The study of the psyche has long been a major aspect of Western Psychology, and individual differences in thinking, feeling and behaving have fascinated psychologists, who have come up with various personality types. However, these personality types don’t seem to be so universally applicable. Perhaps we need to look to a more ancient system to explain personality.
The sages of India, many centuries ago, taught the practice of Ayurveda, a health and healing system that treats the mind, body, senses and spirit. Ayurveda is about finding balance; it is a practice that allows us to recognize subtle energies, or doshas, that make each one of us unique. In Ayurvedic wisdom, personality types are also discussed, but unlike Psychology – which is largely based on behavior – their understanding comes from two important aspects.
In the Ayurvedic System of Medicine, the type of personality has been determined from two angles. Physiological and Psychological, as body and mind are very close to each other. Brain, nervous system and hormonal secretion from different glands influence person’s mental makeup. The ancient Indian medical men observed person’s temperament, personality trait and personality construct. – Rudrani Mukherjee
Because Ayurveda has constructs that are elemental and based in physiology as well as psychology, it provides a far more globally valid system of determining personality. But it is not just an ancient system used for maintaining good health, it can also help us balance our personality ‘flaws’ and enhance our positive traits.
The Three Gunas
Writing in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Mukherjee says that three qualities mentioned in Samkhya philosophy, known as the ‘gunas‘, are the basis of psychological classification. These are then divided into subtypes, and there are whole treatises written about these different personality types in the well known medical treatise of ancient India.The three mental attributes, Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas correspond to the three ‘doshas’, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, that make up the physical constitution. According to the Ayurvedic system of medicine, the three gunas provide the basis for distinctions in temperament and psychological make-up, as well as moral disposition.
Ayurveda provides a special language for understanding the primal forces of Nature and shows us how to work with them on all levels. According to Yoga and Ayurveda, Nature consists of three primal qualities, which are the main powers of Cosmic Intelligence that determine our spiritual growth. These are called gunas in Sanskrit, meaning “what binds” because wrongly understood they keep us in bondage to the external world. – David Frawley, Vedic Teacher.
These three gunas are tamas (darkness), rajas (activity), and sattva (beingness). The basic attributes of Sattva are purity, compassion, love, clarity, harmony, understanding and essential goodness. Rajas is characterized by passion, action, confusion, extraversion, aggression, and sensuality, while tamas is described as inertia, laziness, ignorance, heaviness and dullness.
All three gunas are always present in all beings, and objects surrounding us, but vary in their relative amounts. The gunas show our mental and spiritual state through which we can measure our propensity for psychological problems.
We each have these three qualities of the mind in varying degrees and will have a predominant guna, which informs the way in which we see the world and also determines the type of person we will become. The psychological qualities of our mind are unstable, so this means we will switch between the different gunas with every different situation we find ourselves in.
The Three Doshas
The ancient seers of India created the system of Ayurveda thousands of years ago. These rishis as they were called, believed there are three principal energies governing the entire cosmos. These energies are referred to as doshas and are present in every single living and non-living being.
So while we are all made up of the same five elements: earth, fire, air, water, and space, we are each entirely unique, due to the concentration of the energies we are made up of. Ayurveda believes that there are three energies operating in the universe or cosmos: the binding energy – Kapha, the energy of transformation – Pitta and the energy of movement – Vata.
Along with the gunas, the three elements of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, with their corresponding elemental constituencies, make up the personality. The combination of these three doshas can create seven kinds of personality types. Also known as mind-body types, the doshas express unique blends of physical, emotional, and mental characteristics.
Self-Knowledge and Dosha Personalities
Each dosha has a different quality, with an associated element, and each person has all three doshas, but in varying proportions.
The Vata Dosha is made up of space and air, the elements that are associated with motion. Vata governs blood circulation, breathing, our heartbeat, the movement of our thoughts from one direction to another; along with the movement of food in the body. People with a predominance of Vata will be quick, vibrant, dynamic, creative and airy. On the negative, all this movement could make a Vata person indecisive, stressed and ungrounded.
Kapha is the combination of earth and water elements. It is sticky, oily and heavy and keeps things together. Kapha keeps our cells together and our body in a shape. Kapha personalities are languid, calm, and kind, but on the negative side, could be prone to lethargy, heaviness, and dullness.
The Pitta dosha is composed mainly of fire, with some water, and is transformative. It makes up the digestive fire in our bodies, transforming food into nutrients. Pitta people are fiery, focused, determined, confident, aggressive, and when out of balance can be dictatorial, and easily angered.
There are three primary doshic states: balanced – where all three doshas are in equilibrium Increased – where a particular dosha is in excess and Decreased – where one dosha is in a depleted state. We are each predominantly one dosha, with slightly less of another dosha, and less again of the remaining one. So you may be Vata-Pitta, for example, in which case Vata would be the most dominant, followed by Pitta, and a little Kapha. or Kapha-Pitta. Some people may even be tri-doshic, meaning they have all three doshas in equal amounts, but this is unusual.
You can use this dosha quiz to find out more about your doshas.
Using Ayurveda to Create Harmony
Balancing the most subtle qualities of nature, the gunas, and the corresponding doshas, is a wonderful and holistic way to regulate personality. It teaches that we can equalize challenging aspects and calm those irksome personality traits; while growing more positive aspects of ourselves to enhance overall wellbeing. It can also provide an insight into those around us.
Understanding the personalities of your family members and close friends, from an ayurvedic perspective, can help you to be more compassionate when relating to them. For these reasons, the Ayurvedic system of personalities is an excellent way to engender greater empathy and peace in the world.