Principles of Ayurveda

The Seven Dhatus: The Foundations for the Human Body in Ayurveda

In Sanskrit, dhatu translates to ‘constructing element’ or ‘that which binds together.’ The seven dhatus are the basis for the structure of the human body. In ayurveda, they are the explanation for human physiology. Each element impacts specific body functioning as well as the whole. They themselves also work in conjunction with one another, as their own system. One dhatu transforms into another, and each consecutive element directly affects the next. Their order follows the natural flow of energy in the body, as food becomes fluid, which becomes blood, and so on.

As a whole, the dhatus are responsible for the immune system in ayurveda. They are driven by agni, which is the ‘biological fire’ of the human body. Agni instigates metabolism, which is the precursor for the first dhatu, rasa. Motivated by this force, the seven dhatus work for our development and nourishment. When one is out of balance, its direct body functioning is affected first, followed by the subsequent dhatu and its functioning until the whole body is impacted. Eventually the body becomes unprotected from disease, and the immune system is not able to work at its optimum level. In ayurvedic healing it is important to care for all of these bodily substances.

What Are the Dhatus?
The seven dhatus are body tissue, from fluid to hard bone. They are the basis of the physical body.

  • Rasa: The first dhatu is the nutrient plasma which is created when food is digested. It is the starting point of the system of the seven dhatus. Food is transformed into rasa from agni. Rasa helps to maintain menstruation and lactation.
  • Rakta: Rakta is blood, the life-giving fluid that circulates through the body bringing nutrients and oxygen to all tissue. When the blood is impure, disease will always soon follow. Rakta is responsible for the functioning of the muscle tendons and blood vessels.
  • Mamsa: The third is muscle tissue. The role of mamsa is to cover vital organs, and to provide movement and strength. It regulates the functioning of flat muscle and skin.
  • Meda: Fat, which lubricates all body tissue, and maintains a normal body temperature, is the fourth dhatu. Meda controls fatty tissue, and perspiration.
  • Asthi: The fifth is bone. It is the hard skeletal structure, supporting the entire body. According to ayurvedic healing, the most difficult disease to cure is one found in bone. Asthi maintains the teeth, hair, and nails.
  • Majja: Both marrow and nerves are included in this dhatu. Marrow lies within bone, creating blood. When the sixth dhatu is not functioning properly, it cannot make healthy blood. The nerves carry motor and sensory impulses throughout the body. Majja maintains lacrimal glands, which play a role in the formation of tears.
  • Shukra and Artav: Reproductive tissue, semen and the ovum, are the seventh dhatu. They are responsible for creating new life. Of all the dhatus, it is the seventh that requires the most amount of energy, and has the most important function. Shukra and artav contain the instructions for all tissues.

The well-being of each of the seven dhatus is equally important in ayurvedic healing. They are, in essence, one in the same as all of the dhatus were at one time all of the others, and each is dependent on the well-being of the whole. The way to health is to maintain a balance of the tridosha (the three basic principals that make up the human constitution in ayurveda) through a healthy diet, exercise, and rejuvenation. This will translate into the health and vitality of all dhatus, so they may play their role of growth and protection.

According to Ayurveda, everything in life is made up of Panchamahabhuta. The meaning of the word Panchamahabhuta is five great elements. Thus according to Ayurveda, there are five main elements, with which everything in this universe is composed of such as air, fire, water, earth and ether. Each element has its own attributes and they are constantly changing with each other. For example – in case of a single cell – the earth element is shown by the structure of the cell. Cytoplasm is filled with water, various metabolic processes are regulated by the fire element, air represents the gases in it and the space occupied by cell denotes the ether element. The article deals with details of the panchamahabhutas in Ayurveda.

According to Ayurveda, there are five kinds of elements in the universe, which are given as follows:

  • Air (Vayu)
  • Fire (Tejas)
  • Water (Jal/Aap)
  • Earth (Prithvi)
  • Ether (Akash)

Air – It is the gaseous state of matter, also called Vayu. Air is responsible for any movement required for creation and conception. As the air flows it gives movement to the biological functions such as heart beating, muscles movement and lungs functioning etc. it also help circulate oxygen in the cells and removes waste from the body.

Fire – It signifies the universal force with which light and heat are produced. It has the power to change one form of the state to another, such as solid to liquid and gas. In whole universe, the source of light is the Sun. Fire helps in digestion of food in our body and transforms food into the energy. It thus, helps in all chemical and metabolic reactions in the body.

Water – It represents the liquid state and characterizes flux fluidity and change. 70% of the living beings are composed of water. In our body, various digestive juice, blood, lymph and other fluids flow between the cells and carry oxygen from one part of the body to the other. It also helps information and energy transmission.

Earth – It represents the solid state of the matter. It is responsible for giving structure and shape. It shows rigidity, stability, permanence and fixity of the matter. Hence, all solid things corresponds to earth element. For example – the bones, teeth and nails in our body have the prominence of earth element. In simple way, we can conclude that it provides a steadfast mind, good memory and strength of moral fibre etc.

Ether – It represents the empty space or field, where the processes take place. It is the empty space between the atoms. The characteristics of ether elements are vibration, sound and lack of resistance. In a human body, various spaces such as nose, mouth, ear, respiratory tract, thorax and cells corresponds to ether element.

