The correct use of our five senses or Pancha Indriya leads us to mental harmony and thus a good state of health and wellbeing. This is because our five senses are our point of interaction between our inner world and external world via the mind.
Pancha means five and Indriya means sensory organ. The fives senses are an important aspect of Ayurveda. Each sense is dominated by the 5 different elements according to Ayurveda; Earth, water, fire, air and ether. All elements are present in each sensory experience. There is just a predominance of one in each case.
Shrotra, Hearing – Ether
Sound waves (shabda), which take an ethereal form literally travel through the ether and vibrate our ear drums. The vibration then in turn triggers bones in the ears to move to pass the sound waves on to the inner ear. From here the vibrations are then transmuted into electrochemical signals, which travel to our brain to be interpreted by our minds.
Sparshana, Touch – Air – Vayu
Understanding the sense of touch is easier through Ayurvedic eyes when we consider the word Vayu. Vayu, a Sanskrit word means air but it also means movement. In order to perceive the sense of touch something (sparsha) has to move against the touch receptors in our skin. Even when we touch skin, the first thing we do is as we get close to the point of contact we are actually moving the air near the skin’s surface. There are three main different types of touch receptors: Thermoreceptors, Nociceptors and Mechanoreceptors. When we are cold the thermoreceptors have registered this via cold air moving against the skin. The mind interprets this and goosebumps appear on the skin. This is because the body encourages the tiny hairs to stand up on end in order to trap warm air close to the skin to keep us warm. A bit like when we wear a dry suit in cold water.
Chakshu, Sight – Fire
We can understand this dominance when we consider the ‘fire – Tejas’ quality of light. We perceive light when light from an illumination source such as the sun or a bulb bounces off of an object. This light (rupa) then travels through our eyes and hits the photoreceptors in our retinas. From here an electrochemical message is sent to our brains for our mind to interpret. Our eyes are also from an Ayurvedic perspective dominant in the fire element too.
Rasana, Taste – Water
The water element dominates anything that we would put into our mouths. It is the medium through which the saliva comes into contact with the taste providing molecules. Different areas of our tongues interact differently with different taste presenting molecules (rasa) in foods. This allows different tastes to be perceived by our minds.
Ghraana, Smell – Earth
Physical particles/molecules (ghanda) travel into our noses as we draw breath through our nostrils. Some of these particles are large and some are very small molecules. They excite nerves at the back of our nasal passages and these signals are then interpreted again by our minds. It is estimated humans can detect 10,000 different odours and no two people sense the same thing. I.e. no two people’s minds interpret smells in the exact same way. Which is pretty bonkers when you think about it!
Keeping the five senses in check
According to Ayurveda the five senses along with the mind become disturbed via;
lack of use
wrong use of the senses
So, for example, exposing ourselves to extremely loud sound can damage our hearing. If the behaviour is changed and the senses are correctly used then the resultant perceived sensory experiences can usually become normal again.
In Caraka Samhita (one of the main text books used in Ayurveda) the main chapter that discusses the senses goes on to talk about how to live in a virtuous manner. The implication here is that if our actions are wholesome and virtuous then we are unlikely to abuse our sensory organs. Or use them inappropriately and then hence are not going to feed our mind with disruptive thoughts, which then lead to poorer mental and physical health.
What is clear in Ayurveda is that the mind and the senses are inextricably linked. The senses really are the window to the soul. Without them interaction with the world cannot really take place.