Aspects of the Ayurvedic theory of medicine serve as a fit metaphor for the various relationships the soul can have with Krishna.

Though Krishna consciousness is chiefly about the soul in relationship to God, we devotees recognize the body’s role in our day-to-day spiritual activities and understand that proper bodily care is fundamental to the spiritual quest. After all, if one doesn’t properly care for the body—the soul’s vehicle— performing even basic spiritual practices becomes increasingly difficult. This is not to say that it is impossible to chant, pray, and so on, even in compromised health. But to have a sound body and mind is certainly an asset. In fact, that’s one reason why the sages of ancient India practiced yoga—to enhance their psycho-physical condition. They used their healthy body in pursuit of the spirit.

Ayurveda, the ancient Vedic system of holistic healing, was conceived and developed with a similar strategy in mind. Its purpose is to allow us to function at optimum level, so that we might use our God-given body in the Lord’s divine service.

Here I’ll briefly outline some basic principles of Ayurveda. Then I’ll explore how some of them can serve as a metaphor for the highest spiritual aspects of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, or the Hare Krishna movement.

While Srila Prabhupada accepted the health principles of Ayurveda, he said, “The Ayurveda-shastra recommends, aushadhi cintayet vishnum: ‘Even while taking medicine, one should remember Vishnu [Krishna],’ because the medicine is not all-in-all—and Lord Vishnu is the real protector.” So, from our point of view, Ayurveda is a significant form of holistic medicine, but it is our secondary form of shelter. We depend first and foremost on God.

What Is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is perhaps the oldest system of natural healing in the world, predating even the Chinese system. The name Ayurveda is from Sanskrit (veda = knowledge; ayu = life) and is often translated as “the knowledge of life.” But I would suggest that “the knowledge of longevity” more accurately captures its intent. The sages of ancient India carefully distinguished life, a spiritual phenomenon, from longevity, a term that refers to the proper maintenance of the body. This distinction between body and self is fundamental to Vaishnava thought.

Because death and disease present an ongoing challenge for all humans, encased as we are in a material body, we search for practical and effective methods of bodily health. Spiritual seekers want to maintain and care for their bodies in ways that do not compromise or infringe on their spiritual practices. The achievement of these dual and interdependent goals is the purpose of Ayurveda, which makes it more than an ordinary medical science. It not only elucidates the healthiest interaction of body and mind but also prescribes guidelines for realizing the relationship between these two and the eternal spirit within each of us. It is thus totally holistic.

While the science of Ayurveda was put into written form about fifty centuries ago, as part of the Vedic literature, it has an oral tradition that dates back even further. Modern practitioners of the science rely more on medieval encyclopedias—such as the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita (named after their respective authors)—than on the original Vedic texts. Still, these works are based on knowledge found in the Vedas, and discuss in detail such subjects as pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology, internal medicine, otolaryngology, and plastic surgery. Modern scientists are still in awe at the depth and clarity of Ayurvedic information; it is a mystery that such a complex system was conceived so long ago.

A grasp of the tridosha theory is central to an understanding of Ayurveda. The doshas are dynamic forces within the body and mind. There are three doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. Vata controls activity and motion; pitta, heat and energy; and kapha, structure and density. Vata, pitta, and kapha also relate, respectively, to air, bile, and mucus. These three interact with the seven dhatus (usually translated as “tissues”): lymph, blood, muscle, fat, bone, marrow, and semen.

Our daily activities put the interdependent doshas and dhatus into a state of disequilibrium, causing disease. We can gain proper equilibrium and, consequently, health only by considerations of diet, climate, season, activity, and mental discipline. Ayurveda deals with these things as a detailed science. Its methods are mainly preventive. But the system also includes effective approaches to rejuvenation and the healing of established diseases.

