by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay.
The basic tenets of Ayurveda have been handed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition. The oral traditions themselves have been committed to writing from time to time. There are two well-known compilations of ancient Ayurvedic theory and practice which are still studied today. They are the Charak Samhita (Compendium of Charaka) and the Susruta Samhita (Compendium of Susruta). Around 600 AD, there appeared a brilliant synthesis of the ancient traditions called the Vagbhata Hridaya (Vagbhata’s Heart of Medicine). It has been translated into numerous languages including Tibetan, Arabic, Chinese, German and English and it’s influence helped spread the teachings of Ayurveda around the world.
Traditionally, these texts have been put to memory as part of one’s medical training. Each passage can then be recalled and expounded upon as needed. As modern students of Ayurveda we too can look to these passages and add our own commentaries in light of our own times and our own understanding.
So let’s consider the passages from the Vagbhata Hridaya (VH) that relate to the taste of pungency and then amplify their meaning.
“’And now we shall expound the chapter on the different tastes,’ said Atreya and the other great sages. The tastes, ‘sweet’ and so on, originate from the physical elements being sequentially in dominant pairs: earth and water (sweet); fire and earth (sour); water and fire (salt); ether and air (bitter); fire and air (pungent); earth and fire (astringent).” VH 1.10.
When pungent or spicy taste is described as originating from fire and air we are to consider that the substance tasted is composed of primarily fire and air. Ayurveda defines all substances in terms of the five elements ether, air, fire, water and earth. Each element represents a specific set of qualities. Fire is hot, dry, light, sharp, intense, yet subtle. Air is cold, dry, light, moving, dispersing and subtle. When combined, we can say that pungent is hot, very dry, very light, sharp, intense, moving, dispersing and subtle.
When we taste a substance we experience first-hand it’s qualities and it’s effects. The basic theory is that the specific qualities (guna) lead to specific effects or actions (karma). Like increases like. So we can infer upon tasting a substance what it’s effects will be when ingested. Eating substances of pungent taste will have a heating, drying, lightening, cutting, intensely moving, stimulating and dispersing effect.
“The Outward Form of the Tastes...The ‘pungent’ savour stimulates the tip of one’s tongue, making it tingle. It makes one’s eyes, nose, and mouth water, and produces a burning feeling in one’s cheeks.” VH 1.10
The pungent taste is not just a taste experienced in the mouth. It has a stimulating and burning action on any surface of the body. Cut and place a hot pepper on your arm and you will feel a burning sensation. Pungent herbs are often prepared as ointments, salves or liniments and placed on the skin to relieve pain or break up congestion. One example is to simmer ginger in a pot of water, place a cloth in the hot ginger water, ring partially dry and then apply as a compress. When it cools return the cloth to the hot water and repeat.
The fact that pungent substances ‘makes one’s eyes, nose, and mouth water’ is part of it’s stimulating action. It stimulates, moves and disperses water. If a person has excess water, dampness, mucus or phlegm, collectively referred to as kapha, the pungent taste can break up and disperse the congestion. Therefore, pungent taste is said to be anti-kapha.
It is interesting that kapha types will often complain that spicy food makes their noses run. Here is a case where something that is anti-kaphic and helpful in the long run is seen as not helpful and unpleasant in the short run. The play on words is not intentional. The point is that suggesting spices to kapha types may be a hard sell. To overcome this resistance it is necessary to teach the difference between the merely pleasant and the ultimate good. This is a teaching from the Katha Upanishad which bears repeating. We are too influenced by our notions of pleasant vs. unpleasant or likes vs. dislikes for our own good.
Going back to our quote, the degree of ‘burning’ felt (in the cheeks or elsewhere) will depend on the degree of pungency in the substance. A useful practice is to categorize pungent articles as mild, medium or strong in degree. For example, basil is mildly spicy, fresh ginger is medium spicy, and hot peppers are strongly spicy.
“The Effects of the Tastes...The pungent savour overcomes throat diseases, colds, and swelling. It reduces the size of wounds. It dries out oil, fat, and moisture. It stimulates the digestive fire, is digestive, an appetizer, and an evacuant. It dries out food. It cuts through blockages, opens up the tubes and removes phlegm.” VH 1.10
Throat diseases, colds and swelling are of different types according to the doshas. To use a sore throat as an example, you may feel intermittent discomfort, weakness or a scratchy feeling with dryness in your throat. This is a vata-type or vata-stage sore throat. You could also feel a sharp irritation with redness and acute burning. This is a pitta-type or pitta-stage sore throat. You could also feel dull pain, with chronic swelling and congestion in the throat. This is a kapha-type or kapha-stage sore throat. The key to the symptoms is vata is cold, dry and changeable, pitta is hot, burning and red, and kapha is cold, moist, slow and stagnant.
Pungent taste is best suited to overcome kapha-type diseases. Strong spices can heat up and move out the swelling and congestion. Mild spices can be used to overcome the vata-type diseases as vata is cold and pungent is hot. The precaution is not to be over-stimulating.
For example, some basil tea with honey may be soothing to vata without being overly stimulating. Kapha types might need dried ginger tea with a pinch of cayenne and honey. Pitta conditions are already hot, so something cooling like mint or bitters would be a better choice.
Pungent taste is known ‘to reduce the size of wounds’. Whereas I have not experimented with this approach, I believe using pungent articles topically on wounds would act something like cauterization.
