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What is Nourishment According to Ayurveda?
by Vaidya Ātreya Smith, BSc
Editor's Note from Julie Cerrato: Vaidya Ātreya Smith is a world renowned Ayurvedic Practitioner and the director of the European Institute of Vedic Studies. In his article on Ayurvedic Nourishment, Vaidya Ātreya Smith offers invaluable insight on Ayurveda's four dimensional aspect of health through "Rasa," stemming from the sacred Vedic text, The Caraka Saṃhitā. He provides a unique global perspective of our daily consumption of unwholesome foods and how this significantly impacts our worldwide health and environmental epidemics. We are grateful to have this wonderful reminder of how our conscious choices affect not just us as individuals, but collectively in the world around us.
The Caraka Saṃhitā is considered to be the most authoritative text on Āyurveda in India and most scholars agree that it is the oldest of the six main manuscripts. In the section Sūtrasthāna, Chapter 26, Sūtra 9, Caraka states that nourishment is derived from Rasa.
“.... the source material for the manifestation of Rasa is based in the primary category of matter related to cohesion (jalabhuta); nourishment & emaciation are the actions of Rasa ....”
Thus, we have indications that the word Rasa is indicative of nourishment in Āyurveda. The Sanskrit word Rasa is defined in the Monier-Williams dictionary as coming from the root Ras. This root word Ras has interesting definitions: to taste, to be sensible of, to relish, to love, to feel, to desire to taste, and to perceive. Therefore, the root word of Rasa, or nourishment, means such diverse things as perception and tasting. This gives us an indication that “nourishment” may be a complex issue in Āyurvedic medicine and not simple a case of supplying nutrients to tissues; it may include subtle nutrients or support psychological perceptions and functions.
Rasa means, “the juice, liquid, fluid or essence of any plant or living substance”. However, it can also mean the fluid or liquid essence of the human body. The word Rasa in Āyurveda often means the categorization of taste, or taste as a sense, and so can even be used to indicate the tongue which is the organ of taste.
Then again the word Rasa also means something more profound according to the Monier- Williams dictionary. It states that Rasa can mean “the inclination for something” or even “love, affection and desire” either generally or directed towards something. The dictionary further states that Rasa can indicate “charm, pleasure, delight” and the “feelings or sentiment prevailing” in an object or situation. Additionally, Rasa can indicate “tranquility or contentment”.
Why would the oldest, most respected text of Āyurveda use a word that has so many different meanings to indicate nourishment? This is because Āyurveda recognizes that to nourish the human being all aspects of the physiology and psychology must be taken into account. What Āyurveda presents is a holistic approach to nourishing the body and mind.
By this definition a substance that has all the necessary vitamins and minerals may not be considered “nourishing” in Āyurvedic thought. According to this concept nourishment is something that should invoke a profound effect both physically and psychologically in a person. Perhaps it is like smelling your favorite meal as a child and having those odors stir memories of love and affection that surrounded your early home life. This example would indicate that something more than just tissues and fluids are being nourished and maintained by food. Thus, from the Āyurvedic point of view our senses interact with food to extract nourishment, pleasure, happiness and even love.
Additionally, the basic principle of Āyurveda needs to be taking into account; the intelligence. This means for food to be truly nourishing to the human body there must be an aspect of nourishment that supports the inherent intelligence as well. Food that fails to support an intelligence in the body can hardly be called nourishing according to Āyurvedic precepts.
The Caraka Saṃhitā states that there are eight factors that determine the nutritive quality of food in the section Vimānasthāna, Chapter 1, Sūtra 21. This would give us a second indication of what nourishment could mean according to Āyurveda.
The eight factors are:
1. The nature of the food (fresh/old, nutritive, etc.)
2. The method of preparation
3. Food combinations during preparation and when eating
4. The quantity of food eaten
5. The environment where food is grown and eaten
6. The time food is eaten (daily, seasonally) and the age of the individual
7. The manner food is eaten (fast/slow, etc.)
8. The health of the individual
The result of the interaction of Rasa (the nutritive essence of food) with the eight primary factors (objective and subjective factors around food consumption) determines what is nourishing the body or causing disease.
