In Ayurveda, the science of life, all creation arises out of five great elements known as mahabhutas. This phenomenal world is created first by the qualities of akash or space, which gives us the container for all form. Within this space vayu or air then manifests all possible movement. Agni or fire becomes responsible for all transformation and thus all possibilities. Next, jala or water offers the breeding ground for life and finally prithvi or earth gives shape that is recognizable to all senses, which are the perceivers of this manifestation.
Agni, the pivotal mahabhuta in this chain of creation is the capacity to digest and transform. As in the macrocosm (universe) so in the microcosm (us), says Ayurveda. Thus, as in the case of food (sustenance) it is what takes an apple and breaks it down into its essential components (parimanus) and then reconfigures them into the consciousness that permeates and nourishes us at the cellular level. To quote Dr. Lad in his textbook on Ayurveda, agni is the main source of life and if you worship agni, you will be blessed with perfect health.
Within us this agni is primarily known as jathara agni, the digestive fire. Residing mostly in the stomach as hydrochloric acid (HCL), it is a term that covers all digestive enzymes. The process of digestion, absorption and assimilation begins with the enzymes present in the saliva that soften what we eat so it continues into the gullet as a paste. Penetrating the diaphragm, this gullet ends in a strong, muscular bag we know as the stomach. Having taken about 3 seconds to reach here, this foodstuff is turned acidic by the HCL for further digestion by peptin and gastrin before it enters the small intestines where this acid is neutralized, allowing bile and pancreatic juices to come out and further digest it and pass it finally along to the large intestine for the last stages of digestion and the natural elimination of wastes.
The mechanisms of this chemical process have been rendered into their conscious, poetical form by Ayurveda, which compares this process to the cooking of food externally. It requires a stove, a pot, fuel, air, fire, water, food and someone to utilize it all. Internally the pot is the stomach, the stove the small intestine, the fuel is the previously digested food that triggers the enzymes, the air is your peristaltic movement, the water the gastric mucosal secretions, the organizer is your prana (life force) while the fire is your jathara agni or acids and enzymes.
Understanding this process leads to an appreciation of the qualities of all these ingredients especially if we wish to utilize our agni properly as a tool for transformation of food into vitality. Our prana needs to be strong, yesterday’s food should not be morbid, the mucosal secretions not depleted and our “mental gut” or peristaltic movement in a balanced and stress free state. Most of all, however, the state of our agni will determine what rasa or juice we will be able to draw out of our food intake.
According to Ayurveda, there are four possible states of agni, reflecting our constitutional makeup and its vagrancies. These are sama (balanced metabolism), vishama (irregular metabolism), tikshna (hypermetabolism) and manda (slow metabolism). To understand these different states of digestion requires an understanding of the doshas. Simply put, doshas are constitutional humors composed of the five great elements. They manifest as forces of movement, of transformation and of stability. Their vagrancies reflect excessive movement, excessive heat and excessive mucosal secretions.
Vata, the first dosha, is composed of the elements of space and air and will give rise to vishama agni as an erratic digestion, with the peristaltic movement being unpredictable, creating irregularity in appetite, variability in digestion, abdominal distention, indigestion, gases and constipation.
Pitta, composed mainly of fire and some water, is the dosha that creates tikshna agni when out of balance. Because of its hot, sharp, fire like qualities it causes an excessive release of acids and enzymes and thus a desire for large quantities of food. Its liquid, sour and hot qualities can then cause hyperacidity, gastritis, heartburn and diarrhea, and eventually lead to ulcers or colitis.
Kapha, the most stable dosha, when increased, turns sluggish and slow. This is because it is composed of the heaviest of the five elements: water and earth. It thus causes manda agni or a dull and slow digestion. Even a small meal can cause heaviness in the stomach, colds, congestion and cough. It can lead to edema, obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
These developments of the different states of digestion are further reflected in deeper changes as the effects move steadily into our physical and psychological being. Vishama agni or irregular digestion eventually leads to dry skin, cracking joints, lower back pain and insomnia. Emotionally, the predictable results include anxiety, insecurity, fear and other neurological disorders. Tikshna agni or sharp digestion can cause inflammatory conditions especially of the skin; pain in the liver, nausea and vomiting. The individual thus affected becomes judgmental and critical, and carries feelings of hate, envy and anger. Manda agni or slow digestion leads eventually to lethargy, excessive sleep, cold clammy skin and general weakness of the body. Mentally, there can be greed, attachment and possessiveness.
The net result of any of these three states of agni is the build up of a sticky, foul substance called ama. Indicated by lethargy, a coated tongue and foul breath, this undigested substance can be recognized today as high cholesterol, candida, late onset diabetes, acute constipation and/or diarrhea among other ailments. In Ayurvedic thinking all diseased states arise as a result of ama, whether physical or mental and all ama is the result of an improperly functioning agni. In fact the key to a healthy agni is the intake of easily digested, fresh, lightly cooked, compatible foods eaten consciously at the appropriate times.
The ideal state of agni, that which is known as sama agni, is achieved by the balancing of the doshas. When agni is in equilibrium it produces a healthy metabolism. People with a healthy metabolism are blessed with strong constitutions where digestion, absorption and elimination are regular. This leads to good health, longevity and a strong immune system. People with sama agni are characterized by a calm, loving demeanor and great clarity of mind.
In the Vedas, the ancient texts of India, agni was worshipped in its Divine form as the bringer and sustainer of life. There is a beautiful food prayer that shows this devotional aspect of eating:
(Brahma gives us food)
(Vishnu the ability to find its essence)
Pakto Devo Mahesvara
(Shiva cooks this essence into us)
Evam Jnatva Tu Yo Bhunkte
(When you eat with this awareness)
Anna Dosho Na Lipyate
(The food becomes pure and no toxins stay in you)
When we honor our agni thus, we become conscious of what we eat and how we receive it into ourselves. Eating no longer becomes an unconscious or even emotion laden choice to fill a hunger in our bellies. There arises within us a desire for transforming what we eat into the highest consciousness, marked by progressively better health and state of mind. This is the gift of the firegod, AGNI.
References: Dr. Vasant Lad: Ayurveda: Textbook Of Fundamental Principals, The Ayurvedic Press
Dr. Bhagvan Dash: Concept Of Agni In Ayurveda, Chaukhamba Press, Varanasi 1993
In gratitude to all my Ayurvedic Teachers…
Arun Deva can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.