“A Different Approach to
Concept of Guna”
Dr. Paritosh Bhatt
based on the lecture available at- A Different Approach to Concept of Guna
As we all know, Gunas are something that are widely used in Ayurvedic classics and concepts. These are the characteristics with which an object, person, substance, or phenomenon is identified. They also represent similarity between two or more entities. For example, if I mention a particular person, how do you identify him? We know his name, but we also identify him by his qualities, his Gunas. Similarly, when I say ‘sweet,’ you identify a substance as sweet based on its quality and the effect it has on your system. The Gunas are the tools that will allow you to identify any substance, any people, or any object.
We all know that this universe is made up of Pancha Mahabhoota. This is a basic concept that Ayurveda talks about. The Panchamahabhuta are Akasha, Vayu, Agni, Jala, and Prithvi. It is said that the one is a started from previous.
The twenty Gunas:
We have learned about the 20 Gunas that Ayurveda talks about. They do not talk about 20 Gunas individually, but they discuss them in pairs of 10 with their opposites. It is a duality, which means that if you want to balance one Guna, you have to give the opposite one. For example, if you want to balance Guru, you have to give Laghu, or if you want to balance Laghu, you have to give Guru. Likewise, the sets are mentioned. These are given below:
Guru – Laghu
Manda – Tikshna
Sheeta – Ushna
Snigdha – Ruksha
Slakshna – Khara
Sandra – Drava
Mridu – Kathina
Sthira – Sara
Sukshma – Sthula
Vishada – Picchila
The set of 20 Gunas allows us to understand any substance or anything in a wide variety and within the concept of duality. It also provides us with tools to balance anything and everything. The most commonly used Gunas are Snigdha, Ruksha, Sheeta, and Ushna. We will try to understand the whole world or the whole concept using these four Gunas only. Because we can actually describe and encompass all of our ideas within these four combinations.
Relation between Panchamahabhuta and Doshas:
We also know that Vata is composed of Akasha and Vayu, Pitta is formed from Agni and Jala, while Kapha originates from Jala and Prithvi. Broadly, Akasha and Vayu together constitute Vata, Jala and Prithvi together constitute Kapha, and Agni with small amounts of Jala constitute Pitta. It’s important to remember that Pachak Pitta and Agni are essentially the same. In Pachaka Pitta, there is an absence of Jala, which is why it is referred to as Agni.
So, we can understand these three concepts using the keys of three qualities we commonly refer to as Sheeta, Snigdha, and Agneya. Sheeta is typically associated with Vata, Pitta is generally linked to Agneyam, and Kapha is usually associated with Snigdha. The entire creation, the entire world, can be comprehended through these three words: Sheeta, Snigdha, and Agneya. When we mention Sheeta and Snigdha, we are referring to the establishment of structure, and this structure is maintained with the optimal amount of Agni. Any deviation in any of these qualities can lead to problems. Therefore, any type of disease arises due to an imbalance or disequilibrium of the Doshas. Restoring equilibrium is the process of resolving the disease, which is commonly known as treatment. That’s why we can understand Vata, Pitta, and Kapha in terms of their properties as Sheeta, Snigdha, and Agneya. These properties help in understanding the three Doshas.
Properties of Doshas
तत्र रूक्षो लघुः शीतः खरः सूक्ष्मश्चलोऽनिलः|
पित्तं सस्नेहतीक्ष्णोष्णं लघु विस्रं सरं द्रवम्||
स्निग्धः शीतो गुरुर्मन्दः श्लक्ष्णो मृत्स्नः स्थिरः कफः||
Identification of Vata:
We often discuss Vata as a distinct entity. How can we identify it as Vata? When we observe properties such as Ruksha, Laghu, Sheeta, Sukshma, and Chala in a specific location, we understand that this indicates the dominance of Vata. Similarly, Pitta and Kapha can be understood through their respective properties. There is a slight nuance in the Gunas of Dosha. For instance, Vata is Ruksha, Kapha is Snigdha, while Pitta is Sa Sneha. This means that Snigdha is present in the vicinity of Pitta, but Pitta itself is not inherently Snigdha. It’s analogous to a candle or a lamp with fire or Agni, along with fuel in the form of ghee, oil, or wax. As long as the fuel is present, the Agni continues to burn. The moment the fuel is depleted, the Agni extinguishes. Pure Pitta remains stable only when there is an adequate amount of Snigdha around it; only then can it maintain its natural state. Additionally, Pitta is also Drava. So, if you increase the Drava, Pitta will also increase. For example, Pachaka Pitta, without Jala, is referred to as Agni. If you introduce more Jala to the Agni, it transforms into Pitta. Therefore, if you consume a large quantity of water on an empty stomach, it can lead to acidity.
