The Premier Rasayana of Ayurveda

by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon

In the field of Ayurvedic medicine, the ultimate tonic preparations are known as rasayana, literally, turning towards rasa. The tonics are called rasayana because of their capacity to impart superior rasa as well as other dhatus: rasa is the pure nutrient part of food and is one of the dhatus that leads, successively, to the generation of all the others. Dhatus represent the components that support both the structure and functions of the body; there are 7 dhatus, including rasa, blood, flesh, bone, and marrow (see Table 1). Ayana, or turning towards, basically means that the dhatus, instead of degrading and drying due to disease and aging, will be nourished, supplemented, and replenished; rasayana is a tonic for the whole body.

The rasayana are deemed beneficial for nearly all diseases, but especially for disorders of aging when the ability to obtain adequate nutrition and maintain vigorous function declines. They are described in the principal Ayurvedic text, Charaka Samhita (ca. 100 A.D.), in the section called "The Place of Chikitsa;" Chikitsa means treatment or medicine. The text is devoted to medicines that cure various diseases and it depicts the ideal place to take rasayana, which is a place of cleanliness, calmness, and spiritual devotion. Rasayana are presented along with another type of herbal compounds, vrishya, the aphrodisiacs. While both the rasayana and vrishya are capable of imparting vigor to the body, the rasayana are especially able to alleviate disease.

According to Charaka Samhita, "From the administration of rasayana one obtains longevity of life, memory, apprehension, health, youth, brightness, complexion, excellence of voice, great strength of body and the senses, power of making speech true, bows (from others), and comeliness of features." Rasayana are also said to dispel drowsiness and fatigue, preserve the harmony of the three doshas (wind, bile, phlegm), and prevent the flesh from becoming flabby.

Several recipes for rasayana are presented in The Place of Chikitsa. They are based on the use of one or more of the three myrobalans fruits (a simple rasayana, triphala, is made by combining all three). One of the complex rasayanas is called Chyawanprash [also spelled: Cyavanaprasa]. It is named for the Risi Chyawan (= Cyavana) who had become very old, but then once more became youthful through taking this preparation. Chyawan had become engaged, through chance meeting and customs of the time, to a young wife, the princess Sukanya. He realized that his aged and weakened body would be a burden to her and sought the help of celestial physicians. They undertook to make a young man of him, and prepared this medicine; in exchange, Chyawan was to compel Indra to share the fabled soma with the physicians and allow them to participate in certain rites.

According to the Charaka Samhita, Chyawanprash is "the foremost of all rasayanas, especially good for alleviating cough and asthma; it nourishes the weak, the wounded, the old, and those that are of tender years as well." Through the use of this rasayana "a person acquires intelligence, memory, comeliness of body, freedom from disease, longevity, strength of the senses, great pleasure in the companionship with women, great increase in the strength of the digestive fire, improvement of the complexion, and the restoration of wind to its normal course."

In the original instructions for making Chyawanprash, the text first lists numerous herbs, such as bel (Aegle marmelos), bala (Sida cordifolia), and pippali (Piper longum), as well as substitute herbs that might be used when certain ones are not available. Over time, various formulas for Chyawanprash, comprised of herbs highly-respected and available in modern India, have been developed from the ancient instructions. In all cases amla (emblic myrobalans) is the principal constituent. Most of the herbs in the formula are boiled in water, and then the dried extract is combined with honey; a few aromatic herb powders are then added to the extract: cardamon, cinnamon, and clove. The finished product is a syrup that is not unlike molasses, but with a bright sour and spicy taste. Some versions have a "crunchy" quality from unprocessed herb ingredients. The smooth Chyawanprash made of extracted herbs by Universal Medicaments of Nagpur, India, contains the following ingredients (amounts for 100 grams of product):

