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The essence of all beings is Earth;

The essence of earth is water;

The essence of water is plants and

The essence of plants is human being.

(Chhandogya Upanishada)

Ayurveda means “The science of life” It is a science of life that encompasses the whole of life; and which relates the life of individual to that of the universe. As such it is open to and includes all life, and all methods that bring us in to great harmony with life.

Herbs have been the prime medicinal agents in traditional and holistic therapies. Ayurveda approaches to herbs in a systematic way. What the herb will do to the body depends on its Rasa – the taste, Guna – Characteristics of the herb,  Virya – heating or cooling effect the herb possess, Vipaka – effect after digestion and Prabhava – other special potencies they possess.

Ayurveda states that the taste of an herb is not incidental, but is an indication of its properties. Different tastes possess different effects. Ayurveda recognizes six different Rasas (the tastes) – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. The Rasa of any herb can be easily known by simply making its contact with the tongue. These possess Pancha mahabhootas (Five basic elements) in their composition as follows:
 
Rasa - The taste 
Pancha Mahabhautic Composition 
Madhura (Sweet)
Earth & Water
Amla (Sour)
Earth & Fire
Lavana (Salty)
Water & Fire
Tikta (Bitter)
Fire & Air
Katu (Pungent)
Air & Ether
Kashaya (Astringent)
Earth & Air

Tastes directly influence our nervous system through the Prana – the life force in the mouth which is connected to the Prana in the brain. Tastes stimulate nerves, awakens mind and senses to make us lively. Through stimulating Prana particularly the gastric nerves, taste affect Agni, and enhances the power of digestion. This is the good taste of food that is necessary to awaken our Agni for proper digestion.

Taste is the sensory quality that belongs to the element of water. Plants are the life form belonging to the element of water. Taste thus reflects the energies and elements that operate in a particular herb.

Guna These are the characteristics the herb is possessing with itself. These are the Gunas which have direct effect of the internal homeostasis of the body. In their action the principle of Samanya – Synergism i.e. like increases like and Vishesha – Antagonism i.e. unlike decreases dislike is followed. These Gunas are:
 
Guru- heavy
Laghu- light
Manda- slow
Tikshna- fast/penetrating
Hima- cold
Ushna- hot
Snigdha- oily
Ruksha- dry
Shlakshna- slippery/soft
Khara- rough
Sandra- coagulated
Drava- liquid
Mrudu- soft
Kathina- hard
Sthira- fixed
Sara- movable
Sukshma- micro
Sthula- macro
Vishada- cleansing
Pichhila- sticking

Virya is the energy, potency or the power of the herb designated in Ayurveda as heating or cooling one. Herbs tend to heat the body, this produces the most basic energizing effect upon the system. The Virya of any herb can be known by considering the sensation it gives to the tongue and the results an herb gives to the body i.e. are they cooling or heating.

According to their energizing effect herbs do fall in two categories

  • Ushna which cause the body to heat because of their exothermic nature in scientific language
  • Sheeta which have the cooling effect on body because of their endothermic nature

Vipaka – The post digestive effect. This is related to the final out come of absorption and assimilation. One can know about the Vipaka of an herb only by observing the effect of that herb on body i.e. a constant observation is required to know practically the Vipaka of an herb after ingestion it. This is the reason Ayurveda finds its relevance in all times as it has been observed and verified on the scale of time.

According to Ayurvedic approach six tastes can be categorized in three as under:
 
Rasa - The taste 
 Vipaka - Post digestion effect
Sweet & Salty
 Sweet
Sour
 Sour
Bitter, Astringent and Pungent
 Pungent

Some herbs do possess some special effect with them. They may possess the same Rasa, Virya and Vipaka to other one even then they perform some unique action. That function is attributed to a special property they possess – The Prabhava. How these behave like this no one can explain on scientific scales. They just do like that. Then, how Ayurvedic seers did know about this? This was the result of continuous observation of their effect on body system and handing over the acquired knowledge by one generation to the next one.

This is the general consideration how herbs do their job.

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