Pungent taste ‘dries out oil, fat, and moisture.’ Oil, fat, and moisture when excessive are examples of kapha. Kapha is defined as water held in earth. The key qualities are cold, damp, heavy and unctuous. Pungent taste is defined as fire and air. The key qualities are hot, dry, light and sharp. These represent opposite qualities. Pungent taste is a perfect antidote for kapha. This passage is emphasizing the drying action of pungency.
Pungent taste ‘stimulates the digestive fire, is digestive, an appetizer, and an evacuant.’ The key word here is ‘stimulates.’ Pungent articles are used as stimulants in that they stimulate into action. They stimulate the saliva to flow in the mouth, they stimulate the digestive track to mobilize digestive enzymes which digest the food, and they can help stimulate the peristaltic action of the colon. However, please note that pungent articles, just like fire itself should be used judiciously, carefully and in moderation.
Pungent taste ‘dries out food.’ Here is another reference to pungent taste’s drying action. A safe way to use pungent taste is to mix it with food. This can be done as the food is cooked. It can be added to the cooked food before it is eaten (i.e. as with black pepper). Or, to bypass the runny nose, pungent spices such as ginger can be taken in a capsule while eating the food.
Pungent taste ‘cuts through blockages, opens up the tubes and removes phlegm.’ Pungent taste is said to have a sharp quality. This translates into a ‘cutting’ action. Pungent taste can cut through and break up congestion or blockages. For example, if your nose is blocked with excess phlegm, ginger tea may help ‘open up the tubes.’
On a more subtle level, yoga and ayurveda describe subtle tubes known as nadi’s that carry prana through the subtle body. Pungent taste can help keep the nadi’s clear. One practice of the yogi’s is to grind seven black peppercorns every morning, blend the fresh powder in a spoon of honey while repeating the fire mantra ‘ram’ or equivalent, and then swallow to break up any phlegm which has collected in the stomach over night. The effect of this practice is to break up phlegm, open the subtle channels, stimulate prana and clear the mind.
“If it is used too much, it causes thirst, a diminution of seed and strength, fainting, cramps, trembling, and pain in the waist and back.” VH 1.10
It is always prudent to consider counter-indications. Because pungent taste is drying, too much could cause thirst. When considering fertility, water is seen as the key element. If you have studied the chakras, you may know that the second chakra is associated with reproduction, fertility and water. Too much pungent taste can literally dry out water and the reproductive ‘seed’.
‘Diminution of seed and strength, fainting, cramps, trembling, and pain in the waist and back’ are classic vata symptoms. Vata is the combination of air and space qualities, notably cold, dry, light, changeable with erratic movements. Pungent taste is composed of fire and air. Where the fiery qualities may benefit the coldness of vata, the airy qualities are more likely to aggravate vata. This is why only mild spices are recommended for vata types.
“Examples...The class of pungent items includes asafoetida, black pepper, mixed spice...and green herbs like sweet basil...” VH 1.10
Mild spices are called carminatives or digestives. They are generally sattvic (harmonious), good for all types and are used in cooking. They include the ‘green herbs like sweet basil,’ bay, chervil, cilantro, dill, fennel, oregano, tarragon and thyme.
Other examples are carminative seeds. They include ajwain, anise, black cumin, carraway, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and mustard. They are often ground just before use and cooked in ghee as a base for cooking vegetables, grains or beans. One famous combination is known as panch phoron or five seeds which include black cumin, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and yellow mustard. All of the mild spices are used to support digestion without increasing pitta.
Medium strength spices include asafoetida, black pepper, cinnamon, garlic and fresh ginger. Of these, fresh ginger and cinnamon are considered sattvic (harmonious). The others are rajasic (potentially over-stimulating). Asafoetida has a reputation for dispelling gas and countering intestinal yeast infections. It can be indispensable for vata types. It is also used as a substitute for garlic in taste and action. Black pepper is sometimes used by yogi’s despite it’s rajasic quality to ‘keep the channels open’ as discussed above. This is an example of using rajas to counter tamas (sluggishness).
Strong spices, such as the ‘mixed spice’ mentioned in the text, include dried ginger, cayenne and other hot peppers or chilis. One mixed spice recipe is known as trikatu, or three peppers. It is equal measures of dried ginger, black pepper and long pepper. It is used for it’s heating and stimulating action to counter coldness and phlegm or as an addition to herbal formulas as a digestive aid.
One aspect of pungency that our text did not address is it’s effect on the mental/emotional level. Pungency is an antidote for complacency and lack of focus. The sharp quality includes the helpful effect of sharpening and clarifying the mind. Of course, too many hot spices can make the mind and tongue too sharp. Watch out for the sharp language of angry people eating hot spices!
References for further study: “The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from the Ayurvedic Classics” by Dominik Wujastyk, “Charak Samhita” by Charak, and “Ashtangahrdaya or Heart of Medicine” by Vagbhata
Addendum: Here is a translation from the “Charak Samhita” 1.26.43 concerning pungency for further study and comparison:
“Pungent taste cleanses the mouth, stimulates digestion, absorbs food, causes secretion from the nose and eyes; makes the sense organs clear, alleviates swelling, corpulence, urticarial patches, channel-blocking,... gives relish to food, destroys itching , depresses wounds, kills organisms, scrapes muscles, checks the coagulation of blood,... opens the channels, pacifies kapha, and is light, hot and rough. This, though having so many properties, if used singly and excessively, damages sexual potency ... causes unconsciousness, weariness, emaciation, fainting, choking, giddiness, burning in throat, body-heat, loss of strength and thirst. And due to abundance of air and fire, it produces vatika disorders in feet, hands, sides, back etc. particularly with symptoms like movements, burning pain, tremors, piercing and tearing pains.”