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Ayurvedic Philosophy: The Three Causes of Disease

What is Disease?

In Ayurveda, the word for disease is roga. It mains pain, suffering, and a lack of harmony within the self. When we look at the English word disease, similarly we can see that the word can be read as dis-ease, or a lack of ease. When we experience disease, our bodies are in a state of disequilibrium, our physiological and mental functions are not quite right, and we can experience a wide spectrum of discomfort from aches to extreme pain.


Why do we get sick?

While we know that there are countless causative factors to disease - pathogens, stress, weather, etc. - we also know that not every person gets sick even when subject to the same germs. Similarly, some people fall ill after greatly traumatic and stressful situations while others seem to bounce back without issues. Ayurveda looks at the causes of disease from multiple levels, examining not only the physical circumstances that manifest illness but also the psychological and even philosophical circumstances behind disease manifestation.


In this article, we will look at the three causes of diseases according to Ayurveda from a largely philosophical perspective. These three causes are called:

  1. Asatmendryartha Samyoga - Misuse of the Senses

  2. Prajna Aparadha - Failure of the Intellect

  3. Parinama - Transformation due to Time and Motion


Misuse of the senses

When I was doing clinical rounds as a student, I took in a woman who had been recently diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. Upon questioning her recent diet, she revealed that she had been drinking Coke Floats (cola and ice cream) every night for dinner! Due to the pandemic, she was feeling extremely lonely and angry. She had lost several family members to the disease and was distressed - being able to indulge in those ice cream sodas was the only thing getting her through her life. And while we really could understand the reasons behind her actions, we also knew it was making her gravely sick.


This case is a perfect example of what we would consider misuse of the senses. She was using her sense of taste to self-soothe. The sweet taste is considered grounding, building, and reassuring. We feel good when we eat sweet food. However, we fall into the danger of overindulging especially when the circumstances of our life are bitter, or even when we simply want a distraction from our everyday frustrations.


Ayurveda teaches us that our senses are meant to be used to guide us toward what is good for us and to keep us from taking in what is harmful, as long as we are consciously making choices that bring us back into balance. However, when we get wrapped up in our everyday dramas, our tendency is to want to use the senses to placate and distract. Sometimes we watch a little too much TV or listen to loud music until our ears hurt. Regardless of our reasons for doing so, it can lead to health problems down the line.


Failure of the Intellect

Have you ever stayed out too long to party knowing you had work early the next day? Or have eaten something knowing it would give you a stomachache but it's delicious so you ate it anyway? The concept of "failure of the intellect" is simply doing something you know isn't serving you but doing it anyway. And while the word "failure" can be a heavy word, it just means that you chose to act against your inner wisdom.


Our intellect exists to help us make choices when we need to choose between things that are harmonious to our systems and things that are pleasurable. However, in our modern society, we often feel like we deserve a break from overworking, from all the pressure and stress. It makes us believe that we're entitled to winding down with some drinks and TV, or that we have earned those extra calories of potato chips, etc. But no matter how entitled we feel like we are to our indulgences, no amount of "deserving it" will make what we intake any healthier.


Our minds often talk us into doing things that indulge our senses. But underneath the chatter, we all have the capacity to listen to our inner wisdom. My teacher taught us that our inner wisdom speaks in whispers, while the chatter of the mind and senses are constantly shouting for our attention. It is important to take moments in our lives to slow down and reconnect with our inner wisdom. Even a few minutes of meditation in the morning can help set us up for a more intentional day.


Transformation due to Time & Motion

The passing of time is inevitable in life, and with the passing of time naturally brings change. Some consequences of time are unavoidable - the seasons change, the weather shifts, and we get older. Obviously, some of these changes can make us more susceptible to illness. For example, being exposed to a harsh rainstorm can lead to us catching a cold. However, the concept of parinama also includes what we might consider as biological time, which is often influenced by our actions and mental state.


Especially in our modern age, we live in a state of constant stimulation that is both demanding and fast-paced. We are taught to expect instant gratification through the use of social media. People expect instant replies to text messages. Fast and pre-packaged food is everywhere to facilitate our constantly rushed life. When we live at such a fast pace, we also push forward the pace of change that causes disease. Stress is the result of being unable to keep up with the real and perceived demands of our lives, and stress is known to a major player in making us sick.