followed by Air (Vayu) which constitutes Movement. The next State is Heat (Agni/Tejas) which represents Transformation. Everything is transformed using either or both exothermic and endothermic energy. The forth Element is Water (Jala). We are not referring to the actual water per se but the quality or attributes of liquidity. Finally there is the final state which is the actual gross material called Earth (Prithvi). Again this is not earth as in the physical Earth but the final gross material and attributes that make these up. So when Ayurveda states that everything has its origin from subtle before appearing as gross it means from Ether (Akash) to finally Earth (Prithvi) which is the same as saying E=mc2.
When we use the example of a seed or ice or foetus we will be able to appreciate the dynamic interplay of the PMB. A foetus is only formed when the ovum and sperm unite. Prior to that it was in form of “nothingness” (Akash). From this nothingness, through a process of movement (Vayu) and by exothermic and endothermic energy and transformation process (Agni) it become a liquidity foetus (Jala) and finally a baby (Prithvi). Starting from the process of space (Akash) there is an entire interplay of PMB to form the final baby (Prithvi) with the aid of Agni (transformation) along every step of the way.
Similarly an ice is a substance that transforms from solid (Prithvi) to liquid (Jala) to vapour (Vay) back to space or “nothingness” (Akash) then becomes vapour then liquid to solid. Agni is inherently present in all the transformation process.
The entire transformation process of the whole universe at both micro and macro level, from the energetic and gross level has the intrinsic and dynamic interplay of the PMB. Using ingredients to make food, or cooking an egg, or observing a rusting iron, or listening to the sound formation in dessert dunes – every single process in the whole cosmos has the interaction, teamwork, cooperation of PMB. It was for this reason that the Ancient science of Ayurveda cherished the Pancha Mahabuthas, and understandably so.
The PMB permeates and penetrates the whole Universe and in order live in harmony with the Universe and with oneself, one has to understand the attributes of the PMB. Ayurveda recognises that every matter, including the body is made up of energy and if we can understand the energetic forces of the PMB, how it manifests from energy to matter we will be able to understand the body and maintain its healthy state. Ayurveda is both a philosophy and a science. It is just like understanding electricity. We know there is electric current running through the wires but we cannot see the electricity. However if we can harness the electricity and use it properly, we can benefit from it. If utilised improperly, it can lead to danger. Likewise, the 5 main energies within our body can cause health or disease depending on how we manage it.
These five magnificent all embracing energies form the 3 doshas known as Vata Pitta and Kapha which become the diagnostic tool for healthy living through diet (ahara) and lifestyle (vihara). I will briefly discuss the doshas below and expound on them in greater detail in the following series.
Vata the Principle of Movement
At a structural level, Space (Akash) is seen in the cavities of our bodies (mouth, nostrils. respiratory tract etc). The second element Air/Movement (Vayu), is the force behind all movements in our body (ie pulsation of the heart, movement of muscles, expansion and contraction of lungs etc). Together they combine to form the force called “Vata” which governs the Principle of Movement both in body, mind and emotion.
Pitta the Principle of Transformation
The Fire Element (also known as Agni or Tejas) is the energy of “transformation” and with combination of water, forms the force called Pitta which is referred to as the Principle of Transformation and controls all the digestive system, metabolism and all kinds of transformation, including thoughts transformation.
Kapha the Principle of Stability or Cohesion
Water, the fourth important State is vital for the functioning of tissue and organs and manifests in the body as the fluid eg blood, mucous etc The fifth element, Earth, is represented by body mass and shape or the “binding force” eg. muscles, bones, cartilage, etc. A combination of Water and Earth result in the force called Kapha and is known as the Principle of Cohesion and Stability and is responsible for all lubrication and stability in the body.
Vata, Pitta and Kapha as functional tool
Simply put, the five elements of Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth are the Great States and the combination of these make up the 3 Doshas called Vata, Pitta and Kapha which form the functional understanding of the body for Ayurvedic physicians. We should understand the doshas in terms of their attributes and qualities eg Vata has attributes such as vastness, coldness, subtleness, mobility etc while Pitta has qualities such as transformation, heat, penetrating, illumination etc. Kapha has attributes such as cohesiveness or stickiness, heaviness, slowness, oiliness etc. In another words, Ayurveda regards the human body as a combination of substances or dhatus (tissues) derived from the 5 Elements.
Vata, Pitta and Kapha (VPK) are energetic forces that govern the functional intelligence of the body and are responsible for the entire operation of the body mind and emotions. When we see the body from an overall function, Vata being the principle of movement, controls all body movements (internal & external eg peristalsis, heartbeat etc) and the nervous system. Pitta governs all types of transformation or digestions including “thought digestion” while Kapha balances and governs body’s cohesiveness, stability and lubrication.
If we break the functions down into smaller levels such as the cellular level, Vata moves nutrients and wastes in and out of cells while Pitta transforms nutrients into energy for cellular function and Kapha governs cell structure and gives it the stability. At the digestive level Vata governs peristaltic movements, assimilation of nutrients and expulsion of waste, Pitta transforms all raw food to nutrients while Kapha provides lubrication and retains the nutrients. At the mental Level Vata retrieves and stores information from old and new memories, while Pitta processes and draws conclusion from the information while Kapha provides the stability needed for mind to grasp and retain the information.
