Friday, March 8, 2013

It's A Matter of Taste

It came to my attention yesterday that there is a difference in the way Indian Ayurvedic treatises list the six tastes in terms of how they remove the three doṣas and the manner in which the Explanatory Tantra lists them.

To summarize the two systems, the six tastes are made up of the following combination of elements according to the Carakasamhitā [Sūtrasthana, 26:40]:

earth and water = sweet
fire and earth = sour
water and fire = salty
air and fire = hot/pungent
air and space = bitter
air and earth = astringent

The list in the Explanatory Tantra, chapter 19:

earth and water = sweet
fire and earth = sour
water and fire = salty
water and air = bitter
air and fire = hot/pungent
air and earth = astringent

Here we can see a slight difference in the presentation: bitter is constituted of air and space according to Carak, but according to the Explanatory Tantra, it is constituted of water and air. This is not a major difference, but it is noteworthy, since it should and does affect the principles of the application of tastes to the different doṣas in each system.

This brings us to another, more important difference. In the Aṣṭāṇga Samgrahā, [Sūtrasthana 18: 5 onwards] it is stated that:

Sweet removes vata and pitta
Sour removes vata
Salty removes vata
Bitter removes pitta and kapha
Hot/Pungent removes kapha
Astringent removes kapha and pitta

Further, Suśruta states [Sūtrasthana  chp. 42]:

Sweet, sour and salty mitigate vata; sweet, bitter and astringent mitigate pitta; hot, bitter and astringent mitigate kapha.

However, in the Explanatory Tantra, the following explanation is given:
Sweet, sour, salty and hot subdue vata;
bitter, sweet and astringent removes pitta;
hot, sour and salty removes kappa. 
So the observant reader will note that there is a significant difference between the lists presented in the two Indian texts and the Tibetan text. In reviewing the tastes with a colleague, this difference sparked my curiosity.

Naturally since there is a discrepancy between the Indian Acaryas and the Tibetan system, such a difference would hardly go unnoticed.

Is there in fact a real difference between these two lists? As it turns out, this issue is addressed in a commentary by Sum ston ye shes gzungs on the Explanatory Tantra called the 'bum chung gsal sgron nor bu'i 'phreng mdzes.  First, to give context to his subsequent comments, he states:

Through the combination of the four elements, earth, water, fire and air, sweet comes from the combination of earth and water. Sour comes from earth and water. Astringent comes from earth and air. Three tastes come from earth combinations. Then, leaving aside earth; salty comes from water and fire. Bitter comes from water and air i.e. two come from a water combination and thus the addition of two more gives rise to five tastes. Then, leaving water aside, the combination of fire and air produces hot...

After addressing other issues connected with the tastes and so on, he addresses the very point I introduce above -- the fact that there is a discrepancy between the Indian texts and the Explanatory Tantra. In the context of writing about the post digestive tastes, he comments:
For example, it is like the difference between India and Tibet. Since India is a dry place afflicted with heat, bitter and astringent tastes are said to remove kapha; but since Tibet is very cold, bitter and astringent are harmful to kapha. Also in India, the hot taste is harmful to vata; but since Tibet is a cool country, the warming effect of the hot taste is stronger than its light and rough effects. Since the cold of vata is subdued through its warmth, hot is beneficial for vata. In India, salty is harmful to kapha; but in Tibet, since the action of generating digestive heat exists in salt is stronger than the oily effect [sneha] of salt, it is likewise beneficial for kapha. 
I think there is an extraordinary lesson here. Despite the apparent differences between the formulation of tastes and their properties in removing the three doṣas, in reality the underlying theory of these two systems is identical.

We are taught in both Ayurveda and Tibetan Medicine that we must take into account the environment we find out patients in and so on. In many popular books on Tibetan Medicine and Ayurveda, these lists of tastes, the foods that bear them and what they are purported to be good for are recommended uncritically irrespective of season and local. For example, in New England, where I live, we have very cold winters, and very hot summers. It suggests that the range of tastes we recommend for a patient will change seasonally. It supposes that a patient we  treat in Arizona or Southern California will be prescribed a different matrix of tastes than a person who lives in Oregon or Seattle for the same doṣa condition.

People often select for salads and so on to lose weight. In Ayurveda especially, you can see diet books that mark bitter, astringent and hot dishes as kaphahara i.e. kapha removing. But if a patient actually consumes these bitter and astringent foods in the middle of winter in New England, it could be harmful to them. But if, following a Tibetan doctor's advice, they eat sour and salty foods in the middle of a hot summer to alleviate a kapha condition, likewise they could experience vitiation of their kapha doṣa instead. Likewise, if a kapha-afflicted or vata afflicted person in Latin America chooses to eat based on the recommendations found in the Explanatory Tantra, they could likewise experience doṣa vitiation.

So the lesson is that we need to be careful in what we recommend to our patients. We need to understand that Ayurveda and Tibetan Medicine recommendations were formulated for specific regions and not generalize to all regions. If we keep this principle in mind, then our dietary recommendations will be more effective. So it behooves us to understand in more detail the function of taste in relationship to our outer environments and seasons, both for our own health and that of our clients.

As students of these systems, we need to go deeper into the underlying theoretical beauty of the six tastes, the eight effects and seventeen properties connected and really analyze what kind of food is good for what patients, in what climate, and so on, and not leave our understanding in a partial state.


suzanne said...

I love your wisdom and analysis! Thank you for providing a culturally competent approach to intergrating these systems.

Malcolm said...

Thank you

Unknown said...

Dear Malcolm,

thank you for this thorough analysis. From own observation, I came to the conclusion that Kapha in winter is tamed by salt and hot, and in the summer calls for bitter and adstringent. Done the other way round, the body will dry out in winter and have excess water in summer.

Likewise, the adstringent effect of nicotine may have very different effects in summer or in winter.

Best wishes