The Ayurveda Model of a Living Body
Vedic knowledge provides detailed information about many aspects of material nature such as cosmology, sociology, psychology, and biology. For example, the Śrimad Bhāgavatam provides a detailed cosmic model. Varṇāśrama is a sociological model. Sāńkhya is a cognitive model. And Ayurveda is a biological model. All these models have structural resemblances and by understanding one model we can understand the others too. This post discusses the Ayurveda biological model. Subsequently, I will show how the biological model is understood in a way similar to the cosmic model. Like a toy car has similarities to the real car, the body is also a universe, and the universe is also a body.
Table of Contents
The Concept of Guna and Dosha
There are three broad concepts necessary to understand Ayurveda—dosha (3 qualities), bhūta (5 elements), and dhātu (7 tissues). Let’s look at them one by one, beginning with dosha.
The term dosha indicates “faults” or disease. It is the opposite of the term guna which means “behavior” or innate quality. The basic idea is that everything has an expected behavior, which is their guna or quality. For instance, fire is expected to be hot, wind is expected to be dry, and therefore these are their guna. However, sometimes things may not work as expected, and then we call them faulty. But, to define these faults, we must also know the expected behavior. Unless we know what the expected behavior is, how can we define what the fault is? In that sense, dosha can only be defined in relation to the guna. More precisely, dosha is the deviation from guna. Ayurveda describes a type of conceptual space in which both guna and dosha can be denoted. It is noteworthy, that every living body has its unique guna—called its “constitution”—and therefore we do not expect all bodies to behave the same. This can be expressed by the idea that each body has an intended “location” in the conceptual space, but when it becomes diseased, its location is changed. The problem for the Ayurveda physician is to figure out the expected behavior based on a faulty condition, and this is not very easy.
As a crude example, if you are shown a four-wheel car that has a wheel missing, you cannot easily decide if the fix is to add a 4th wheel to the car or to move the 3rd wheel into the center of the car (like a tricycle). It is possible that the fault in question is that the car only had 3 wheels but one of the wheels moved to the side. It is also possible that the car had 4 wheels but it lost a wheel.
Unless you know the intended state of the system, it is hard to determine the fault, simply based on observing the faulty condition. Since each body has a unique guna, it has a different intended state. The primary reason for the failure of any medical system (not just Ayurveda) is that it fails to diagnose the expected state based on a faulty state, because it fails to see the uniqueness in each “individual” that is being cured. In modern Western medicine, the “individual” is removed from the study to keep the practice “objective”. In other words, medical science applies the same drugs, procedures, and tests for everyone, ignoring their uniqueness. The result is that the prescription and cure creates many side effects, because the doctor is taking a diseased body from one state to another, without understanding the guna or intended state.
The concept of guna and dosha is foreign to modern medicine because matter does not have an “intended state” as there is no intention in nature. Without knowledge of the intended state, medicines have side-effects, often discovered after a drug is in use, entailing that more testing should have been done. This is the cause of skyrocketing health care costs, because science doesn’t acknowledge that each body has a unique intended state. When all bodies are treated in the same way, each body produces a different side-effect.
The concept of guna and dosha seems unique to Ayurveda but this is not a medical concept per se. It is rather a generic notion that each material system has an intended state. When it deviates from that state, we call it a “disease” or “fault”. We cannot call something a disease unless we define health. Therefore, guna is the description of a unique “healthy” state, and dosha is the characterization of “disease”. Is it any surprise that we begin studying medicine by defining what we mean by “health” and “disease” and how to measure them?
The Concept of Pañca-Mahābhūta
Ayurveda uses the idea of five gross elements in Sāńkhya philosophy where material nature is organized hierarchically from top to down—top being the most abstract concepts, and bottom being the most detailed concepts. Ayurveda deals with the gross material body, so, only the lowest part of this hierarchy is considered relevant although in principle the understanding of the subtle body (senses, mind, intellect, ego, and mahattattva) are also important for a full grasp of this theory.
The lowest five levels of material hierarchy are called (from top to bottom)—Akash (Ether), Vayu (Air), Agni (Fire), Jala (Water), and Bhumi (Earth). These names are not the perceived objects we call water, air, earth, etc. These are rather levels of conceptual abstraction in any material system. Thus, for instance, Earth is the most detailed tier of description of a body. Water is the description of the same body at higher level of abstraction. Similarly, Fire, Air, and Ether, are successively more abstract descriptions of the same body. Just as in modern science we can explain a phenomena at the level of sub-atomic particles, or molecules, or cells, or organs, in the same way, Sāńkhya also describes the same reality at different levels of abstraction. The difference is that modern science is reductionist—i.e. it regards any abstract description to be a human convenience with no reality, while Sāńkhya considers all these level as being materially real.