Vata is force that governs the potential in a person. A person with a balanced Vata can be considered to be quick thinking, effective etc while aggravated Vata can lead to excessive movement and can result in stress and other Vata related disorders such as Parkinsonism, nervous disorders etc. Pitta is also interpreted as “willpower” or the “fire in a person’s eye”. A person with a good balance of Pitta will be able to absorb subjects/ topics and transform blueprints into successful projects. However an imbalanced Pitta can lead to aggression, anger and other “heat” related diseases such as burning sensation etc. Similarly a person with a good Pitta can absorb nutrients well but when off balance, it leads to several skin related diseases. A person with balanced Kapha is said to be physically strong with a good body mass and strong immune system. He is also emotionally well grounded and empathetic. By the same token, imbalance in Kapha can lead to excessive attachment, possessiveness, laziness and other kapha related disorders. Osteoarthritis is inferred as imbalance or low kapha (ie lack of synovial fluid) and a patient is treated to balance the kapha.
The dynamic interplay of VPK at the body, mind and emotional level sustains life and maintaining the balance of VPK is the key to health. And maintaining the balance is through diet, lifestyle, therapies and herbs etc and these too comprise the 5 Great Elements and 3 Doshas.
6 stages of disease
VPK are further sub-divided into 5 sub-doshas with each of it having their seat or natural location within the body. According to Ayurveda, a disease process is said to undergo 6 stages and can be identified by the movement of either the main or sub- doshas from their original location within the body. In the first 4 stages of disease the doshas are only moving out of their original location and entrenching itself in another part of the body. It is only at the 5th stage does the disease manifest (Viyadi) as clinical symptoms and at the 6th stage the complication or variation of disease is classified (Bheda). It is for this reason that an Ayurvedic Physician is able to locate the “seed” of a disease long before the clinical symptoms appear. Ayurveda is strongly based on the principle of identifying the “Root Cause” of the problem.
Each disease is also classified as Vata, Pitta or Kapaha types of diseases and treated and managed accordingly. For example Diabetes is referred to as Madhumeha in Ayurveda and there are altogether 20 types of Madhumeha (Diabetes) in Ayurveda each having is Vata dominance, Pitta dominance and Kapha dominance. Each of it has to be treated and managed differently and for this reason a “one-solution-fits-all” approach will not work for Ayurveda.
Therefore, every human (including plants, animals, minerals etc) has a combination of all five States (PMB) classified into three doshas (VPK) and this combination of VPK is determined at birth and is known as a person’s Prakriti (person’s constitution). When a person lives in harmony with his Prakruti and the environment by following a proper diet and lifestyle, that person will remain healthy.
However when one deviates from his original Prakriti (either through nutrition or lifestyle) it leads to a disease state which vitiates the doshas and is called Vikriti. This does not change a person’s Prakruti as Prakruti is unchangeable. The lifestyle choices such as food, sleep, daily activities, thoughts etc play a major role in either balancing or aggravating our doshas in the body.
Furthermore, every aspect of our environment has VPK in terms of attributes. For example, if the weather is cold and dry like winter, Vata is said to be pre-dominant. If the weather is hot, Pitta is dominating the environment and rainy / wet season has kapha pre-dominance. Even in our lifespan VPK has its own pre-dominance. During early childhood till teenage, Kapha is predominant where the cells anabolic rate is greater than the catabolic rate and that is why, a baby grows and heals quickly. During teenage till middle-age Pitta is dominant and for this reason we see alot of teenage suffering from pimples, gastritis etc. In old age, Vata is dominant and catabolic rate is greater than the anabolic rate thereby leading to decaying body. Knowing the interplay of PMB through VPK will help one to maintain the doshas in balance. Even in a daily cycle there is predominance of VPK at different times and therefore a Daily Routine to balance the doshas is prescribed by Ayurveda as a Preventive Medicine which I will discuss in my final article.
It is for all these reasons that Ayurveda advocates the balance of doshas (VPK) as the primary method of healthcare and preventive medicine. Only when the doshas are balanced can the other aspect (digestion, tissues etc) be balanced. An imbalanced dosha leads to disease. It is also for this reason that a customised approach is advocated in Ayurveda. Appreciating the PMB through VPK will help not only the Ayurvedic physician but allow each individual to understand one’s own body and design one’s own diet and lifestyle plans.
In my next article, I will explain the second aspect of Ayurveda’s definition of health which deals with the digestion (agni) and tissues (dhatu) and excretion (mala) and how they are made up of the all encompassing PMB and why understanding them through the eyes of PMB is equally vital for health.
Vasanthi Pillay is the President and Founder of the Ayurveda Association of Singapore (AAOS) and the Director of Innergy Ayurveda and Yoga Pte Ltd and the Yoga Ayurveda Institute (YAI). She conducts several Trainings and Workshops on Ayurveda in Singapore and Asia to help people understand the fundamental principles of Ayurveda so that they can apply the principles as a preventive medicine for their families and themselves. Vasanthi works with 2 large conventional hospitals in Taiwan in assisting them with training and integrating Ayurveda and Yoga into the healthcare system. She is also working with Montessori Schools in China and Taiwan in educating the parents and teachers in incorporating a holistic diet and lifestyle program for parent-child education. Vasanthi who has worked in a highly stressful corporate world, developed a keen interest in mind-body relationship. This prompted her to take up her Yoga Instructor Course in Bangalore India in 1995 and several Ayurveda Courses. Vasanthi also holds a Bachelor of Arts (NUS) majoring in Philosophy, Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration (SIM) and Post Graduate Diploma in Banking and Finance (UNSW, Australia). Vasanthi’s collaborates with M S Ramaiah Indic Centre for Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (Bangalore) to offer certificate programs on Ayurveda and Yoga.