For the herbalist, perhaps the important thing to know about the herbs and the doshas (or the physical manifestations of the doshas) is that vata is cold and dry in nature, kapha is cold and moist in nature, and pitta is hot and moist in nature. By analyzing the symptoms and constitution of the patient, one determines the prevalence of each of the physical manifestations of the doshas (and the degree of influence exerted by the non-material aspects of each of the doshas), and selects herbs or prepared herbal formulas to harmonize the influences and correct the physical imbalances, based on the characteristics of the herbal materials.
One of the dominant descriptions of herb properties is based on the taste of the herbs. The taste groups are listed in the table below with a description of their associated effects:
|Sweet||increases dhatus (supporters of the body), improves the complexion, strengthens the body, heals wounds and ulcers, purifies the rasa (essence from food) and the blood|
|Sour||carminative, digestive, expels wind from the bowels, and accumulates [draws together] secretive impurities (waste material that is secreted) in the tissues to aid elimination|
|Salty||purifies tissues, digestive, relaxing, separates impurities, accumulates [draws together] excretions in the system, causes the body to lose tone (relaxes it), clears the outlets of the system, produces softness of all the structures of the body|
|Pungent||increases digestive power, purifies the body, prevents obesity, causes relaxation of the ligaments and of the system in general; diminishes formation of milk, semen, and fat|
|Bitter||separates the doshas, appetizing, digestive, and purifying, improves secretion of breast milk, and reduces the quantity of feces, urine, perspiration, fat, marrow, and pus|
|Astringent||hemostatic, heals ulcers, checks all discharges, separates impurities from tissues, reduces obesity and superfluous moisture|
In order to influence the doshas, one usually combines certain tastes together within a formula, as follows:
|Dosha||To Increase/Supplement||To Decrease/Calm|
|Vata||pungent, bitter, astringent||sweet, sour, salt|
|Kapha||sweet, sour, salt||pungent, bitter, astringent|
|Pitta||sour, salt, pungent||sweet, bitter, astringent|
Thus, for example, if a patient has agitation of vata, and insufficiency of the kapha and pitta, involving a weak digestive function and stiffness of the joints (but this would not be joint swelling), the herbalist would combine (or select a formula containing) sweet, sour, and salty agents, with a small amount of pungent taste. Taste is only one of the qualities that Ayurvedic herbalists rely upon (other qualities include cooling or heating, heavy or light). However, aside from the individual properties and traditional indications of herbs, this aspect is probably the most important.
There are differing opinions about the action of the herbs on the doshas. For many herbs, the doshic effects are not formally recorded and can only be implied by an interpretation of the tastes and the obvious effects of the herbs. Also, there is some diversity in translating to English the two basic actions of herbs on the doshas: haram (interpreted as reducing, calming, removing, etc.) and karam (interpreted as supporting, supplementing, increasing, etc.). For the presentation here, haram refers to calming agitated vata, releasing excessive kapha, and mollifying intense fire; karam refers to promoting movement of vata, enriching the essential kapha, and invigorating a weak fire.
In addition, it may be stated that an herb balances two doshas, or all three doshas. Balancing refers to coordination of their functions so as to produce a healthier condition, or reducing one and increasing another to attain the desired levels. For many herbs, the action on the doshas is not mentioned in their description.
The properties of herbs and effects of the doshas are taken into account in designing Ayurvedic herb formulas. The person who wishes to use such formulas need not know the details of herbal properties of each ingredient once a formula has been properly designed for a specific treatment area. However, by knowing these features, one can have greater understanding of the formulas and control over the entire therapeutic regimen.
Information about the Ayurvedic herbs presented in this booklet are derived primarily from three sources: Nadkarni's century-old Indian Materia Medica, and two recent books: Medicinal Plants by Shankar Gopal Joshi (2000) and Major Herbs of Ayurveda edited by Elizabeth Williamson (2002).