Among some practitioners of Ayurveda, the determination of prakrti (nature or singularity; often rendered as ‘constitution’), is limited to evaluating the diathesis (disease-tendency) of patients. But knowing the diathesis is often insufficient, and sometimes even misleading, when attempting to guide a patient toward better health.
The usual prakrti questionnaires utilized to evaluate constitution are oversimplifications that often lead to errors. Such questionnaires commingle and confound elements of various typologies, and then conflate all answers into one assessment. The approach is reductionist, and readily explains why many practitioners are frustrated by superficial characterizations that impede greater self-understanding and often preclude the adoption of accurately personalized care plans.
The practice of Ayurveda requires that the entire patient be understood, both in health and in disease. Determining prakrti, or Ayurvedic Singularity is a complex process best accomplished under the expert guidance of a practitioner. Discovering the multiple facets of the Ayurvedic Singularity is a process of deep introspection, which is an essential requirement for healing.
Different aspects of the Ayurvedic Singularity will have more or less importance in developing an individualized regimen. The Psychological Disposition and Socio-Developmental Typology will have more relevance when determining what practices to adopt to bring balance to the ahankara, buddhi, manas, and indriyas (ego, intelligence, mind, and senses). The Physiological Constitution and Diathetic Tendency will be more prominent when selecting relevant practices for the prana and agni (energy and digestion). And the Physical Constitution will have foremost importance in planning specific aspects of diet and regeneration practices for the dense body.
All persons exhibit modifications of pure consciousness according to inborn tendencies, the nature of the association they keep, and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Within the realm of conditioned existence, no one purely embodies balance (sattva), assertiveness (rajas), or passivity (tamas), but rather exhibits traits and qualities of all three dispositions.
Those with predominantly balanced and passive dispositions occasionally experience assertive states. Balanced individuals generally have few passive states, and passive individuals will experience few balanced states. That is because there is no direct relation between sattva and tamas, and their connection must be mediated through rajas. Predominantly assertive individuals experience greater variability, and can more easily move toward either sattva or tamas.
In the 15th chapter of Bhagavad-Gita (15. 9-10, 16-17), the science of psychological disposition is explained: Sattva attaches one to happiness; rajas to activity; and tamas, by eclipsing the power of discrimination, to inertia. Sometimes sattva is predominant, overpowering rajas and tamas; sometimes rajas prevails; and sometimes tamas obscures sattva and rajas. […] The sages say that the fruit of balanced actions is equilibrium and purity. The fruit of assertive action is pain. The fruit of passive actions is ignorance. Wisdom arises from sattva; greed from rajas; and heedlessness, delusion, and dullness from tamas
A person with predominance of sattva exhibits serenity, stability, magnanimity, tolerance, detachment, patience, uprightness, discrimination, dispassion, compassion, and illumination. Balanced individuals are often vegetarians, and tend to avoid intoxicants, such as drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.
In Bhagavad-Gita (15.6, 11) we find: Of these three dispositions, the stainless sattva gives enlightenment and health. Nevertheless, it also binds one through attachment to happiness and knowledge. […] One may know that sattva is prevalent when the light of wisdom shines through all the senses.
A person with predominance of rajas exhibits attachment, craving, clinging, lust, avarice, and intolerance. Assertive individuals are often non-vegetarians, but generally avoid excessive seasoning and have a strong aversion toward unclean or rancid products. They indulge moderately in the use of intoxicants, or shun them for health reasons.
Bhagavad-Gita says (15.7, 12): Rajas is imbued with passion, giving birth to desire and attachment. It strongly binds the embodied soul through clinging to action. […] Preponderance of rajas causes greed, agitation, excessive effort, restlessness, and desire.
A person with predominance of tamas exhibits delusion, anger, fear, arrogance, ignorance, cruelty, negligence, and indolence. Passive individuals exercise little or no discrimination in their eating habits, and are fond of intoxicants.
Bhagavad Gita says (15.8, 13): Tamas arises from ignorance, deluding all embodied beings. It binds them by misconception, idleness and slumber. […] Tamas produces darkness, sloth, neglect of duties, and delusion.