Indian Name
(Bombay Area)
Botanical Name Common Name Amount (Mg)
Amla Emblica officinalis emblica 15,000
Vidarikand Pueraria tuberosa pueraria 1,200
Pippali Piper longum long pepper 1,000
Safed Chandan Santalum album sandalwood 800
Elachi Elletaria cardamom cardamon 600
Vasaka [Adulsa] Adhatoda vasica adhatoda 500
Akarkara Anacyclus pyrethrum anacyclus 500
Arjun Terminallia arjuna arjun 500
Ashwaganda Withania somnifera ashwaganda 500
Shatavari Asparagus racemosus asparagus 500
Brahmi Bacopa monnieri bacopa 500
Tulsi Ocimum sanctum basil 500
Hirda Terminallia chebula chebula 500
Sounth Zingiber officinale ginger 500
Manukka Vitis vinifera grape 500
Yasthimadhu [Mulethi] Glycyrrhiza glabra licorice 500
Kamalkeshar Nelumbo nucifera lotus flower 500
Jatamansi Nardostachys jatamansi nardostachys 500
Nim Azadarachta indica neem 500
Gokhru Tribulus terrestris tribulus 500
Bel Aegle marmalos aegle 500
Giloy Tinospora cordifolia tinospora 500
Bhumiamla Phyllanthus niruri phyllanthus 500
Kachoor Curcuma zedoaria zedoaria 500
Nagarmotha Cyperus rotundus cyperus 500
Pushkarmul [Kushta] Inula racemosa inula 500
Bala Sida cordifolia sida 500
Kakadsingi Pisticia integerrima pisticia 500
Jivanti Leptadenia reticulata leptadenia 500
Punarnava Boerhaavia diffusa boerhaavia 500
Anjeer Ficus carica fig 500
Long Eugenia caryophyllus clove 300
Dalchini Cinnamomum zeylanicum dalchini 250
Tejpan Cinnamomum tamala tejpan 250
Nagkeshar Mesua ferrea mesua 250
Keshar Crocus sativus saffron 200

The herb extracts (made as 10:1 extracts, except emblica, a 1:1 extract) and the small amount of herb powders, including the delicate saffron, are combined in pasteurized safflower honey, which makes up about 3/4 of the weight of the finished product. Chyawanprash is sometimes described as a fruit jam, with emblica and honey being the main components.

Chyawanprash is described in Indian Materia Medica under the heading of its main ingredient, emblica, where a full page is devoted to this item that is described as being "so popular" in India. The instructions for making the Chyawanprash presented in this modern text are taken from the Charaka Samhita. As with the formulation given above, most of the ingredients are present in roughly equal quantities, with a much larger amount of emblica. Chyawanprash produced by Universal Medicaments differs slightly from the traditional prescription: frying of myrobalans in ghee and sesame oil and further addition of ghee to the final product, as was done in ancient times, is not carried out, leaving a fat-free product; saffron has been added. According to Husaini Ali of Medicinal Medicaments: "Over 50% of total sales of Ayurvedic products in India is Chyawanprash." In other words, this is the aspect of Ayurvedic medicine that is known to virtually the whole population. Robert Svoboda, one of America's leading experts in Ayurveda confirms that almost all Ayurvedic manufacturers in India produce Chyawanprash.

The herbal honey is recommended to be taken after meals. About a teaspoon of the thick liquid taken each morning and evening will provide the suggested dosage of about 10 grams/day, which may be increased to a tablespoon each time (about 15 grams), yielding a daily dose of 30 grams. Based on a 15% content of natural sugars from honey (mainly glucose and fructose) and 1.5% content of vitamin C for the version by Universal Medicaments, the herbal honey provides 1.5 grams of carbohydrate and 150 mg of vitamin C (for 10 grams/day dosage) to 4.5 grams of carbohydrate and 450 mg of vitamin C (for 30 grams/day).

According to the Charaka Samhita, the ideal way to use Chyawanprash is to first undertake cleansing of the body, perform meditation and religious ceremonies, and develop a cheerful disposition. The herbal preparation should be consumed in a place where the room is clean, the temperature is mild, and one is out of direct sun (during the hot season). While the herbal honey helps correct the problems that have been caused by poor habits, correcting improper diet, in particular, is an important aid to the effects of all the rasayana.