This is because the abstract precedes the details. Nature draws the outline of a picture before filling in the details. In other words, the organ exists before the cells exist. The cells exist before the molecules exist. And the molecules exist before the sub-atomic particles exist. These are parts of a conceptual hierarchy in which the abstract precedes the contingent. We must note that the organ, the cell, or the molecules are also atomic objects, and yet they are “higher” not because they are physically bigger but because they are symbols of higher level meanings.
In that sense, Sāńkhya doesn’t claim the existence of a new reality that we might call “abstract concepts”. Rather it tells us that atomic objects are not physical entities. Some of these objects denote abstract concepts, while others denote detailed concepts. Which atomic object represents which level of meaning is not based on their physical properties but on their location in space. These locations are not at the same level in a linear space. Rather, locations themselves are higher and lower. Just like an ordinary man can get elected to the post of a President of a country, which is the “highest office”, similarly, an atomic object can occupy a “higher” location and thereby become an abstract object. Simply by sitting in the right chair, an ordinary person becomes the President. Similarly, by occupying the right position, an atomic object becomes a logically abstract entity.
Therefore, the different elements such as Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether, are not different material categories, but rather different hierarchical positions in a hierarchical space. They are given these names because as matter becomes more detailed, those details appear as more perceptual properties to our senses. For instance, Ether has the property of sound, while Air has the property of sound and touch, and Fire has the property of sound, touch, and sight, while Water has the property of sound, touch, sight, and taste, and Earth has the property of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell.
If the body is treated like a book, then Ether is like the table of contents which points to different chapters. The chapter summary at the beginning of each chapter is like the element Air. The different section titles in the book are like Fire element. The paragraphs and sentences inside each section are like the Water element. And the words inside the sentences are like the Earth element. The body is organized like a tree, and as you traverse down the tree, you find newer details.
The Concept of Dhātu
This is indeed a unique concept in Ayurveda. The body is described to be organized around a stable core, and successive layers of organization that change at faster and faster rates. For example, we all know that our genetic material is largely unchanged throughout the life, except for slow and occasional epigenetic changes. This stable genetic core of the body—which changes very slowly—is called shukra or “semen” and is the “innermost” dhātu. Compared to this core, the next layer or dhātu is called majja or bone marrow. We know from modern science that bone marrow changes slowly and if the marrow is preserved at childhood then it can be used to cure certain diseases like leukemia. Such a cure essentially involves taking the bone marrow to a time prior to the changes that occur over time.
Similarly, successive layers called asthi (bones), meda (fat), mansa (muscles), rakta (blood), and rasa (plasma) change at faster rates, but the change is smaller. In other words, the core of the body changes slowly but any change has a huge impact—e.g. by altering the genetic markers that affect the entire body. Conversely, the periphery of the body changes faster, although each change has a small effect.
Matter is described as “sound” in Sāńkhya. This “sound” is a symbol of meaning. The vibration itself is physical, but its relation to other symbols or its location gives it a meaning. For example, the person who becomes the President is a physical vibration. But when he occupies the post of the President he acquires new meaning in life, roles, and responsibilities. Owing to this fact, we have to study both the vibration and its location in space. This location can be characterized as intended vs. actual (guna and dosha). It can also be characterized as abstract vs. detailed (Pañca Mahābhūta). But, aside from the locations, the characterization of the vibration itself is the dhātu.
The Three Dimensions of Ayurveda
We can represent Ayurveda through a model that involves three dimensions. Since the model is conceptual and not physical, for the sake of illustration, I will use colors to denote the conceptual variety. The three dimensional model has similarities to the Color Sphere.
The above sphere employs the HSL (Hue-Saturation-Lightness) model of color representation. Here are brief definitions of these properties:
- Hue represents the color type—e.g. red, blue, green, etc.—and in the above model, hue changes as we go around the circle, creating a “Color Wheel” as shown below. This wheel can be divided into different angles representing color types. A particular position on this wheel can represent the guna and the dosha. Essentially, each person has an intended hue, and a shift from this position indicates a disease which is another hue.
- Saturation represents the extent of gray mixed with the hues above. In the Color Wheel, it represents the radial distance from the center. We have seen earlier how gray lies in the middle of two extremes black and white, which denotes their “balance”. The distance between the center and the extremities indicates the rate of change or what we call dhātu. The outermost is changing fast, and the innermost is changing slowly. By mixing the outermost hue with the innermost gray to various extents, we create different rates of changes.