Acharya Charaka has clearly enunciated that maintaining health requires the combination of four factors: a proper Ayurvedic preceptor, a capable attendant (for those who require assistance), a dedicated practitioner, and the correct practice. It should be fairly obvious that depending on one’s occupation, it is more or less possible to undertake certain disciplines, as all practices consume time and require the utilization of resources.
There are four occupational sectors, or varnas. Membership in the occupational sectors, for the purposes of this typological evaluation, is strictly a matter of how one employs one’s time. The four occupational sectors comprise those persons in academic pursuits (brahmana), such as education, research, and religion; those performing executive functions (ksatriya), such as governance, upper management, and military command; those engaged in the trades (vaisya), including commerce, agriculture, and certain professions; and those performing labor (sudra), including most hourly wage earners.
While the level of income generated by these diverse occupations plays a role in the ability to pursue health practices, it is also important to consider that the nature of the work itself also affects health status directly, and exposes persons to diverse healthy or unhealthy influences.
Academic pursuits generally do not generate great income, although many persons thus employed come from affluent backgrounds. The nature of the work requires mental, but not physical exertion. Rarely are brahmanas exposed to unhealthy environmental influences due to their occupation.
Executive functions usually generate substantial income, although compensation may come more in the form of power. The nature of the work can be dangerous, especially for those engaged in politics and military command, but does not require sustained physical exertion. Ksatriyas are more exposed to unhealthy environmental influences than brahmanas, but less so than the other two sectors.
Persons engaged in the trades, including commerce, agriculture, and certain professions, can generate substantial and sustained income. The nature of the work is physically demanding and requires stamina. Exposure to environmental hazards may be greater for vaisyas than for the previous two sectors, particularly in the field of agriculture.
Labor usually generates consistent but relatively lower income. The nature of the work is physically demanding, but not mentally challenging or stressful. Exposure to environmental hazards is the greatest for sudras among all occupational sectors. Participation in these sectors may also condition the mind in ways that influence our health, as it can affect our psychological disposition. Scholarly pursuits reinforce a balanced disposition, executive functions promote a combination of the characteristics of assertive and balanced dispositions, the trades induce a combination of assertive and passive dispositions, and labor instills a passive disposition.
The developmental stages closely follow chronological age, although there can be discrepancies in individual cases. They include the student, or brahmachari stage (birth to age 27), the householder, or grhasta stage (age 28 to 54), the retired, or vanaprastha stage (age 55 to 81), and the renounced, or sannyasi stage (age 81 and older).
Because the duration of life is inferior in this age, other classifications reduce the duration of each developmental stage to 24 years each: student, 0-24; householder, 25-48; retired, 48-72; and renounced, 72 and older. In some traditions, due to the current unfavorable organization of society, it is recommended that one accept the renounced order after age 50.
The first developmental stage lasts between 24 and 27 years. Brahmacaris are expected to study sacred texts under the guidance of a qualified preceptor, learn moral and ethical values, understand the benefits of discipline, and develop the means to earn a livelihood, according to their social sector disposition.
The most important duties of the grhastas are to establish a family, support society, give in charity, and cultivate spiritual discipline. The second stage is considered the most difficult, and therefore affords substantial opportunities for spiritual cultivation, as one learns to carry out one’s duties without neglecting discipline.
In this stage, householders are expected to give away possessions and relinquish desires. Traditionally, in this stage one would retire to the forest and live simply. Vanaprasthas are to dwell with their spouses, but in chastity and austerity, spending their days in prayer, study of the scriptures, and pilgrimage to holy places.
In the final stage, one seeks to reach the ultimate goal of life, adopting formally or informally the sannyasa order. There are several types of renunciation, according to diverse traditions, but they have in common separation from family, discarding of all possessions, and absolute dedication to spiritual practices.
A student might have more time than a working person, but lack sufficient resources, while certain retired persons might have both time and resources. A person in the renounced order may not be interested in pursuing any regimen that will infringe upon spiritual cultivation. The skillful practitioner always must take into account such differences when developing a treatment plan.