Understanding the Three Doshas in the Context of the Four Gunas:
The four Gunas, namely Sheeta, Snigdha, Ruksha, and Ushna, are employed to comprehend the three Doshas. When we mention Sheeta and Ruksha, these are the properties associated with Vata. Sheeta and Snigdha are the properties of Kapha, while Snigdha and Ushna are the properties of Pitta. Kapha plays a role in creating the overall structure; it pervades throughout the body. The primary structure is formed by Kapha, characterized by Sheeta and Snigdha. Vata, on the other hand, is responsible for various movements, whether related to nourishment or the movement of Doshas. Pitta, characterized by Snigdha and Ushna, provides the necessary temperature to the system. It’s well-known that everything requires an optimal temperature; it cannot be too high or too low. In our body, the optimum temperature is 37.4 degrees Celsius. Maintaining this optimum temperature is crucial. Deviating by even one degree above or below can lead to issues. A temperature one degree above the normal range is considered a fever, while one degree below is known as hypothermia. Thus, an optimum temperature is always necessary.
Now, we can conclude that Sheeta and Snigdha are responsible for creating the structure while maintaining the optimal heat. In contrast, Ruksha and Ushna are causes of disease. Ojas represents Sheeta and Snigdha, while poison or Visha represents Ruksha and Ushna, directly opposing Ojas. Therefore, it is dangerous. Similarly, Madyam is not considered very favorable because it goes against the nature of Ojas. Introducing more Ruksha and Ushna into the system marks the beginning of the disease. Here, “disease” does not refer to just one specific ailment but encompasses various kinds of illnesses. The universe and the body are interconnected through the same concept, as can be understood from a verse written in the Sushruta Samhita.
विसर्गोदानविक्षेपैः सोमसूर्यानिला यथा |
धारयन्ति जगद्देहं कफपित्तानिलास्तथा ||
Within the human body, Kapha, Pitta, and Vata maintain the system. Similarly, Soma, Surya, and Anila maintain the universe. The same concept of Sheeta, Snigdha, and Agneya applies to the universe. This concept is akin to Bhava, Raga, and Tala.
- Bhava represents appearance (Kapha).
- Raga represents color, texture, and working capacities (Pitta).
- Tala represents all kinds of movements (Vata).
Just as Vata, Pitta, and Kapha maintain the body, Soma, Surya, and Anila maintain the universe. Among the four Gunas, namely Sheeta, Snigdha, Ushna, and Ruksha, Snigdha is the universal factor that is maintained by optimum Agni. Understanding Snigdha alone can solve many problems and help us grasp various concepts
Examples from Ashtanga Hriday:
We are aware that there are three types of Desha: Jangla, Aanoop, and Sadharana. Jangla is Vata dominant, Aanoop is Kapha dominant, while all Doshas are in moderation in the case of Sadharan Desha. Here, we can observe the absence of a category dominated by Pitta. The reason behind this is that when Pitta is predominant, it signifies an increased level of heat, resulting in reduced Jala (water) and Sneha (oiliness). As heat intensifies, the Desha becomes Jangala. Hence, there is no presence of Pitta dominance at all.
When we consume food, we are essentially ingesting Snigdha, which the system then digests. During the first phase of digestion, there is a predominance of Kapha and Madhur Rasa (sweet taste). In the second phase, Pitta and Amla Rasa (sour taste) become dominant. During the third phase, Vata and Ruksha (dry) qualities take over. This implies that Snigdha gets absorbed into the system, and Ruksha is eliminated. Consequently, different Doshas dominate during different phases of digestion.