Ayurveda and Rasa

According to Ayurveda, there are six types of tastes, or rasas, each with a different effect on digestion. A rasa can be light or heavy, moist or dry. Light tastes are easier to digest, but the heavy ones require more energy for the body to assimilate. The six tastes are bitter, sour, salty, pungent, astringent, and sweet. According to Ayurveda, it is advisable to include foods in one’s diet that contain all six rasas because, properly combined, these six create dietary balance. Excessive consumption of any of these could result in adverse effects.

In Krishna consciousness our conception of God includes a similar phenomenon. We say that God is a person, Krishna, and that He relishes not just one or two but all kinds of relationships. Basically, there are five categories of relationship that one may have with the Lord: One can relate to Him in a neutral mood, as a servant, as a friend, in a nurturing capacity, or as a lover. The sweetest of these relationships is known as madhurya (“sweet”): the relationship of romantic love. So just as sweetness is one of the rasas, or tastes, in Ayurveda, it is also one of the rasas, or relationships, one may have with Krishna. The same word—rasa—is used in these two different ways. All rasas play a role in Ayurveda. Similarly, Krishna wants more than just the relationship of romantic love, madhurya. He wants diverse kinds of relationships, as we want diverse kinds of relationships with Him.

The term rasa means “sap,” “juice,” or “essence,” and by extension “flavor,” “enjoyment,” and “taste,” as in Ayurvedic texts. It was used in the early Upanishads to mean “essence,” and there it was associated with the highest reality. The Taittiriya Upanishad, for example, claims: “Verily he (the soul) is rasa. And he becomes joyful only after obtaining rasa.

The word rasa was used in aesthetics and dramaturgy, as in the Natya Shastra of the legendary sage Bharata. Within this context the term rasa is best translated as “dramatic sentiment” or “aesthetic enjoyment.” Bharata and others, such as Abhinavagupta, developed this rasa idea into a science. Bharata reasoned that the emotions of day-to-day life could be recreated by dramatic performance and evoked in the audience.

Spiritual Rasa

In the sixteenth century Rupa Goswami, one of the early theologians of our Hare Krishna tradition, took rasa theory further still. He learned the essence of the spiritual rasa idea from Lord Chaitanya, who is none other than the combined form of Radha and Krishna. Rupa then used the terminology of the earlier dramatic theorists and aestheticians to articulate the spiritual rasa theory to the people of his day. In other words, he spiritualized an already existing concept of interpersonal exchange: He took the terminology of dramatic performance and applied it to the ultimate drama, one’s relationship with God. Sri Rupa explained that the only real drama, or the only drama worth pursuing, is our interaction with Krishna. To this end he elaborated on existing rasa terminology, adapting it or embellishing it when he deemed necessary.

Although Sri Rupa discusses various types of spiritual rasa, it is important to understand that for him true rasa must be rooted in love for Krishna (krishna-rati). Acknowledging the different kinds of devotees and the multiplicity of relationships one may have with God, he devised a brilliant method for articulating these different kinds of love. Though love is one, he writes, it is experienced as many because of the different types of people who experience it. Accordingly, he divides rasas into “primary” and “secondary.” There are five primary ones, each a direct form of rati, or love for Krishna. The secondary ones are seven in number, and they correspond to the classical rasas of dramatic theory.

The five forms of primary rasa—neutral, servile, friendly, parental, and romantic—are presented in terms of a hierarchy, with the last, the romantic rasa, being the most desirable. The criterion of hierarchical judgment here is the intensity of emotion, and the fact that each higher rasa contains certain elements of the ones that come before it. Ultimately, however, all rasas are equal, or absolute, in the sense that they are all spiritual. Krishna relishes them all, just as the body relishes all six tastes in Ayurvedic medicine.

But let’s look at the rasas more closely, from the ground up. Rupa Goswami explains them at length in his book Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, which Srila Prabhupada has summarized as The Nectar of Devotion.