It is important to note that there is a distinct correlation between the social sectors and the developmental stages. While we all age similarly, only the brahmanas are expected to undergo all four developmental stages, including renunciation. For ksatriyas, the process ends with the retired stage, as they are not required to proceed to the renounced stage. For vaisyas, only the stages of student and householder are obligatory. And for the sudras, the householder stage is often the only reality throughout life.
Each of us has elements of all physiological typologies, because without the support of Prana, Agni, and Ojas —the Three Pillars of Health— we could not continue to live. However, it is possible to identify a dominant type. This typology often correlates with learning approaches. Prana-dominants learn best by doing; Agni-dominants learn by watching; and Ojas-dominants learn by repetition.
The person in whom Prana dominates exhibits appropriate conduct of all functions. The Prana-dominant type has a persistent desire to lead a busy life, and is full of zest and interest for varieties of experience. This type exhibits proper command of the organs of perception and action, and has excellent energy levels. Appetite is modest but regular, and digestion is fast but healthy. Sleep is light, but satisfactory. Prana-dominants have superior respiration, and excretion of urine and feces is both complete and regular.
The person in whom Agni dominates benefits from favorable assimilation of experiences and substances. The Agni-dominant type is brave and generous, and has a strong commitment to discover and cultivate truth through intellectual pursuits. This type exhibits superior ability to perceive clearly, and has the discipline for sustained effort. Appetite is strong and frequent, and digestion is thorough. Sleep is sound and not too prolonged. Agni-dominants enjoy fine vision, and have a radiant appearance.
The person in whom Ojas dominates has a tranquil, compassionate, and tolerant nature. The Ojas-dominant type is serene and steadfast, and has a prodigious memory. This type enjoys superior generation and preservation of bodily tissues, has a firm physique, and a strong skeletal structure. Appetite is normal and regular, and digestion is slow but complete. Sleep is very sound. Ojas-dominants have excellent reproductive capacity, and have great longevity.
Diathesis or Disease Tendency
When the Three Pillars become unbalanced, we experience their modifications, known as Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. These are the ubiquitous dosas on which are almost exclusively focused most current texts on misra Ayurveda. Determining the disease tendency, or Diathesis, is indeed very important, because it helps us to understand how one may become ill when under stress, lack of proper rest, or feeling depleted.
The person with a Vata diathesis exhibits undefined fear, apprehension, suspicion, and weariness. The Vata-diathesis leads to mental and emotional excess, confusion, and impaired memory. Both perception and action are disturbed, the senses become unreliable, and reactions are inappropriate. Appetite is erratic, and digestion is inhibited. Sleep is disturbed and rest is difficult. Vata-dominants suffer nervous and respiratory disorders, and excretion of urine and feces is scanty and irregular.
The person with a Pitta diathesis exhibits anger, aggression, pessimism, and disquiet. The Pitta-diathesis leads to delusions and emotional fluctuation, fixation, and highly selective memory. Perception becomes tainted by emotion, and there is an impulse to control the environment and others. Appetite is excessive, and digestion is too rapid. Sleep is agitated, with violent nightmares, and rest is prolonged but unsatisfactory. Pitta-dominants suffer digestive and skin disorders, and excretion of sweat, urine, and feces is profuse and oftentimes offensive.
The person with a Kapha diathesis exhibits insecurity, attachment, jealousy, and dullness. The Kapha-diathesis leads to rigidity of thought and emotional obstinacy, and to excessive dwelling on memories. Perception becomes slow and unreliable, and there is a tendency to allow the environment and others to assume control. Appetite is poor, although there can be constant emotional feeding (eating without hunger). Digestion is very slow, and decomposition of food proceeds faster than digestion. Sleep is profound and prolonged, but ultimately tiring. Kapha-dominants suffer from obesity and blood-sugar regulation disorders. Excretion of sweat, urine, and feces is slow and profuse, and sometimes is obstructed.