Similarly, during the age when a child is born, the first phase of life is considered Kapha-dominant, the second phase as Pitta-dominant, and the third phase as Vata-dominant. So, in the first phase, Snigdha is always dominant. As age progresses, the Agni (digestive fire) becomes stronger and gradually overpowers the Snigdha. In advanced old age, a person becomes drier, indicating a decrease in Rasa (juiciness) within the body. That’s why we refer to the aging process as Rasayan (rejuvenation). Rasayana means the regulation of Rasa, where the diminishing juices are replenished. For example, if a dry orange is placed in water for some time, it regains some of its luster. This is what happens with Rasayana treatment.
There are three types of Koshtha: Krura, Mridu, and Madhya. When Kapha dominates the Koshtha, there is an easy passage of stool. When Pitta dominates the Koshtha, it becomes very soft, and even a small amount of food disappears or passes through quickly. Similarly, if it is Vata dominant, there is more dryness, leading to constipation. This phenomenon explains why many people experience lactose intolerance. For example, Pitta has a Drava (liquid) and Sara (unctuous) nature, and milk also possesses Drava and Sara qualities. Therefore, when you consume heavy amounts of milk, it doesn’t digest properly in the system and is eliminated.
Let’s consider another example of dry raisins. They also do not stay in the system and pass through because of their Sara property. Milk also possesses a Sara property. These properties can be analyzed in the things we routinely use. In this entire concept, when we emphasize the crucial factor of Jala (water), anything becomes Snigdha (unctuous) only in the presence of Jala. Any structure is formed with Prithvi (earth) and Jala, which is maintained by optimum Agni. For instance, bread dough can be made by adding water to wheat flour. After giving the dough a particular shape, it can be baked using an oven or heat. As the water evaporates, the soft nature changes, and it gradually becomes permanent. Similar things happen with cementing, where a dough of cement and water is prepared and applied to a wall. Initially, the cement dough is soft, but as the water evaporates, the structure becomes permanent. Softness and flexibility are only possible in the presence of Jala.
In our body, water constitutes more than 70% of its composition. It is this water that sustains the body, making it soft and flexible. This is what we refer to as Snigdha. In young age, Snigdha is more prominent, making the body flexible. In old age, Ruksha (dryness) becomes more prominent, making the body less flexible. Ayurveda advises Abhyangam (oil massage) in the daily regimen to reduce the effects of aging. The progression of old age can be inhibited by the constant introduction of Snigdha. Constant intake of Jala prevents the enhancement of Ruksha. Similarly, freshly prepared bread is very soft because of the presence of Jala. Once it is toasted, it becomes dry, indicating an increase in Ruksha. Since toast is very dry, it cannot be eaten as it is. You need to make it soft again by dipping it in Jala. Here, the word Jala should not be taken in a literal sense of water. Instead, Jala should be interpreted as a liquid and a principle associated with the Jala Mahabhuta (element).
Any substance with Jala becomes soft, and after removing the Jala, it becomes Ruksha. In cooking, it is often said that dicotyledons are generally very Ruksha and Vata-promoting. However, when you boil them, they slowly become Snigdha. Take the example of red beans: when you start boiling them in an open pan and continue boiling for a few hours, their dry nature diminishes, and the beans become creamy and soft. This transformation is attributed to a concept called “Toya Agni Sannikarsha” (interaction of fire and water). When Agni and water come together, any substance becomes Laghu (light) and Snigdha. Therefore, the presence of Jala with Prithvi makes a substance Snigdha. This concept holds true in every aspect as long as there is optimum Agni. An increase in Agni causes a reduction in Jala because Agni evaporates the Jala, leading to a decrease in Snigdha and the emergence of Ruksha. This is the starting point of any disease, known as Jwara (fever). If Agni increases, Jala will decrease, resulting in a reduction of Snigdha and the onset of Ruksha. It is important to understand that when we refer to Agni being optimum, we mean Jatharagni (digestive fire) is at an optimal level. An increase in Agni does not mean that Agni becomes Tikshna (sharp or intense), but rather that Agni exceeds the optimal level and disrupts the body’s structure, leading to the onset of disease or Jwara. Jwara doesn’t always manifest as fever; it can occur locally or systemically.
