Dravyaguna: The Essence of Ayurvedic Herbalism
Herbal Medicine within the context of Ayurveda is a fascinating and rich topic on its own. When we examine an herb or substance to be used as medicine we are primarily concerned with five aspects of that medicine. These aspects are called the Rasa, Virya, Vipaka, Guna and Prabhava.
Rasa means taste, defined exactly as we discussed in the Food as Medicine article. The Rasa refers to the predominance & proportion of the Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter or Astringent taste within a particular herb or substance.
Virya refers specifically to the temperature of the herb, whether it is warming or cooling. In addition to this we can at this stage recognize that certain herbs are hotter than others and certain herbs are colder than others. For example, Rosemary and Cayenne Pepper are both warming herbs, but Cayenne Pepper is far hotter than Rosemary which we would just call warming.
Vipaka (Post-Digestive Effect)
Vipaka is a unique Ayurvedic concept and refers to the Post-Digestive effect of the herbal medicine. This gives an additional degree of specificity to the overall effect of the taste of the herb and takes into account special properties of certain medicines. For example, both Black Pepper and Long Pepper are Pungent herbs but Black Pepper has a Pungent Post-Digestive effect and Long Pepper has a Sweet Post-Digestive effect. This means that although both herbs will initially warm up the body, Long Pepper in the long run will have a nourishing effect while Black Pepper will have a cleansing or lightening effect.
Guna (Specific Qualities)
As we discussed previously, there are ten pairs of opposite qualities that can make up any material substance. In the context of Herbal Medicine we are primarily concerned with whether or not an herb is light or heavy, hot or cold, and penetrating or soft.
Prabhava (Unique Actions)
When you understand the Taste, Temperature and Qualities of any Herbal Medicine, you have a pretty good idea of how that herb will affect the body and mind. However even herbs with the same Dravyaguna can produce additional unique effects or have special affinities for certain tissues. It is in this category that we begin to understand these Unique Actions. For example, Amalaki is an herb with a predominance of the Sour taste, but interestingly it is Cooling in its temperature and is thus an excellent remedy for Pitta as it increases digestive capacity while simultaneously alleviating excess Pitta in the digestive tract.
Although there are many categorical qualities that can be felt and observed within different Herbal Medicines, each one still has its own unique constellation of effects to be understood. This is similar to how Ayurveda views each person as a unique individual.