As with Prana, Agni, and Ojas, we all experience different proportions of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha in our diathesis, or disease tendency. But in this particular typology there are most often mixed types, and it is not possible to identify just one clear predominance. In fact, most people alive today have mixed diathesis, the most common being Vata-Pitta, Pitta-Kapha, and Vata-Kapha. Of course, there exist some pure Vata, Pitta, and Kapha diathesis, and even some so-called “balanced” disease tendencies.
The task is to determine which disease tendency most closely corresponds to the patient: Vata, Vata-Pitta, Vata-Kapha, Pitta, Pitta-Kapha, Kapha, or Vata-Pitta-Kapha. You may have noticed that we do not include “reverse” mixed diatheses, such as Pitta-Vata, Kapha-Pitta, and Kapha-Vata. There is a good reason for this apparent omission –these disease tendencies simply do not exist. The explanation is both simple and profound: whenever two dosas are mixed, the more mobile will dominate. Thus, when Vata and Pitta associate, Vata dominates, being the most mobile of all. When Pitta and Kapha associate, Pitta dominates, because it is fluid and Kapha is static.
The Physical Constitution is the most dense and material of the aspects of the Ayurvedic Singularity. It expresses the qualities of the physical body. There are five possible types, corresponding to the Elemental States (Panca Mahabhuta): field, volatile, radiant, liquid, or solid. Knowing the Physical Constitution helps us to differentiate between plausible but different practices in Ayurvedic care.
The Elemental States correspond in a very straightforward manner to Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, as well as to eight basic characteristics: light/heavy, cold/hot, moist/dry, and mobile/static. Therefore, when we have doubts about which qualities are increased in the dosas, we resort to our Physical Constitution to get a clearer perspective.
Thus, when Vata is aggravated, we can determine by knowing the Physical Constitution whether the aggravation is due to a field or volatile state excess, and then decide how to approach the imbalance. The same goes for Pitta, which can be aggravated due to excess radiant or liquid states, and for Kapha,which can be aggravated due to excess liquid or solid states.
The Field-dominant constitution exhibits many large, hollow structures, and limbs that are disproportionately small when compared to the torso. There is a tendency to produce many physiological sounds, such as those arising from the joints, intestines, or airways. Field-dominant constitutions have a tendency to develop osteoporosis and tuberculosis.
The Volatile-dominant constitution is readily identifiable by constant movement, slight asymmetry, and large extremities. The coloration is dark, and the skin, hair, and nails are rough. Volatile-dominant constitutions have a tendency to develop imbalances in the nervous system and the joints.
Radiant-dominant constitutions are notable for ruddiness, intensity, and heat. The eyes and the voice are ardent and penetrating; the hair is light, or prematurely gray and thin. Radiant-dominant constitutions have a tendency to develop skin complaints and liver disorders.
Liquid-dominant constitutions exhibit softness, moistness, and coolness. There is a tendency to paleness of the skin, but the eyes are large and glistening. Liquid-dominant constitutions tend to develop kidney complaints, high blood pressure, and muscular weakness.
Solid-dominant constitutions show characteristic corpulence, stability, and immobility. There is a tendency toward slow movements and functions. Solid-dominant constitutions are prone to sugar-regulation disorders and obesity.
Again, although we all have aspects of each Physical Constitution, it is fairly easy to determine which is dominant. Remember to think of the four basic qualities of each element when identifying different constitutions. For example, if one is not sure whether a person is Radiant- or Liquid-dominant, knowing that Radiant is Light, Hot, Dry, and Mobile can help one to discriminate from the Heavy, Cold, Moist, and Static qualities of Liquid.
In future articles, we will explain how knowledge of the full Ayurvedic Singularity will become essential in developing a full treatment plan for each individual patient.
Kj. Murari Chaitanya dasa, Preceptor, Suddha Ayurveda Tola, has been studying, practicing and teaching Ayurveda for over two decades. He resides at the Sri Sri Nimai Nitai Sevasrama, where he is pujari to Their Lordships Sri Nimai, Sri Nitai, and Bagavan Sri Bhadra Narasingha. He is Assistant Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at Tufts University School of Medicine.
The above article was reprinted with permission from Light on Ayurveda.