Therefore, one possible definition of the term “nourishment” according to Āyurveda could be the following:
“Any substance, when taken correctly, that sustains tissue metabolism, gives contentment to the mind, and evokes emotions such as delight is considered nourishing”
As stated previously Rasa has two main actions – nourishment and emaciation. If we agree that the above definition of nourishment is an approximation of Āyurveda doctrine then we should also explore the opposite action of Rasa as per Āyurveda.
“Wholesome food is one of the causes for the growth of living beings and unwholesome food for the growth of disease.” Caraka Saṃhitā, Sūtrasthāna, Chapter 25, Sūtra 30
What is unwholesome food? What is food that will cause emaciation in the body and mind? What kind of food will cause the body to become sick even when there are enough nutrients in the food according to modern nutrition?
Fast food facts (2004)
* Each day, 1 in 4 Americans visits a fast food restaurant
* In 1972, Americans spent 3 billion a year on fast food, in 2004, Americans spent more than $110 billion
* French fries are the most eaten vegetable in America
* Most nutritionists recommend not eating fast food more than once a month
* One in every three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime
* Diabetes will cut 17-27 years off your life
* The World Health Organization has declared obesity a global epidemic
* 60 percent of all Americans are either overweight or obese
* Left unabated, obesity will surpass smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in America
* American Surgeon General David Satcher: "Fast food is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic"
* Obesity has been linked to: Hypertension, Coronary Heart Disease, Adult Onset
Diabetes, Stroke, Gall Bladder Disease, Osteoarthritis, Sleep Apnea, Respiratory Problems, Endometrial, Breast, Prostate and Colon Cancers, Dyslipidemia, steatohepatitis, insulin resistance, breathlessness, Asthma, Hyperuricaemia, reproductive hormone abnormalities, polycystic ovarian syndrome, impaired fertility and lower back pain
Our choice of nourishment creates: Health or Disease for our body Health or Disease for our mind Health or disease for our planet
In conclusion, the definition of nourishment according to Āyurveda cannot be simplistic or given only on a single dimension. As Caraka states in Sūtrasthāna, Chapter 25, Sūtra 30, wholesome food gives nourishment and unwholesome food gives disease. This is a key Sūtra to help us understand that by choosing a healthy or nourishing diet we are also choosing a healthy planet. When we choose unwholesome foods we are also contributing in a concrete manner to destroy our planet.
Thus, our responsibility is not limited to our body or even to our own health or happiness. Our food choices are contributing to over thirty percent of greenhouse emissions and are clearly destroying the planet. What is nourishment in Āyurveda? It is the conscious ability to love our body, our minds and our planet. This then would be an intelligent choice and a choice that is based on intelligence for who among us does not want to be loved and nourished?
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About the Author
Vaidya Ātreya Smith, BSc: The name Atreya was given to me by my Guru and teacher HWL Poonjaji in the summer of 1992 when he pushed me ever so gently to study Ayurveda deeper, the ancient healing science of Indian. Atreya is a Sanskrit name meaning the ’son of Atri’ or the ’linage of Atri’. Atri is one of the seven immortal Rishis in Vedic literature. Atreya put Ayurveda into the system that we have today and Atreya’s student wrote the oldest classical text of Ayurveda, the Caraka Samhita.
To have this name is a great responsibility. I am an ordinary person and am hardly able to live up to the greatness of the name or the lineage of the Atri family. However, I must respect and honor the wisdom of my teacher and strive to live up to the name as best I can. I was born near Los Angeles in Santa Monica, California on December 22, 1956. I have spent the last 34 years studying/practicing meditation and have a special love for the Upanishads and other Vedantic literature.
It was while living in an Ashram in India that I began to learn Prana healing and soon after, while living in north India, I began to study Ayurveda with different doctors in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh and the surrounding area. I have been practicing natural medicine as a professional since 1987. I began with massage therapies, learned Prana healing, studied herbal therapies for many years and exclusively Ayurveda since 1990. I have seen thousands of clients over the years and have shared some of my clinical experience in writing. I have written six books on the healing traditions of India and three text books for schools of Ayurveda in the West. In my writings and in my practice with clients I strive to adapt Ayurveda to the culture, psychology and environment that I am addressing at the moment. I live in Europe where I use primarily European plants and herbs in my practice. I use only Western foods and terminology in my practice and most of all I never give more than what a client can absorb mentally and physically at any one time.
See his full bio and contact info here: http://ayurvedicnutrition.com/course/About-the-Author.html.