Table 1: Dhatus. The information presented here is derived from Principles of Pharmacology in Ayurved by Dr. Kulkarni.

Indian Name Modern Translation of Meaning Indications of Favorable Condition
Rasa nutrient portion of the blood good skin quality, vitality
Rakta blood (e.g., blood cells) good coloration of the cheeks, lips, ear lobes, tongue, tip of nose; warm palms and soles
Mamsa muscles and soft tissues muscles of chest, arms, and legs are strong; facial muscles yield good expression and eye movements, speech is clear
Medas lipids (fats, membranes) proper moisture of skin, eyes, lips, and hair; normal sweating without bad odor; no excessive accumulation of fat in the area of abdomen, hips, back, and neck
Asthi bones, cartilage well-proportioned body, strong teeth and nails, thick hair; joints are supple and freely mobile
Majja marrow glowing face, healthy skin, soft voice
Shukra vital fluid, semen eyes are bright, teeth are white, skin is soft, voice is pleasant, sexual vitality is strong but controlled

APPENDIX 1: Therapeutic Interpretation Based on Chyawanprash Ingredients

While the Chyawanprash formula is large, containing 37 herbs, its main functions can be understood by grouping several of the herbs by similar therapeutic actions. The main functions of the formula are to improve digestion and respiration, the sources of metabolic energy.

Digestive system effects:

Respiratory system effects:

In addition, the formula has a calming effect on nervous energy and on stress, while improving concentration and memory, with its inclusion of ashwaganda, nardostachys, bacopa, and asparagus.

APPENDIX 2: Parallels to Chinese Herbal Medicine

The story of Chyawan and Chyawanprash is reminiscent of the Chinese tale about the herb ho-shou-wu, in which the elderly Mr. Ho took an herb regularly and, as a result, had his gray hair turn black; he then fathered many children with his young wife, and lived to an old age (see: What's in an herb name: Ho-Shou-Wu). The plant seemed to have a divine origin and message, with two of the stalks growing intertwined, representing (to some), the relationship between Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism. The properties of Chyawanprash are also reminiscent of those attributed to the premier tonic herb of Chinese medicine: ginseng.

The Ayurvedic concept of rasa corresponds quite well to that of healthy qi in the Chinese system (see: Basics of Ayurvedic physiology). It is the pure, beneficial, and nutritional component obtained from food which then is utilized to produce blood and nourish all parts of the body. The Rasayana correspond, roughly, to the great tonics of Chinese medicine. Examples are Shiquan Dabu Tang (Ginseng and Tang-kuei Ten Combination), and Renshen Yangyong Tang (Ginseng Nutritive Combination). These formulas have functions that are similar to the rasayana, including promotion of digestive functions and alleviating respiratory disorders. However, their ingredients are quite different from the Ayurvedic rasayanas. In fact, only cinnamon and licorice are overlapping ingredients.

Chyawanprash has several ingredients in common with those used in Chinese medicine. From the Chinese perspective, they are primarily given to disperse stagnation, especially cold stagnation affecting the abdomen and chest (e.g., cardamon, clove, zedoaria, cyperus, basil, sandalwood, long pepper, cinnamon, and ginger). In a traditional Chinese preparation, it would be usual practice to balance these spicy warm herbs with some moist and cooling herbs, which, again from the Chinese perspective, include the ingredients pueraria, grape, fig, asparagus, and licorice, as well as the honey base. The formulation is somewhat difficult to describe within the Chinese system because the main ingredient, emblica, has not been used in Chinese medicine. However, one might compare the action of emblica to that of crataegus (shanzha) which has the similarities of being quite sour in taste and promoting digestion as its main medicinal function. Therefore, one would understand that the formula invigorates the functions of the stomach/spleen, dispels central stagnation and food accumulation (which produces phlegm that clogs the body), and rectifies the circulation of qi (for example, lowers uprising qi). The disorders that it treats are particularly common with aging, and also in persons who do not have healthful daily habits, regular schedules, or a balanced diet.

August 2000