Concept of Agni in Ayurveda
Agni (fire) being one of the panchamahabhoota, has the characteristic that it cannot exist without a base. In the body it exists in pitta dosha.

Agni is responsible for the following functions:

  • Digestion – indigestion (Pakti- Apakti)
  • Vision- absence of vision (Darshanam- Adarshanam)
  • Degree of heat (Matra- Amatratvamushmanala)
  • Normal -abnormal complexion (Prakrit – Vikarit varnam)
  • Prowess- fear (Shaurya- Bhaya)
  • Anger – exholoration (krodham- Harsham)
  • Confusion- clarity of mind (Moha- Prasadan)

For the metabolic processes in the body, there are three main groups of biological factors, probably exhibiting enzymatic functions (agnis).

Jatharagni or Koshthagni: Present in the pachak pitta. It is responsible for the digestion and the absorption of nutritious substances during this process.

The process of digestion (ahar pachan) is divided in three stages, which collectively is called awastha paka and can be divided in the following.

Amavstha (Madhuravastha) Paka – in stomach

Pachymanavastha (Amlavstha) Paka – in ‘grahani’ (Duodenum)

Pakavstha (Katuavstha) Paka – in small and large intestine

As the rasa changes in different phase of digestion these phase of digestion are called avsthapaka. At the end of the digestion the digested food have their original rasa which is in accordance with the rasa of the ingested food. This is called as Nistha paka .It is also called popularly as Vipaka. (Madhur rasa & Lavan rasa have Madhura Vipaka, Amla rasa have amla vipaka and Katu, Tikta & Kashaya rasa have Katu vipaka).

Panchabhutagnis :
In ayurveda it is believed that everything is made up of five elements and so is the body. These five elements are the panchmahabhoota and are responsible for constituting every living being in the world. Agni transforms the Asharir Mahabhoota (external mahabhoot) to Sharir Mahabhoota. Example – When we drink water Jala Mahabhoota (water) dominates and later the water is transformed by Jala Mahabhoota agni to the Sharir Jala Containing five types of biological factors, it is responsible for the processing of the five basic elements into a composition useful to the body.

Dhatvagnis : 
The third group contains seven types, each for the assimilation of the seven tissues This assimilation takes place successively. From the absorbed nutritious substance, plasma (rasa) is produced first; from plasma, blood (rakta) is formed, then muscular tissue (mamsa), adipose tissue (meda), bony tissue (asthi), bone marrow (majjan) and the reproductive cells (shukra). Besides performing all the metabolic functions agni takes care of digestion (ahar pachan) and in the absence of ahar it acts on the ama pachan i.e. properly metabolize the improper metabolites. When ahar and ama are absent, Agni does the function of dhatu i.e. rasa, rakta etc. Digestion of dhatu is a fatal condition in which dhatus are broken down to get energy. The reduction or deficiency of the quantum of dhatu in the human body leads to the disease called ‘Kshaya roga’.

In ayurveda it is believed that all the pathology occurs due to the impairment in Agni (Kaya). Hence the correction of Kaya i.e. Agni is called the treatment or ‘Kaya Chikitsa’ in ayurveda

Agnis are also classified into four categories according to how they manifest in the human being:

  • Tikshnagni -sharp
  • Mandagni – mild
  • Vishamagni – irregular, and
  • Samagni – regular or Balanced
  • Samprapti – The Disease Process ( Pathology )
  • Chikitsa – Treatment of Disease.

Samprapti – the Disease Process(Pathology) : Under normal conditions, the doshas, dhatus and malas correspond to certain standards regarding their quantity, quality and function. However, this situation is not static, and due to several endogenous and exogenous factors, the doshas may become unbalanced, resulting in disease. Every disease is related to an imbalance of the doshas. Other coherent factors can be: the disturbance of the biological factors (agnis), the formation and accumulation of undigested nutrients (ama), obstruction of the various channels (shrotorodha), and a disturbed assimilation in the tissues. 

Chikitsa – Disease Management (Pharmacology and Treatment):

There are four main classifications of management of disease in Ayurveda:

  • Shodan or cleansing
  • Shaman or palliation
  • Rasayana or rejuvenation
  • Satvajaya or mental hygiene

Ayurveda gives us a model to look at each individual as a unique makeup of the three doshas (Prakruti) and thereby design treatment protocols that specifically address a persons health challenges. When any of the doshas (Vata, Pitta or Kapha) become imbalance, Ayurveda will suggest specific lifestyle and nutritional guidelines to assist the individual in reducing or increasing the doshas that has become imbalance. The materia medica of the Ayurveda, composed of the five basic elements, has been categorized according to the derivatives of these elements. They include: taste (rasa), potency (virya), taste of the digestion product (vipaka), properties (guna), specific properties (prabhava) and action (karman).

The drugs used in Ayurveda are made by several processes from vegetable and mineral raw materials. Mostly plant alkaloids are the active ingredients. Obviously barring some chemical changes it is mostly natural deviates. If toxins in the body are abundant, then a cleansing process known as “Pancha Karma” is recommended to eliminate these unwanted toxins. This “Panchkarma” or Five internal cleansing methods, is a most profound therapy in Ayurveda.