How can we comprehend an herb in its fullness? Is through isolating each individual compound present in the plant? Is it being in its living presence, as it dances with the wind, the sun glinting off its leaves?
Ayurveda has gifted us with a map for this vast territory.
Rasa can mean essence, juice, or taste. The taste of an herb has a crucial medicinal effect, more heartfelt to the body than invisible compounds. When we taste an herb, we are partaking of its essential being. In our pharmaceuticalization of herbal medicine, we have packed our plants in capsules and tried to steal them down into the digestive tract unnoticed by the tongue. In doing so, we are forgoing an essential medicinal quality of the herb.
Rasa holds implications that reach far beyond the taste in our mouths. Rasa can also refer to the emotions… it is used in the realm of the arts to describe ineffable aesthetic effects… for those astrologically inclined, rasa can invoke the celestial luminaries… and rasa sometimes refers to the nature of one’s relationship with the divine.
Ayurveda recognizes six rasa. These are sweet, sour, bitter, salty, pungent, and astringent.
The sweet taste, or madhura rasa, is essential for healthy tissue growth and development. It nourishes the body and mind, and makes us sturdy and strong. It gives our mind a sense of contentment. Most importantly, sweetness imparts us with love. Licorice root, sweet and grounding, moistens the respiratory system, soothes gastric inflammation and calms the nervous system.
The sour taste, or amla rasa, draws scattered energy back into the body. It simulates one’s digestion and relieves thirst. It builds all the tissues of the body, except for the reproductive tissue. Amla is a potent sour fruit that is excellent for digestive issues involving hot inflammation… it nourishes and protects the heart... and can be helpful in cases of diabetes. It is said to raise the quality of consciousness and calm the mind.
The salty taste, or lavana rasa, creates moisture in the body and stimulates the digestion. It is very grounding for the nervous system. Himalayan pink salt is a unique among salts in that it stimulates the digestion without creating excess heat.
The bitter taste, or tikta rasa, cleanses and detoxifies the body. It has an especially purifying effect on the blood, and increases lightness in the mind. Neem leaf has an intensely purifying effect on the blood, and as such can be very beneficial for skin conditions. It is also useful for digestive inflammation, and clearing accumulations from the lungs. Neem leaf has traditionally be used for maintaining oral hygiene.
The astringent taste, or kashaya rasa, has a drying effect on the system. So, it is great for reducing any excess of bodily fluids—bleeding, sweating, and diarrhea, for example. Astringent herbs are often used externally to heal wounds. Haritaki is an astringent fruit is also called abhaya—fearless. It is excellent for drying up moistness in the respiratory system, to help with occasional diarrhea, and can be used to reduce cholesterol.
The pungent taste, or katu rasa, stokes fire in the body, and therefore stimulates the digestion. It dries excessive moisture in the body, and burn up toxins. They tend to increase circulation. Ginger is a pungent rhizome that clears cold, warms the digestive system, and can be helpful in cases of arthritis.
By understanding rasa, we begin to see into the essential spirit of plant and the ways in which can help us.
While rasa is an invaluable tool for understanding the energetics of a plant, it is important to see the whole picture. Please consult with your Ayurvedic practitioner before introducing a new herb into your system!