To begin, the neutral or peaceful (shanta) devotees have achieved tranquility in their service to God, manifesting out of their love for Him. Rupa describes their emotional experience (bhava) as being similar to the joy of the yogis, except that the yogis seek to realize the self (atman), whereas the object of those in shanta-rasa is the Lord (Bhagavan).

The next type of devotional rasa is that of being a servant (prita-bhakti-rasa), which, Rupa writes, is based on love colored by profound respect. In this rasa Krishna is in the mood of a superior or perhaps a protective elder, and the devotees who partake of this rasa relate to Him as servants or younger relatives. Since this type of relationship is limited by deference for the Lord, with an awareness of His power and lordship, it bows to the following, more intimate, types of love.

Next comes a type of transcendental friendship or companionship (preyo-bhakti-rasa, or sakhya-rasa), whose overarching characteristic is a sense of equality. In this relationship, Krishna manifests as the devotee’s friend. The devotees who experience this rasa are unrestrained in their interaction with the Lord, enjoying an intimate familiarity with Him. Here we see a more or less equal status between Krishna and His devotee—by Krishna’s will, of course. Certainly, if He didn’t allow it, it couldn’t be. But His trust for such devotees is so complete that He grants them a position equal to His own.

After this, Sri Rupa describes the devotee who relishes parental affection (vatsala-bhakti-rasa). For such persons, Krishna appears as a child in need of nurturing and concern. The devotee in this rasa is an elder who feels the need to protect young Krishna, caring for Him with the intensity of a loving guardian. Since Krishna is here the recipient of kindness and protection, His majestic power is concealed, leading to greater intimacy. Krishna’s parents in the spiritual world, Devaki and Vasudeva, and also Yashoda and Nanda, are considered the highest prototypes for this kind of devotee. Vatsalya-rasa, Rupa tells us, has a feature that separates it from the prior three: It expects nothing in return; it is not compromised when not reciprocated. Rupa thus recognizes the selflessness in this kind of love. In fact, he says, the total and unremitting sense of giving in this kind of love is hinted at in the material world: A truly loving parent, even here, asks for nothing in return.

The supreme devotional rasa, leading to the highest type of religious experience, is romantic love (madhura-bhakti-rasa), based on the mood of amorous affection. So important is this sentiment—and so intricate is this aspect of devotional science—that Rupa saw fit to write a separate book, Ujjvala-nilamani, focusing on it. Here, Krishna is the supreme lover, a relationship with God merely hinted at in Christian mysticism and in other great traditions of the world. Rupa explains it as the acme of spiritual perfection, without a tinge of lust, its mundane counterpart. He describes the gopis of Vraja, Krishna’s cowherd girlfriends, as the most exalted of all devotees, for they fully embody this madhurya-rasa. Sri Radha, daughter of King Vrishabhanu, is described as the most successful of the gopis, as Her very name suggests. It means “She who pleases Krishna best.” Indeed, She is part of His very self, so intimate is Their love. The distinctive feature of madhurya-rasa is that it is not diminished by any circumstances. It is totally selfless, even more than the nearly perfect love that parents have for their needy dependents. It is clear from Rupa’s work that this rasa encompasses the strengths of all the other forms of love, making it the rasa par excellence.

When we consider the seven secondary rasas, which I won’t discuss here, we can see that Rupa Goswami gave the world a theological system that accommodates all possible relationships with God.

Supreme Healing

Returning to the discussion of Ayurveda, I must reiterate that devotees of Krishna are more concerned with the soul than with the body. While embracing Ayurvedic principles for bodily care, we look to the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam—and to the teachings of Rupa Goswami and other great Vaishnava authorities—for spiritual guidance. Using the principles of Ayurveda as a starting point, I have conveyed a few ideas about Vaishnava thought and its value in spiritual well being. I hope I have added something to the modern readers’ understanding of Ayurveda in its original spiritual context. This in itself would be supremely healing for both you and me.

This article was adapted from a lecture given at the Ayurvedic Student Center of New York City.