- Lightness indicates the amount of white or black mixed in the color. As more white is mixed the color is lightened, as a representation of greater abstraction and lesser detail. As more black is added, the color is darkened as a representation of greater detail. The vertical dimension in this picture therefore can be used to represent higher abstraction above and greater detail below. In other words, this vertical dimension can be used to represent the Pañca-Mahābhūta.
The three dimensions of Ayurveda—dosha, bhūta, and dhātu—can be represented as a three-dimensional sphere of colors using Hue (dosha), Saturation (dhātu), and Lightness (bhūta). We must bear in mind that this is only a representation and not the reality. The map is not the territory. Nevertheless, the map explains the scientific model employed in Ayurveda.
The Nature of Medical Diagnosis
In this model, a person has an expected or intended state like a slice of the sphere cut vertically (e.g. the vertical slice of blue—which has the 7 layers of dhātu and the 5 layers of Pañca-Mahābhūta). The person also has a current state (which might be diseased) which is another slice of the sphere. The main job of the Ayurveda physician is to identify the intended state from the current state. However, Ayurveda research also involves the search for the best medicines to change one state to another.
A normal condition is a thin one-sided vertical slice of the color sphere (see figure below). The slice indicates that the person has a body that is vertically comprised of the Pañca-Mahābhūta. Horizontally, within each Mahābhūta are the seven dhātu. But a healthy person is a slice of the entire sphere because he or she has a constitution which represents the intended behavior.
A disease, on the other hand, is created when this slice shifts within the sphere. This shift can include many scenarios, such as a change in a single Mahābhūta but in multiple Dhātu.
Typically, a new disease will impact a single Mahābhūta and a single Dhātu. As the disease gets older, it spreads to the rest of the body, thereby affecting multiple Dhātu and Mahābhūta. Accordingly, curing a new disease is easier than curing the older disease. The reason is that as the disease gets older, there may be a shift occurring in a clockwise direction inside Ether and Air, while simultaneously there is a shift occurring in anticlockwise direction inside Water and Fire. Curing such diseases is hard because whether you move the body in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction, some aspect of the disease will get worse, and the patient may not tolerate the treatment. This problem doesn’t occur if the disease is only in one direction, and the problem is reduced if the clockwise or anticlockwise movement is limited to a single Mahābhūta or a single Dhātu.
The bottom line is that the cure for a disease is easy if the cure is applied early in the disease. The cure is very hard when it the disease is old. This means that the emphasis is on healthy living—i.e. catching and correcting the problem very early—and not waiting for its symptoms to manifest.
The Three Guna and Dosha
I reserved the discussion the most ostensible aspect of Ayurveda—the three guna and dosha called kaphā, vāta, and pitta—to the end because we should first understand the Pañca-Mahābhūta (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether), before we can understand dosha. In Sāńkhya, the Pañca-Mahābhūta are called sense objects, which are produced from tanmātra or sense properties, which in turn are produced from the senses. For example, if the eye is the sense of sight, then this sense produces properties such as color, form, and size, which are called the tanmātra, and the sense objects are specific types of each of these tanmātra. For instance, yellow and red are types of color, bitter and sweet are types of taste, square and circle are types of form, etc. The gross body is therefore not material “substances”. It is rather objective properties such a type of color, a type of form, etc.
In Sāńkhya, all these types are produced by the combination of three qualities of nature called sattva, rajas, and tamas, and these qualities produce different types of each property. For example, color has three basic types—red, green, and blue. Similarly, taste three basic types sweet, sour, and bitter.
It is noteworthy that the same three types appear across the 5 bhūta and the 7 dhātu and in each case a different triad of properties is created. Rather than describe each type of triad in each bhūta and dhātu, Ayurveda collectively refers to them as kaphā, vāta, and pitta. Each of these qualities in turn has many divisions, and these divisions first produce different kinds of species, and then bodies. The Ayurveda model is therefore not just for the understanding of the human body, but of any living body whatsoever; the only restriction is that these bodies must be built from the Pañca-Mahābhūta or gross elements. In that sense, this system doesn’t apply to the living beings in the higher planets, who might not often possess a gross body, although they too have a body which is subtle and while it might superficially produce different experiences, structurally the theory describing it produces a similar model.
The Vedic texts describe the existence of 8,400,000 species. All these species, the individuals in the species, and the healthy vs. diseased conditions of these individuals, are simply branches on the tree that is described by the Ayurveda model. In a sense, Ayurveda is the foundation for the study of the living bodies, or what we call medicine and biology in today’s times.