Nourishment and Snigdha:
It is advised that food should be dominant in Madhura (sweet) and Snigdha (unctuous) qualities, which represent Prithvi and Jala. When we eat such food, it is impossible to consume any food without Jala. Therefore, every time we eat, we provide a significant amount of Snigdha to the system, which serves as fuel for Agni. As explained earlier, the beginning of digestion is Kapha-dominant, the middle is Pitta-dominant, and the end is Vata-dominant. Taste-wise, the food should be Madhura, Amla, and Katu (sweet, sour, and pungent). Thus, Snigdha gradually gets absorbed into the system, leaving behind Ruksha. Understanding this is crucial because the nature of food is not solely based on vitamins, minerals, or other factors, but also on Rasa (taste) and Guna (qualities). When considering Guna, the food must be dominant in Snigdha because Snigdha provides pure fuel for Agni, not only for Jatharagni but also for Dhatvagni (tissue metabolism). If this Snigdha is corrupted, Agni will not function optimally, leading to the production of Ama (toxic waste) and the potential onset of many diseases.
At the level of Dhatuparinama, Snigdha is actually getting refined. At each step of Dhatu Parinama, Snigdha becomes more refined and modified. Ojas, which is Sheeta (cooling), Snigdha (unctuous), and Agneya (fiery) at the same time, is considered the most refined form of Snigdha. It is the basic nature of creation, and there is a substance that is exactly similar to Snigdha and Ojas. Cow ghee possesses the same three natures: Sheeta, Snigdha, and Agneya. Hence, cow ghee is crucial for imparting positive properties to Ojas.
If we analyze across the globe, there are three foods rich in Snigdha, which are predominantly found in rice, wheat, and milk. These three foods exist in different forms and are consumed widely in every country. They should form a significant portion of our meals to provide proper Snigdha to our system. It is important to note that Snigdha is not limited to ghee and oil alone. Rice and wheat must be cooked properly to become Snigdha; otherwise, they are not. Optimum Agni is a must because just as there is a specific temperature in a refrigerator to maintain the structure of ice cream, if the temperature exceeds the optimum, the ice cream starts melting. The same principle applies to our bodies. If the temperature exceeds the optimum, the Snigdha starts dissipating.
Gunas are imparted to the system through Ahara (food) and Vihara (lifestyle). Proper Snigdha in the diet ensures that the body assimilates nutrients, fuels Agni appropriately, and allows the whole system to function properly. When Snigdha is lacking in the system, as often happens with dieting and other activities, Ruksha increases, Agni gets disturbed, and it leads to various diseases. Similarly, it is important to sleep at night as it imparts Snigdha. If you do not sleep at night, it increases Ruksha and disturbs Agni. Therefore, we can influence the balance of Gunas in our bodies through our diet and lifestyle choices. Ayurveda advocates consuming Hita Ahar (beneficial food) and following Hita Vihar (beneficial lifestyle). The concept of Hita Ahar may vary for each individual based on their surroundings and nature.
This variation of seasons is also balanced through Ritucharya. In every season, you have particular kinds of food and activities that actually maintain the Gunas in the system and maintain the balance in the system. The disturbance in optimum Agni may lead to Jwara (fever) and destruction of the structure. When the optimum Agni gets changed and goes out of its place, it causes Jwara. As Jwara increases, heat increases and starts destroying the structure. So, when it continues for a significant amount of time, all the Snigdha has gone, and what is left is Ruksha. This is what happens in all kinds of diseases, especially in longstanding diseases. That is why we say that all the diseases become Vata vyadhi in the later stage because all Snigdha has gone, and what is left is Ruksha. And that is the reason why all chronic diseases toward their end should be treated with Snigdha, either with Rasayana or with Ghee. For example, in Jeerna Jwara, ghee is indicated.