Rasa in Ayurveda is a Sanskrit term that roughly translates to ‘taste.’ However, it also has other definitions such as juice, nectar, experience, etc. For instance, in theatre, rasa is the essence or emotion audience members experience.
Digestion begins in the mouth, where edible substances, or dravyas, first have physical contact with the human body. Understanding this initial interaction and its impact resides in the theory of the six tastes. As taste or the essence of food, rasa is significant to many bodily functions.
The Six Tastes or Rasas in Ayurveda
The six rasa in Ayurveda include:
- Sweet or Madhura
- Sour or Amla
- Salty or Lavana
- Pungent or Katu
- Bitter or Tikta
- Astringent or Kashaya
All dravyas contain some combination of the five elements: air, water, earth, ether, and fire. The two elements that dominate the composition of the substance determine its qualities, or gunas.
Each of the six taste or rasa in Ayurveda has a distinct effect on the three doshas, either pacifying or aggravating them. Thus, when planning a dosha-balancing diet, considering the six tastes in Ayurveda is important.
Significance of the Six Tastes or Rasas In Ayurveda
Sweet (madhura): Earth + Water
Madhura rasa may benefit tissue repair, muscle growth, and overall strength. Due to the prevalence of the earth element, it feels incredibly satisfying to the senses. Eating in a balanced manner provides strength/energy and a grounding feeling.
Other possible benefits include better hair growth, good skin health, relief from burning sensation, positive impact on semen quality, increased immunity, and a soothing effect on the throat.
As for the doshas, sweet food generally pacifies Vata and Pitta dosha. However, eating sweet foods in excess will increase Kapha dosha and lead to obesity, lethargy, flatulence, and poor appetite. Moreover, too much madhura rasa decreases the stomach’s agni (fire) and hurts digestion.
Sour (amla): (Fire + Earth)
Sour food may improve appetite, and you will generally feel an instant hunger upon eating such foods. This is typically due to an increase in salivation. The sharpness of amla rasa is due to the prevalence of the fire element in sour food.
This same sharpness can brighten the senses and improve concentration when taken in a balanced quantity. It is said to be suitable for those who have weak digestion or lack strength and stability at the tissue level. As for the doshas, sour food usually pacifies Vata but aggravates Pitta and Kapha dosha.
It increases sweating and causes downward movement of Vata in the body, which can be good or bad depending on your inherent constitution (Prakriti). Excessive consumption of amla rasa leads to stomach issues like hyperacidity or heartburn. It also aggravates agni in Pitta types and leads to thirst, skin inflammation/rashes, gastritis, and ulcerative colitis.
Salty (Lavana) (Water + Fire)
We all know that food can taste listless without salt. This is why Ayurveda says that salt makes food delightful and increases appetite. However, it can also become an addiction and contribute to ‘binge eating.’ This kind of excessive intake can lead to water retention and hypertension.
When eaten in a balanced fashion, salty food acts as a mild laxative and may cleanse the body’s subtle channels. It also increases saliva and softens mucus in the nasal and throat passages. Such food is good for Vata but can increase Pitta and Kapha in the body.
Excess consumption of salty taste is linked to skin problems like wrinkles, inflammation, and premature graying of hair. It also leads to edema and other health issues caused by water retention. Some texts also say that it indirectly causes hyperacidity by aggravating Pitta dosha.
Pungent (Katu) (Fire + Air)
Katu refers to any substance that has a very hot taste. It is a combination of air and fire and has a light, hot, and dry qualities. Pungent should not be confused with ‘spicy’ as it includes chilies and spices like ginger, black pepper, clove, and mustard.
Pungent food can aid digestion in the correct quantity by stoking the stomach’s Agni (fire). Since it is hot and dry, it may improve blood circulation and clear the channels by producing heat in the body. Katu may also bring clarity (in perception) and improve the mental sharpness of an individual. As for the doshas, pungent foods can pacify Kapha but are unsuitable for Vata and Pitta.
We all know the downside of too much pungent food. From watering eyes to runny noses to irritation on the tongue, excessive pungent food causes inflammation and Pitta aggravation. It can also cause symptoms like hyperacidity, diarrhea, stomach ulcers, and inflammatory skin conditions. In Ayurveda, excessive pungent food reduces virility and leads to insomnia.
Bitter (Tikta) (Air + Ether)
Tikta rasa is among the most unpleasant and least preferred out of the six tastes in Ayurveda. However, food with this taste plays a vital role in health and digestion. Furthermore, due to air elements, such foods have dry, light, and cooling qualities on the body.
Bitter foods have two functions in small portions: a) cleansing the body and b) improving appetite. Bitter foods (like neem) are often used as medicines to treat worms, soothe burning sensations, and cure skin-related problems. They tend to have potent anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anti-parasitic properties.
In excess, bitter food is said to be spermicidal – they immobilize sperm cells and act as a contraceptive. Tikta may also have a drying effect on the skin, leading to loss of strength, flatulence, constipation, and low energy levels. Most people should take bitter rasa in limited quantities unless they are taken for detoxification.
Astringent (Kashaya) (Air + Ether)
Astringent foods like okra, raw bananas, and chickpeas have a heavy, dry, and cooling effect on the body. Due to the prevalence of air, kashaya may leave a dry and rough sensation in the mouth. They can help inhibit bleeding, decongest the body, and remove excess fat.
A balanced intake of astringent food is beneficial due to its drying properties. Kashaya rasa may be anti-inflammatory, and it helps eliminate by binding waste products in the body. Further, foods with a bitter taste may have blood purifying properties. As for doshas, astringent food is helpful for Kapha and Pitta types but can aggravate Vata dosha.
In excess, astringent foods dry the throat and mouth and reduce sperm count and libido. They can lead to stomach problems like constipation, bloating, and abdominal distention. In Ayurveda, they aggravate fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, and brain fog. People who are physically and mentally weak should avoid astringent food.
Conclusion: Six Rasas in Ayurveda
A balanced diet will have a good mix of all six tastes or rasas in Ayurveda. However, altering the diet based on season and dosha can help correct dosha imbalances.
For instance, you should avoid pungent food during summer as it aggravates Pitta in the body. The Pitta in the environment is already high in summer and this excess will cause health issues.
Similarly, if you have Vata dosha, you should eat sweet food to pacify Vata and limit your intake of astringent food as it increases Vata in the body.
Ayurveda advises never to indulge or ignore any rasa. Even if sweet is good for Vata dosha, that is no reason to eat sweet foods in excess. We should not forget that in Ayurveda, the emphasis is on having a ‘moderate approach.
Once you form a diet per your constitution and the season, the blend/balance of the six tastes of Ayurveda works to nourish all the dhatus (layers) of the body.