Catharsis from an Ayurveda perspective

by Renu Gulati January 3, 2022

Catharsis (from Greek means “purification” or “cleansing” or “clarification”) is the purification and purgation of emotions-particularly pity and fear-through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration. 

D. W. Lucas, in an authoritative edition of the Poetics, recognizes the possibility of catharsis bearing meaning ‘intellectual clarification,'” although his approach to these terms differs in some ways from that of other influential scholars. In particular, Lucas’s interpretation is based on “the Greek doctrine of Humours”, (which is not dissimilar to the Ayuveda doshas concept), but this has not received wide acceptance. Catharsis is a word that is commonly used in current times and has the meaning of releasing emotions not only through art but through discussion and talking too. Too much catharsis results in over-focusing on an issue and according to Vedic and Modern Space giving too much attention to anything enlarges it. Vedic science says wherever the energy goes the prana goes whilst modern science says that the area occupied by the brain’s memory and triggers around the topic in question gets bigger. This would therefore suggest that over emphasis on any topic detracts from the therapeutic benefits of catharsis.

In Ayurveda, catharsis goes against sadvritta (wholesome behaviour recommended for a healthy body-mind organism). Sadvritta advises us not to reveal our weaker (negative) side to others for those ‘others’ may start to pass unwarranted judgement on the teller. This is turn could have a negative impact on the confidence of the teller. Furthermore Ayurveda tells us to dissolve our negative emotions as quickly as we can through buddhi and viveka (intellect and discrimination). If one is fortunate enough to be able to deal with his/her unwholesome emotions alone that is ideal; however the company and wisdom of wholesome people is considered a healthy way to relieve oneself of negative and painful emotions as well as books and practices that sharpen our dhi (intellect), dhairya (forebearance) and viveka (intellect). This is quite the opposite of what we see in today’s world where one’s pain and emotional challenges are revealed to all and sundry and even on public TV chat shows etc. This kind of catharsis goes against the very grain of Ayurveda thought which teaches us to minimise expression of negative emotions (there are exceptions to this in certain psycho-emotional disorders).

However, in vedic times, the expression of emotions through the arts, music and literature was always recommended not only from the point of view of the creator who released his/her emotions in a constructive way but also for the benefit of the audience who would be  transported with the expression in a healthy way which led ultimately to increased clarity, positivity and happiness of mind.

Ayurveda offers specific guidance on how to maintain a healthy mind which is clear, happy and balanced and in the perseverance of these advices, the need for unhelpful catharsis becomes less.

Conduct to abstain from:

HimsaCausing harm
AnyathakamaUnlawful sexual activity
PaisyunyaHarsh speech
Anrta vacanaLying
Sambhinna alapaSpeech which creates divisions among people

Wholesome conduct

Serve your friends with affection and good deeds.
Keep foes at a distance.
Serve the diseased, poor, and grieving.
Treat all living beings with respect.
Worship God, the cow, elders and guests.
Maintain a balanced mind during calamity and times of abundance. 
Speak words which are good and truthful; use words which are pleasing to hear.
Bear in mind the nature of others, then treat them accordingly.
Base all activities on your dharma.
Treat the whole world as your teacher.
Think before acting.
Have compassion for all living beings.
Offer gifts with good grace.
Control the activities of the body, mind and speech.
Look after the interest of others.
Always review one’s actions and take steps to improve yourself. 

When the above guidance is followed, the need for excessive catharsis and indeed catharsis itself is lessened, freeing the mind, energy and time for more constructive activity.

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