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Ayurveda and Geshe Kelsang

Elements and Physiological Types

Ayurveda uses the elements as its basis for understanding human physiology. Ailments and diseases are understood as imbalances in our basic elemental constitution. Ayurvedic doctors will first try to discover your basic constitution (Sanskrit: prakruti) and then diagnose its disease condition (vikruti) http://ayurveda.iloveindia.com/prakruti-vikruti/index.html

Because Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India, Tibet, Nepal and Sri Lanka, it uses the Buddhist and Hindu elemental structure, i.e. wind, fire, earth and water. It groups the elements together to produce the three principal physiological types (Tri-Dosha):

  • Vata (wind)
  • Pitta (fire)
  • Kapha (water and earth)

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso refers to the four elements and the Ayurvedic disease aetiology in his book ‘Heart of Wisdom’ when he says: “Internal hindrances arise from causes within our body and mind. Like the external environment our body can be considered as composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind, which, broadly, have the nature of solidity, liquidity, heat, and movement, respectively. If these four internal elements are in a state of harmonious equilibrium our body is healthy. When they are out of balance our body experiences a variety of problems and diseases. It has been said that our body is like a basket containing four poisonous snakes that constantly wrestle with each other. In that situation, if one snake becomes stronger than the rest it will overcome and kill the others. In a similar way, the very delicate balance between the four internal elements that is necessary for our body to be healthy can easily be disturbed by one element becoming dominant. Because of this the internal elements of our body are a source of recurring hindrances in the form of ill health, disease, and pain.” (from the chapter ‘A Method To Overcome Hindrances’).

Ayurveda uses a variety of remedies to rebalance the elements. Many of them work via the sense of taste, because taste is method for absorbing elements from the external world. Ayurveda divides tastes into six categories: sweet, sour, salty, pungent (hot), bitter, astringent. These tastes are produced by combinations of the elements in our food (e.g. pungent = fire + air, astringent = air + earth). The full set is listed here http://www.sanatansociety.org/indian_vegetarian_recipes/ayurveda_six_tastes.htm

Geshe-la mentions the construction of tastes in ‘Great Treasury of Merit’ when he comments on the line from ‘Lama Chopa’:

Nutritious food and drink endowed with a hundred flavours
And delicacies of gods and men heaped as high as a mountain;

“The text says that we offer food ‘with a hundred flavours’, which literally means a hundred and eight flavours. There are six principal flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, astringent, hot, and salty; and each of these can be produced in combinations such as sweet-sweet and sweet-sour, making a total of thirty-six flavours. Each of these flavours can be strong, middling, or weak — making a total of a hundred and eight different flavours.”

The Food Guidelines on ayurveda.com provide a breakdown of which foods offer a balanced diet for each physiological type. For example, the foods recommended for Pitta types emphasise bitter, astringent and sweet tastes, i.e. those tastes which do not include the fire element.

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Ayurveda

Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India, Tibet, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It is rooted in both Hinduism and Buddhism, in texts such as the Charaka Samhita and the Medicine Buddha tantra.

Ayurveda is a psycho-physical system which treats mental and bodily states as a whole. In this regard it is similar to other holistic systems such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Ayurveda has much in common with TCM, but differs with regard to its founding cosmology: TCM is based on Taoist principles and uses its element structure (fire, earth, metal, water, wood). Ayurveda is based on Samkhya and Buddhist principles and uses a different element taxonomy (fire, earth, water, wind, ether). A useful book which explores these differences is ‘Tao and Dharma: Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda’ by Robert Svoboda and Arnie Lade.

Ayurveda treats people according to their elemental constitution. We are all composed of fire, water, earth, wind and ether, however there are three main categories of people according to their dominant elements: Pitha (fire), Vatha (air & ether) and Kapha (earth & water). See diagram below:

Ayurveda Humors

Pitha, Vatha and Kapha are known as the three doshas (humours). Ayurvedic treatment works by discovering the patient’s fundamental constitution (prakruti) and then diagnosing their disease state (vikruti), which is their divergence from their fundamental constitution. An Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner will use a range of techniques to discover and diagnosis, such as asking about family history, taking the pulses, and (in the case of Tibetan Ayurveda) urine analysis.

Once the diagnosis is complete, the doctor (vaidya) will prescribe treatments such as diet, exercises, herbs, massages, and meditations to bring the patient’s constitution back into harmony. The website Ayurveda.com offers resources to help people discover their own natural constitution, and provides basic dietary advice. It is run by Dr. Vasant Lad, whose Ayurvedic textbooks and manuals are some of the best available in the English language. An entertaining introduction to Ayurveda is provided by David Crow’s book ‘In Search of the Medicine Buddha’ which recounts his travels and studies with Ayurvedic practitioners in Nepal.

Reflections On Satyagraha

Activating our soul isn’t easy, and finding a way to change the world through soul-power (God we need it) can be even harder. This is the meaning of Satyagraha, the term first introduced by Mahatma Gandhi to describe his campaign in South Africa, now made into an opera by Philip Glass. Satyagraha the opera places Gandhi’s life in a mythological context, showing how Gandhi was first inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and the figures of Tagore and Tolstoy, and how he in turn came to be an inspiration to others, notably Martin Luther King.

At the start of the opera we see Gandhi inhabiting the mythical battlefield between the Pandava and Kaurava clans, together with the hero Arjuna and the god Krishna. Just as Arjuna is caught between the competing claims of the two clans, towards both of whom he feels loyalty, so Gandhi is caught between the rival claims of the British empire and the Indian people, towards both of who he feels loyalty. Just as Arjuna’s soul (Atman) is activated by Krishna’s wise counsel that he must have the courage to do his duty in the face of life’s conflicts, so too is Gandhi’s. The scene ends with the solemn vow of Brahmacarya, as Gandhi / Arjuna promises to dedicate his life to courageous service.

Mobilising the soul as an active force in human politics and the affairs of the world is no easy task, and Gandhi draws hostility, ridicule and even violence upon himself as he adopts the dress and lifestyle of a renunciate. Yet the ways of the spirit are subtle, and profoundly affect the human sphere through what appear, on the surface, to be simple acts, but which are imbued with great symbolism and resonance. We see this played out  as Gandhi and his followers burn their identity cards (‘passes’) to protest against the racist laws of the time. This simple act is incredibly liberating, both spiritually and politically, and lifts them to a new plane of existence.

Satyagraha is ‘the surgery of the soul’, because it is a method for bringing about a profound change of heart in ourselves and others which leads to political and social change. The Satyagrahi must be courageous and willing to sacrifice his or her own well-being in order to demonstrate truth. It is only the courageous demonstration of truth that can touch the soul of the oppressor, and cause him to change or at least relent. This, finally, is the meaning of Satyagraha – that profound, long-lasting change, whether personal or political, must originate from within, and the only method that ultimately works is one based on understanding and harnessing the soul.