Eating the Five Great Elements
The Charaka Samhita and other ancient Vedic texts understand food as an offering from the gods to enable and sustain life on Earth. The Taittiriya Upanishad says food is the firstborn among all beings. All that exists on earth is born of food, lives on food, and in the end merges into food. Food is the universal medicine (Verse 3.2).
From a Vedic perspective, all physical forms, including foods and the human body consist of varying combinations of Mother Nature’s five great elements—ether, air, fire, water, and earth. How does each human come by these substances? Through our father’s sperm and mother’s ovum that begins physical life, and our mother’s nutrition while we are gestating. Then every day after birth we contact and take on more of these elements through breathing, drinking, and eating. In particular, the physical body is known to Ayurveda as the annamayakosha, or food body—being built and maintained by food.
All five elements coexist in everybody, and also in every natural food. Ether, the most subtle element is the unified space within which all other elements and processes occur. Air, like wind, is the breath and bellows of life. In the body, wind moves all processes along, and in foods, it promotes light, dry qualities and expresses pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes. Fire is an essential element behind digestion, transformation, and warmth. In foods, fire creates a heating effect as evidenced in tastes that are pungent, sour, and salty. Water is relatively heavy and cool. As a liquid, it moistens and adheres to bodily tissues. In foods, water also performs these functions and creates sweet tastes. Earth, the heaviest and most solid element builds tissues and provides stability and form. Most foods dominate in the earth element and carry its sweet or neutral flavor.
Every day our eating habits do much to determine the proportions of these five elements that become integrated into our system. A little lemon juice assists digestion and is cleansing; too much lemon juice exacerbates its sour, sharp, warm, wet qualities. Fresh milk from happy cows is innately cooling, nourishing, and building. Over-doing milk (especially the processed variety, and in cold, damp weather) aggravates cold, heavy, cloudy qualities, especially if they are high in us already. The foods and fluids we consume (and the environments we live in) consistently add their elements and qualities to the food body.
Recognizing the dominant elements and qualities in our physical body, and those dominating in the foods we eat (and also in our physical environment), brings an internal consistency and logic to nutritional thinking. To balance our constitution or Prakriti (the unique mix of the five fundamental elements present at birth), we should limit foods high in qualities already dominant in our nature, and introduce more of the qualities that we lack.
A question like: is cheese good for me? raises many considerations.
– What is your constitution? Is there any dosha imbalance?
– What kind of cheese? From what animal? What was that animal eating?
– Is it made from processed (homogenized or pasteurized) milk?
– How was it prepared? Is it fermented or fresh?
– How much will you eat? What will you eat it with?
– What time of day do you want to eat cheese? In what season? What stage of life are you in?
Ayurveda doesn’t consider natural foods as “good” or “bad’. Rather, they are suitable or unsuitable primarily according to the constitution of the eater, their current state of health, the food’s elements and qualities, the quantity and combination of foods eaten, and the time of day and season. Additional considerations (especially in this day and age) include how the food was processed, and how fresh it is.
Food that supports health in one person may incite disease in another. By recognizing our unique elemental makeup, and examining the elements and qualities of foods and the broader environment, we can make dietary choices that complement our dosha mix, rather than working inhabit and ignorance against it.
For Ayurveda, the five great elements are a way of describing reality; principles by which we can organize and understand our own physical body, the wider world, and how the foods we eat can help or harm us. How do we recognize the elements and qualities in ourselves, in foods, and in our surroundings? Working with an experienced Ayurvedic practitioner is a great place to start. In addition, we must learn to observe and experience the elements and qualities in our own bodies, the foods we choose, and our physical environment.